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Tweeting between floors

Long before elevators made it onto Twitter, gossip defined the elevator as an early information technology

March 26, 2014 7:00AM ET

A decade ago, I gave a conference paper at the New York Institute of Technology about elevators in the movies. As I spoke, all the film clips I’d taken with me failed to play. After a pantomime of Fred Astaire walking down a stairwell as Ginger Rogers steps out of an elevator, I finally escaped and headed down in an elevator with a couple of friends. “The New York Institute of Technology,” one of my friends said, piling sarcasm on the last word, “what a joke.” She didn’t realize that the man standing silently next to her was a dean at NYIT. Sometimes while riding in elevators, we reveal more than we mean to.

The danger of inadvertently sharing information on elevators has gotten a fair amount of attention lately. It was recently revealed that the mastermind behind the @GSElevator Twitter account, which posted statements supposedly made by Goldman Sachs employees in the office elevators (“The fact that there are ugly hookers tells you all you need to know about free markets … and men” is a prime example) did not work at Goldman Sachs and that his posts were not actually overheard in Goldman Sachs elevators. Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in the New York Times that this episode “underscores concerns about the veracity of what is published” on Twitter “and the identity of authors.” He might also have said that it underscores concerns about communications in elevators.

In another recent financial-sector scandal, Credit Suisse has been accused of helping U.S. clients hide assets from the IRS. One client described traveling to the Credit Suisse office in Switzerland and being escorted upstairs in an elevator without buttons, remotely controlled. This was probably just a destination dispatch elevator, a fairly common feature in new office buildings. (Elevators are called in the lobby to take passengers to particular floors, with passengers sorted by destination in different elevators, increasing efficiency.) But in the Senate report on the scandal, it is described as an almost sinister experience, implying that Credit Suisse managers tightly control transportation and communication inside their offices in order to prevent the kind of leaks supposedly originating in Goldman Sachs elevators.

Like Twitter, the introduction of the elevator raised problems about the ethics and etiquette of communication.

These scandals surrounding finance-industry elevators are nothing new. For more than a hundred years, the elevator has been a conduit — sometimes a problematic one — for information. Snatches of conversations between floors are the original short-form communication technology: They took no more than a minute or two, often less. And for most of that history, especially in office buildings, hotels and department stores, the conversation had a moderator, the elevator operator. It was under his (and eventually her) careful eye that such subjects as sports, local politics, celebrities, other tenants and the weather became standard subjects of brief conversation.

By the 1920s, the garrulous elevator operator became an ideal among workers and their bosses, and building managers often claimed that Irishmen were particularly good conversationalists to hire. They all understood that the information conveyed was secondary. Like Twitter, the primary value of elevator communication was in making people feel connected, in creating a community.

Elevator operators also became conduits for gossip throughout the building, sometimes with tenants and more often with household or office staff members lingering in the doorway of elevators to finish the tale. Elevator operators got to know everyone in the building and many of their secrets, though often only in fragments. One operator complained in 1941:

An elevator operator must be devoid of curiosity, otherwise he would go crazy. He is always hearing snatches of conversation, and just as things begin to get interesting, the people get out at 14, and he never knows how it all came out. Life, to an elevator operator, is like reading a magazine with all its back pages missing.

Like Twitter, the introduction of the elevator raised problems about the ethics and etiquette of communication. These problems often corresponded to the ambiguously public/private nature of the space; one perennial question was whether one should remove one’s hat in an elevator. The operator’s role in spreading gossip also straddled that public/private divide, listening to the maid whisper at the threshold of her apartment and then repeating it on the building’s threshold to the mailman or the cop on the beat. How could gossip be controlled? Ultimately, building managers found that they had few options beyond hiring discreet and trustworthy employees. 

Elevator to heaven

Push-button technology had been around since the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that automated elevators devastated the ranks of elevator operators and a new regime of communication began. One change was that popular culture reimagined the elevator as a means to communicate both with oneself and with God. It is ironic that this did not happen earlier: The Elevator was a common name for evangelical magazines in the 19th century, and as Andreas Bernard shows in “Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator” (published in Germany in 2006 and just out in an English translation from NYU Press), early elevator cabs bore a striking resemblance to Roman Catholic confessionals.

There is little evidence that either of these resonances were used to draw a clear cultural association between elevators and confession. However, in the automatic era, Hollywood has frequently turned stuck elevators into sites of secular confession and self-contemplation. Bernard puts special emphasis on“Elevator to the Gallows” and a scene in Nora Ephron’s film “You’ve Got Mail,” which does have an operator, who shares in the confessions but does so as an equal, not a confessor. M. Night Shyamalan’s more recent horror film “Devil,” which takes place largely in a stuck elevator, is another film that returns the religious aspect to the elevator confessional.

As Bernard points out, stuck elevators are not so frequent in the real world. Similarly, real elevators are less often sites of absolution than Hollywood elevators and more often places where people let slip information that probably shouldn’t be openly shared. Many hospitals place signs in elevators warning staff not to discuss patients in them. As a graduate student, I was taught never to discuss sensitive information, especially about job searches, in academic conference elevators.

In real life, as in movies like 2004’s “In Good Company,” we sometimes open up to a stranger in an elevator, only to discover at the end of the ride that the stranger is a new boss or a dean at NYIT or a curious onlooker. And when elevators do break down, we are just as likely to reveal things unintentionally to our fellow passengers as we are to confess. Scarlett Johansson, a star of “In Good Company,” once told me a story about getting stuck in a hotel elevator with a Hell’s Angel who began to sweat profusely and otherwise demonstrate his deep anxiety, somewhat undermining his image as a tough guy.

If the recent story about @GSElevator says something about Twitter, it also reveals our cultural anxieties about being overheard in elevators. Hopefully, the traders at Goldman Sachs will breathe a little more easily and speak a little more freely now that they know no one was actually listening in and writing things down. Because a silent elevator ride is an unfortunate legacy of the automatic era. Without the operator’s word or smile to get the conversation started, elevators seem to have gone more silent than they once were. And that’s a shame. To lose elevator chatter is to miss out on a fleeting, vibrant, ever-changing sense of community. 

Daniel Levinson Wilk is an associate professor of American history at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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