A study of hundreds of thousands of emails from the bankrupted energy giant Enron has revealed that employees in large corporation send an average of 112 emails every day, with one in seven of these containing nothing more than gossip.
Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing, arrived at these figures following an analysis of some 600,000 emails that were released after the collapse of Enron, making them the world's largest publicly-accessible body of naturally occurring e-mails.
The proportion of gossip – deemed by the study to be messages that contain information about a person or persons not among the recipients – was unexpected, Professor Gilbert said.
"I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15 per cent."
And while he acknowledged that Enron had what he termed a 'cowboy culture', Gilbert said that its pattern of communication were unlikely to differ much from other similar corporations.
"Gossip gets a bad rap," said Gilbert, an expert in social computing . "When you say 'gossip,' most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it's actually a very important form of communication.
"Even tiny bits of information, like 'Eric said he'd be late for this meeting,' add up," he continued. "After just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person.
"Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study we viewed it simply as a means to share social information."
But despite this, his analysis of the emails found that negative gossip was almost three times more common than positive gossip (although a significant portion of the messages were actually sentiment-neutral).
He also found that the level of gossiping emails was consistent throughout the company, with those ranked towards the bottom of the pay scale gossiping more.
The second heaviest flow of gossip within a single level occurred among Enron vice presidents and directors. And by far the biggest upward flow started with vice presidents and directors and moved up up one level to presidents and CEOs.
Vice presidents and directors also gossiped the most down the chain, with the heaviest downward flow originating from their level and ending up at the lowest, rank-and-file level.
"Gossip is something we all do in every aspect of our lives," Gilbert added. "I imagine corporate executives will probably take note of this – and then send an email to Jennifer down the hall saying that Bob in purchasing gossips all the time."