Growing up in the 2000s, I felt as if I were constantly surrounded by missing white women and girls. Wherever I went, they smiled at me — from the cover of magazines, newspapers, and TV screens. Each case seemed more mysterious and tragic than the last: JonBenét Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway. I became a true crime obsessive before I was in high school.
Of course, I’m not unique. True crime is an American obsession, particularly among women. Since the OJ Simpson trial made murder cases primetime events in the mid-90s, people have spent countless hours dissecting the lives of the pretty, young white murder victims we catapult to fame. Channels such as Court TV, HLN, and Oxygen became de facto true crime networks to feed the insatiable need for these kinds of stories.
After the Serial podcast premiered in 2014, true crime obsession and amateur sleuthing crossed over into high-brow territory and became even more mainstream. Soon, anyone with a computer and an investigative mind could spend hours on forums such as Websleuths and Reddit, mining the internet and court records to try and track down missing persons or solve decades-old cold cases. Some amateur podcasters, with zero journalistic or law enforcement experience, even set out to solve crimes authorities had been unable to figure out. Some people have had a fair amount of success in catching new breaks in cold cases, leading to fame and fortune for the hosts.
So it was only a matter of time before America’s true crime obsession collided with new media like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. The case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito marks a new chapter in amateur true crime sleuthing.
Besides the fact that — like almost every “famous” crime victim — Petito was young, beautiful, and white, it appears that some of the initial intrigue around her case is in part because she lived so publicly.
Petito wasn’t an influencer, despite the fact that many media outlets have called her one. She had made one YouTube video for her channel, Nomadic Statik, and had fewer than 15,000 Instagram followers before Sept. 13, when her profile first began being tracked by the analytics website Social Blade (her account now has nearly 1 million followers). However, Petito seemed to aspire to become a nomadic lifestyle content creator.
The past few years have seen an explosion of trendy #vanlife accounts — usually white hipster couples who preach values like sustainability and eschew material things in favor of living more authentically and in nature. These accounts are framed as idyllic and aspirational. It seems Petito had wanted to be one of these happy and content road warriors herself. According to reports, she had saved up for months for the trip, and once she was on the road, she posted frequently to her Instagram account, carefully curating her feed and using hashtags like #vanlife.
So, when the Petito family realized that her fiancé and travel partner, 23-year-old Brian Laundrie, had returned home without her and they reported her missing on Sept. 11, large swaths of her life were already available for public consumption. Only adding to the intrigue was many people’s complicated feelings about #vanlife and their obsession with wanting to know how things really are for these idyllic-looking influencers behind the scenes.
These two factors created a perfect storm. People were already primed to be interested in Petito’s life, and her public social media presence gave sleuths a wealth of information. True crime obsessives love to do their own digging, and in Petito’s case, there was so much to look at. Each Instagram post now took on a darker cast. Did her hair look different in this photo? Was this photo staged? With Petito, online detectives had YouTube footage and countless photos to dissect.
The case also took off because it initially seemed to be a mystery. While Petito’s family reported her missing on Sept. 11, they had not been in contact with her since the last week of August. Laundrie had returned home to Florida on Sept. 1 in the couple’s van without Petito, and authorities said they had not spoken with him about her disappearance. Last week, they named Laundrie a person of interest. On Tuesday, the FBI announced that a body found on Sunday had been positively identified as Petito, and the case is now being treated as a homicide.
Soon, people on TikTok and Instagram began sharing their theories about the timing of Petito’s disappearance, combing through her Instagram page, which was last updated on Aug. 25. As the algorithm pushed more and more of these videos into people’s feeds, there was suddenly an avalanche of interest in the case. People following the case began to form their own theories and post their own videos, and the virality snowballed. A woman named Miranda Baker posted a TikTok claiming to have picked up Laundrie as he was hitchhiking in late August, which went mega-viral (she also passed the information off to police). Other #vanlife bloggers also began posting about the case. And since #vanlife bloggers live so publicly, the information they shared went even more and more viral, contributing to the churning machine.
It may seem that the Petito case and its virality is some sort of new and strange internet phenomenon, but the way it is being consumed is not new or original at all. It’s the format that is different. There is no real difference between the fervor that drives someone to tune in to primetime to “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the biggest cases of the early aughts and what these social media sleuths are doing today.
A big difference, however, is the power of the internet. The internet is not a passive medium, it is an active one. Now, true crime fans don’t just watch someone else dissect the minutiae of a case — they are the ones doing the dissecting, and many feel as if their amateur sleuthing is just as valuable, if not more so, than the work of actual detectives.
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