Negative and positive communication in social networks


This essay started life as some short notes I wrote to clarify my mind about gossip as a form of communication in social networks, friendship circles and the like. As I got into writing it, however, it seemed to me that gossip as a subject for examination was connected to a number of related issues which were also worthy of consideration. The consideration of psycho-social dynamics in interpersonal relations usually focuses on what is happening in the closest of relationships - between sexual partners, between parents and children, between siblings and so on. Less consideration seems to be given to the way in which these close relations are themselves situated in a context of wider social circles and networks.

It seems to me it is interesting to develop a methodology that would help one analyse how these social circles or networks operate for a number of reasons. Of particular relevance to the mental health services are, for example,

1. When one talks about 'care in the community' - it is informal relationship networks that actually make up this thing, 'the community'. The way that these networks are either positive, tolerant and supportive to vulnerable people or rejecting, stigmatising and scapegoating is clearly something that makes a good deal of difference to their quality of life.

2. To be more specific social networks or social circles provide people with the very possibility of having relationships - of the acquaintance type, or closer friendships, or relationships of an intimate kind. Social circles are a source of closer relationships. To be accepted into a social circle may sometimes represent a major step towards an improved quality of life - perhaps leading to yet further improvements as even closer relationships are made. they are also a source of other opportunities - for example one may hear about jobs through a social network. (These kind of things also apply in the upper echelons of social and economic power. It is not what you know it is who you know - powerful individuals are able to operate because they are 'well connected' to other powerful people. they are more easily able to assemble packages of whatever resources they need to advance their purposes than the rest of us.)

3. However, membership of a social circle may carry a price tag. The price is likely to be higher the lower in the structures of social power one is - because of the 'cycle of deprivation'. In exchange for an escape from social isolation, which seems by far the worse personal option, a new member of a social circle may find that their new 'extended family' expects them to conform to a criminal sub culture, the weird esoteric ideas of a religious or political sect, drug use, one or the other sexual orientation, promiscuity or celibacy, a particular consumption pattern, clothes styles or music styles and so on. Clearly these quite different foundations for group identity (and group conformity) he negative consequences of different magnitudes and types.

Because of the nature of our economic structure, with its relentless pressure to sell, membership of some groups is often closely integrated into consumption. It might be helpful to distinguish between social circles that are culturally and socially mainstream - having an essentially uncritical and passive relation to the overall social structure. By contrast there are those who define themselves, in different ways, against the society and its culture - they are counter cultural.

In mainstream social circles a principle topic of conversation is likely to be consumer purchases and related issues - cars, house prices, consumer debt, and the like. Fashion consciousness is the basis for some groups whose members narcissistically use each other as audience after their latest shopping expeditions. (A 1987 survey of American teenage girls found that the favourite pass time for 93% was shopping). Of course, clothes also enable personal statements to be made of various kinds, they can function as easily signals of cultural and sub cultural styles. Television programmes are another topic. Other mainstream social circles form around the uncritical parroting of various business ideologies (as anyone who has been on early morning trains to London will discover by listening to the conversations of the cellnet class, or who sits long enough in the CafeBar at Intermedia).

Counter cultural social circles can sometimes be more tolerant. (While my observations in this essay are to some degree based on thinking about various social circles I have been on the edge of over the years I have to say that, in large part, these circles have probably been the most tolerant that one is likely to find in our society. This is because for 20 years or so I have mixed in circles formed loosely around political ideologies which understand the actions and behaviour of individuals as to some degree arising out of social contexts. This creates a predisposition to indulgence and tolerance.) On the other hand counter cultural networks that cohere into sects may be quite the reverse of tolerant - they may be so busy building walls against contamination to their brands of truth from the outside world, that they impose the most extreme forms of mental and behavioural conformity. Such sects provide a ready made quasi extended family, combining a superficial rebelliousness (towards society as a whole), with opportunities to experience oneself as 'good' (working for the supposed benefit of humanity), an all inclusive message and/or intense intellectual activity fighting for 'truth' (thus ideal for school damaged pedagogues, teachers and such like to be narcissistic in etc.). I used to belong to such a sect myself and it took me at least 15 years to fully break from its kind of thinking.

The price tag for membership of different kind of groups, and the benefits of membership may also be quite different for the different people in the networks of different kinds. The relationship rich may wallow in the financial, sexual or narcissistic opportunities of the circle, while the relationship poor are actually taken in on sufferance, as an act of charity by the others - which they are made to feel, perhaps in the condescensions to which they are forced to submit.

Relationship rich and relationship poor are the terms that I would suggest for the degree to which people are at the centre of social circles or the degree to which they are on the edge. Those at the centre of circles not only have more contacts with more people it is they that get called up, it is they that get visited. The relationship poor, by contrast, in order to get company, must do the ringing up and must to the 'popping round for a social call'. In so doing they risk rejection or a cool response. Of course this can lead to declining self confidence and a vicious circle of declining morale which makes them even less attractive as company. By contrast various virtuous circles operate for the relationship rich. Not only is their morale and self confidence likely to be higher - therefore making them better company, because more cheerful, but they have greatest access to information as to what is going on in the group, what matters to people and so on. As they have the best sense of the concerns and thoughts of the group, they become even better at articulating its views, they become even more the centres of attention - as people look to them as points of reference.

It should be remembered it is only possible to be a success of other people are failures. Thus social circles need both their relationship rich and their relationship poor. The position that people occupy is likely to be based largely on what it is they can bring to whatever it is that is central to the circle or network identity. If it is consumption then 'the Jones' have their central role because they are the most conspicuously successful at consumer narcissism. If it is sex in a student circle then it is who can best combine style and philosophy in making out a case for promiscuity (in which they are the chief beneficiary).

Communication in social circles - mockery and gossip

Communication in social circles may be either positive or negative. Towards the end of this essay I shall examine what it is that can make a social circle positive for all of its members. At this stage it is helpful to look at its negative communications. Principle among these negative communications is gossip - defined in the dictionary as 'idle talk about others, regardless of the facts'. Before analysing gossip, however, it is worth noting that there are other mechanisms of negative communication other than gossip. Mockery, for example. Mockery as an attempt to influence network perceptions and behaviour has the following advantages to those who deploy it:

(a) If challenged they can claim they were only joking - the implication being that the butt of the mockery is a kill joy, without a sense of humour who is, to the bargain, too thin-skinned; (b) Mockery can convey messages indirectly that the person concerned would not want to say directly. (For example, someone recently mockingly said to me 'Give my love to X' as I was leaving a pub. I had recently spent some time in the company of X. The mocking tone in which this was said carried a message - that for me to spend time with X was a suitable subject of humour. Such mockery was therefore a subtle way of discouraging closer ties with X - which said something about his feelings about X, and, possibly, the feelings of other members of the social circle in which we were apart. It is by mechanisms like this that groups control their members and what relationships are possible. Ostracisation can take place through the most subtle methods...)

Where such communications take place outside of the company of those being talked about, gossip is occurring. It enables people to know what other people - in some senses their peer groups, comparable people, are doing. But it is more than this - it is one of the principle means to the formation of group identity. For people to network and communicate presupposes holding at least some ideas and goals in common. In formal organisations and networks what are held in common are a common attitude to the aims of the organisation which the network is a part. This is not necessarily an identification with those goals - but may be a shared resistance to them. A very common gossip network is the kind where people more or less share the same political ideology.

The function of gossip in networks is likely to be related to why people come together in the first place - perhaps partly to find the reassurance of others who think similarly, who have shared similar experiences, who have a similar point of view. Leaving aside whether or not the shared viewpoint of a group is an accurate, ethical or useful picture of the real world, it is reassuring to adhere to it. It is very difficult for anyone to hold isolated challenging opinions in the company of others, or to do things that others do not understand. It generates bad feelings between people and makes living together difficult. In groups such activity challenges the very glue that bonds it together. It risks expulsion and scapegoating. Since we are social animals and need each other for all sorts of reasons there are powerful reasons to get on with each other which might be termed a herd instinct.

Scapegoating dissidence

A social circle, like any other group is often able to find its identity by defining itself against others (individuals or groups). Sometimes this is a definition against more powerful social groups. Where, however, a group defines itself against those who are more vulnerable it may get involved in scapegoating. Scapegoating gives circle members a means of emotional displacement. (Emotional displacement is where emotional charge generated in one place is discharged in another place. For example anger and frustration gets 'passed down the line' - the boss shouts at the worker who dare not answer back but goes home steaming and finds fault with his wife, who picks on her daughter, who persecutes her younger brother, who kicks the family cat...)

A typical form of scapegoating is when a group (or the movement with which a circle identifies) is failing to make headway in its goals, or its members cannot find their needs met within the existing way of thinking of the group (or movement). Frustration and anger build up. At some point critics emerge - but instead of listening to the critics and thinking along with them the group turns on them with ferocity. The frustration of the conformist members is turned on the critics - perhaps the problems of the group are seen as the result of their disloyalty, that they are not dedicated or committed enough to the group or movement ideals. The critics provide a means of channelling damned up emotional pressures. Scapegoating, particularly in the way it turns the damned emotional energy of a group against people who are weaker or isolated, prevents the anger or the group producing changes in thinking. It also prevents it turning its feelings against the more powerful people inside or outside the movement who are damning up the change process. It is thus through scapegoating that 'revolutions devour their own children' - because it is easier to pick on allies who have dared to think a bit differently, and expressed themselves openly, than it is to turn against the power of orthodoxy, or against the power structures to be found outside the group.

To return to the theme, since gossip is an integral form of communication that glues the group together, it also carries within itself the possibilities for emotional displacements, for excommunication, for a definition of who is not in, or who is not to be in, the group. It also carries within itself the mechanisms for the control of members of the group, means to impose conformity, and, what follows from all of these, means for the emergence of more or less informal leaders.

When gossip becomes malicious gossip emotional charge of an angry character is being passed in the networked and, as like as not, a sort of power struggle is going on. It may be the purpose of gossip is to limit the influence of others whose actions and ideas are made to seem as being outside group norms. It may be, at some point, that the aim is expulsion from the group. However, expulsion from a social circle is an extreme move. There are often greater pay-offs to keeping a scapegoat in a network - so that you can go on kicking them, so to speak. Once they move away one has no more control over them. This is why people on the edge of groups, who act as the emotional punch bag, as the means for off loading the bad feelings within the group, may find that their lives go in cycles. As soon as they are firmly back in 'their failings' get identified as the main topic of conversation, they serve as a warning example to new group members of how not to behave etc. Heartily pissed off they tolerate this for a while and drop out again - later they are invited back....

Gossip and attention seeking in social circles - narcissism and self marketing

Gossip is also a means whereby people can, so to speak, purchase the company of others. It is the small change of conversation that purchases attention in the company of others. Attention seeking is what people so when they have grown up in families which have left an unfulfilled need for affection. It is experienced internally (and I've felt it myself - and given way to it) as a compulsion, which is very difficult to resist, to get other people to respond to what one has written, painted, said, done. Other people experience it as a pressure to give applause - which they either give way to, in order not to be unkind, or avoid responding to, - at all events the real achievement of the person seeking an audience, where there are some, c cannot seen, or discussed dispassionately, because their would-be audience respond more to the pressure, than to the product or the performance itself. Often in such families the child's emotional needs and expressions were not responded to. Instead the child was only noticed when it performed - perhaps getting 'an audience' from parents and teachers by doing well at school, or an audience from other children by being defiant or particularly up on style. A drive to be noticed by other people can either be fulfilled by a drive to achievement or it can be fulfilled by being a centre of gossip. These psychological roots often mesh in well to the needs of a consumer culture. As already mentioned many mainstream social circles have an essentially narcissistic, (look at me) agenda for their members. Advertising and consumer culture encourages the idea that it is desirable to be the object of other people's envious and admiring attention. If one has no resources the only way to achieve this is by the cultivation of an 'image', a personal 'style' (packaging) that one hopes will be successful in 'self marketing'.

Of course when people gossip about each other they are listening to what other members of their peer group are doing. One reason for this is to get the latest picture on group norms - what is expected of one, or what one can get away with. More positively, gossip about others can give one ideas for one's own life activities. Quite naturally the degree of interest in the topics of gossip is in proportion to the extent to which it touches on the important things of life - also in proportion to the magnitude of what has happened - a murder has more news value in a gossip network than a mere assault - just as in the newspapers. For these reasons there is a tendency in gossip to hype - for the teller of the tale gets more attention.

There is also a tendency to simplify. Human relationships, and the activities of people are formed in a very complex way. They emerge in contexts. It may take a long time to get to know the complexity of a person's personality - and the causes of their actions. But small talk does not deal in such things. To the extent that gossip is about negative judgements about people and their actions, it is a judgement which occurs in the absence of the accused. In its very nature it is therefore bound to be one sided as there is no case for the defence - either as pleas of not guilty, or pleas of mitigation. Nor are there analyses that go deeper than guilt or blame but look at the roots of people's actions in the way they have been emotionally damaged in the power relations of society. For people often adopt strategies that can be negative or self defeating because they are not aware of alternatives.

Gossip, mockery and other forms of communication are means where people can agree an understanding of others (perhaps in their absence) - thus seeking to determine, among other things, their terms of participation in the social network. In addition to group membership being about shared membership and identity, members of groups come to have particular places or parts within the group, with which they and others are more or less comfortable, which are more or less amenable to change. Sometimes this can be rather like a part one is allowed to act in a group drama. Group scapegoat and group leader are two such parts, but there are others and they can be of considerable complexity.

Individuals or couples as group reference points - for stability or change

For example individuals or couples may form points of reference in groups. In a social circle made up of couples one couple may be identified as an ideal of sexual and emotional harmony and stability - by others who perhaps see their own relationships as more shaky. There may then be a tremendous pressure on this couple to stay together. Actually they may be together as a couple, unable to function comfortably together, because they are not tightly hanging on to each other. If they decide to become more separate, and can no longer be regarded as a couple, then other couples in more intense (suffocating) togethernesses are horrified to see their ideal couple break up, it throws them into a realm of uncertainty where they do not know how to act.

What some social circles want most from their members maybe dependability and certainty. Individuals may act in social circles as points of reference in a too fluid and a too rapidly changing world. At other times, and in other circumstances, social circles may have grown stale, incestuous and want the whoosh that new members might give them.

The complexity of what is wanted of social network members is further built up, among other things, by the way they contain people acting with quite different agendas and quite different personalities. It is by no means the case that loose social circles of the type analysed here will be made up of people with similar personalities. Quite the reverse might be the case. Just has the sadist has a way of teaming up with the masochist, so the attention seeking extrovert may find a role in a network which willingly functions (part of the time) as audience.

In some groups those individuals who are objective-focused may find (part of the time) that their objectives are acceptable to the group. By objective-focused I mean people whose games in life are the pursuit of their own agendas and who essentially see other people as means to their goals - financial, sexual, reputational etc. If those goals match other people's then that works for them up to a point. However, when they do not, the objective-focused individual will often be blind to the feelings of others. Where others are fearful, perhaps of losing their own autonomy to be able to follow their own feelings and agendas, then clashes are likely. Relationships for the objective-focused individual are then only possible on an instrumental level or, on the emotional level, with emotional doormats who are 'relationship poor' and perhaps lacking in self esteem. Subordinating the unassertive and exploiting the vulnerabilities of others (on the grounds that they know what is best for them, or that they are protecting or looking after them) will be the dynamic of such people. This will work for them if other people in the network have personalities who provide them with what they want.

Hidden motivations in social circles versus openness

A common part of the dynamic found in social circles is that people are not being entirely straight with each other in relation to objective-focused motivations. They have goals in relation to each other (e.g. of a sexual character) and are waiting for opportunities to push them through. This creates a tension rather like that between card players who are hiding their hands - in Jungian terms people are hiding behind masks. Another reason for putting up masks is uncertainty about group norms for newcomers, jealousies and rivalries. These might make, for example, for the unwritten prescription of some pairings or types of behaviour in the group as being 'off limits'. 'Off limit' relationships or pairings will not be explicitly forbidden. Social circles or networks have an informal character which precludes 'official' decisions of this sort. However forms of communication (e.g. mockery) can be found to make clear what is acceptable and what is not.

Having to hide small or large parts of oneself that are not acceptable in one's social circle - having a public persona and a private hidden self - then further accentuates/complicates the split analysed earlier, namely between the self marketed image and the (uncertain/confused/insecure) 'hidden' person. Actually, of course, all these aspects of the split up self, so beloved in Jungian psycho analysis, exists only because relationships in our society are power fixated. (Jean Liedloff, in her book The Continuum Concept about the Yeaquana Indians with whom she lived shows a society without these neuroses. This is because the Yeaquana society is not stratified, responds on a feeling to feeling level between people who are free to make their own choices, and has a correspondingly different form of child rearing. The child rearing recognises the need of infants for close tactile protection and intimacy, without abuse, in the early stages of life.)

(I would suggest that healthy relationships in social networks are those where the people in them only become objective-focused, and then by unpressured mutual consent, when they have first gone through what I would describe as an essentially open ended exploratory phase. Such an exploratory phase, has no particular agenda, other than getting to know the other party. In order to make this exploration of mutual interests/feelings people need, ideally, to be simply open about themselves - there being nothing to be ashamed of in having the usual needs for affection, sex etc. Where relationships are exploratory there is nothing to hide as one does not have a preconceived agenda for another person and is therefore not a threat to that other person. Of these ideas more later - suffice it to say here that, those people who live their relationships with objective-focused agendas, are terrified of openness.)

Social Circles as sources of new relationships

Loose social networks may provide or may be hoped to provide, the source of potential closer new relationships for those who have no close relationships, or for those whose relationships are on the rocks.

The complexity that gossip, mockery etc., can express may, therefore, be attempts to define the terms in which participants are accepted into a social circle. To accept a single new participant into a group is likely to be a quite different process to accepting in a couple, for example. New participants occupy positions as potential threats (e.g. when a new member in a group is seen as a rival for someone's affection for example). Gossip is part of the group dynamic of trying to establish the terms of participation of new members and/or trying to stabilise (or move on) the changes that occur in the group through the new influence.

When gossip becomes malicious its effects can be either obvious and open or they may be hidden. If one is expelled from a formal group this seems clear. However, in our society one is rarely driven completely alone 'into the wilderness' or as with Shakespeare's characters, 'onto the heath' when it comes to social circles. Ostracised people remain in their networks of relationships - but much less firmly. They may be acknowledged on the street - perhaps they are talked to in pubs and maintain limited social contact - they don't get invited to parties, other people have something on when they call, people sit elsewhere when they come into the pub and so on. Thus within these superficial relationships opportunities for deeper involvements can come to be closed off - except where relationships can be found outside the circle of unheard criticism.

There are powerful pressures for conformity here because people are often unaware of other social networks where they may find acceptance other than the one that they inhabit. Refusing to play one's allotted part is therefore to risk isolation. (Isolation does give one a very cold kind of freedom - freedom being nothing left to lose, and so at least an ability to explore things as they really are. In the end you can begin to feelthat the freedom is more important than the relationships - because the relationships always have their price tags, their hidden agendas waiting to be revealed.)

By its very nature gossip is frightening and distressing because it is disempowering in ways that are more insidious for being hidden. Just because one cannot see the effects does not mean that there are none. There may be an inability to meet one's ordinary needs for intimacy and affection in the social circles one inhabits because of a shared view created in the communications in that network to which one is not a party. Mental health problems arise where a person cannot find an explanatory account for their distress. But this is just the sort of situation where this could arise. A lack of intimacy and a despair of loneliness may overtake a person because they are never able to find conditions in which they are offered affection - even though on the surface they have a large network of acquaintances. Paranoia in these circumstances would not be unlikely. A person would sense the subtlety of their not-quite exclusion - and this sense would reawaken the feelings from when they were a tiny child, when they had no agency, because parents and older siblings (persecutory) agendas completely rule their existence. Because gossip is not actually located anywhere - there are no records kept on it and one cannot tell where or how a message has been passed on - one would find it hard to prove and to trace its roots.

Just the stigma of a mental health record alone, and the presuppositions that this sets up, may often suffice to keep an individual in the limbo of this kind of partial involvement in social networks.

Healthy relationships

This paper has focused upon the negativities in social circles. It goes without saying, on the other hand, that unless social circles have things to be said for them, unless the meet the needs of their members to some degree, people would not adhere to them. Unless one is to make the case of being an outsider, a loner, it seems as if one should try to define what healthy relationship networks and social circles would look like. The problem of so doing, of course, is that any definition by an individual of how things should be,can be seen to be, or is, an attempt to set the would be world reformer/profit above everyone else - as a guru. We live in the kind of society where anyone putting themselves in this position, as a would be saviour, then either attracts followers or opponents and becomes the centre of yet another cosy club with its own language, insiders and outsiders... Actually I cannot really say what would be healthy relationships for other people - I can only say the kind of relationships I personally would like to have in the social circles I inhabit.

For me what would be desirable would be social networks in which people come together, but are assertively independent, and where relations in the group are based on an interest in, an exploration of, difference. (Rather than attempts to subordinate it.) We are all objective-focused to some degree but such networks would not necessarily be about objective-focused behaviour. To me the sort of personality that I term objective- focused is often a personality that is relating to other people in a way that sees these other people as a means to their own ends. These ends may be various - financial, sexual, reputational - but such ends can often be understood in terms of deeper motivations than the on the surface drive for money, sexual gratification or fame.

Sometimes this may be because the person has had a very privileged background where they have never experienced any painfully imposed limitations on themselves directly or in their family environment as they grew up. Never having experienced hardship pain or difficulty they have no empathy or sympathy or understanding for other people's suffering. They may then simply come to regard their privileged status and conditions as quite ordinary and simply have no concept of the pain and hardship which their actions may bring to other people. However, the deeper motivations of others are often to be found as rooted in life games which are essentially defensive. In this case the motivations may arise out of childhood hurts. For example a person apparently pursuing objectives of a sexual character may, on deeper examination, be seeking emotional reassurance. Through their sexuality they are actually able to make a difference to, an impact upon, the lives of people around them. Such a game may be played because on a deeper level the person needs to use their (physical) attractiveness to win a place in other people's lives - because they have never really been noticed for anything else and their may be a deep sense of hurt over this which sexual activity covers over. Perhaps it is an asset they have in a world that is only interested in assets - so they need to reassure themselves that it can still buy them attention. Objective focused adults are likely to have grown up with objective-focused parents. In such families what principally matters is how the child performs and 'gets on' in socially conventional ways. The feelings of the child what it likes and dislikes, hates, fears or loves, are irrelevant to the parental agenda. If that comes over in a tight over-controlling way the result may be schizophrenia. (Instead of parents who are supportive of and notice, the child's own feelings, choices and agendas.) Such a childhood is likely to leave a craving to make a difference in the lives of other people, perhaps mixed with a carried over smouldering resentment at being unloved.

Escaping from power agendas in social circles

What we are talking about here therefore is that people operate in social circles influenced by power agendas. Because our society is founded on competition and power, because there is rarely anyone to pick you up when you fall, because the first experience of power ( between adults and children) often leaves a deep sense of hurt and a corresponding defensive strategy, people's surface objectives are often substitutes for affection. Money cannot buy love but it can buy hangers on. Fame separates the idol from their adoring hangers on by putting the idol above them - but the idol does get noticed and has an influence.

Affection is the emotion that arises between people when they bond firmly - when they are sensitive to each other's feelings. That is to say - the distress of the other, the other's fear, or pain, or sorrow, evokes a sympathetic echo, an empathy, which leads to support. On the other hand the happiness and pleasure of the other brings a matching happiness in the case where relationships are affectionate. By definition to be sensitive, in this sense of having an appropriate match of feelings, implies one is not subordinating the other person to one's own goals - in an affectionate relationship the parties remain free agents. This is likely to be possible when people discover they have parallel and matching goals.

Affectionate relationships are the alternative source of security to the imposed or manipulated security sought for in power relationships. By their nature they tend to be egalitarian. To my mind, for what it's worth it helps to live in a social circle in an exploratory way. Where communication between people in social circles seeks to clarify what is going on, which asks why, rather than seeking to impose a definition of why people are acting as they are the circle is essentially healthy. This is the opposite of gossip - but where as gossip is talk about people, regardless of the facts, on the basis of unconscious and hidden agendas, without regard to people's feelings, the kind of thing I am putting forward here would be just the reverse.

Written December 1993

Return to index page