On Gossip

The internet is devastating a lot of things: record labels, the publishing industry, and traditional family values. But the most tragic loss, Whitney Carpenter observes, is the neighborhood busybody.

It has come to my attention that most of the fences in American pop culture are not being properly peeked over. Sets of fictional spinster sisters are in decline and practically no one is eavesdropping under the guise of watering their lawn. Frankly, I am concerned about gossip — though not in the timely and relevant sense that would involve worrying about teenagers and cyber-hazing. No, I am concerned about gossip in the most unrelated and absurd fashion possible; I am suspect that the neighborhood busybody, the beloved stock character of film, television, and literature, is going extinct. That familiar face, leering at us from between parted blinds, has disappeared.

The vanishing of the busybody is shocking because she has long been an essential member of every small town ensemble. She, alongside the town drunk, small-time politician, and obligatory girl-next-door once dominated fictional small town life. Armed with her binoculars and her nimble fingers for parting curtains, the busybody has been a timeless vehicle for anxieties about privacy in a neighborhood.

Why would the busybody, so comfortable in her housecoat and hot-rollers for the last hundred years, choose this decade to disappear? More importantly, who is handing out apples at Halloween and calling the police to report young hooligans skateboarding without helmets? I can hardly believe that she would have left all of this (her television programs, her geraniums, and her bottomless supply of caramel candies), to take up permanent residence with her daughter and no-good son-in-law in Cleveland.

If this stock character is vanishing from pop culture it’s because the elements that she satirizes — the judgmental attitude, the gossiping, and the obsession with domestic conflicts — do not apply to her demographic in modern society. With the impending retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, this decline can hardly be blamed on a lack of old ladies. And the continued popularity of gossiping is unchallengeable, a fact that makes the disappearance of the busybody as a character all the more mysterious.

I have a hypothesis, but I’m almost certain that you aren’t going to like it. The busybody isn’t gone from our midst; she has merely expanded her ranks so quickly and surreptitiously that we haven’t noticed. The satire isn’t flawed because the social elements embodied by the busybody are gone. The satire is flawed because the busybody is everywhere and everyone.

I have no desire to beat a dead horse, so I’ll be brief in my broad rationale. The internet is dripping with stories about old flames reunited through social networking and adults confronting bullies from their youths in 140 characters or less. The writers of these articles tell us that society is growing more interconnected all the time and then argue amongst themselves about whether this is a beneficial or apocalyptic development. The rest of us read these arguments on our cell phones and mull over the possibilities — after updating our Facebook status to say “is mulling.”

I’m not interested in approving or condemning (and it is never wise to condemn something so addictive), only to add another layer to the metaphor. The going cliché is that the internet, and social networking in particular, is making the world a smaller place. I would take that a step further and suggest that social networking is roping our personal worlds — all of our acquaintances spread across our lifetime and the globe — into one blue-and-white small town. And peering through the blinds at our neighbors and crushes from middle school isn’t some old lady. It’s me, you, and everyone we’ve ever met.

Every day, we sign into various little neighborhoods and stare at each other. The traditional busybody was crucified for taking too keen an interest in the housekeeping of her neighbors, but we modern gossips set our sites on deeper dramas. Where the old broad might speculate maliciously about the troubled marriages in her neighborhood, we track their demise. We monitor the pre-break-up wall-flirting, moody statuses, fatal change to “It’s Complicated,” and even see pictures of the new squeeze before the break up is final. The busybody, our patron saint, was ostracized because she was just too interested. Well, we’re interested and we aren’t likely to stop being interested any time soon.

I don’t want to indulge my love of metaphors too much. Reading the status updates of someone who has knowingly accepted your friend request is a far cry from training your binoculars on an unsuspecting neighbor. And passing off information discovered through social networking isn’t exactly privileged gossip — oftentimes it’s nothing that couldn’t be discovered with a little Google-sleuthing.

But every time I start a sentence with the phrase “I saw on Facebook…” I remind myself that I’m sporting the verbal-equivalent of a housecoat and hot rollers. Repeating information gleaned from Facebook without bothering to couch it in some ambiguous “I-heard-somewhere” statement is the new format of gossip, and it’s becoming more prevalent everyday. And like most sources of juicy gossip, Facebook, through the miracle of the News Feed (the default setting that prioritizes the most “interesting” content) and various privacy settings, is telling us exactly what it wants us to know.

The purpose of a stock character is to act as shorthand for a common personality type; stripped of her identifying features — her age, her curtains, and her bingo halls — the busybody no longer serves that function. Gossip is the province of everyone now and until it reverts to being a negative character trait our blue-haired pal won’t be returning to pop culture. As far as we are concerned, there is nothing hilarious about a middle-aged lady crouching over her computer giggling at her own status update — at least not yet.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.