Very OnlineThe Terrifying Scale of the Online Gossip Economy

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Robert McCoy—or as you may know him, Couch Guy—has been having a hard time of it lately. In a recent op-ed for Slate, he describes how his involuntary TikTok memeification (which effectively made McCoy a symbolic figure for infidelity) quickly “turned menacing”, as he became subject to a “tabloid-style media coverage.” For the normies who haven’t seen the video, McCoy’s crime was his emotional response to a surprise visit from his girlfriend Lauren, which TikTok users deemed worryingly lackluster.

What resulted was an intense and strangely specific harassment campaign that began online and bled into real life. “Even if this guy turned off his phone, he can’t escape the couch guy notifications,” McCoy recalls one commenter writing. The college student also says that he received intrusive written notes through his door from neighbors living in his apartment building. The messages McCoy found himself subject to—about his perceived loyalty, suspicious body language, and deservingness of his current partner—were unduly vicious, adding McCoy to the growing pantheon of ordinary individuals dehumanized by viral fame

The ability to peer into the personal lives of people outside of our immediate circles is one of the great joys of the social internet; something that has undoubtedly enriched a contemporary life frequently dictated by illness and isolation. In the best cases, these interactions prove to be mutually beneficial for both content creator and consumer. Continuing to think about TikTok, this often looks like an emotionally supportive community materialising around the discussion of stigmatized or at least more traditionally ‘private’ issues: users document their breakups and abortions, posting through their struggles with substance addiction, sobriety, and eating-disorder recovery. 

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But as we know, social media’s reputation is more often and more accurately one characterized by alienation and envy. “Conformity and approval seeking is a strong pull [to the platforms] for many people,” psychologist Dr. Monica Johnson writes in an email to Bitch. “You’re not only seeking the approval of [your] closest friends, you’re seeking the approval of the unknown masses.” And of course, there’s no telling exactly how those masses will end up reacting. To take an example from Twitter, a recurrent engine for online harassment, the seemingly widespread assumption that “ghost” quote-tweets (a phenomenon wherein a quote-tweet—a repost of another user’s tweet with a new, additional comment—by a user with a ‘private or ‘locked’ account, will be reflected in the metrics of the original tweet, but neither the comment nor its author’s username can be viewed by the original poster) must be inevitably critical or negative in their content points to an online environment that has habituated us to expect the worst.

Despite increasingly frequent discourse about parasocial relationships, we’re no closer to being able to meaningfully comprehend, much less rein in, the extreme end of this boundless emotional access to strangers: what the Couch Guys and Big Babies of the world are forced to endure when the joke gets taken too far. Our human instincts to discuss—and, let’s be honest, judge—others are increasingly warped by the design of social platforms. Newer recommendation algorithms like TikTok’s, which boosts content depending on various measures of viewer attention, including interactions such as liking and sharing as well as duration spent watching, are unfortunately attuned to negative attention and emotions.

This isn’t a new problem for social media. In June 2021, the UK government launched an overdue public inquiry into influencer culture that examines, among other topics, evidence from those targeted by internet abuse. Sophie Bishop, a University of Sheffield lecturer and specialist advisor to the inquiry, finds that “older internet infrastructures” will often play host to a pernicious gossip culture: Facebook groups, Reddit threads, and various dedicated forums like Tattle Life. A noxious website that may soon face a legal reckoning for its facilitation of abuse, Tattle Life is described by Guardian writer Sirin Kale as both “a new iteration of the gossip forum…tech-enabled and optimized for cruelty,” and “an acid bath.”

Writer Rachel Connolly sees gossip forums as a kind of “moral superiority outlet” for participants. “I think venting somewhere like Tattle Life is a way of outsourcing the insecurity that you feel.” Connolly, who wrote about gossip for Hazlitt’s Year in Review series in 2020, believes that the “corrosive” culture found on Tattle Life and similar sites runs counter to that facilitated by IRL gossip, though both serve “a bonding function.” “IRL gossip is usually just spreading information that’s already known rather than spreading secrets,” she explains to Bitch in a phone conversation. A 2019 meta-analysis echoes this idea: of the 52 minutes a day, on average, that the 467 subjects spent gossiping, 75 percent of that gossip was classified as “neutral.” (“It was kind of boring,” an assistant psychology professor who worked on the paper reported to TIME, “not salacious and negative” in the slightest.) But while IRL gossip isn’t potentially explosive on the scale that its online counterpart is, it can and has been weaponized in similar ways. In the 1940s, for example, celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had an outsized influence on the reputations of Hollywood stars, reportedly showing “special disregard for blacks, gays, and Democrats” and “foreshadowing the current age of social media” in her dissection of people’s affairs, politics, and sexual preferences.

Conversely, the notable and defining feature of many conversations involving “neutral gossip” is the use of private interfaces rather than public ones: in group DMs, ‘alt’ Twitter accounts, or finstas. “A contained space,” is the defining feature for Connolly: “The information isn’t supposed to spread, although obviously sometimes it does.” The intentions of those participating are also a key factor in maintaining a neutral gossip culture. Embedded’s Kate Lindsay reports on a recent Instagram trend of high-school students creating accounts to call out their peers on “everything from bad posture to poor parking jobs” via anonymously submitted images or “tips.” Despite the high accessibility of these accounts, most gossip of this ilk is ultimately neutral.

The bottomless hunger for new content has spawned a new version of gossip culture that’s both more perverse and more powerful.

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“I don’t think it’s worth wasting any energy condemning this, or writing some larger screed on What This Means For Teens Today,” says Lindsay, “because as much as this tactic is new and scary, it is just a manifestation of the exact same casual cruelty and public humiliation that’s happened in the halls of high schools for decades.” Instagram has a far more meaningful impact on teenagers in other aspects of their digital life, most notably in terms of disordered eating and body dysmorphia

Something that recurs in testimonial evidence from influencers in the UK government’s inquiry, Bishop says, is the looming spectre of “dark forums” like Tattle Life or its YouTube-centric predecessor Guru Gossip. “People will comment on influencers’ personal information, share their opinions of them, and gossip about their ‘vibes’ when backstage,” she tells Bitch over the phone. “Occasionally they’ll piece [personal information] together and coordinate with each other to harass them,” sometimes escalating their anger to Advertising Standards or, terrifyingly, Child Protective Services. According to one witness—the influencer and former Love Island contestant Amy Hart—trolls tended most often to be middle-aged women, though she also received death threats (“some of the most awful messages I’ve had”) from school-aged children. “You look at this barrage of messages someone has sent me before 7am about how much they hate me, how awful I am, how everyone hates me, how ugly I am,” she said to the committee of MPs. “You’re telling me that doesn’t break [online conduct] policy?”

Though gossip forums have always been plagued by gratuitously mean commentary, what’s different now are the direct lines to public figures, via platforms like Twitter and Instagram, that simply didn’t exist even a decade ago. This accessibility paired with the democratization of celebrity we’ve seen in that same period also means that platform users have never been closer or more vulnerable to fame. Whether gossip about you culminates in vigilante action seems more or less to be determined by your gender (women, both cis and trans, are the most frequent targets), the level of misinformation in the discussion, and the subject matter—an analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that assessments of “bad” parenting accounted for 10 percent of the 60 discussion threads examined.

The bottomless hunger for new content, meanwhile, has spawned a new version of gossip culture that’s both more perverse and more powerful. In a report for The Verge, Ryan Broderick tracked a rising wave of “drama channels” on TikTok and traced their forays into a kind of investigative journalism–cum–vigilante justice. “The app has become home to a teenage version of the OSINT (or ‘open-source intelligence’) community,” he writes, speaking to users who have made their names “exposing and publicly shaming various villains within the progressive-leaning world of TikTok.” The end goal is usually to see these villains—often racists, fascists, and anti-vaxxers—face some kind of justice. (In most cases, that looks like loss of employment.) But an online career in vigilante justice can be a messy affair.

Broderick explains a specific feud between Michael Mc (who runs @TizzyEnt, one of the larger accounts in this field) and FedEx delivery driver Vincent Paterno, “who claimed in a TikTok video that he would not deliver packages to any homes without an American flag or with a Biden/Harris sign in the front yard.” The pair argued via TikTok’s “duet” feature, trading insults over a number of days. Paterno, who mentions his already-disapproving manager in one video, is eventually fired (one can’t help but wonder whether an online campaign was ultimately necessary to this fairly inevitable end), and Mc—having called Paterno “a piece of shit” and criticized his “unfuckability”—tells off his audience for sending threats to his family. Broderick positions Mc as one of the “responsible TikTokers” participating in the trend, but this feels like something of a paradox when a cottage industry for this type of divisive and disruptive content is clearly forming.

The drama channel is a niche that has a more storied and tonally different history on YouTube. While TikTok’s algorithm is more scattershot, YouTube’s has tended to reward longer content that, according to Bishop, “keeps people also going to other content on the platform,” Since YouTube drama tends to involve multiple creators over multiple channels, the format is an instant win. “Drama, influencer gossip, conspiracy theories, general celebrity gossip and tea channels work really well in [YouTube’s] algorithm,” she says. “You need to keep producing, you need to keep it fresh, keep your audience engaged. And so with gossip you’ve got speculation, evidence, even collaborations where you interview each other about it.” The possibilities of human conflict are endless, “whereas there are only so many iterations of a smoky eye.” 

The general consensus emerging from the Couch Guy debacle is that people desperately need to “log off and touch grass,” which is certainly part of the picture. Facing up to another pandemic winter spent on Zoom, endlessly scrolling through the bottomless pit of TikTok; now being subjected to content spat out of the metaverse (have we not suffered enough? Is there truly no God?), there is an understandable feeling that our reliance on the digital world, especially as a social tool, is sapping our humanity. It seems that a choice way to reclaim the feeling of connection is through our new, supercharged gossip culture—one that encompasses a broader range of subjects, and can often be more harmful. An interest in all things human interest is terribly en vogue (see also: the morbid fascination with true crime)—but pinning a butterfly to a corkboard to better observe and understand it has never been a mutually beneficial pursuit. Even if that butterfly seems like it might be cheating on its girlfriend.


Jenna Mahale, an Indian woman with long brown hair, poses against a wood fence with a lavender shirt
by Jenna Mahale
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Jenna Mahale is a freelance journalist and editor living in the United Kingdom who is extremely, extremely online. She writes and edits primarily for i-D, covering film, art, music, books, beauty, politics, and digital culture, especially frog memes. Find her on Twitter @jennamahale.