Tweets & whispers

Emily Butterworth, senior lecturer at Kings College London, reveals why she and artist Clare Qualmann are organising a mass game of Chinese Whispers at Somerset House next week...and what on earth it has to do with the French Renaissance
Shh… Can you keep a secret? Twitter can’t, and though it might feel like a private conversation sometimes, it isn’t. You can be having a light-hearted exchange with a friend on the merits of Scottish independence, parliamentary pay, or letting girls wear pink, when a stranger appears between you and takes you to task. They might even have well-informed views on the subject you’ve been discussing. Celebrities are forever apologising for their unthought-through tweets, for forgetting that Twitter is not a joke with your mates. Or, not always. Twitter and other social media are awash with gossip and rumour, and in many cases have replaced face-to-face conversations over the garden fence or the pub bar. It’s often the place to go for breaking news: Twitter will provide a name where the mainstream press keeps silent; the sheer volume of tweeting on a trending topic can even create the news. But the first people have already been prosecuted for treating Twitter too much like a night at the pub, where unsubstantiated rumour is common, if not required. If you name a footballer seeking an injunction on Twitter, you could be guilty of contempt of court. If you suggest a prominent member of the House of Lords could be a potential target for Operation Yewtree, your tweet counts as a publication and you may have committed libel.

 DID YOU KNOW? 653 people were charged with criminal offences in 2012 because of comments on Facebook and Twitter [source]

But Twitter’s similarity to traditional gossip is hard to deny. Twitter thrives on anonymity; it hares maniacally after one topic then abruptly switches tack to another; it condenses anxieties and fears and projects them onto another; it has a strong coercive element; and yet it also builds a feeling of community. These are all features that modern anthropologists and Renaissance writers have attached to the practice of gossip. The Renaissance was something of a golden age of gossip, when court politics was driven by whispered secrets in dark corridors, twitching drapes, and knowing glances. The criticisms that are made now about Twitter were also made about gossip and rumour in the Renaissance. Gossip could even get you into real trouble, if the wrong people heard about it. In sixteenth-century France, it was a capital offence to slander the king, and that could include gossiping about his close ‘friends’ or speculating on the cause of an illness.

Gossip and rumour were things to be feared, seeming like autonomous forces that gathered strength as they grew, and that could destroy reputation and honour in an instant. On Twitter, the coercive side of gossip can be extreme and ugly, with trolls threatening physical violence to anyone whose views, or position, or appearance, they dislike. It’s often said that the anonymity of Twitter encourages such extreme criticism, as mild-mannered middle managers skulk behind aggressive avatars and tweet things they would never dare say. Renaissance writers recognised that gossip can also be vicious: it’s not said to a person’s face, but it can destroy their lives. Girls could be made unmarriageable by gossip. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, the slander about Hero is so persistent that she has to fake her own death to escape it.

We want to draw attention to this similarity in our event next week, Renaissance Rumour and Chinese Whispers, part of the Inside Out Festival. As a lecturer in the French Renaissance and a contemporary performance artist, we’ve been struck by the ways Renaissance descriptions of how rumour works map on to modern use of social media like Twitter. The performance we are staging is a mass game of Chinese Whispers, which works very much like rumour, described by Renaissance writers: condensing information down, provoking revealing slips and mistakes, and also some embarrassment as the secret is whispered round the circle, mouth to ear. The sentence that emerges from the game is created by the group. No-one has to take responsibility for it. But at the same time, it is our creation. On Twitter, we may be surprised by what we hear, but gossip is an echo of the fears and obsessions that we might like to keep hidden. What Twitter does is expose these often unpleasant impulses to the view of everyone, distilled into nuggets of 140 characters or less, easily passed on, easily assimilated, but also easily discarded. Shhh… the secret’s out!

Join Emily for Renaissance Rumours and Chinese Whispers at the Inside Out Festival, on Monday 20 October from 3 to 4pm. Places are limited so booking is essential. For more information click here.

For more  information about Inside Out Festival visit