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Tea, tattle and ‘anti-fans’: how the internet transformed gossip culture

Although trolling is widely condemned, gossip and snark have become an increasingly acceptable new normal on social media

“I got death threats when I dyed my hair blonde,” 20-year-old Flossie Clegg tells Dazed. Although she’s since deleted the threatening messages she’s received, there are still countless nasty comments concerning Clegg’s hair across her socials: “You look dead now. You’ve lost a subscriber,” reads one.

Clegg is a YouTuber and influencer. She’s got 345,000 followers on TikTok, nearly 400,000 on Instagram and over 700,000 on YouTube. She’s been cultivating her platform and working as an influencer since she was a teenager: her channel neatly charts her journey from girlhood to early adulthood, as school makeup tutorials slowly morph into vlogs about moving out and living in London for the first time. Clegg essentially grew up in front of thousands of viewers: “There’s something really special about growing up online and having all that growth not only documented, but also experienced alongside your audience,” she says.

But there are drawbacks to turning your life into content. As well as thousands of fans, Clegg has amassed a considerable number of ‘anti-fans’. Notably, there are pages and pages of vitriolic snark written about her on Tattle Life – a gossip forum dedicated to the “commentary and critique” of celebrities and influencers. For the most part, this criticism is centred on the way she’s “changed” over the years.  “Social media influencers are getting younger and younger so obviously we grow up, start to behave differently, look different,” Clegg says. “Unfortunately that makes viewers think these new versions of ourselves are insincere or ‘fake.’ I’ve been accused of being in friendships for career growth, had my relationship with my family questioned or attacked, had my body compared to my 16 year old one... I think I’ve received every insult and threat under the sun.”

A quick skim through the Tattle Life thread about Clegg demonstrates just how fixated the snarkers are on her every move: from digging up her old Tumblr account (“the last time she posted was October 2018”) to speculating on how much her nails cost (“Millie T goes to the same salon Floss goes to in her new video and said it was £200 for a full set… no wonder she goes on [about] missing nails for ages!!”). “If I’m in a good place it hardly affects me but it can tip me over when I’m not feeling my best self,” Clegg explains.

You’d have to be superhuman to remain wholly unaffected by the kind of venom spewed by snarkers. Some Tattle users veil their criticisms under a guise of faux concern: “I don’t want to sound mean because I think Flossie is genuinely very pretty but lately her face seems so so puffy and swollen. I know she’s addressed it a few times but it’s actually every day and getting worse. Does anyone know what that is?” one writes. Others are less subtle: “Is that an aggressive filter on her recent [Instagram] story or has she gone crazy with fillers?” another asks. These aren’t petty, isolated remarks: it’s sustained, invasive, obsessive scrutiny, and it’s taking its toll on those who are in the public eye.

Clegg isn’t alone in facing online abuse: there are reams of snark on Tattle about other public figures such as home cleaning guru Mrs Hinch; lifestyle influencer Jess Lethaby; ex-Love Islander Zara McDermott. There are pages and pages of commentary – sometimes genuinely curious, usually chillingly vicious – anatomising the lives of anyone remotely famous (and most notably, a woman). Influencer Hannah Farrington, who has also been subject to abuse online herself, recently tweeted: “someone is going to kill themselves because of this website one day and I desperately hope it is shut down before that happens.”

Snark and gossip aren’t confined to this one dark corner of the internet, either: @theshaderoom on Instagram has over 25 million followers, while over on YouTube, tea channels are a lucrative business. It’s no surprise, then, that creators who peddle gossip are often so unbridled in their attitudes, as the more outlandish their claims, the more clicks they get. And the more clicks they get, the more money they make. 

Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce is a sociologist at the University of York. She explains that we’ve always been nosy about the lives of public figures. “There has historically been a big appetite for gossip about the rich and famous. Celebrity has a long history going back well before the 20th century,” she tells Dazed. “However, gossip has been given a new arena in terms of the internet.”

It didn’t take long for people to capitalise on the new possibilities for gossip presented by the internet. In the early 2000s, Perez Hilton built his career on blogging about the rich and famous, while Elaine Lui began publishing celebrity gossip on LaineyGossip.com. Their unrestrained approach was mirrored in the tabloid press, where showbiz reporters filled column inches with misogynistic misrepresentations of the lives of famous women. Britney Spears’ mental health crisis was trivialised and ridiculed, while Amy Winehouse’s struggles with substance abuse were similarly sensationally reported. It was a vicious cycle, as intense pressure to maintain a pristine image often pushed celebs further into distress.

“I get a lot of comments about the shape of my nose, the shape of my eyes – which is obviously part of my race. And I get a lot of comments about how I’m completely undesirable” – Sharon Gaffka

The advent of the internet also facilitated the creation of online communities dedicated to tearing down public figures. “Gossip can now be conducted remotely rather than in-person, in virtual communities on social media platforms,” Dr. Penfold-Mounce continues. “These communities are in real-time and international in scope, but have few if any consequences regarding what is said.” Emboldened by their anonymity and egged on by herd mentality, there’s little incentive for snarkers to pause and question their actions.

Plus, in the age of social media, the desire for celebrity gossip is growing in tandem with the rise of parasocial relationships between stars and their fans. Parasocial relationships – where repeated exposure to a public figure causes a fan to develop a personal attachment to them – aren’t a new phenomenon by any means. Take Beatlemania: a 1969 Guardian article on Paul McCartney’s marriage to Linda Eastman noted young fans outside the registry office “weeping and hanging on to each other's arms and making catty comments about the bride.”

Sharon Gaffka appeared on Love Island in 2021. She recalls coming out of the villa to a barrage of hateful comments last summer: “I get a lot of comments about the shape of my nose, the shape of my eyes – which is obviously part of my race,” explains Gaffka, who is of Polish and Indonesian heritage. “And I get a lot of comments about how I’m completely undesirable because I didn’t find love in the villa.”

Viewers of reality TV shows such as Love Island are particularly susceptible to forging parasocial relationships with the people they see on screen. While we only see one, edited hour out of the Islanders 24-hour day, the format makes it easy to fall into the trap of believing that we’re seeing the contestants in an authentic, unfiltered way. In Gaffka’s series, one episode saw the Islanders get into a heated debate about cosmetic surgery, which led to some viewers attempting to pathologise Gaffka’s behaviour. One particularly unhinged tweet read: “okay so me a 2.1 psychology graduate and my mum a certified counsellor both agree that Sharon and Faye were insecure and projecting and were manipulative, it’s official.” But, surely, no qualified psychologist would seriously attempt to diagnose a patient based off mere minutes of edited footage.

Gaffka says that she continues to experience strangers acting as though they know her personally: “When you’ve been on reality TV, everyone thinks they know you and everything about you, but actually all they know is your name and the persona that the editors decide to give you.”

The unparalleled access to public figures that social media and TV grants us has intensified this feeling that we really know celebrities and influencers. We can peek inside our idols’ underwear closets and it’s not uncommon for vloggers to document events as personal as childbirth. In light of this collapse of boundaries between ‘fan’ and ‘friend’, it’s no surprise that four in ten millennials say their favourite YouTube creators understand them better than their friends.

Olivia Yallop is a trend analyst, author, and expert on digital culture. “On the internet, the line between fan and anti-fan is thinner than you’d think,” she writes in her debut book, Break the Internet. “Followers of famous YouTubers are just as likely to watch videos criticising them as by them, and gossip content can be both supportive and snide. The online landscape spans fans desperate for hidden details about their heroes right through to dedicated communities of anonymous commentators who spend hours each day posting lengthy, analytical criticism on anti-influencer forums.” Dr Penfold-Mounce agrees, adding that “emotions can be tightly bound to certain celebrities, and being a fan can tip into being anti-fan – this is often when a fan believes their idol is stepping outside of what they perceive as the ‘real, authentic’ celebrity.”

In some ways, it’s empowering for public figures to take back control over their own narratives, positioning themselves simultaneously behind the camera and in front of it as they choose what to share with their audience. But at the same time, celebs and influencers aren’t entirely free to withhold private information. They’re often rewarded for being forthcoming with fans and so-called ‘authenticity’ is prized above all else. Plus, the most malicious snarkers will always find something hateful to say – as the violent response to Clegg’s new hair colour proves.

“Being a fan can tip into being anti-fan – this is often when a fan believes their idol is stepping outside of what they perceive as the ‘real, authentic’ celebrity” – Dr Penfold-Mounce

However, in recent years, our society has collectively started to ask questions about the damage this sort of prying can inflict. The biggest turning point arguably came in 2020, when the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack starkly demonstrated that our actions online can have devastating, real-life consequences. There’s some evidence that the tide is turning: when TV personality Rylan Clark was recently splashed across the front page of the Sunday Mirror after a video of him asking for cocaine leaked, social media quickly rallied to defend him. “The public, once so hungry for a public breakdown, are still reeling from the tragic death of TV presenter Caroline Flack,” wrote Sîan Bradley in The Independent. “The tabloid press should learn that there is little public appetite for a frenzied feast on celebrity behaviour.”

Celebrities are starting to push back against snarkers too. Last month Cardi B was awarded almost £3 million in damages after winning a libel lawsuit against Tasha K – real name Latasha Kebe – a celebrity gossip YouTuber. Kebe falsely claimed that Cardi B was a former sex worker, had herpes, and used MDMA and cocaine, resulting in a federal jury finding her liable on two counts of slander, one count of libel and one of invasion of privacy. While testifying, Cardi B admitted to feeling “extremely suicidal” after hearing Kebe’s false allegations.

Dr Penfold-Mounce is unsurprised by the lawsuit. “There is a definite natural progression into defamation suits due to online coverage and assertions,” she says. “Defamation lawsuits are likely to grow in the future. Greater regulation of the internet and media platforms is gaining more noise and traction across the world.”

But, as Bradley points out, “it would be foolhardy [...] to think the cycle has been fully broken.” Although this cruel culture of bullying has become passé, it’s not been eradicated by any means. Gossip has simply been driven underground – on Tattle Life, most users are anonymous – or else rebranded and repackaged as more palatable ‘tea spilling’. As Dr Penfold-Mounce points out, there’s a long history of ‘average’ people seeking to dish the dirt about cultural linchpins and it’s unlikely this hunger for gossip will quell any time soon – if ever. 

But that doesn’t mean we should just give in to our desire to bitch about public figures online. We need to take accountability where we can. “Everyone needs to consider their digital legacy and how they express themselves in the virtual realm – consequences of what is said can catch up with you,” she continues. “Just because something is not said in a physical space to a physical person does not mean it is acceptable.”