The Bike Sheds
My penultimate year at school was 1968 – an era without mobile phones or the internet.
In the breaks we congregated in the bike sheds at the back of Burnage Grammar School.
We gossiped (along with the occasional Players No6).
Gossip is a conversation about people who are not present.
Our gossip was about how awful our teachers were, about other pupils and especially about the scrotes at Ladybarn School a half-mile away, driven by the knowledge that the two schools would be merged into a new comprehensive.
It was a legacy of the English class system that, as Grammar School pupils, we considered ourselves superior.
(oh – yes – boys versus boys – the idea of a mixed gender school was still in the imagination of liberal educationalists)
Little did we know that all the decent teachers would emigrate and the worldly-wise boys of Ladybarn would establish their supremacy by arriving at our school gates one fateful evening to give all of us budding 6th formers a good beating in those very same sheds.
I ended up in hospital after one of my new “friends” smashed me over the head with a motor-cycle chain.
The ensuing parental outrage and possible police investigation was quickly swept under the carpet by a headmaster keen to secure a smooth transition.
This was the stuff of social integration.
From a subsequently disastrous final year at school I progressed with my 4.5 “O” levels into an insurance company office in Central Manchester and worked my way up from office boy to senior administrator over the following 7 years.
The bike sheds were replaced by the office coffee machine.
Here, we would congregate to talk about how awful the company’s products and managers were, about the more troublesome customers and about the better paid employees of our competitors.
I left corporate life in 1987 and haven’t occupied a bike shed or lingered by a coffee machine since.
In recent decades the dental gossip took place in conference hotel bars late into the night.
But my clients tell me all the time about where the gossip centres are in 2015:
the staff room
the wine bar after work
the telephone in the evening
the internet, via smartphones and social media platforms
It’s the last of these that represents the biggest breakthrough in communication and the greatest threat.
The Internet of Things (IoT) allows our gossip to travel instantaneously (you don’t have to wait until a break or after work) and virally (it can be shared).
The level of naivety here is astonishing.
An obvious example is the email I had a from a Female Principal, asking for advice on how to respond to a negative rant about the practice and the patients from one of her employees.
She had read this on her own news feed – because she is an existing Facebook friend of the employee!
My advice was a good disciplinary conversation (face to face), the implementation of a social media policy in her employment contracts and a special employee award for dunce of the year.
More insidious is the instant message, the WhatsApp chat or the closed Facebook Group.
The assumption by those involved is that this gossip is confidential.
Second degree naivety.
I’ve seen “private” posts presented to me by well-wishing moles in dental forums and teams.
There is at least one person in every secret gossip thread who believes in the unfairness of trial without jury – and feels compelled to share outside the group.
You can debate the moral maze of whistle-blowing but you cannot avoid its likelihood.
So a useful assumption is that, in the world of social media gossip, NOTHING is private.
It might take a criminal act to have the Government hacking into your accounts or the police marching off with your hard drive – but simple folks like you and I can simply copy, paste and forward that which we observe with unease.
And we will.
I’ve recounted before the story of a private forum post commenting “how can you trust Chris Barrow when he is a man who has fathered 5 children with 5 different women?”
In the interests of clarity (and before I’m nominated for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award), my 5 children share the same mother.
The person making this fascinating claim was a dentist who I have never met to this day, have never advised and whose life is a mystery to me, as is his motivation for the comment.
The whistle-blower who shared this post was motivated by a sense of fair play but the founder of the group (a private dental forum of which I have never been a member) simply shrugged when I asked him to moderate and explained (and I quote) “I have to let the children play in their sand pit”.
I’m relieved that the moderator is a dentist and not a Prison Governor.
In the event, I posted on my own social channels that I would be seeking legal advice and the other contributors to the thread spent what must have been a long and furtive night deleting their posts. A bizarrely pointless action, given that I had screen shots.
The original culprit was successfully blocked from all of my channels and (tempting fate here) he seems to have gone quiet on Chris Barrow and redirected his self-loathing to other dental “celebs”.
The internet is a PUBLIC space, no matter what you assume on privacy.
So be careful if you find yourself in a gossiping conversation, even as an innocent participant, because it might come back and hit you over the head like a flailing bike-chain.