When the lifestyle influencer Jessie Lethaby – better known as SunbeamsJess – announced she was pregnant in December, her engagement on Instagram and YouTube soared, with fans shocked at the sudden announcement. “I wish you could’ve seen my face when you said you were pregnant. I legit jumped from my bed and I was so shocked,” commented one YouTube subscriber. “There may be a lot of influencer baby announcements but I think I can speak for everyone that yours is the most exciting, genuine, and unexpected! I can’t wait,” wrote another.
Meanwhile, on a little-known internet forum, followers of SunbeamsJess gloated. “OMG GUYS IT’S TRUE,” one commenter wrote, “I feel so strange seeing it in person after all the speculation.” “The gossipers called it again,” another added. “We are always right.” The forum then launched into a debate about whether the pregnancy was planned, whether Lethaby, at 26, would be a good mother, and whether she was selfish for bringing a baby into her family home while her mother was finishing cancer treatment.
For the uninitiated, these comments may seem unwarranted. But they’re the standard on gossip site Tattle Life, an online forum largely focused on the lives of influencers and other celebrities who are very active on social media. Regular users of the site are known for going to great lengths to uncover personal and sometimes obscure details about these public figures (in Lethaby’s case, the discovery that she had marked a parenting book as “Want To Read” on Goodreads in July served as evidence of her secret pregnancy). They are also notorious for their unrestrained cruelty, regardless of the influencer’s circumstances.
Although Tattle Life is relatively unknown among the general public, for the individuals whose lives are constantly scrutinised by its users – or “gossipers” – it is a daily nightmare. You’d struggle to find a UK influencer who hasn’t looked in horror at their own thread – which are, in some cases, updated every couple of minutes. Of the influencers I spoke to, none was willing to have their real name shared (and some asked not to be quoted), fearing the inevitable backlash they’d receive on Tattle Life.
“I’m sure they’ll work out it’s me in the end,” one influencer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “But at least [anonymity] is a measure to stop them from realising and tearing me apart.”
Celebrity-dedicated internet forums are typically populated with fans who, even if they cross a privacy line, are motivated by adoration. Tattle Life is the antithesis of these forums, mainly functioning as a place in which users can bash their subjects. It’s rare to see a positive comment on any Tattle Life thread; at best, you might read a brief interlude of non-negativity, or a minor complaint against a comment that goes too far, such as someone insulting the appearance of an influencer’s child.
Tattle Life describes itself as a platform for “commentary and critiques of people that choose to monetise their personal life as a business and release it into the public domain”, framing itself as a space where users can hold the rich and famous to account. The site’s Wiki, which includes basic biographical information about high-profile influencers, also catalogues each individual’s perceived “wrongdoing” – from rumours about unethical business practices to the number of times they’re suspected of breaking lockdown rules during the pandemic.
Thousands of individuals have their lives dissected by strangers on Tattle Life, celebrities including Stacey Solomon, Zoe Sugg and Sophie Hinchliffe (better known as cleaning influencer Mrs Hinch, who is a target of particularly vicious comments on Tattle Life), and less well known Instagrammers with fewer than 10,000 followers. And although there may only be a few thousand different dedicated threads, the volume of comments shows the true breadth of the site: in the subsection of “Instagrammers”, which includes 2,000 threads, the number of total comments surpasses one million. This is staggering when you consider the site is less than three years old.
Lucy, 24, based in south-east England, was surprised to discover her Tattle Life thread; after all, she only had 11,000 Instagram followers. “I thought I’d be way too irrelevant to ever end up on those kinds of sites,” she told me. “I don’t even count myself as an influencer.”
She said she initially saw commenters hypothesising about her past relationships and current partner, but then began to see more discussions about where she lived, what she ate, comments about her weight gain and even invasive details about different members of her family.
“It was weird to see my life being ripped apart by strangers, and mostly annoying to see just how many assumptions were plain wrong,” she told me. “These commenters act so high and mighty, and are definitely the sort of people who would think calling someone fat or demanding to know if they were pregnant in real life is horrifying. Do they think the person will just never see it? Or do they not care when they’re granted anonymity?”
Two things about Tattle Life comments struck Lucy as different from the type of feedback she’d experienced on other social media sites. First, almost all of the comments came from people who described themselves as middle-aged women. “I typically get a few abusive messages a week, usually from men,” she told me. “But on Tattle Life I seem to rile up much older women.”
Second was what Lucy described as the “sheer dedication” to “getting to the bottom” of highly personal elements of her life.
“They seem incredibly invested in a way I have never felt about a stranger,” she said. “In some ways, it was actually quite satisfying to read some of the comments – to think, well you don’t know the full story, so you can scramble about looking for an ‘answer’ as much as you like. You’ll never get to the right one.” Lucy told me she’d occasionally thought about replying to set the record straight, but realised there is no way to truly satisfy her commenters.
When speaking to influencers off the record, many cited a common Tattle Life phenomenon pushed them to remain anonymous: they’d been “doxxed” – users had figured out where they lived, and put that information in the public domain.
Many influencers, particularly those who have achieved a certain level of fame and who integrate home content into their feeds, have fallen victim to doxxing. Eimear Varian Barry, an Irish influencer based in Surrey, wrote for Grazia last year about a link to her house sale being shared on the site. “[They] said that they’ll ‘come and visit’. I can’t even tell you how terrifying it is to see that. It all makes me very paranoid,” she said. “I couldn’t join the WhatsApp group for the school mums… I would get jumpy at cars driving past the house.”
This kind of invasion by Tattle Life users was the biggest concern of the influencers I spoke to, followed by the mass of rumours and lies being shared about them on the site. Some told me they had seen whole facets of their life invented by users – from past jobs, to who they had dated, to what their relationship was like with their parents.
Ella, another influencer based in the south-east, told me she wasn’t bothered by the false rumours on the site until she read some targeting her children.
“They make up things that I have never said or shared online and then act like they’ve actually happened,” she said. “How would they know these things if I don’t share them? Well, they don’t. It’s genuinely psychotic behaviour.
She adds that although she largely tries to pretend Tattle Life “doesn’t exist”, the harmful comments have led her to make changes in her life. “I was already private, but I have to share my personal life a lot less now,” she said.
“I have never experienced anything like what people say on Tattle.”
The intense impact that Tattle Life can have on influencers’ mental health has resulted in unsuccessful campaigns being launched to try and have the site taken down. The most prominent of these was a Change.org petition by the YouTuber Michelle Chapman (known as Mummy Chelle) which, in June 2019, called for a boycott and subsequent closure of the site.
“For the past six to eight months I’ve had nothing but relentless abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination, even doxxing from this forum,” Chapman wrote, adding that “my looks, my health and more” had been mocked by users.
“They’ve even been really cruel about my young children. I have a few friends on YouTube who also have channels who’ve also been a victim to this. This can’t go on. This is affecting myself in a very big way and many others too.”
At the time of writing, the petition has more than 59,000 signatures. But in May 2020, Chapman said she had “received a response from parliament” and shared a screenshot that only gave a limited view of the letter she had been sent. Her Tattle Life thread was not taken down, and Chapman wiped her entire social media presence from the internet.
If Tattle Life is to remain online, is there at least a way for it to operate without harming the lives of the people it discusses? When I posed this question to Tattle Life, I did not receive a response.
“I don’t think Tattle Life can exist in a non-toxic way,” Ella told me. “The site isn’t regulated. They can just make up things about people’s lives. If they just had opinions or comments on what influencers had shared then that would be fine, but they don’t.”
Lucy said she realised why the site would always be “pointless” after looking at another influencer’s thread. “It struck me how nothing-y people’s complaints were,” she said. “That she was being ‘too’ pregnant, that she didn’t have a lightshade in her bedroom… I didn’t read anything that she had done that was actually bad.”
This was when Lucy decided that Tattle Life existed only for negativity’s sake. “I’m not saying you should never be able to criticise someone, but if you don’t have something nice to say, and the person hasn’t done anything wrong, why say anything at all?
“Tattle doesn’t seem to be a site of valid critique,” she said. “It’s just critique in general.”