Gossip — talking about people when they are not present — is a staple of human societies, a universal aspect of human interaction. Not surprising, gossip occurs in all social contexts, including online conversations, like email, Twitter, and instant messaging.
“Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.” – George Eliot
We may consider gossip as negative like George Eliot did, but the anthropological research is fairly consistent in showing that gossip is a necessary to healthy social organizations, whether small or large. Robin Dunbar proposed the idea that human language evolved from the latent desire to gossip (see Gossip, Grooming, And The Evolution Of Language). There is a great deal of research into the exchange of social information that might prove useful, and also the moral implications of the actions of other which can lead to social repercussions for those considered to be bad actors, or untrustworthy.
So, it will come to no surprise that a study of gossip in a large collection of email — the Enron email database of 517,431 messages — shows a consistent set of patterns of gossip. This was reported in Have You Heard?: How Gossip Flows Through Workplace Email, where the researchers — Tanushree Mitra and Eric Gilbert of Georgia Institute of Technology — analyzed the email and found 7.206 messages that they believed were clearly gossip-oriented.
Their findings are very revealing:
“[...] sending email to a small set of people is more frequent and it is more common to see gossip in messages targeted to a smaller audience.
[...] gossip is present in both personal and business email and across all sections of the hierarchy, which demonstrates its all-pervasive nature in organizations.
[...] the hierarchical position of an employee affects his gossip behavior, both in terms of his frequency of gossip and the audience with whom he gossips. Our results indicate that people are most likely to gossip with their peers.
[...] gossip is a social process. Some people are actively involved in generating gossip messages (“gossip source”), while others are silent readers of the messages (“gossip sink”’), and there are some who play both roles.
[...] frequent dyadic email interactions do not show an increase in gossip email. [That is to say that those who are likely to be working more closely may have other opportunities to gossip than email.]“
Other findings are more organizational, like the finding that VPs and Directors at Enron were very likely to move gossip-related emails up to their next immediate supervisor. Also, people at the bottom of the totem pole are most likely to gossip, and to do so among themselves.
This research also suggests that lower tier management is least involved in gossip, although that suggests they may be the topic of greatest gossip, too.
Enron was a disaster as a company, but it may be the case that the patterns of gossip there are perhaps not unusual. The researchers did not delve very deeply into the question of what was being said in these emails, aside from some superficial observations (like the phrase ‘in response to your email’ being common), however, a sentiment analysis suggests that gossip is more strongly correlated with negative emotions (37.44%) than positive ones (13.99%), but most strongly linked to neutral emotions (48.63%). My hunch is the more negative the emotional state of the company, the more negative gossip might arise, but that gossip itself is a kind of background radiation, and is always present.