In a town as small as St Andrews, it is no surprise that gossip spreads like wildfire up and down its three streets. It is almost impossible to meet someone without already knowing a whole host of facts about them, from their degree to who they’re sleeping with.
Preconceptions are made about people from the moment of being introduced to them, based on what you heard about them from your classmate’s friend’s flatmate’s ex etc., and that is the problem. Whether there is truth in the rumours, or whether they’re spitefully fabricated, once you tell someone, the number of people who hear it will expand exponentially.
Rather like Chinese Whispers, the more that people tell others, the more garbled the original gossip becomes. “I saw him talking to her in the street” quickly escalates to become “She’s been sleeping with him for the past six months,” when in fact, the two are not even friends; “I only have good things to say about that boy from my lecture,” unknowingly translates as something much more defamatory and slandering. Likewise, “He went on holiday with his friends” turns into “… and while he was there he cheated on his girlfriend with the girl from his history tutorial,” leading to the ruining of friendships and a relationship. After gossip has been spread and exaggerated on its way around town, it is often forgotten where it came from in the first place. “And who started the rumour exactly?-Sarah? William? Tina?” By this stage, nobody even knows.
As a general rule, any statements that begin with phrases such as “rumour has it,” “I heard that…” and “Apparently…” won’t end well. Student Services is overrun with students requesting counselling appointments for mental health problems, and it seems as though the last thing this university needs is a page on Facebook to discuss gossip about other students. But lo and behold one has appeared. Titled “Spotted: St Andrews Gossip,” its description page states that it was created “due to popular demand” and is for “the gossip, rumours and juicy details you have heard around town.” The immediate question that springs to mind is; is this serving a niche in the market, or creating one? The page was no doubt created with nothing but entertaining intentions, but it is important not to underestimate the potential for vilification and psychological damage. There is obviously no way of verifying whether or not the gossip is true, or even has any semblance of truth in it. Therefore, in theory, any story about anybody could be posted on the page for all those who have liked it to see.
The posts found on the Facebook page are wide in variety; some merely mention people’s initials, whereas others mention full or abbreviated names. Sometimes, the first names and surnames of more than one person appear, with different connections between them. Another post even mentions a specific residential address within St Andrews. Several posts have attracted replies, with Facebook users tagging their friends who they think the post refers to, in a cryptic guessing game of sorts. And yet, particularly if the post is negative, this could serve to create paranoia and unease.
Even if the post contains the letter of your first name, or is a vague reference to something you have done no matter how long ago, it will nevertheless make you wonder.
As part of a generation who spend large quantities of time online, it is no surprise that numerous scientific studies have drawn a strong link between social media usage and mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. It provides a false sense of reality, which ties-in with feelings of inadequacy; it is a 21st century embodiment of the old idiom, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ but in real time. Online bullying, or ‘trolling’ as it is referred to, is a very real and prevalent concept with social media users and is often helped by the anonymity that social media provides.
In a post on the page only days after the page was founded, the then moderator claims that he or she had received hate mail and death threats for starting up a page that will incite bullying, maintaining that the page was purely meant to be ironic. The hatred that the moderator received was uncalled for, and was a viciously inappropriate way of nevertheless illustrating a valid point – that this page could incite anonymous bullying or harassment. In the moderator’s defence, a disclaimer states that “names will be reduced to initials and particularly inflammatory content will be deleted.” But an initial is sometimes all that is needed to make someone wonder – is this post about me? The not knowing and the ‘what ifs’ could alone be enough to cause anxiety and insecurity.