'There’s enormous screenshotting going on': how Covid-19 changed the way we gossip

Last week, US comedians Akilah Hughes and Milana Vayntrub dropped a video sketch called The Secret Joy of Having A Mutual Enemy, where two workmates luxuriate in the delicious bliss of talking smack about someone else in the office.

The clip would’ve been funny at any time, but now, when more than a third of the world is living under some kind of restriction or isolation thanks to Covid-19, it also feels kind of wistful. For anyone working from home rather than their usual shared workplace, the once wholly unremarkable act of gossiping over Friday drinks or around the proverbial water cooler seems like a lost privilege from another era, one that most of us would happily buy a full round of champagne for the whole team to recapture.

“Downloading with colleagues is the thing I miss most about normal life,” says one friend. “We would have banter running literally all day. There’d be trips to get coffee every morning, walks to the kitchen to make tea and complain and then after-work drinks. Suddenly, it was all gone.”

Gossip has a positive function in that it brings people together

Jolanda Jetten

That sense of loss is completely understandable, says psychology professor Jolanda Jetten from the University of Queensland. A good whinge about a third party is – contrary to what the snark narcs would have you believe – a very normal part of being human.

“Gossip has a positive function in that it brings people together,” Jetten says. “If you and someone else agree that a certain behaviour you’ve witnessed is problematic or antisocial then it helps to clarify norms. And it also strengthens your bonds because you then have a shared understanding of reality with someone else.”

Not only has physical distancing thrown a spanner in gossip’s works, but the gravity of coronavirus also seemed to have dampened our urge to snipe and snitch about life’s usual mundanities. At least in the early days of the pandemic when things felt most terrifying in Australia.

For a long time, there was only one topic anyone could talk about: Covid-19.

“At first every conversation you had with anyone was about the death toll and global implications because it’s a very real and serious and sad state of affairs,” says Melbourne entrepreneur Salvatore Malatesta, who was quick to pivot his usual catchup drinks with friends and colleagues to regular booze-ups over Zoom and Facetime when the country’s social distancing restrictions kicked in. “I read everything there was to read online about epidemiology and modelling and watched lectures online.” That, he says, became its own – albeit unusually grave – form of gossip.

Then, as it looked like Australia was managing the virus more effectively than many other places around the world, our natural itch to sweat the small stuff kicked right back in again. But what do you angst over when no one’s been caught kissing someone they shouldn’t, no one’s having a juicy first date, and you can’t whinge about Lionel from marketing’s bad breath because you aren’t anywhere near it?

I’m getting constant screenshots ... ‘check out this person, I think they’re smoking something'

Salvatore Malatesta

Some of us turned to politics; former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull must have been delighted to release his spicy tell-all, A Bigger Picture on 20 April, when he could count on our rapt attention. It shot to the top of the Amazon book sales charts, probably fuelled by our apparent longing for scandal and intrigue.

But for most of us, our main gossip source, beyond who’s-moved-in-with-who, is transgressions we find online. “There’s enormous screenshotting going on. I’m getting constant screenshots with people saying things like ‘can you fucking believe what he just said?’ or DMs and Instagram posts with words like ‘check out so and so, that looks incredible’ or ‘check out this person, I think they’re smoking something’,” says Malatesta.

And most visibly of all we embraced the urge to gossip publicly about anyone who appeared to be breaking social distancing guidelines, flooding social media with scandalised reports about people crowded on beaches or walking too close to us on footpaths. That most combative of social media platforms, Twitter, enjoyed a 23% jump in usage in the first quarter of 2020 as people searched for real-time news about the virus, but flame wars and partisan punch-ups inevitably followed, perhaps made worse because we have so few other outlets.

The latter in particular, says Jetten, is entirely understandable. “There’s an obsession with rule-breakers at the moment because we’re getting very clear guidance from the government about what we’re allowed to do, and we’re all trying to enforce those norms,” she says. “It feels bigger when it reaches more people over social media – usually gossip is more subtle and one on one.”