Rumor Has It

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

"I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip . . . to facilitate the bonding of social groups . . . it mainly achieves this aim by permitting the exchange of socially relevant information."

-- Robin Dunbar, "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language" (1996)

"RE: Sluts Sluts Sluts

"I think that loud mouth girl from Starbucks is ALSO qualified to be in the listing above . . . No question that girl is nuts! I think my friend said her name was Cinthya."

-- post on JuicyCampus.com (2008)

When gossip clown Perez Hilton gossips on his blog about the stars of "Gossip Girl," we wonder how far we've come in spite of technology. The absurd self-reflexivity, the gazing at one another's navels, the swirling infinity of gossiping about a show about gossip -- it's like that snake that eats itself. And what are we left with? A reptile gagging on its own business.

Celebrity gossip, which clogs checkout aisles and runs wild in cyberspace, overshadows a more integral (and fascinating) form of gossip: the person-to-person kind, the overheard whispers, the pedestrian skinny. Gossip has been around forever, and, for almost as long, it has been labeled a vice. Moses descended Mount Sinai with a sub-commandment forbidding the bearing of tales. German philosopher Martin Heidegger dismissed gossip as a waste of energy. Only in very recent history have researchers and journalists started writing pieces with heretofore provocative titles.

"Gossip May Be Virtuous."

"Why Gossip Is Good for You."

"In Praise of Gossip: Indiscretion as a Saintly Virtue."

These conclusions are akin to the Food and Drug Administration reporting that fried dough is, in fact, nutritious, and the more you eat, the longer you'll live. But what does it all mean when it mutates on the Internet, spreading swiftly and sensationally?

For much of this year, college newspapers and m edia commentators have hemmed and hawed over JuicyCampus.com, a Web forum that provides a blank slate on which students can write anything they want about anyone. While the site attracts a large share of lurid, hateful and nonsensical ramblings (the stuff you'd find anywhere on the Internet), there is also gossip that includes full names and sordid details. Since its birth in August, JuicyCampus has courted the outrage of students who claim defamation and of state attorneys general who claim consumer fraud.


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