It’s perhaps no secret that gossip has become a hot commodity lately, both on- and offscreen. Bridgerton was renewed for a second season yesterday, and the hit series Gossip Girl is set for a reboot on HBO Max this year. In real life, the pandemic has disrupted normal social interaction, leaving many nostalgic for the days of exchanging morsels of illicit information in person. “I miss the grapes and the grapevine. I miss the cocked eyebrow, the lowered voice, the precautionary glance around the room,” one writer lamented in The Economist. “We’ve never needed the fizzy respite of good gossip more,” another argued in O: The Oprah Magazine. Gossip, of course, isn’t always good or accurate, but it hasn’t vanished, either. Over the past year, it has simply evolved in new ways on social media while offering two of the same services it did to 19th-century Londoners—entertaining the public and checking those in power.
Read: Gossiping is good
The gossip of the current moment tends to be an anonymously driven, curated, and crowdsourced enterprise. It often takes the form of Instagram accounts such as TikTokRoom and DeuxMoi, the latter of which has racked up more than half a million followers since the start of the pandemic. DeuxMoi posts tidbits about celebrities submitted by followers every day; all of it is unverified, and all of it disappears after 24 hours, which encourages frequent visits. The submissions are usually casual sightings (a tip about Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas grabbing coffee, for example), though occasionally a disturbing rumor gets shared. For the most part, as Vox explained, these gossip accounts are “meant to be fun.”
Traditional tabloids haven’t always treated celebrity minutiae with such a light touch. Popular gossip bloggers have tended to use a sensational tone to sell storylines about feuds, friendships, and heartbreak. But with the rise of both social media and pandemic-era social distancing, celebrities now have greater command of their public image. Gossip, especially from secret accounts, undermines that narrative control, often presenting information at face value. The anonymous administrator behind DeuxMoi told The New York Times, “I don’t do any additional research. I’m not a reporter. … I will censor, but I don’t edit. So you’re seeing exactly what somebody is writing to me.” New gossip accounts tend to operate outside the realm of tabloid media. (They don’t appear to have relationships with members of a star’s team, for one.) They do not hold themselves to anything resembling journalistic standards, existing only to surface daily rumors, whether true or false, potentially damaging or purely innocuous.
When wielded responsibly, gossip can be a means of challenging unequal power dynamics—something that Bridgerton understands. The season finale reveals Lady Whistledown to be Penelope Featherington (played by Nicola Coughlan), the overlooked and undervalued youngest daughter of a baron’s family. As Penelope, she and her observations go unnoticed, but as her alter ego, she holds the entire town’s attention. One of her reports details a scandal surrounding a belligerent lord, driving him out of town. Another pamphlet even targets the queen (Golda Rosheuvel) and her judgment, which is considered near-infallible among the high-society set. Many real-life gossip accounts that have taken off in the past year derive similar authority from their anonymity. Gossip that has spread on social media organically, without the help of dedicated accounts, has led to the justified scrutiny of figures ranging in influence from Hilaria Baldwin to Ellen DeGeneres. The attention that gossip provokes may not always be pleasant, but it encourages vetting—a crucial mechanism for separating fact from fiction.