What Gossip Teaches Us About Viral Marketing

In the book The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader an article by Deborah Jones explores the female-only oral tradition of gossip. She finds that there are four functional types of gossip, house-talk, scandal, bitching and chatting.


House-talk is the female equivalent of man’s shop-talk: the discussion of work of being a housewife, tips, tricks and new products are common topics. Where men would discuss cars or business, house-talk generally functions in domestic scenarios, but the concept is the same, tactical and specific discussion of “the things that need to get done“.

In social media, we see house and shop talk manifest itself in very obvious ways. HOWTOs and other geeky shop-talk stories are often the most popular memes circulating in social media circles at any one time. The more specific and detailed this stories are the more successful they are in propagating.


When most people think of gossip, scandal is what they think of. Scandal is defined as the “considered judging of the behavior of others” and its function is seen as the policing of misbehavior. What is defined as misbehavior in traditional gossip scandal often comes from the patriarchy and imposes a sexist moral codes (Here we find a great example of the fact that memes are not always positive to the host). Comparing this type of gossip to the social conflict theory we find in the study of urban legends it becomes clear that where as the social conflict theory operates on a macrocosmic cultural level, scandal can originate from motivations that range the gamut from individual conflict up to social and gender-based group conflict. In some instances it is an individual woman gossiping about the misdeeds of another woman for her own good, and in some instances she is merely perpetuating the social laws of her chosen cultural group.

Again, the parallels in social media are clear. When diggers (a very specific social group with its own motivations and conflicts) find a wrong in the action of others, they are very quick to engaged in “considered judging” of the offending behavior. The same, of course, happens at the individual level and many scandalous rumors originate not from social conflicts, but from personal vendettas that have been magnified by the mega-phone of social media.


Bitching is understood in the essay as the “overt expression of women’s anger at their restricted role and inferior status“. Here we find the Goliath effect (again from folklorology). The story takes the form of a very specific and personal retelling of an encounter a woman has had with an oppressive structure that is much larger and more powerful than herself and the audience identifies with the underdog.

The examples of bitching in social media are too numerous to cover in their entirety, but a few come to mind instantly. Bad customer service experiences with companies like Dell and AOL are legendary stories online, as are unpleasant stories of dealing with basically every well known company online.


Chatting, another form of communal recreation, is an intimate kind of parallel storytelling where one woman tells a personal story with an underlying emotional plot and the other woman replies with her own unique story echoing only the underlying emotional content. The male equivalent may well be the communal retelling (and often fabrication) of hunting stories around the fire-pit (or big fish tales on the lake), though the female version does not seem to overtly possess the competitive spirit of the male version.

Comment sections on popular social media sites, especially on “Goliath effect” or “bitching” type stories takes the chatting form pretty quickly. And inviting the right audience to relate their own stories about a strong emotional touch-point is a surefire way to stimulate lots of submissions. The important element (the only one the marketer can control) is the emotional plot or structure underlying the stories and perhaps an example story or two, the rest is created by the community.