July 2, 2014 8:05 pm

Sex, lies and social media: How Twitter killed the water cooler

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Soon after Jill Abramson was fired as editor at the New York Times, media reporter David Carr tweeted: “How did our workplace suddenly become a particularly bloody episode of ‘Game of Thrones?’” “It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day.”

The unravelling story of why and how Miss Abramson was fired has gradually exposed the inner workings of the newspaper’s newsroom.

But, whereas the warring factions and power struggles may once have stayed inside the workplace, the reporters’ tweets reveal how Facebook and Twitter are not just creating more to talk about, but are also turning workplace chatter that used to be confined to colleagues loitering around the company water cooler into a global broadcast.

“Social media have exacerbated gossip,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and a visiting professor at New York University.

“Because communication is mediated by technology and there is no direct experience of feedback or reactions from the recipient, people are more inclined to share stuff and open up on confidential and potentially embarrassing views. This gives people more to talk about and more opportunities to be talked about.”

Graham Jones, a cultural and linguistic anthropologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees. Gossip has changed markedly over the past few decades, he says.

English speakers are increasingly talking not just about what other people say and do, but about the thoughts and feelings behind their words. Essentially people are “talking about talk as a way of getting at underlying character traits”, he says.

But social media are amplifying this trend. Dr Jones’s analysis of online conversations between young adults found that a lot of the talk was about how people used (or misused) texting, Facebook and other social media – the colleague who posted a drunken status update on Facebook for example.

Given that gossip is often used to build an alliance with others “based on a shared sense of moral superiority”, says Dr Jones, this showed social media have become a “key arena in which we define our sense of morality”. This has led to generational differences between older social media users and the millennials – who came of age in the last decade. They disclose more about their internal world – their sexual fantasies, what they love and hate, and what they think of their bosses.

Unsurprisingly, most corporations are spending a lot of time educating employees on what they should and should not say on social media. Intel, the technology business, for example, advises its tweeters to be “upfront and quick” with corrections.

Mr Chamorro-Premuzic says social media have acted as a leveller of gossip between extroverts and introverts, who were traditionally more discreet and reluctant to share personal views.

screenshot of Twitter post

This is why websites such as Glassdoor, which enables people to review employers and salaries as well as look for jobs, have become so important. Employees now have the power to rate their companies and managers for the outside world in much the same way as consumers rate hotels via TripAdvisor, or books on Amazon.

“Digital gossip equates to crowdsourcing a company’s and manager’s reputation, just like Ratemyprofessor has done it for students and university lecturers,” Mr Chamorro-Premuzic adds.

If proof were needed that new media are encouraging us to gossip more, then evidence is found in a study of Enron, the company at the centre of the greatest corporate bankruptcy in history. An analysis of 600,000 internal staff emails by academics at Georgia Tech found that 14.7 per cent of these contained some form of gossip.

Given that all emails and social media provide lasting evidence, this can be worrying. Whereas people used to huddle sniggering in the office kitchen, at least their gossip dissipated as soon as it was said. This is far from the case with social media.

MIT’s Dr Jones says he was surprised at the extent to which online gossipers forensically analysed other people’s social media habits.

“They didn’t just casually report what someone else had said or done on social media,” he says. “They cut and pasted verbatim evidence, providing screenshots or URLs, so that both participants could scrutinise the offending episode in detail.”

For all this, Shimul Melwani, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US, says her research shows that gossip in the workplace can be positive, helping us bond with others, and find meaning and understanding in the world.

screenshot of Twitter post

“People who gossip tend to engage more and smile more. Not only did the friendship pairs feel better, but they also . . . co-operated better.”

But there are caveats. “Whenever there is a large amount of gossip outside the team it’s positive; but if it’s inside the team it can be negative,” she says. She advises talking in a positive way about colleagues as a way of getting the benefits of gossip – social connection – while avoiding the negative. After all, allegiances are often changing in the workplace, as colleagues jostle and manoeuvre to improve their positions. Gossip can ultimately backfire against you.

This may be one of the lessons for staff at the New York Times surprised to see gossip – or complaints about their former editor’s behaviour – discussed by a global audience, much larger than they intended. They are not alone; many of us will learn this particular lesson the hard way.

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