Desensitization, entertainment and the role of ‘Normal Gossip’

Inconsequential, potentially made-up gossip from strangers is my preferred entertainment.

In the two days after I discovered the “Normal Gossip” podcast, I listened to 18 episodes (all that was available at the time). I listened while driving. I downloaded episodes to listen to at work. It even replaced my running music. It remains the only podcast for which I have paid a subscription. I needed the bonus episodes that subscribers — called “friends” or “friends of friends” — have access to.

In each episode of “Normal Gossip,” host Kelsey McKinney tells a true gossip story, sent in by a listener, to a guest who has not heard it before. McKinney turns away from dark, ill-humored gossip in favor of light-hearted stories: knitting group gossip, kindergarten soccer parent gossip, coffee shop coworker gossip. The mundanity of the subjects is eradicated by McKinney’s talent for gossipy storytelling, consistent twists and grudges that, while often petty, are deeply identifiable — if you found out that the snobbish rich lady in your knitting group who went viral for selling “male tears” coasters on Instagram was secretly making them out of the acrylic yarn she looked down on you for using, you would start plotting revenge too. Through this podcast, the listener can experience these moments with the stories’ protagonists.

While waiting for a new episode to release, I did wonder what made this podcast different from a fiction podcast. Narrative podcasts have arguably better stories. “Normal Gossip” has the “this really happened” element, but the stories are heavily anonymized to avoid legal concerns. While McKinney claims an ability to tell when stories are fake, she has admitted on Instagram that even if they do end up with fake gossip, a story is a story.

What even makes gossip compelling at all? It’s something many of us are taught to look down on and avoid. It’s also something undeniably enjoyable. It’s exciting to know things about people, to be trusted with information. In many situations, knowing gossip is a sign of inclusion within a group. It creates a connection between the teller and the receiver. Even if the connection is impersonal, they share classified knowledge. They are in on a secret that others aren’t. A sense of community can not only result from gossip — it is part of what makes it valuable in the first place.

As untraceable and inconsequential as the stories on “Normal Gossip” are to the average listener, listening invites them into a group. The stories come from other listeners — other members of that community. Listeners who subscribe can see the podcast’s “close friends” stories on Instagram, where they can send in mini gossip stories in weekly “question box” games and guess what the next episode’s gossip will involve. The stories McKinney and her team choose to tell on the podcast often take place in a niche community themselves. The feeling of secrecy increases. This is something a narrative podcast can’t so easily achieve.

If the video’s creator was a good storyteller, I enjoyed listening for a while, at least enough not to click on something else. Listening to several of these videos in a row, however, left me feeling strange. The stories themselves had little emotional impact. I had no connection to them, and they had become commonplace. Besides, as terrible as anything was that I heard, I was listening under the guise of entertainment. These types of stories weren’t shocking anymore, and the reason I clicked in the first place was to be entertained.

I fear I have become desensitized to the often horrific stories of abuse and exploitation by celebrities that I hear on YouTube. I no longer watch those videos as much, less out of consideration of my mental health and more because I no longer enjoy them. In contrast to “Normal Gossip” episodes, these videos made me feel distanced from the YouTube community. Hearing the inconceivable things that some people have done broke any sense of community. There was nothing fun about it. It was no longer gossip, which I see as serving, if not to entertain, to connect and protect. Neither of those is present in these videos.

It’s not that I think these videos shouldn’t be made. These stories should be told, these people exposed, our anger at them expressed. But I rarely felt angry when I watched. I felt nothing, because the stories were told in a context where they didn’t belong.

Gossip doesn’t have to operate purely as entertainment. As various “Normal Gossip” guests have discussed, gossip within a group can serve as a means of protection. Between women in the same industry, gossip can come in the form of a warning against a sexist male coworker. But in this context, it is still part of a community. The people who share it still form a connection.

I am not capable of caring about important, devastating events and people’s actions if I take them in as a consistent stream of entertainment and gossip. I will be burned out, sick of people messing up and not wanting to hear about it. I will read these stories when I am in a headspace where I want to learn and care. When I want to be entertained and take part in a fun bit of gossip, I will put in my earbuds and listen to my podcast. Maybe I’ll re-listen to the episode about knitting. It’s one of my favorites. The discovery of acrylic yarn never gets old.