By definition, “gossip” are messages that contain information about a person or persons not among the recipients.
Assistant Professor Eric Gilbert of the School of Interactive Computing examined hundreds of thousands of emails from the former Enron corporation and found that14.7 percent of the emails qualify as office scuttlebutt.
Gilbert also found that gossip is prevalent at all levels of the corporate hierarchy, though lower levels gossip the most.
“Gossip gets a bad rap,” said Gilbert, an expert in social computing who runs the Comp.Social Lab at Georgia Tech.
“When you say ‘gossip,’ most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like ‘Eric said he’d be late for this meeting,’ add up; after just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person. Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study we viewed it simply as a means to share social information,” he explained.
In addition, he found that “negative” gossip, characterized through a Natural Language Text Processing analysis, was in fact 2.7 times more prevalent than positive gossip, though a significant portion of the messages were sentiment-neutral.
The findings, according to Gilbert and Ph.D. student Tanushree Mitra, represent an important test of anthropological theories about gossip in what can reasonably be called the world’s most popular electronic social medium: email.
“There is a rich literature in anthropology and sociology on the universality and utility of gossip among human social groups,” Mitra said.
“A recent survey of that literature summarized gossip as having four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence. We found evidence of all those categories in the Enron emails, relating to both business and personal relationships,” she stated.
The researchers divided the emails among seven layers of Enron hierarchy, from rank-and-file office employees all the way up to presidents and CEOs, and found gossip emails flowing within and among nearly every level, with the heaviest flow among the rank-and-file.
However, the second heaviest flow within a single level occurred among Enron vice presidents and directors, and by a wide margin the strongest upward flow of gossip was from the vice presidents and directors up one level to presidents and CEOs.
Vice presidents and directors also gossiped the most down the chain, with the heaviest downward flow originating from their level and ending up at the lowest, rank-and-file level.
Mitra will present their finding at the 6th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM ’12), being held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
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