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Opinion

Amber Heard, Johnny Depp and Wagatha Christie show our appetite for gossip will never be sated

Perhaps the recent explosion of celebrity scuttlebutt is a result of being starved of gossip during the last two years, writes James McMahon.

As one pandemic arrives at a manageable plateau, so another follows behind it. Wearing a mask won’t protect you. There is no vaccine coming to flatten the curve. Hands. Face. Slander. It is 2022 and it is gossip that is spreading fast and wild.

I realised this earlier this month, when I connected with friends to watch the FA Cup Final. Despite being goalless until the arrival of penalties, it was a fascinating match. Few wanted to talk about football unless it was related to the Wagatha Christie trial. Everybody, without exception, wanted to discuss the minutia of the Amber Heard vs. Johnny Depp court case that had further polluted social media. Nobody cared about who lifted English football’s most famous trophy. A few people made fun of Jack Grealish’s bouncy and lustrous hair. I might have been one of them. Jealousy is a pox.

Humans are hardwired to tittle tattle. The word itself has been kicking around ever since the mid-5th century, though its origins are relatively innocent. The Old English term for the godparents of one’s child is ‘godsibb’, and who talks more than family? And yet by the 16th century, the word picked up nefarious connotations, it normally being applied to a woman who engaged in idle talk. In 1623 Shakespeare used ‘gossip’ as a transitive verb (“with a world of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms, that blinking Cupid gossips”) in his play All’s Well That Ends Well.

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You might argue that to gossip is to be human, and perhaps the very reason why our species has travailed from swamp to star. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes so, arguing that gossip originated as early groups of humans swelled in size. “Gossip,” says Dunbar, “is a vital part of human life.” 

“The new linguistic skills that modern humans acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands,” he says. “Gossip allows us to pass on vital information about who to trust and helps us bond.”

Dunbar also believes that gossip serves a function much like social grooming does in other primates. Remember that next time you find out that someone has being saying mean things about you. It can’t be worse than them picking nits out of your hair, right?

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A 2019 study published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science found the average person gossips for around 52 minutes each day. That’s almost the same amount of time as we spend eating and drinking (67 minutes). Massively more than we spend on the toilet (30 minutes) or in the shower (8 minutes). Though no study yet exists, it’s likely our time spent gossiping now exceeds all. Perhaps the recent explosion of celebrity scuttlebutt is a result of being starved of gossip during the last two years of isolation, reticence, sadness, and loss. It was backed up. It spewed out. We were ready to burst.

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The writer Ian Leslie predicted as much back in December 2020, as we approached the end of the first year of the pandemic. “There will be two stages,” said the writer of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. “First, there’ll be the generation of gossip. There’s going to be a huge amount of gossip-worthy activity in those first few months! There’s going to be a pent-up social energy going on in the bars and the restaurants and everywhere else. And then, there’s going to be a massive deluge of gossip – like an earthquake followed by a tsunami of gossip.” Is it just me or did anyone else hear a tremor as Amber Heard took to the stand?

Perhaps we might view the reprise of gossip as a nod to our species’ very origins. After so much time alone and apart, we’re returning to the very thing that united us thousands of years ago, though the mysterious algorithms of social media and ubiquity of rolling news makes the experience seem uglier than it has before. It’s worth asking what gossip in the age of social media is doing to us. Can gossip now exist without tearing someone apart? At the time of writing, the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag has been viewed 16.3 billion times, compared to only 53.6 million for #justiceforamberheard. Is this relentless finger pointing rooted in an overcompensation for the decimation that the pandemic caused to our lives?

“A good way of avoiding dealing with your own problems is pointing your finger at someone else’s, that makes us feel better,” says chartered psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide To Resilience Dr Audrey Tang. She too references the role she believes that gossip played in our species evolution. “If there’s someone weaker than us, then it’s better for us,” she says. “If we can actually make it clear so-and-so is weaker – we get the resources, we get the praise, we feel safer.”

“Like any other human activity, gossip is great in moderation,” adds Ian Leslie, “and with moral moderation as well as quantity. It’s dangerous and can be destructive if used unwisely or uncaringly.”

As someone who has gossiped and been gossiped about, I know the pain and the pleasure of all that has been outlined prior. And yet I can’t help thinking that 21st century gossip is of a more bitter flavour than what has come prior. Social media, a place where humans are reduced to mere avatars, where the very platform does the difficult work of dehumanisation for you, can result in more pain than chatter by the watercooler ever did. I’m going to try harder than ever not to take part in this theatre of cruelty. Unless Jack Grealish is on the telly and then he is getting it. 

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