Like Belgian Chocolate
for the
Universal Mind

Interpersonal and Media Gossip
from an Evolutionary Perspective


 Charlotte De Backer

Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor (Ph.D)
in Political and Social Sciences: Communication Studies.

Proefschrift voorgedragen tot het behalen van de graad van
Doctor in de Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen: Communicatiewetenschappen.


Academiejaar: 2004-2005

Universiteit Gent
Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen
Vakgroep Communicatiewetenschappen

Advisor: Prof. dr. P. Vyncke
Co-advisor: Prof. dr. J. Braeckman


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    1 Gossip as a research topic

    2 What is included and what is not

    3 Goals of this study

    4 Interdisciplinary approach

    5 Dissertation outline


Part 1 Theoretical framework


Chapter 1 Conceptualizing and operationalizing gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 The words ‘gossip’ and ‘roddel’ in a historical perspective

        2.1 The word ‘gossip’: from godfather to bad talking mother

        2.2 The history of the word ‘roddel’

        2.3 From innocent, bonding behavior to negative, scandalous content

    3 Conceptualizing gossip today

        3.1 Gossip as a message and an action in current conceptual debates

        3.2 Framing gossip in communication models

        3.3 Gossip as a message: debates on what gossip content is about

            3.3.1 Gossip: universal themes about human subjects

            3.3.2 The subject of gossip: who do we gossip about

            3.3.3 Can a gossiper be a gossipee as well

            3.3.4 Is gossip good, bad or both

            3.3.5 How much can we believe from the gossip we hear

            3.3.6 What did you say? How new does gossip have to be

        3.4 Gossip as an action: the transmission model of gossip

            3.4.1 From mouth to media: gossip channels

            3.4.2 Actors of gossip: who can take part

            3.4.3 The context wherein gossip is transmitted

            3.4.4 Relations between gossipers: are doctors gossiping about their patients

            3.4.5 When gossip hits you: motivations of the sender and effect on the receiver of gossip

    4 Classifying gossip

    5 Conclusion: a very general definition of gossip

        5.1 Resuming gossip as a noun

        5.2 Resuming gossip as an action

        5.3 Gossip in the most general sense


Chapter 2 Effect-study of gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 Group- vs. individual-level approaches to social science

    3 Gossip and group-level social sciences

        3.1 Max Gluckman: Gossip and Scandal

        3.2 Other group level social science approaches to gossip

        3.2.1 Gossip as an information channel

        3.2.2 Gossip and the social glue effect

        3.2.3 Gossip as social control

    4 Gossip and individual-level social sciences

        4.1 Paine: gossip, transactionalism and social anthropology

        4.2 Other individual-orientated uses of gossip

        4.2.1 Gossip to impress and manipulate others

        4.2.2 The Gossip mirror: symbolic interactionism and gossip

        4.2.3 Gossip is fun: it is entertainment

    5 Unifying the social science approaches to gossip

        5.1 Wilson: uniting Gluckman and Paine

        5.2 Social control and manipulation co-appear in ethnographic studies

        5.3 Uniting all individual and group-level uses of gossip          

            5.3.1 Social control and manipulation co-appear but are different

            5.3.2 Information exchange and social comparison

            5.3.3 Entertainment and social bonding

            5.3.4 Four effects of gossip


Chapter 3 Introduction to an evolutionary approach to gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 Evolution and human behavior

        2.1 Selection pressures

            2.1.1 Charles Darwin: natural and sexual selection

            2.1.2 Selection after Darwin

       Robert Trivers: Sexual selection expanded

       Sexual selection blends with natural selection

            2.1.3 Is there selection for sociality

            2.1.4 Levels of selection

        2.2 Adaptations, by-products and noise: products of evolution

            2.2.1 Adaptations and adaptive behavior 

            2.2.2 Adaptations are relative

        2.3 How modular is our mind

            2.3.1 Three different kind of mental modules

            2.3.2 Strong and weak massive modularity hypotheses

        2.4 The importance of the environment

            2.4.1 Not one but three environmental conditions shape our behavior

            2.4.2 The environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA)

       The EEA is not a place, nor a time period

       Hunter-gatherer societies

            2.4.3 The current environments: ontological and situational influences

            2.4.4 Stone aged minds and the mismatch hypothesis

       Stone aged minds

       The mismatch hypothesis

       Our stone aged minds in media land

        2.5 An evolutionary approach to human behavior: practical guidelines

            2.5.1 Guidelines for a functional analysis

            2.5.2 Sex differences in evolutionary perspective

       Sexual division of labor

       Difference in residence patterns

    3 Phylogenetic analysis of gossip

        3.1 Gossip and the emergence of language

            3.1.1 When did language emerge

            3.1.2 How did language emerge: the continuity debate

        3.2 Language and the different selection pressures

            3.2.1 Language, intelligence and big brains

            3.2.2 Ecological selection pressures and big brains

       Man the toolmaker hypothesis

       Dietary shifts

       Language and the hunting hypothesis

            3.2.3 Social selection pressures and our big brains

       Machiavellian intelligence

       The Machiavellian hypothesis and language: Dunbar

       Critics on Dunbar

            3.2.4 Different selection pressures co-acted on the evolution of language and gossip


Chapter 4 Functional analysis of gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 Gossip and experience: why learning is so important

        2.1 The importance of learning   

        2.2 Learning from experiences in the real world

            2.2.1 Individual experiences with the real world

            2.2.2 Others’ experiences with the real world

       First-hand information: direct social learning of info copying

       Second-hand information: learning through communication

       Who we learn from and the prestige – or general copying bias

        2.3 Learning from the fictive world

            2.3.1 Individual fictive learning: pretend play

            2.3.2 Others’ fictive learning: fairytales, myths and other stories

        2.4 Gossip as a learning strategy

            2.4.1 Adaptive problems of learning that gossip could solve

            2.4.2 Strategy Learning Gossip (SLG)

       Gossipees of SLG: mere carriers of fitness-relevant information

       SLG topics: new and unexpected-outcome strategies

            2.4.3 SLG might solve problems of survival, mating and group living

        Survival SLG: Learning about life and death

       Mating SLG: Learning about heart and hurt

       Social SLG: Learning about right and wrong


            2.4.4 Sex differences in Strategy Learning Gossip

    3 Gossip and evolutionary problems of mating

        3.1 Attraction between sexes (intersexual selection)

            3.1.1 Men’s adaptive strategy and -problems of short term relations

       Short-term is adaptive for men

       Problem of number of partners

       Problem of sexual intent of women

       Problem of reproductive value and fertility of women

       Problem of commitment

            3.1.2 Men and long-term relations: problems they face

       Women’s disguised reproductive value: the importance of youth and beauty

       Faithfulness and chastity

            3.1.3 Women’s adaptive strategy and –problems of long term mating

       Why long-term relations are more valuable for women

       Cues that signal male (parental) investment

            3.1.4 Women and short-term relations

       Single female seeks short-term partner

       Engaged/married woman seeks short-term partner

        3.2 Conflict between the sexes: deceiving potential partners as conflict strategy

        3.3 Intrasexual competition

            3.3.1 Male-male competition

            3.3.2 Female-female competition

        3.4 Jealousy: mate guarding strategy

        3.5 When mating results in offspring: The problems of being parents

        3.6 Gossip and mating

            3.6.1 Mates Detection Reputation Gossip and Mating Structure Reputation Gossip

       Mates Detection Reputation Gossip and Mating Structure Reputation Gossip explained

       Some empirical data on Mates Detection RG and Mating Structure RG

            3.6.2 Intrasexual Conflict Reputation Gossip

       Sexual Rival Detection RG and Sexual Rival Slander RG

       Is Sexual Rival Slander RG more common among women

       Some empirical data on Intrasexual Conflict RG

            3.6.3 Mates Control Reputation Gossip

            3.6.4 Mating Reputation Gossip and parental skills

    4 Gossip and evolutionary problems of group living

        4.1 Co-operation: why we all act altruistic

            4.1.1 The altruistic dilemma

            4.1.2 Kin selection theory

       Hamilton’s rule

       Kin selection in practice

       The importance of kin recognition

            4.1.3 Reciprocal altruism

       Trivers: reciprocal altruism

       The free-rider problem

            4.1.4 Cheater detection  

       The social contract theory

       Altruism detection?

            4.1.5 Co-operation and game theory

       Modeling human social exchange: the prisoner’s dilemma

       Axelrod and Hamilton: tit-for-tat

       Strong reciprocity: punishment

            4.1.6 Co-operation and reputation

       The importance of reputations

       Indirect reciprocity theories and reputations

            4.1.7 Co-operation and communication

       Communication enhances co-operation

       Communication in larger social groups

        4.2 Conflict

            4.2.1 Conflict between relatives: why it is so hard to raise kids

            4.2.2 Conflict between and within groups

            4.2.3 The cost benefits of conflict: reputations and social status at stake

        4.3 Alliances: long term co-operation and conflict

            4.3.1 Friends: when we need one another

            4.3.2 Becoming irreplaceable: a strategy to win friendship

       True friends are irreplaceable

       Distinguishing true friends from fair weather friends

       Maintaining friends: keeping up and reconciliation when the friendship is broken

            4.3.3 The good and the bad: human bias in the perception of others

        4.4 Gossip and social problems

            4.4.1 Kin Structure Reputation Gossip

            4.4.2 Co-operation Reputation Gossip

       Cheater Detection Reputation Gossip

       Altruist Detection Reputation Gossip

       Gradations in cheating and altruistic behavior

       Different reputations for different social contracts

       Co-operation Reputation Gossip and Social Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.4.3 Alliance Reputation Gossip

       Individual seeks allies: Ally Detection Reputation Gossip and Ally Structure Reputation Gossip

       Ally Maintenance Reputation Gossip

       Calibration Reputation Gossip

       Alliance Reputation Gossip and Intrasexual Conflict Gossip

            4.4.4 Sex differences in Social Gossip

       Why women are more eager to find out about specific others

       Sex differences in Ally Maintenance Reputation Gossip

       No sex differences for Calibration Reputation Gossip

            4.4.5 Gossip about parental skills

            4.4.6 Gossip in complex societies

    5 A new classification for gossip content

        5.1 Linking gossip’s functions and effects

            5.1.1 Functions underlying the learning effect of gossip

            5.1.2 Functions underlying the control effect of gossip

            5.1.3 Functions underlying the manipulation effect of gossip

            5.1.4 Functions underlying the entertainment effect of gossip

        5.2 The rules behind the gossip classification system

            5.2.1 Level one: focus on behavior or person

            5.2.2 Level two: adaptive problems

       Reputation Gossip: an overview

            5.2.3 Graphic: the gossip classification tree


Chapter 5 Modeling the different kinds of gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 Modeling human social behavior

        2.1 Optimization models for human behavior

        2.2 Bounded rationality theory

            2.2.1 The power of simple heuristics

            2.2.2 Fast and frugal decision trees

    3 Acquiring and sharing information

        3.1 Acquiring information

        3.2 Sharing information

            3.2.1 Low cost of sharing non-rival goods

            3.2.2 Multiple benefits of sharing gossip

       Gossiping and kin selection

       Gossiping and reciprocal altruism

       Gossiping and the show-off hypothesis

       Gossiping and tolerated scrounging

    4 Exchanging Strategy Learning Gossip

        4.1 Sharing Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.1.1 Costs and benefits of sharing Strategy Learning Gossip

       Benefits of sharing SLG

       Costs of sharing SLG

            4.1.2 Mathematical model for sharing Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.1.3 Visual translation of domain of the model

            4.1.4 Fictive examples of the mathematical model for sharing Strategy Learning Gossip

       Example 1: sharing exclusive (SK= 1) eye witness (t= 1) SLG

       Example 2: sharing untrue (u= 1) exclusive (SK=1) SLG

            4.1.5 Difference for fitness-promoting SLG and fitness-endangering SLG

            4.1.6 Decision trees for sharing Strategy Learning Gossip

       Fully elaborated decision process to decide when to share SLG

       Less elaborated decision process to decide when to share SLG

        4.2 Acquiring Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.2.1 Costs and benefits for acquiring Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.2.2 Decision trees for acquiring Strategy Learning Gossip

       Fully elaborated decision process to decide when to act on acquired SLG

       Less elaborated decision process to decide when to act on acquired SLG

    5 Exchanging Reputation Gossip

        5.1 Sharing Reputation Gossip

            5.1.1 Costs and benefits of sharing Reputation Gossip

       Benefits of sharing RG

       Costs of sharing RG

            5.1.2 Fewer costs of reliability for Reputation Gossip

            5.1.3 Mathematical model for sharing Reputation Gossip

       Mathematical model for sharing good RG

       Mathematical model for sharing bad RG

       Optimal strategy to share RG

            5.1.4 Some examples of the mathematical models that explain optimal sharing strategies for Reputation Gossip

       Example 1: Optimal strategy for sharing good RG

       Example 2: Non-optimal strategy for sharing good RG

       Example 3: Optimal strategy for sharing bad RG

       Example 4: Non-optimal strategy for sharing bad RG

            5.1.5 Classification trees for sharing Reputation Gossip

       Fast and frugal tree for sharing good RG

       Fast and frugal tree for sharing bad RG

        5.2 Acquiring Reputation Gossip

            5.2.1 Costs and benefits of acquiring Reputation Gossip

            5.2.2 Fast and frugal tree for acquiring Reputation Gossip

    6 Reputation and Strategy Learning Gossip combined


Chapter 6 How gossip develops in a lifetime (ontogeny)

    1 Introduction

    2 Gossip hardware

        2.1 Mental mechanisms underlying gossip

            2.1.1 Communication: language and Theory of Mind

       Language mechanism

       Theory of Mind module (ToM)

            2.1.2 Strategy Learning Gossip: storing experiences

            2.1.3 Reputation Gossip: storing person-related information

        2.2 Emotions as gossip regulators

            2.2.1 Emotions as mechanism coordinators  

            2.2.2 Emotional regulation of gossip

       Surprise: gossip and the unknown

       Happiness: why gossip is like chocolate

       Sadness, disgust, and angriness: when gossip is bad

       Fear: when gossip is frightening

    3 Activating and running the gossip hardware

        3.1 Development of communication skills

            3.1.1 First emotions

            3.1.2 Perception of objects and subjects

            3.1.3 Ontogeny of language

            3.1.4 Ontogeny of social intelligence

        3.2 How our social network develops

            3.2.1 From parents to friends

            3.2.2 Complexity of social relations in industrialized societies

    4 Ethnographic studies about gossip across the lifespan

        4.1 Children’s gossip

        4.2 Does gossip decrease with age

    5 Sex differences in gossip

        5.1 Sex differences in communication skills

        5.2 Sex differences in sociality

        5.3 Sex differences in gossip

            5.3.1 Sex differences in gossip at a young age

            5.3.2 Sex differences in adult gossip

       Do women gossip more than men

       What do men and women gossip about


Chapter 7 Media gossip from an evolutionary perspective

    1 Introduction

    2 What is Media Gossip

        2.1 Media Gossip as a noun

            2.1.1 Media gossipees: celebrities and public unknowns

       What are celebrities

       Other media gossip subjects

        2.2 Media Gossip as an act

            2.2.1 Channels of Media Gossip

       Tabloids and gossip magazines

       News and the human interest stories

       TV Entertainment!: Audiovisual gossip magazines

       Soap operas

       Interpersonal Media Gossip

            2.2.2 Relations between media gossipers and gossipees

       Media gossipers: the problem of reliability

       Media gossipers and media gossipees: no fear of retaliations

        2.3 If gossip is news, then news is gossip

    3 Media Gossip: an eye blink in evolutionary terms

        3.1 Gossip magazines: an historical overview

            3.1.1 The 1830’s and the rise of the commercial press

            3.1.2 Technology and the graphics journals

            3.1.3 The yellow kid

            3.1.4 The kid from MIT

            3.1.5 From street violence to supermarket clean

            3.1.6 Oh-oh Jackie O: the rise of celebritytis

        3.2 Media Gossip is an eye blink in evolutionary terms

    4 Why we like Media Gossip

        4.1 Media Gossip as Strategy Learning Gossip

            4.1.1 Strategy Learning Gossip and the unknowns

            4.1.2 High status celebrities and the General Copying Bias

        4.2 Media Gossip about one-way-members of our social network

            4.2.1 Celebrities: our special friends and enemies

            4.2.2 Whom we see is whom we meet

            4.2.3 Imaginary-, parasocial friends or one-way-members

            4.2.4 Parasocial members call for time

            4.2.5 Media Gossip: from bowling alone to bowling with our one-way friends

       Bowling alone: the social decline

       Television provides artificial friends

            4.2.6 Interpersonal Media Gossip: can celebrities cure our de-voicing societies

       The de-voicing of our societies

       Celebrities as mutual acquaintances

       Can celebrities substitute religions

        4.3 Two explanations for our interest in Media Gossip

            4.3.1 The Learning Hypothesis

            4.3.2 The Parasocial Hypothesis

            4.3.3 Not one or the other, but one and the other

    5 Research on Media Gossip

        5.1 Research on Media Gossip content

            5.1.1 Gossip columns from the 1950s to 1970s

            5.1.2 Media Gossip content in American tabloids in the 1990s

            5.1.3 Israeli gossip columns

            5.1.4 A study from practical experience

            5.1.5 When average Joe hits the front-page

        5.2 The consumers of Media Gossip

            5.2.1 The Media Gossip audience

            5.2.2 Our interactions with one-way-members

       Alliance seeking Media Reputation Gossip: who becomes a one-way-member

       Our one-way-members influence us like real members do

       One-way-members substitute real members that are missing

            5.2.3 When Media Gossip becomes interpersonal again



Part 2 Empirical papers


Paper 1 Who says what about whom? An exploratory study on interpersonal gossip

    1 Introduction

    2 Methodology

    3 The good, the bad, and the gossip

        3.1 A very general definition of gossip

        3.2 Respondents’ view on gossip in general

    4 A classification of gossip according to functional design

        4.1 Strategy Learning Gossip

        4.2 Mating Gossip in everyday life

            4.2.1 Mates Detection Reputation Gossip: who is a good mate

            4.2.2 Mating Structure Reputation Gossip: who sleeps with whom

            4.2.3 Intrasexual Conflict Reputation Gossip: female warfare

        4.2.4 Mates Control  Reputation Gossip

        4.3 Social Reputation Gossip in everyday life

            4.3.1 Co-operation Reputation Gossip

            4.3.2 Ally Detection Reputation Gossip

            4.3.3 Ally Structure Reputation Gossip

            4.3.4 Kin Structure Reputation Gossip

            4.3.5 Ally Maintenance Reputation Gossip

            4.3.6 Calibration Reputation Gossip

    5 Gossipees and gossipers: who gets involved

        5.1 Who we gossip about in everyday life

        5.2 Who we gossip with in everyday life

        5.3 Gossipers and reliability: who we trust in everyday life

        5.4 Gossip and chocolate: guilt and retaliation

    6 Channels of gossip

    7 Men, Women and Gossip

        7.1 Who gossips most: men or women

        7.2 What do men and women gossip about

        7.3 Male and female motivations to gossip in everyday life

    8 Conclusion

    9 Discussion


Paper 2 Cheater detection reputation gossip as punishment strategy and the problems of second-order free riders

    1 Introduction

    2 Gossip as a control mechanism

        2.1 Gossip and Cheater Detection Reputation Gossip

        2.2 Gossip as a control strategy: group-level vs. individual level approaches

        2.3 The problem of free-riders

        2.4 Cheater Detection RG and two second-order free rider problems

        2.5 Cheater Detection Reputation Gossip and Other Deviance Calibration Reputation Gossip

    3 Empirical support

        3.1 Methodology

        3.2 Experiment 1

        3.3 Experiment 2

        3.4 Experiment 3 and 4

    4 Conclusion

    5 Discussion


Paper 3 An experiment on the recall of reputation gossip

    1 Introduction

        1.1 Out of sight, out of reach, and out of gossip

            1.1.1 Who we can meet in the future is who we gossip about

            1.1.2 Who we see is who we meet

        1.2 Mating Reputation Gossip

            1.2.1 Mates Detection RG

            1.2.2 When the relation is troubled, the gossip gets doubled

        1.3 Social Reputation Gossip

    2 Method

        2.1 Apparatus

        2.2 Materials

        2.3 Procedure

        2.4 Design

        2.5 Participants

    3 Results

    4 Conclusion

    5 Discussion

        Attachment: used reputation gossip stories


Paper 4 The daily gossip: looking at the content of media gossip from an evolutionary perspective

    1 Introduction

        1.1 Media Gossip as a rumor-like act

        1.2 Media Gossip’s gossipy content

        1.3 Why we like Media Gossip so much

            1.3.1 Media Gossip and the Learning Hypothesis

            1.3.2 Media Gossip and the Parasocial Hypothesis

        1.4 Media Gossip reflects issues relevant in our evolutionary past

        1.5 Previous research on Media Gossip

    2 Hypotheses

        2.1 Media gossipees

        2.2 Behavioral information: Media Gossip topics

        2.3 Male/female differences

        2.4 Gossip magazines’ reliability strategies

    3 Research methodology

        3.1 Research population

        3.2 Coders

        3.3 Codebook

    4 Results

        4.1 Media gossipees: celebrities and public unknowns

        4.2 Traits/behaviors categories information

        4.3 Sex differences in gossip magazine topics about Media Gossipees

        4.4 Gossip magazines and the reliability problem

    5 Conclusion

    6 Discussion


Paper 5 Media gossip and interpersonal media gossip: an exploratory study

    1 Introduction

        1.1 How much gossip is Media Gossip

        1.2 Media Gossip: teachers or friends

            1.2.1 Celebrities and public unknowns: teachers of the mass media audience

            1.2.2 Celebrities: friends of the mass media audience

        1.3 Interpersonal Media Gossip: modern social glue

    2 Methodology

        2.1 Focus groups

        2.2 Media Gossip survey

    3 Results

        3.1 Focus groups results

            3.1.1 Adolescents

            3.1.2 Young adults

            3.1.3 Adults and middle-aged adults

            3.1.4 Elderly

        3.2 Media Gossip survey results

            3.2.1 Population description

            3.2.2 Interpersonal Media Gossip: who gossips about whom

        3.2.3 Media gossip: who consumes what

    4 Conclusion

    5 Discussion


Paper 6 Celebrity gossip: learning through gossip about the experiences of parasocial members of our social networks

    1 Introduction

        1.1 Gossip as a learning strategy

        1.2 Celebrities as parasocial members of our social networks

        1.3 Gossip, unity and social networking

        1.4 Sex differences in sociality due to differences in relocation patterns throughout human evolutionary history

    2 Hypotheses

    3 Methodology

    4 Results

    5 Conclusion

    6 Discussion


Paper 7 Ally maintenance reputation gossip about celebrities: we share good and bad gossips about celebrities we like, and do not share gossip about celebrities we dislike

    1 Introduction

        1.1 Celebrity Gossip: learning or parasocial interacting

        1.2 In-group out-group in evolutionary perspective

        1.3 Good gossip and bad gossip in interpersonal interactions

    2 Hypotheses

    3 Methodology

    4 Results

        4.1 How good is good and how bad is bad

        4.2 Least liked and best like celebrities

        4.3 Good gossip about liked and bad gossip about disliked celebrities

            4.3.1 Bad gossips about liked and disliked celebrities

            4.3.2 Good gossips about liked and disliked celebrities

    5 Conclusion

    6 Discussion


Paper 8 Media mating gossip: sex differences in topics gossiped about for male and female celebrity gossipees, and sex differences in interest from the receivers

    1 Introduction

        1.1 Mating Gossip

        1.2 Mating Gossip and sex differences for gossipers and gossipees

            1.2.1 Information about potential mates and sexual rivals

            1.2.2 Information about emotional and sexual cheating

        1.3 Mating Gossip about celebrities: the Learning and Parasocial Hypotheses

    2 Hypotheses

    3 Methodology

    4 Results

        4.1 Populations profiles according to sex and age of the respondents

        4.2 Results for gossip about mating cues

        4.3 Results on cheating

    5 Conclusion

    6 Discussion



    1 Filling the gap of knowledge about gossip

    2 Frequently asked questions about gossip

        2.1 What is gossip

        2.2 Why do we gossip

        2.3 Is gossip an adaptation

        2.4 Why do we gossip about celebrities

        2.5 Who gossips most: men or women

        2.6 Why is gossip comparable to chocolate

    3 Suggestions for future research on gossip




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