We humans are, as a rule, ridiculously bad at keeping secrets. There’s a reason for sayings like “two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead”. It comes from us being social critters who like to belong to something – and to some extent need to belong to something. Whether that something is a tribe, or a fandom, well, that’s a cultural thing, but all of us have this built-in need to belong to some group of humans.
Which of course means that the secrets of the group, whatever they might be, are shared with its members, and – almost inevitably – leak out sooner or later. Because another big part of the social critter thing is the mix of curiosity and communication that goes along side the social aspect. In other words, we gossip.
It’s totally human to hear a conversation, listen in, and pass on the juicy bits to a friend who you think would find it interesting or needs to know it. That particular trait is why the fastest way to find out what’s going on in any organization is to plug into the gossip chain.
And, of course, to remember that each tale gets a bit distorted in the telling so you’re going to get a different perspective if you’re hearing it fifth-hand than if you hear it direct from the source.
One of the best uses of this was in Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant when Vimes was traveling to Uberwald and his carriage was stopped by a couple of highwaymen (I think. It’s a while since I last read it so I may be off on the details. And more, because I’m just as human and fallible as anyone else here). He kills one of them and reflects that by the time he arrives it’s likely to be a case of him single-handedly fighting off a small army, killing them all, and a dog that happened to be in the vicinity.
He’s right, of course, with the result that “… and a dog…” finds its way into the book in multiple places. Which, given how much werewolf clans play into said book, is yet another layer of Pratchettian artistry (Of course, Pratchett was the kind of writer who could take a running joke, flesh it out into a tragedy, and still use it as a joke afterwards. I only aspire to a measurable fraction of such greatness).
So, we suck at keeping secrets, but we absolutely have to keep a lot of them. There’s business confidentiality (something that the trad publishing industry unquestionably sucks at – which is perfectly understandable given how all the editors know all the other editors and they lunch or otherwise meet at venues involving alcohol frequently enough that secrets are going to spill. Collusion doesn’t need to be inferred when the field is small enough that human nature will give you the same result (which does not necessarily exclude collusion, incidentally. It just means that collusion isn’t necessary to get the bizarre skewedness and almost incestuous behavior)), private things between friends, employer-employee confidentiality, contractual requirements to keep one’s mouth shut about certain topics, not to mention the various things that go through a person’s head which would have Very Bad Results if said thoughts were to be aired in public.
And yet, sooner or later, most of them do find their way out to the public. Even the very private thoughts.
And then, because we filter things we learn through our experience, they get passed on and distorted, so what ultimately becomes public knowledge is, absent high quality primary sources, rather like the end result of passing a novel though an MMORPG session of Telephone (I knew that game as Chinese Whispers).
Sadly, I don’t see this happen too often in books, probably because of fact that life doesn’t have to make sense, where stories usually do (even if the sense they make is only to their own internal rules). Well, that, and it’s bloody difficult to do.
I hope to get it right eventually. Until I do, it shall only see the light of day in shitty fanfic forever hidden on my hard drive.