“Whoever Sarah is, your friends [are] over there talking about you.”
When TikTok influencer Kellie Yancy overheard a group of women gossiping about their friend while out at brunch, she immediately got on TikTok. “They said that your coochie was out on the video, she said you dress sleazy everywhere the fuck you go,” Yancy said, pointing her camera at the table. “Hold on I’m ‘bout to show you exactly who talking about you, Sarah.”
While Kellie’s video might seem odd for people unaware of TikTok’s landscape, this isn’t a one-off. Rather, her video is part of a growing trend where people eavesdrop on random in-person gossip between friends, and then relay them — in full — to their TikTok audiences. In 2020, influencer Marissa Meiz went viral after a New York pedestrian overheard her friends gossiping about purposefully planning a birthday party while she was out of town. The video, which got over 14 million views, was largely praised on TikTok— even inspiring Meiz to create a social club in New York that helps people meet new friends.
Gossip TikToks have a fairly easy approach and potentially limitless reach. But as the format continues to grow in popularity, the trend isn’t just turning personal information into mineable content online — it’s slowly carving away privacy in real life.
Gossip TikToks tap into every requirement TikTok’s algorithm rewards, like comments, shares, and bookmarks. In Yancy’s case, less than seven days after her video was posted, it had been viewed 1.2 million times and included a comments section full of sleuths desperate to find Sarah. (Yancy did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) It’s this same framework that made influencer Kelsey Kotzur’s video so popular — after she posted a TikTok about gossip she overheard at a Sept. 9 brunch.
In a three-minute video, Kotzur told her 160,000 TikTok followers that she overheard a table of three bridesmaids gossiping about a wedding they were recently in. In her video, which has been viewed 2.3 million times, Kotzur said the gossip went from “tame” to “sinister,” describing the women complaining about their bridesmaids’ dresses, the wedding flowers, and how they were asked to style their hair. “When I tell you, if I were that friend and I knew that these girls were talking about me like this I would throw myself into traffic,” Kotzur said in the clip. “Anyway if you just got married, and your color scheme was blush and you have two blonde friends with short bobs, and you have a brunette friend, don’t be friends with them anymore.” (Kotzur declined to comment to Rolling Stone.)
There’s a reason why a good gossip sesh can go so far on TikTok. Psychologist Francis McAndrew tells Rolling Stone that gossip itself has been a longstanding part of how people share information and knowledge in social settings, which is why it can be so compelling online even if it centers around strangers.
“Our impulse to find out even more is pretty strong,” McAndrew says. “And it’s fun. I mean, things that are good for us evolutionarily are often rewarding. We like donuts and sex for the same reason we like gossip. It draws us in.”
But while gossip TikToks can often activate people’s desire to know more, they operate without any basic understanding of consent or privacy, journalist Kelsey McKinney says. McKinney is the host of Normal Gossip, a podcast that deep dives into banal and anonymous gossip. She tells Rolling Stone that the trend of gossip TikToks takes the fun and helpful parts of gossip and amplifies them to a concerning level.
“I think that if you are telling any story to a broad and large audience, you should be asking yourself ethical questions about what your duty is to society. Why are you posting it?” McKinney says. “You’re posting it because you want people to listen to retell the story, and I think that is a natural thing to want. But you have to think for a second about what we owe each other.”
Both McKinney and McAndrew note that gossip is often used in social settings to establish group behaviors. In offices, it can be a whisper network that delivers helpful warnings. In friend groups, gossip can be used to check in, vent, or simply connect. But when taken out of smaller group settings, you get an entire TikTok for-you-page ready to judge a group of people without any helpful information.
McKinney adds that in the thousands of gossip TikToks she’s seen and been tagged in, TikTok audiences often learn that the gossip was misheard, missing important context, or sometimes just hurtful. In Yancy’s case, she revealed in a now-deleted TikTok live that Sarah had messaged her and asked her to take her video down because it was impacting her work. “I’m not even that upset about it but all the threatening messages they are getting are not cool,” read a text from Sarah, which Yancy shared on TikTok. “It’s my business page that keeps getting tagged and I’m uncomfortable with drama being brought to it.”
“What’s concerning about these videos is the call to action afterward. Here’s this story, find this person. That’s not gossiping, that’s policing. And that is a really dangerous way to behave,” McKinney says. “Because if the goal of gossip as a societal reinforcement structure is to teach other people how to behave, then what you should be doing is leaning over and asking questions to that table across from you and not posting it on the internet. I find these videos kind of upsetting because they exist from a plane of moral righteousness without actually having the standing to be there.”
Content has grown to encompass practically anything you can point your camera at. But with that growth, building out a self-imposed surveillance state doesn’t just become a danger, it starts to feel like an inevitability. Combining internet users’ vast resources with what is supposed to be personal information isn’t just a harmless trend. It’s operating at the expense of people’s privacy, and creating an internet where nothing is sacred — not even gossip at brunch.
“The question you should be asking yourself is, ‘Do you have the right to tell the story that you’re posting to TikTok?” McKinney says. “[Algorithms] encourage people to make more of the same thing. And that means that you’re gonna have replicas of this happening, with people eavesdropping in public with the intent of making TikToks. If you create a system in which no one can talk about anything in public, without fear of being recorded and posted to TikTok, that is going to affect my ability, your ability, everyone’s ability to [go out]. That’s the end game of this. And that’s not fun.”
McAndrew adds that while the way people gossip might change with technology, humans won’t ever stop gossiping entirely. “[Gossip] is indispensable,” he says. “We could not have social life as we know it without gossip. Technology changes will eventually force new rules of etiquette on us. So we’ll learn the hard way.”