How mundane gossip took over the internet
From podcasts brimming with everyday scandals to entire investigative news stories, the banal and downright dreary has become the internet's favourite flavour of tea – always lukewarm, never piping hot.
In Britain, hope departed long ago. Unable to entertain such world-altering ideas as free broadband, while slowly realising a political system underpinned by abstract concepts such as “integrity” and “shame” might not be such a great idea, Britons have instead chosen to savour their shit-filled sandwich rather than considering the fact that life doesn’t have to be like this. As journalist Emma Garland puts it, “the response [to why life is difficult in the UK] is usually: ‘Ah of course it’s shit. It was shit then, and it’s shit now,’ which has been the foundation of British nihilism throughout modern history. Rarely have we stopped to consider the possibility that it could very easily… not be.”
At a time when idealism is severely lacking, our collective imagination has started to interrogate the everyday with an overeager intensity, transforming the shallowest events into thrilling sagas capable of capturing the mood of a nation. From podcasts brimming with everyday whisperings to entire investigative news stories, thoroughly mundane gossip has been amplified, dissected and scandalised right before our very eyes.
A lull in the national conversation during a particularly grim third lockdown? Enter the Handforth Parish Council and Jackie Weaver, accompanied by reams of memes, earnest long-reads and even a girlboss-adjacent self-help book. Just last month, for the entirety of a quiet Friday afternoon, a livestream of Heathrow Airport runways on Big Jet TV had me and thousands of others transfixed, seeking the tiniest thrills as we watched professional pilots essentially do their jobs (albeit in the tricky conditions of Storm Eunice).
Right now, the grip of the mundane is so tight that entire political histories might yet be written featuring a succession of essentially dreary moments, desperately cobbled into an ersatz zeitgeist. A Pizza Express in Woking, an inconsumable bacon sandwich, a suitcase full of wine at Downing Street, tinnies on the tube. This is all gossip writ large, the political equivalent of the “Do You Remember Stuff” school of comedy – and proof that we are in a very dark era indeed.
At this point, I should point out that I’m actually a massive fan of gossiping. With just a hint of tragedy, sentences that begin with “a guy I knew from uni”, “this one time” or “I was on the train and then…” are among my regular ice-breakers. On Twitter, amongst friends, at the pub – all the mundane drama, Mick, I just love it!
But why does gossiping feel so good? In the introduction to podcast Normal Gossip – in which host Kelsey McKinney interviews average Joe Bloggs’ about low-stakes scandals in their lives – guest Virgie Tovar describes it as a feeling. It’s “gossiptonin”: that whole-body shiver when you relay good gossip about people just outside your immediate circle of friends, to your circle of friends. It’s the thrill of unloading, an embodied, pleasurable act intensified by mates as they wade in with their takes.
Lockdown’s social detachment disrupted that process, yet the hope for a pleasurable outcome remained, with the void of the internet listening in, rather than a circle of encouraging friends. Comedians David Earl and Joe Wilkinson’s Gossipmongers is another podcast that invites listeners to submit their most salacious stories; a select few are then read out in full. Earl complains that most of the submissions sit at the corporeal end of the spectrum: namely, tales of shitting, wanking, fucking, screaming, crying and throwing up. These puerile stories are the ones people desperately need an outlet for. But without a sounding board, they end up endlessly reflecting their own longings in the hope that the podcast producer reckons their swear quota isn’t quite full yet.
Thoughts of wanking aside, Virgie Tovar is definitely onto something. But scrolling through a seemingly infinite array of online gossip accounts, it feels like something is missing when gossip goes digital, its impact somehow lost or mistranslated. Anonymous Twitter confession community Fesshole hits hardest when there’s an original turn of phrase. On Depop Drama, which recounts Gen Z clothes traders’ snappiest interactions, it’s the droll drop of a “hun” at the end of a message. For Takeaway Trauma (the same concept, but with TripAdvisor), it’s a brutal, occasionally flamboyant putdown. This all leads me to an unfortunate conclusion: writers have ruined gossip.
Aided and abetted by the internet, gossip has become the object of fancy for the crafty storywriter, the preserve of people who can shock, thrill and excite, structure a story and turn a bloody good phrase on the page. In essence, the internet has allowed gossip to turn into a written thing, not a spoken thing. Of course, valuing speech over the written word is hardly a new phenomenon. But then again, maybe Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida was just feeling defensive when he complained about Western philosophy’s historic logocentrism, knowing full well that colleagues were meeting for coffee to gossip about his work.
As the difference between the inane and the insane becomes less discernible – I’m looking at you, No Context UK Facebook (a Twitter account, enjoy) – the ability to polish a boring turd becomes all the more important. One of the more frustrating moments of the Gossipmongers podcast is delivered by listener Stu. He unleashes a fanatically detailed rhapsody on childhood in Dorking, involving a tragic elderly figure (rumoured to be a former virtuoso conductor) destined to a life pointing at buses and doing laps of the local war memorial, after a coach carrying the subject of his unrequited love crashed off the edge of a cliff. “There was nothing to that story and he made it come alive,” Wilkinson comments as the author reveals the story to be completely fabricated.
But even imagining the (limited) good to come from the “gossiper to short story writer” pipeline is deemed impossible by thoughts of the mundane. The Didn’t‑Happen-of-the-Year-ification of internet gossip limits its scope to the banal and realistic, lest you suffer the extreme indignity of internet trolls comparing you to Jay from The Inbetweeners.
There’s another aspect to Tovar’s initial definitions of gossip. It’s “largely about destabilising and making fun of systems,” she says of the part it plays in an underground information network for the marginalised. Gossip holds powerful potential for communities seeking to subvert, inquire and eventually dismantle.
And, even as the traditional gossip pulpits of glossies drop in circulation, the desire for political gossip is something other parts of the media are keen to capitalise on. Subscriptions to Private Eye hit record numbers during the lockdown period, a feat most print-only magazines could only dream of. Some of this success can be put down to its rigorous investigations, but part of the increase must also come from how it blurs the lines between genuine scoops and smirk-provoking chatter from the corridors of power.
The Eye’s millennial offshoot Popbitch (“Scurrilous gossip. Scandalous Stories. Otters.” is its tagline) brings a welcome dose of shit-stirring to our inboxes every Thursday. (Popbitch’s open-rate – a key metric for email newsletters – reached its highest rates in more than a decade over recent months, following big stories like the revelation that Boris Johnson’s phone number was left on the bottom of a press release.) The media’s grab for gossip isn’t just a left-leaning phenomenon, either: The Spectator’s gossip columnist Steerpike has bristled through the pandemic and The Telegraph even revived their old Saturday diary column, Peterborough.
It’s remarkably easy to argue for the futility of political gossip in a system where nobody resigns for anything. But at least a desire for gossip as something engaged and meaningful exists, rather than people laughing at the “She’s So Crazzzzzy” woman yet again.
Crucially though, its current place in the digital sphere doesn’t come anywhere near to the principles outlined by Tovar. Because at the moment, online gossip coincides with the frighteningly deranged trend of spying and snooping on others. Annoyed at online strangers commenting on his muffin consumption, comedian Stewart Lee once described Twitter as a “state surveillance agency staffed by gullible volunteers.” Fast-forward nine years and Instagram community deuxmoi actively encourages users to send in sightings of celebrities doing literally anything in the name of gossip. The more banal, in fact, the better.
It’s worth assessing why that urge exists. As the BBC’s documentary Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story outlines, the major change in the celebrity ecosystem since the turn of the millennium has been the side-lining of press and paparazzi, as celebrities take control of their own narratives. Molly Mae’s disastrous appearance on the Diary of a CEO podcast not only showed how flimsy such narratives are when faced with even the gentlest of questions, but that buzzwords like “approachability” and “relatability” are part of a socially acceptable, progressive lexicon that obscures any real inclination to change things.
For all the PLT unboxings, carpet-cleaning tutorials and best-mate friendliness, the move towards a relatable influencer culture has done little to dismantle the structures of fame. Celebrities have simply become a lot less interesting. And with less interesting influencers operating within the same structures, fans respond accordingly, in much the same way that the tabloids did before: with deranged, intrusive, but ultimately more dreary gossip.
The final thought Tovar throws in is “further proof that gossip is the tool of the marginalised – because it’s slippery.” That slipperiness makes gossip hard to extend past its immediate environment, without resorting to shock tactics. The vast majority of today’s digital gossipers do the opposite of that, zooming in on turns of phrase or funny clapbacks. But in embracing its Out of Context-ness, the banality of contemporary gossip fails to hit the same spot as similarly mundane anecdotes from your mates.
For the best gossip is not that which is spewed out onto the internet, or that obsessively hones in on something mundane. It’s a story about a person approximately three degrees of separation from the gossiper doing something really daft, that’s lapped up by an ecstatic audience. Can we start over, with a little bit of in-person gossiping? You know, just to lift the mood a bit?