clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gossip is good. Tattling is bad.

Can all the TikTok tattletales please calm down?

One man talks behind his hand into the ear of another man, who holds a hand over his mouth as though in surprise.
These two guys probably said something about their friend during brunch. And that’s normal!
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When I asked Jennifer Welch and Angie “Pumps” Sullivan — the hosts of the I’ve Had It, a podcast about best friends who complain — if they’ve ever complained about each other, they said, with 100 percent certainty and almost in unison, that they absolutely did.

“I love Pumps more than anything on the planet. I’d give her a kidney, and maybe another organ on a good day,” Welch told me. “But another day I could say, ‘I hate her guts and she’s driving me crazy.’”

Pumps added, “If you’re being completely honest with yourself, everybody has talked about everybody at some point in their life.”

I then asked them how they would feel if someone overheard and posted those conversations online — a real trend that’s happening recently on TikTok.

“Total bullshit,” Pumps said.

“That is such chickenshit, Alex,” Welch added.

Like it so often does, TikTok has figured out a way to siphon the joy away from something crucial. This time, it’s complaining and gossiping about your friends. The social media platform that has emboldened regular people to turn into front-facing-camera personalities has spurred some of these characters to eavesdrop and then snitch on random gossipers.

These TikTokers are something like vigilantes on a mission. One poster asked their audience to find Sarah, a young woman whose friends were overheard rehashing her bad behavior; another set her followers to track down a bride whose bridesmaids hated their dresses. They present a kind of moral imperative: These women deserve to know what their friends have to say about them. Hundreds of thousands of views roll in, setting off an internet-wide hunt for the people in question, with all the social-media shaming that entails.

What these video creators — who are eavesdropping on, recording, and posting about total strangers — and the people consuming their TikToks fail to realize is that they’re partaking in the gossip they’re denouncing. The illusion of righteousness also eclipses the somewhat uncomfortable fact that pettily complaining and gossiping about others is actually a normal — even healthy — facet of the vast majority of relationships.

Gossip is good, actually

The crux of these videos hinges on a common misconception: that gossip is inherently a bad thing.

A lot of that negative connotation stems from adjacent acts like rumor-spreading or character assassination. Yes, there’s a point where gossip can — like most things — be detrimental. But according to experts I spoke to, it’s much more complicated than that.

The act of gossiping, of exchanging information, is actually a powerful form of social bonding.

“Gossiping, although it has a negative context, has lots of pro-social benefits,” Michael Stefanone, a professor at the University at Buffalo, told Vox.

Three blonde women smiling for a photo on the set of a television show made to look like a cocktail bar.
Angie Sullivan, left, and Jennifer Welch, center, back on Bravo before they launched their hit podcast I’ve Had It.
Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Stefanone studies the way we present ourselves online and the internet’s effect on interpersonal relationships. Social behavior and communication researchers like Stefanone have published study after study detailing the positive effects of gossip, like how it can promote cooperation, encourage positive behavior, and be a crucial social skill. Researchers say that gossip doesn’t deserve its negative connotation.

While I’d like to believe Stefanone spends most of his days in a lab tirelessly researching the cathartic effect of complaining about bridesmaids’ dresses, he explains that what he studies is a little bit more empirical and, sadly for me, less petty. Humans are social creatures, he explained, and exchanging information with each other has always been important, long before the internet. When we share information with someone else, we create a relationship that’s deeply valuable to us.

“Gossip helps to build relationships. Because when I choose you to confide in and share this information about somebody else that we probably both know, that communicates to you that I trust you,” Stefanone told me. “Maybe I’m sharing this information because I need help and am looking for a solution or because I value your opinion. There’s lots of different reasons.”

When it comes down to it, the people we talk about other people with are more important than the people we’re talking about, or even the talk itself. By talking about an overreaching manager at work or an acquaintance who doesn’t tip, we’re signaling that we think the listener is important enough to share this information with. Implicitly, we want to be seen as important to them. In revealing our gossip to them, we’re also telling them what we value, what we like, and what we dislike in other people.

“When I gossip or talk about someone I know with you, what I’m attempting to do is bond with you. I’m attempting to feel important to you because I’m bringing something to you,” Alexandra Solomon, a lecturer and clinical psychologist who studies relationships at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, told me. “I’m attempting to share an experience with you where I think we’re both going to feel similarly. So the gossip is about this third person, but actually, what I’m attempting to do is connect with you, the listener.”

Essentially, when we gossip, we are all just standing in front of another person, asking them to lean in closely and listen.

Snitches should get stitches, but they’re actually getting followers and views

The way the most popular permutations of these videos end is with a TikToker publicly asking their audience to find the apparently wounded party. In the case of the bad wedding dress, it’s the bride. In the case of Sarah whose friends are talking about her, it’s Sarah, whose friends are talking about her. These videos ask everyone else to get involved, goading us to intervene and sleuth.

To Matt Feinberg, a professor at the University of Toronto specializing in the psychology of group behaviors, these videos illustrate a “tug of war” between the human inclination to gossip and the social rules that govern it. When we witness unpleasant behavior, gossiping about it with the intention of warning other people is one way we cope.

“One might interpret what’s going on in the TikTok example as a group of people engaging in a behavior” — gossip — “that the person filming believes is unethical,” Feinberg told me. “That person, ironically, feels the need to engage in their own form of gossip to make themselves feel better and to help correct the wrong they feel has occurred. In this case, that form of gossip is spreading information about the transgressors via a TikTok video.”

Feinberg is being kind with the assumption that these videos are being created for altruistic purposes. That might be the case in some instances, but there’s another undeniable factor at play here: People create videos and post on social media because they want views and followers.

The more you think about it, the more the idea of altruism breaks down. These TikTokers likely live in the same city as the people they’re recording; they also know the first names of everyone involved. The video creators could easily search for these people offline and relay the same message without hundreds of thousands of strangers watching.

Quietly doing this, though, would negate the attention, dopamine, and follows that posting a public video brings. Scurrilous info about strangers is a known performer on the platform. It’s not unlike how TikTok creators have co-opted Reddit’s Am I the Asshole forum and the platform’s penchant for confessional-style stories.

“It’s a strategic move. The people that are doing this know that it’s gonna get a reaction, it’s gonna get some type of engagement — that’s the name of the game,” Stefanone, the professor at the University at Buffalo, told me.

Theoretically, Stefanone said, the bonds we craft when we share gossip are at play here too. The creators are sharing gossip with their audience, creating a simulacrum of trust. People who trust these creators then follow and engage with their content. TikTokers also make the audience feel valuable by asking them to track down the wronged parties. This encourages following and engaging with their content.

But they’re also capitalizing on what experts I spoke to describe as a breach of our social contract.

“We talk about the things that are most important to us in our relationships. That is so normal,” said Michael Goldstone, a staff therapist at Northwestern’s Family Institute. Goldstone primarily specializes in treating young and emerging adults. “What isn’t [normal] is this idea of posting on social media — it seems like it could be really hurtful to people, especially when you don’t have any idea about the full context of the story.”

What makes gossip gossip is that it’s a protected thing, which goes back to the idea that we’re only gossiping with people we value. There’s a shared trust to these conversations. The subjects of these videos are participating in that, engaging in what they believe is a private conversation among friends.

But by recording and airing the conversations, TikTokers are not only possibly misrepresenting these private conversations, they’re also implicitly asking their audience to ignore that they’ve taken said localized gossip and extended it far beyond its intended audience.

“Never before have we had this technology where we can throw up a camera and record stuff right away,” Stefanone added. “That’s directly at the expense of the people being recorded. It’s a strategic move. The people that are doing this know that it’s gonna get a reaction, it’s gonna get some type of engagement. And that’s the name of the game.”

Friendships are much more complex than five minutes of complaining

“Ohhhhh my god. Alex. Alex. ALEX,” Kelsey McKinney groaned to me over the phone. “It’s tattletale behavior.”

After seeing these videos, the first person I wanted to talk to was gossip extraordinaire Kelsey McKinney. I have been gossiping with McKinney for over nine years, first as coworkers and now as friends, and she has since gone pro as the host of the extremely popular podcast Normal Gossip. McKinney’s show takes listener-submitted goss, anonymizes the details for maximum privacy, and presents it to an audience for their entertainment. Anonymity is key: Trying to identify the gossipers or gossipees goes against the show’s mission, which is to find the fun, the community, and the humanity of banal gossip. On Normal Gossip, no one gets in trouble, no one gets their feelings hurt, and no one is snitching on their friends.

But as McKinney explains, the tattletale is not entertaining. The tattletale isn’t funny. The tattletale has no real friends because the tattletale is not fun to be around. The tattletale will tell anyone anything.

“The goal of a tattletale is never actually moral justice or whatever they say they’re doing. The goal of tattletale is attention and nothing else,” McKinney told me, adding that because people have learned not to include tattletales, tattletales rarely have the full context of the story.

McKinney revealed she was once a tattletale herself, back in middle school.

McKinney learned quickly that the only time to tattle was if there was grave danger — like boys jumping off of the school roof. The therapists and experts I spoke to agreed, stating that harboring resentment or pain is probably the threshold at which petty, trivial gossip turns sour.

Adult tattletales have not learned the calculus needed to discern the amount of danger that warrants tattling.

For real-life tattletales, McKinney said, “the consequence that you face is that people aren’t going to tell you things anymore. People are going to intentionally exclude you from things.” She added, “Online, you don’t have those kinds of repercussions. There’s only views, comments, and attention. The people tattling aren’t tattling on their own community or their own friends. If they did, they’d have to face the consequences.”

At the heart of all tattling is the belief that something witnessed is wrong. That raises the important question at the heart of all these videos: What exactly is someone doing wrong in these videos? Saying that the bridesmaids’ dresses, which are notoriously ugly, were ugly? Complaining that a friend wasn’t being a friend at that moment?

“The action of that friendship is that friend showed up at the wedding, wore an ugly dress, smiled, celebrated, and said, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ That’s a huge thing to do for someone. And then you’re gonna get canceled at brunch for saying the dress was ugly?” McKinney posited.

Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Noth, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis on Location for Sex and the City: The Movie, October 12, 2007.
Sometimes being a friend means putting on an ugly dress and celebrating your best girlfriend getting married. Charlotte York-Goldenblatt took an extra step that day.
James Devaney/WireImage

Perhaps the uncomfortable thing about these videos isn’t that these friends are bad people doing bad things, but rather the realization that there are going to be moments when your friends think you’re deeply annoying. There are going to be times when people you care about — people you even gossip with — are mad at you and want to talk to someone else about how you made them put on a bridesmaid dress or embarrassed them at a party or were not particularly pleasant to be around.

That’s normal.

“In the lifetime of a friendship, there’s going to be bad things that happen, and it’s just human to be annoyed by people,” said Pumps, who admitted that her beloved co-host Welch sometimes drives her absolutely “bananas.” It’s human to talk about people you care about, too. Who has more opinions about you than someone who cares?

Welch chimed in. “To think that Pumps and I could be at lunch trash-talking and somebody would record it and then post it on the internet to hurt other people?” Welch asked. “That’s what our podcast is for. We’ll just record it ourselves and post it.”