“Lately, I’ve been binge-watching a lot of sappy Netflix series, like Virgin River and Sweet Magnolias,” I animatedly tell my students, (or, actually icons representing my students), on my computer screen. The only thing that’s moving is the small mirror image of myself and my flapping lips. “Especially these days, when we’re stuck at home, just looking at beautiful shots of South Carolina, for example, fulfils my escapist needs.”
In my Communication and Behavior class, I explain the uses and gratifications theory, which claims that we have control over our media consumption (and not the other way around), and that media is there to fulfil our various needs.
After my lecture, and a little reflection, I realise that the cry from my heart was a lot more than dreaming of traveling again and admiring beautiful landscapes. I’m living vicariously through these people living in small communities, where “everybody knows your name,” like they do in the sitcom Cheers.
In Virgin River, the town mayor, Hope, is constantly gossiping and meddling into people’s affairs. Maybe last year, before corona, I would have found her annoying. But now, as I’m working from home, and in contact with relatively few people, I find her endearing. At least, she cares.
Over the last nine months, I realise how much I’ve been suffering from the lack of (meaningful) social contact. How much I miss the casual talks in front of the coffee machine. How much I miss the gossip!
But not everyone feels this way. In an article Will the world ever be the same after COVID-19? Two lessons from the first global crisis of a digital age, the authors note how remote work allows us to collaborate better and faster with colleagues. “There is no need to make appointments. We don’t have to be stuck in traffic and think about what to wear. Authenticity rules.” Maybe. But what happened to networking? Meeting colleagues from other departments? What happened to the really good gossip?
“The office was never that great anyway,” the authors continue. “The gossip and back-biting, the nay-sayers and free-riders. … Ironically, social distancing has brought us closer together and created a better environment for serendipity than the open spaces or bathrooms of the modern office.”
I could not disagree more. For one, the number of people we speak to has greatly diminished. I may call a colleague I know well, once in a while to let out steam, but I wouldn’t call the other, less direct colleagues that I used to enjoy chatting with in front of the coffee machine at work. It feels like my broader network is fading away.
During a workshop in Organisational Communication, several first year ICM students discussed how the current online environment affects their gossiping behavior. Interestingly, these students have never had the opportunity to meet in person, and quite a few are following classes from their home countries. “We don’t gossip much because we’re not well bonded. But we’re not well bonded because we can’t gossip,” one of them observed.
“There isn’t as much happening, therefore there is not much to gossip about,” another explained. Indeed, several of the students said that since they don’t have the opportunity to meet in between classes or go for drinks after an exam, they find it a lot more difficult to get to know each other and build friendships.
However, while it may seem like gossip has just disappeared from the “new normal,” many studies show that gossip hasn’t gone away. It just migrated to screens.
The medium is the message
Indeed, the ICM students confirmed that they still gossip via social media. But while you would perhaps be more diplomatic during a face to face conversation, several students noted that people are much more likely to roast someone or be rude on social media. For one, people can be anonymous. “They don’t see the face of the person they’re talking about, so there is less of a guilt feeling,” one says. Gossipers also don’t see the faces of their listeners, so they don’t receive negative feedback when crossing the line.
But maybe the signals are just different online. I once sent an App message to a colleague, venting some frustration about a project I was working on. After a few minutes, I saw the two blue arrows next to my message indicating that she had read it. But no response. I hoped that my colleague would reply and commiserate with me, but nothing. Radio silence. Maybe she was busy when she read my message and just forgot to reply?
During face to face talks, we pick up extra signals from our listener’s body language. If I had spoken to my colleague face to face, I would have (hopefully) sensed that she was disagreeing with me.
With WhatsApp messages, we indeed get an extra layer of information that’s different from the ones you get from a face to face talk. The speed with which someone responds to you, for example, says a lot. Forgetting to reply also speaks volumes…
Moreover, it seems like WhatsApp and private chat groups may have replaced the water cooler at work, creating new challenges for managers, according to an article in The Guardian, What’s wrong with WhatsApp.
WhatsApp groups are often formed without others knowing of their existence nor what is being said. Members on such groups can feel a strong sense of community with each other, and will be less likely to question or challenge what is being said.
Davies observes that within such platforms, rumors and false information spread a lot more quickly than they would face to face. “There is often a strange emotional comfort in the shared feeling of alienation and passivity. ‘We were never informed about that,’ ‘nobody consulted us,’ ‘we are being ignored.’”
As people rely more and more on WhatsApp to get information about their workplace, a contradictory process takes place. “The public world seems even more distant, impersonal and fake, and the private group becomes a space of sympathy and authenticity,” according to the author. For managers, it “makes the job of communicating official information far more troublesome than it was just a decade ago.”
How will all of this evolve in the future? To be continued.
In the meantime, I’m off to binge watch the second season of Virgin River!
Fenwick, M., McCahery, A., & Vermeulen, E.P.M. (2020). Will the world ever be the same after COVID-19? Two lessons from the first global crisis of a digital age. European Business Organization Law Review. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40804-020-00194-9
Davies, W. (2020). What’s wrong with WhatsApp. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jul/02/whatsapp-groups-conspiracy-theories-disinformation-democracy