What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure? Is it binge-watching reality TV shows, or eating Nutella straight from the jar? Maybe it’s staying in your pyjamas all day long, or eating a whole pack of chocolate Hobnobs with a cup of tea, or listening to the same one song on repeat because it’s a total bop?
To be honest, I’m of the opinion that there are no guilty pleasures in life; only excellent life choices. Or, at least, I am when it comes to most things (you should never feel ashamed about your music, film, TV and food habits, dear reader).
That being said, though, I am deeply ashamed of my own new favourite thing to do. Because lurking on my local town’s Facebook community page and revelling in all the second-hand passive aggression that comes with it is probably… well, it probably doesn’t paint me in the best light. Especially as I have become so utterly obsessed with it.
“Ooh, you’ll never guess what everyone’s kicking off about now,” I’ll regularly call out to my partner from my seat on the sofa, phone gripped tightly in one hand and (often) a mug of something warm in the other. And he, being every bit as addicted to the drama as I am, will run in from the kitchen to find out who’s mad, and at who, and why.
It’s never high-stakes stuff; this is not, after all, the scandal-laden Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives’ fame. Rather, it’ll be someone trying to track down the “selfish individual who decided to have a bonfire on a Saturday afternoon,” or suggesting that owners start baby-wiping the pavements after they scoop their dog’s poop, or agonising over the “local youths” and their “outrageous behaviour” (translation: eating a KFC in the local park and not throwing away their rubbish afterwards).
And the thing is, these posts usually generate well over 50 comments from fellow locals – all icily polite, all loaded to the brim with tension, and all making for truly excellent cuppa-and-a-biscuit reading. Except, of course, for the one time I realised that the post and subsequent string of comments were aimed at me (people were mad about a particularly volatile wasp nest at the back of someone’s garden, I had no idea I was that someone – you get the picture).
I tend to log into the social media group once every few days or so, ostensibly to check out what’s going on in the community, but actually to soak up all of that League Of Gentlemen-esque “local town for local people” sniping. Because, as someone who recently moved to the ‘burbs after spending five years in London, I find it all bloody fascinating.
People out here have so many opinions about fireworks, and milkshakes, and parking, and the queueing system at the local Co-Op. They seemingly all hate the teenagers of today, insisting that they never behaved in such a way when they were young. They love posting pass-agg signs about litter and dog shit up all over town (signs which give me a genuine rush of nostalgia, as they’re so similar in tone to the post-it notes that everyone used to leave pinned all over the kitchen at university).
And they’re always watching everyone else, so if you weren’t outside clapping for the NHS (back when that was a thing), it would be noted. Not by name or house number, mind, just by a pointed “such a shame so few people on our road decided to make an effort.”
I’m not alone in my fascination with other people’s online drama, of course.
“I’m fascinated by social media influencers’ beef and picking up on whether one is ‘shading’ the other with little snipes and pointed comments,” admits Amy Beecham. “Watching it all unfold is totally a guilty pleasure of mine.”
Felicity Thistlethwaite, meanwhile, says: “I lurk on a community page I should probably leave… because I don’t live there anymore. But I just can’t let go. I love watching the parking posts explode with pass-agg pictures, comments, barbed replies and, recently, videos of incidents too. It’s just too thrilling to ever consider leaving.”
Even my beloved mum admits that she’s signed up to a parody account for her local community on Facebook – not just because it’s funny, but because many of the older members seemingly have no idea it’s a joke page.
“It always escalates,” she tells me. “Even when another member explains there’s no point complaining to the site managers as it’s not a serious community page, they still complain… usually about fireworks.”
Keen to find out why we’re all so obsessed with the second-hand passive aggression of social media, and what it really says about us as people, I decided to do a little digging. And I learned that the University of Pavia recently conducted some research into the effects of gossiping, on women solely.
Spoiler: they discovered that it causes the brain to release a biochemical known as oxytocin. As in, yes, the same ‘cuddle chemical’ that’s released after sex.
Dr Natasha Brondino, who led the study, explained that oxytocin helps bring people closer together, as it engenders feelings of trust, friendship, love and generosity. Brain oxytocin also appears to reduce stress responses, including anxiety, and research published in Psychopharmacology has found that intranasal oxytocin improves self-perception in social situations and increases personality traits such as warmth, trust, altruism, and openness. Which means that, essentially, the neuro-chemical is vital in helping us to adapt to highly emotive situations.
Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the fact that the positive impact of gossiping does not change depending on the person’s personality: you don’t have to be a full-on Regina George to reap the benefits.
“Psychological characteristics, e.g. empathy, autistic traits, perceived stress, envy, did not affect oxytocin rise in the gossip condition,” said Brondino.
Hmm, so my social media lurking a) doesn’t make me a bad person and b) is genuinely good for my emotional wellbeing? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so ashamed of my Facebook lurking after all…