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Gossip, Social Capital, and Schadenfreude

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 1 January 2010, 8:50 AM

A friend of mine, Tim Sanders, offers the following insight about gossip:

Gossip, especially about personal tragedies, is a social form of pornography. It can only poison your psyche and drag down your spirit.

What is “social pornography?” I’m not going to define pornography directly, because it’s a slippery slope. For example,¬†Justice Potter Stewart‘s ¬†maxim on pornography–“I know it when I see it” provided the court system with a highly-subjective opinion rather than a bright-line legal distinction.

If you ask a Kinsey Institute researcher about erotica and pornography, you’re likely to receive a different answer than you’d receive from the average resident of Victorian London (where a woman’s ankles were scandalous when revealed).

Yet, this article isn’t about pornography. It’s about the transmission negativity (and negative affect) through social networks.

People might credibly argue that there’s a very subjective range for gossip. One’s person’s “sharing news” might credibly be another person’s toxic gossip.

However, the social network research of the past decade confirms that behaviors of our first and second degree network connections have a direct impact on our personal moods and behaviors. We are influenced by the people around us.

Therefore, it becomes important to be aware of both your behaviors and those manifested around you:

  • What do you say about others?
  • Is your intent to lift someone up or to push someone down?
  • What do your friends say about their friends?
  • What do you perceive as the intent behind their actions and words?

Intentions matter. While schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the suffering of others) may create limited bonding capital with some select listeners, these negative actions erode social capital within the fabric of the whole social network.

Best wishes for a safe and happy new year to everyone.

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