Before the whole world started talking about Caroline Calloway, 36-year-old Rhoda* and her internet friends did so week-in, week-out.
On the 10th of September, Calloway became the third most popular trending topic on Twitter after her former friend and one-time ghost writer Natalie Beach wrote a tell-all about the Instagram influencer. Suddenly, Calloway's name was everywhere – in The Times, in The Guardian, in confused texts from your mum. But for Rhoda and the 33,000 subscribers of Reddit.com/r/blogsnark, a Calloway obsession was nothing new.
Throughout 2019, Redditors have been dissecting every aspect of Calloway's life. "Are roasted vegetables the only thing she knows how to cook??" was the most pressing question four months ago. A Redditor who confessed to eating roasted vegetables "almost every night" when cooking alone agreed that yes, Calloway's behaviour was bad. "It's healthy, fast, and tasty, but her DELIGHT for her roasted vegetables is proof that she thinks the most basic, boring, minimal effort things are special," they wrote.
Blogsnark describes itself as "a place to share your snark on bloggers, influencers, and other internet personae that drive you nuts!", but it is merely one website of many. Across the internet there are endless influencer, blogger and YouTuber gossip forums, from GOMI (Get Off My Internets) to Gurugossiper to Tattle Life to You Talk Trash to YouTube Momma Drama. Why do people like Rhoda visit these sites "extremely frequently"?
"I love and am fascinated by reading people's different perspectives,” the American restaurant worker says. Rhoda used to visit GOMI but found it "more unhinged" than Blogsnark; she says the latter has strong "camaraderie" between users and that she's made several close friends via the site.
"I find these sites at their best when users unpack heavy ideas with influencer and blogger shenanigans as a jumping off point," she says, arguing she's had many "deep and insightful conversations" about mental health, motherhood and performative activism on the forum. "I think there's an idea that snark is an automatically really terrible and negative thing, but for me it's mostly a bunch of people that want to look at something analytically and thoughtfully while also being mindlessly entertained with gossip."
Hilde Van den Bulck, a professor of communications at Drexel University, agrees that gossip isn't always necessarily negative, explaining that we gossip not just to exchange information, but also to figure out the boundaries of our networks. "It's very much about testing grounds and figuring out what we think is OK and what is not," she says.
When it comes to influencers and bloggers, gossip can help us define these boundaries.
"When I see influencers saying outrageous things and doing the absolute most, I almost second guess myself," says Susannah, a 22-year-old American non-profit worker, when asked why she frequents Blogsnark. "Where it's so common to see beautiful, wealthy white people shilling for hair vitamins or refusing to eat bananas because of the sugar content, or complaining about being stranded in the Bahamas, these threads remind me that I'm sane."
Gossip threads are undoubtably a useful way to cast a critical eye on online personalities, particularly when the influencer in question deletes or filters their Instagram, blog and YouTube comments, or doesn't stick to the #ad and #gifted guidelines. But influencers don't break the rules every day, and for want of something else to talk about, many forums can quickly descend into cruelty.
Why is her dinner so disgusting? Do you think she's gained weight? Did you see her facial expression at 2:24 in the video? I can tell her boyfriend doesn’t love her. Her hair is ratty. I bet she hasn't had sex in years. Did you see takeaway containers in her bin? Her dog is the ugliest effing dog I have ever seen.
"An anti-fan knows as much about their object of anti-fandom as a fan," says Van den Bulck. "They invest so much emotional time and energy in finding stuff to slag off. I'm not a psychologist, but it seems self-evident that there has to be a point where you should step back and think, 'Okay, wow, is that my personality?'"
For Laura*, an unemployed 25-year-old American and an avid follower of Caroline Calloway threads, that moment came in August. For a week over the summer, Laura stopped replying to messages and comments on Blogsnark. "I was kind of worried about myself," she explains. "I was like, 'If this is the first thing I do when I wake up, that's not great.'"
Like Rhoda and Susannah, Laura finds Blogsnark a great place to make friends, and enjoys the subreddit's weekly OT (off-topic) threads about books and TV shows. She also argues that snarkers are great at self-policing and that the site is "not a hate forum". Blogsnark’s rules ban bigoted content, as well as stalking and doxing. The subreddit's moderators police people who snark about children, as well as people who come up with cruel nicknames for influencers. The rules of the site declare that "Excessive speculation/fan fiction about personal lives/sexuality/mental conditions will be removed" by moderators, and many snarkers also tell each other when they've gone too far.
Despite this, Laura admits she's felt uneasy reading comments about Calloway in the past. "It was around the time when her mental health discussions really picked up speed," she says. "It was just quite jarring. She was claiming to be too depressed to pay rent, and I didn't like the tone that was coming from the thread. People were like, 'Oh boohoo, we all have responsibilities,' and I was like, 'What am I doing if I'm involved in this?'"
Van den Bulck explains that as well as setting boundaries, gossip allows us to engage in "identity work" – trying to figure out who we are, who we want to associate with and who our role models should be. Gossip is also an emotional release, and Van den Bulck says studies have found that people use it to feel morally superior (a recent comment on Tattle Life reads: "They can fuck off with their iPhones! I never get an iPhone, I only ever get androids!").
But why use influencers for identity work, instead of traditional celebrities?
"Celebrities are near and far," explains Van den Bulck. "Bloggers and influencers are maybe a little more near than far, and maybe more ordinary and extraordinary. Their ordinary is also my ordinary – influencers are people who are online typing away, just like us, but they also seem to have made it."
For Susannah, the proximity and distance between herself and influencers is compelling. "I think what draws me to these women is everything they have that I don't: wealth, power, beauty, attention, a large following." Susannah feels frustrated and fascinated when influencers squander the opportunities given to them, or act ungrateful. "I don't know that I would consider what I do hate-following. I don't hate these women. I want to be them," she says. "But I also like to think that if I had the opportunities that they do, I would use them differently."
Of course, influencers are also fascinating to the media at large – in August, VICE US published a piece digging into issues Calloway had paying her rent, something that undoubtedly added fuel to the fire raging on gossip sites.
Susannah, Rhoda and Laura all admit they have a certain affection for Caroline Calloway, and both Susannah and Laura say they are actually rooting for the influencer to improve. "We all do want to see her be well," says Laura. "But it's also very easy to mix those boundaries, right?"
Van den Bulck says our proximity to influencers produces envy, which "can easily turn into schadenfreude". While Susannah doesn't feel she has personally crossed the line with her comments, she – like Laura – has been uncomfortable when reading Blogsnark in the past.
After Caroline Calloway's father passed away shortly after Beach wrote her exposé, Susannah was disturbed by some comments she saw judging the way Calloway chose to mourn. "It's clear that a lot of people can get really caught up in snarking and forget that Caroline isn't a character," she says. Laura stepped away from the forums for three days after Calloway's father's death. "It's not that we never saw her as human. But it took it to a whole new level," she says.
While Laura is still questioning her use of Blogsnark, both Susannah and Rhoda want to continue dissecting influencers. "Following Caroline is like trying to get to the bottom of a puzzle – not knowing exactly what's real and what's not real is the hook that keeps me hanging on," Rhoda explains. Susannah compares following influencers to reading a novel. "I constantly see these women falling down, and I want them to pick themselves up by the end of the book," she says. "I think it's the child in me that yearns for a happy ending who can't stop reading."
Van den Bulck praises gossip forums for self-regulating, but argues we could all engage in more self-reflection from time to time. The communications professor explains that when we engage in traditional face-to-face gossip we might feel guilty if a friend's expression changes, or their body language reveals that we've crossed a line. "Face-to-face keeps things real," she says. "Online, it's easy to dissociate the fact that it's an actual person and not just some story."
*Names have been changed