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My golden rule for social media: talk trash to your heart’s content, but do it in private | James Greig


Some friends of mine, a couple working from home together, have reacted to the boredom of lockdown by turning their hairless cat into a workplace antagonist, muttering darkly about his behaviour from the other side of the room. The impulse to invent enemies runs deep. And now that our entire social lives have been reduced to the domestic and online spheres, there’s a lot of dark energy going around. And it has to find an outlet somewhere.

For the most part, this has taken the form of being unpleasant to people on social media. Twitter, especially now that there’s a new feature that allows you to see if you’ve been retweeted by a private account, has never felt more rancorous and fogged in paranoia. This is fuelled by a lack of real-world gossip, as well as the way in which social media functions as a kind of public-private forum where intensely personal and confessional material (which can be grating) lives alongside endless discourse about politics (which can be objectionable).

But the hidden backstory to these unedifying disputes on the timeline is what’s going on in private chats such as those enabled by WhatsApp: where stupid opinions and embarrassing disclosures are screenshotted and sent to friends or taken apart on locked accounts. I’m talking about bitching. It’s a practice that’s as old as time itself, but I’ve recently been considering it anew. And it may be something that is far more healthy and social than you might think.

The idea that bitching, something that necessarily takes place behind the subject’s back, is cowardly and unpleasant is deeply ingrained in our culture, from Shakespeare (Iago was the original “fake friend”) through to hip-hop and reality TV. If you have a problem with someone, we are told, you should tell them to their face. And certainly this may be true if the person is someone you know well, and whatever fault you’ve assigned to them is serious. But the internet is suffering from a surfeit of people saying exactly what they think, and often to strangers over trivial slights. It is awash with pointless drama and petty beefs.

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Perhaps we need to embrace the idea that, rather than being cowardly, bitching – an ideal way to let off steam – can be considerate. If someone on the internet says something embarrassing, choosing to mock them in private is an act of great mercy.

There’s a narcissistic pleasure to imagining you have “haters”, but social media, like the world at large, is mostly indifferent to all of us. That said, I know there are people who dislike me. It would be affecting a bravado I don’t possess to say that I don’t care when I get slagged off. In fact, I care so much that I would rather not read it or hear about it (while acknowledging that, as a writer, my work is fair game for public criticism). What people say about me in private, I’ve realised, is none of my business. So to anyone who’s ever made fun of me in a group chat, thank you for being so considerate of my feelings. If you’ve ever quote-tweeted me on a locked account, on the other hand …

But what about the idea that bitching is bad for yourself and the culture at large? That it is unhealthy for the ego and corrosive to the soul? It’s true that bitching can be motivated by bitterness and jealousy (I’m sure, for instance, this has been the case every single time someone has criticised me behind my back). It may also be the case that bitching about someone’s online “brand” can make you dislike them without really knowing them. It can encourage a kind of prejudice based on limited evidence. This is where it can play into more tangibly harmful behaviours, such as shunning, ostracism, or the formation of exclusionary, gate-keeping cliques.

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But it’s possible to separate disliking someone’s social media presence and disliking them personally. Of course, one can bleed into the other, but it’s possible to bitch at the level of abstraction, in such a way where it isn’t really about the subject at all.

And besides, even if we are to accept that bitching is a moral crime, it’s still better to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. In a culture where we are increasingly prone to react to what we see on the internet, bitching behind people’s backs is a form of harm reduction. The goal is to bitch without being a bitch about it.

The “say it to my face” school does have one thing right: if you have a genuine problem with someone, the best course of action is to approach them directly. But if your only issue is that you find their social media output embarrassing, then going out of your way to tell them this would be bizarre: “Hi, I thought I should let you know I thought the risotto you posted earlier looked absolutely disgusting. Anyway, hope you’re well! Xx” If your sole issue with someone is that they post too many twee photos of quarantine baking on Instagram, it’s probably better to text a friend.

Bitching in private starts to look much more palatable if viewed as an alternative to the kind of harassment that social media encourages, acting as a release of the same energies – a kind of cultural criticism among friends, where the material under review is everyday life. There is, these days, often a conflation between thinking someone is irritating and thinking they’re fundamentally toxic. We should be more accepting of the idea that it’s fine to dislike someone, not because you’ve decided they embody some profound problem, but simply because you find them annoying, or even because you’re jealous.

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If we were more honest about our motivations, we’d be likelier to opt for the kinder option – bitching about someone in private – instead of feeling the compulsion to denounce them in public. Ethical bitching is about acknowledging when you’re being a bad person, rather than trying to convince yourself that you’re leading a moral crusade.

To use social media today is to feel constantly surveilled. As such, there is a libidinal pleasure to being catty in private. It’s not noble or productive, but unless you’re indulging in slander, it’s difficult to see what harm there is in taking the piss out of someone. The kind thing is to ensure they never find out.

• James Greig is a London-based journalist who writes for Vice, i-D and Huck



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