The timing was rather fortuitous that as I finish final revisions for my forthcoming article on gossip in The Monist (“Character, Caricature, and Gossip”), news breaks about soon-to-be-released app Peeple. The Washington Post billed it as “Yelp, but for humans.”
This is a terrible idea, as the internet quickly pointed out [here, here, here, here, and here]. Others can review you whether or not you’ve created a profile on the site. You can’t opt-out. You can dispute a negative comment or rating, but not remove it.
Rather than rehashing all reasons that Peeple is a terrible idea (and see here for a prior comedic exploration of why it is), I want to focus on what this tells us about the importance of context for gossip.
In my forthcoming article, I argue for gossiping well as a virtue. Some gossip can be a good thing. In the article, I discuss ways it can be used for norm promulgation and enforcement for the sake of social harmony. This is not, of course, to defend all (or even most) gossip. In addition to being the right sort of gossip, directed at the right people, told to the right people, and at the right time, gossiping well must be done for with a virtuous motive. I’ll leave the fuller account of this view for the paper. But one topic I didn’t have space to go into was the medium in which one gossips.
Gossiping online in a public forum is entirely different than gossiping to one person verbally in private. The former spreads the gossip too widely. One person gossiping about another online can lead to the complete ostracism of that subject of the gossip. One person has too much power to affect the reputation of another.
Gossip online is permanent (though Peeple apparently plans on only having reviews posted for 1 year, which is still too long). If I gossip to you verbally and in private about a mutual acquaintance, that gossip can be quickly forgotten. It’s effect tends to rapidly diminish with time. But online, negative gossip is just as powerful a year latter as it was when first written.
Leaving a bad review about a restaurant on Yelp is one thing. I might mention how poor the waiter staff was. But staff turns over, or it might have been a busy night. You reading that one review of a restaurant may not be enough to dissuade you from trying it as well. A negative review of a person is different, however. When it comes to people, we are highly prone to the fundamental attribution error, i.e., we often radically overestimate the effect of someone’s character traits in explaining his or her behavior. If a person cuts you off, it’s because he’s a terrible driver. A new person greets you with a smile; she’s a nice person. You see someone else skimp on a tip; he’s cheap. We do this all the time. The worry when it comes to negative gossip about a person on something like Peeple, is that negative review will often induce others to attribute negative character traits to that person. And unlike wait staff, the tacit assumption is that character traits generally don’t change. So someone else’s positive review is easier to discount. “That must just be his friend,” you’ll say to yourself.
All this leaves aside the significant worry that gossip online can easily exacerbate stereotype threat as well. Imagine speaker A gossips to B about C, and the gossip about C pertains to some negative stereotype against a group to which C belongs, such as being a poor driver or academically weak. If B is also a member of that group, hearing the gossip can induce B to conform to that norm by driving poorly or failing a test. Gossip online will reach a lot more people than other mediums for gossip. Therefore, when that gossip is based on a stereotype, it will create stereotype threat for a much wider group of people.
Where we gossip matters. Gossping online in an app like Peeple is probably one of the least morally defensible venues for gossip. Let us hope that all the negative backlash against this app will lead to it never seeing the light of day.