Through the Grapevine

by Sara Tenenbaum

8 June 2008

With celebrity-crazy blogs like Dlisted and Oh No They Didn't growing in prominence and touting an anarchic and egalitarian spirit, has gossip become the ruling media form of our era?
The most notorious gossip of all. Photo ©John W. MacDonald 

It’s just after noon in Los Angeles. Someone spots Lindsay Lohan crossing the street in front of the ivy wall of Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, one of the small mob of photographers that follows her known vehicles around most days. The mob hurries over to her, snapping a series of pictures of the newly-blonde-again starlet traveling about two blocks. Once she’s in a store, they go to their cars and quickly upload their pictures to their agency, which uploads them onto the company website. Blogger Michael K sees these pictures online, does a bit of cursory research, sighs angrily, and types: “Here we are again. I thought we were doing so well, but Lindsay Lohan must insist on trying to look as old and haggard as possible. It’s the Lohan gene, but she must fight it! Apparently, Lohan went back to piss blonde for a movie role. Unless she’s playing coke bloat Barbie, I don’t know how this urine ‘do is going to help her character.” Five minutes later, an assortment of young men and women, eyes already glazing over at their desks, in their libraries, on their iPhones, chuckle to themselves and perhaps send a link to a coworker.

Given their current level of popularity, gossip blogs have been around for a surprisingly short time., winner of the 2008 Bloggie award for Best Gossip Blog, was started in 2003; Pink Is the New Blog, long a staple of the online gossip world, emerged in 2004;, perhaps the most popular and influential one-man gossip blog on the web, began in 2005. For all three, 2005 was the year gossip blogs broke out as major players in the celebrity-media world.

Unlike the ubiquitous gossip magazines, online gossip blogs are beholden to no standards aside from those their proprietors come up with. No professional journalist’s ethics keep them on track, nor are there teams of fact checkers to verify the details of their juicy items. At Oh No They Didn’t, a group gossip blog, there are only a few over-burdened moderators looking for html mistakes, spelling errors, and community rule violations.

As a result of the anything-goes nature of the online gossip world, unsourced items, unsubstantiated rumors, unflattering and out-of-context pictures, and vicious commentary have become its trademark. Reporters at more conventional outlets, like Entertainment Weekly and Variety have blamed the sites for the rapid decline in the quality of American entertainment as well as fostering the rise of the dubiously talented “celebutante” set (whose queen is the inexplicably renowned Paris Hilton) and the scary-skinny Hollywood look exemplified by Kate Bosworth, Lindsay Lohan, and—most notoriously—Nicole Richie (now coming to a teenage daughter near you). They are also at the center of a debate over reality television, perpetuating the dubious fame of its participants and apparently enhancing the glamor of participating.

But a glimpse inside the online gossip world shows something different. The people who run gossip blogs and communities insist they aren’t doing anything malicious. Instead, they believe they are giving the public what it demands from the media generally, but with witty, satirical comment that helps bring the Hollywood untouchables back down to our level. Blogs have become the online expression of American egalitarianism in relation to those placed on a pedestal by way of their participation in public entertainment. And just as Oscar Wilde and Voltaire lampooned the aristocracy in 19th and 17th century Europe, so too do Michael K, Trent Vanegas, and Perez Hilton sit down each day at their computers and turn their keen eyes to the celebrity aristocracy among us.

Americans have been increasingly media and celebrity obsessed since the blonde bombshell era of the 1950s. But why the sudden proliferation of magazines and websites, especially websites, devoted to following the minutiae of celebrity life, often in relation to people of debatable fame? There has been more clamor, more interest in the non-events of Hollywood life, in the past three years than ever before. Why do we care so much?

David Samuels argues in an April 2007 Atlantic article, “Shooting Britney”, that celebrity gossip’s rise to a new level of prominence started with Bonnie Fuller’s takeover of Us Weekly in March 2002. Fuller, Samuels explains, implemented the now-ubiquitous front-of-book section, “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” that uses candid paparazzi photographs of stars doing normal things like taking out the trash or picking up their dry-cleaning. Complementing these were topically themed photo spreads and style comparisons (“Who Wore It Best?”).

When celebrity photos migrated online, people began to comment on them in droves—everything from fashion appraisals to speculation about their state of sobriety. As blogging picked up in popularity on the Internet, some people who had previously only consumed this gossip decided to start writing about it. Oh No They Didn’t! is perhaps the most popular and largest of the online gossip communities, where members of the community are allowed—and expected—to post their own gossip items. ONTD is hosted on Live Journal and boasts well over 100,000 hits a day, and more than 300,000 page views.

While the free hosting services don’t keep track of new blogs by theme, small gossip blogs are cropping up daily in hopes the spotlight will rub luckily off on them. Veteran sites get a lot of attention. Pink Is the New Blog has been featured in articles in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Entertainment Weekly, among others. Dlisted is an oft-used source for international gossip blogs. And ONTD has provided stories to major news outlets. And, of course, there’s Perez Hilton, who has parlayed his disregard for publicists and lawyers into a lucrative television career, with his own gossip commentary show on VH1.

“The whole thing started as a personal, online journal,” Trent Vanegas, the author of Pink Is the New Blog, explains. “It just grew over time and found an audience, much to my surprise.” PITNB is one of the gentler gossip blogs, generally eschewing the hard-edged, vicious satire of its peers. Unlike other bloggers, Vanegas, who moved to Los Angeles from Detroit in 2006, posts updates about his personal life as well as that of celebrities, refreshing readers’ mental palates with morsels of his own L.A. adventures. Since his move he has attended award shows, industry parties, releases and surprise concerts, meeting many of the celebrities he has blogged about. But he says this hasn’t affected his content. “I don’t have too much trouble with impartiality because I don’t try to operate as an insider. There are some famous folks who I have befriended, but they were people I spoke highly of before I met them, so it’s not hard to keep speaking highly of them.”

If PITNB embraces gently ribbing celebrities for their follies, then Dlisted prefers to throw acid in their faces. Michael K, the “head bitch in charge” at Dlisted, is not only snarky, but downright rude and repulsive at times. But it could be worse. “I think I’ve definitely toned it down as my audience has grown,” he says. “I used to be raunchier and meaner, but I started to realize that I was offending a lot of people.” For Dlisted, this is a “toned-down” snippet from a recent St. Patrick’s Day post: “I don’t drink green beer, because it always feels like I’m sipping on Hilton pussy juice. There’s something not right about it.”

Despite their differing styles, both bloggers have noticed the rising popularity of the internet gossip world. When asked if his audience has become more gossip hungry, Michael K says, “I think demand has doubled.” Vanegas is more guarded. “Gossip has been in high demand for as long as I remember,” he says. “These days, anyone can gossip and publish online. I guess that freedom has opened the door significantly, but I contend the demand has always been there.” He adds, “The more options there are, the more people may want to consume. Goss can get gluttonous. It’s the nature of the beast.”

Liz, one of ONTD’s moderators, has also noticed the shift: “It has increased in the things that are considered news now. A celebrity going shopping is considered news, which is ridiculous but people want to see it. Also, there is more access. There are so many more paparazzi, so now a celebrity can be found anywhere and then the story’s deemed news.”

That happens in two ways. A piece of information may leak to one of these blogs before the old-media has a chance to publish it, as what happened with news of Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy. Or a celebrity (or their publicist) notifies the paparazzi about their intention to dine, drink, or shop somewhere. This model is the basis for Paris Hilton’s entire career (as such). These appearances generate the photographs that are the bread and butter of the gossip sites, which have to update consistently throughout the day to maintain their popularity.

These processes explain how gossip has become so pervasive, but do little to explain why. “Sometimes people just want to laugh,” offers Vanegas. With the war in Iraq, the scandals in the executive branch, an ideological divide between Americans, and the declining economy, many feel that fewer opportunities await them. “It’s easy to poke fun at celebs who live luxurious lives especially when things aren’t going so well at home. I think it’s fair for celebs to offer that kind of escapism. It’s the least they can do for a public that has given them so much, either through success or adoration.”

It’s certainly not unprecedented. What is now considered the era of true Hollywood glamor—the sequined, diamond-dripping stars of the 1930s, who poured themselves into incredibly intricate dresses and time-consuming hairstyles for the public’s amusement—was as opulent as the country’s circumstances were dismal. The movie studios crafted films chock-full of otherworldly sumptuousness in hopes of transporting an audience of struggling Americans to a happier, easier, wealthier world from the world in which their way of life was dangerously close to slipping out of existence. Now, young Americans face a similar existential anxiety, and so they choose to ignore the tanking economy and outlandish government lapses in favor of focusing on who in Hollywood contracted herpes this week.

But not all bloggers are convinced that gossip is purely for escape. “A lot of the gossip blogs are now talking about politics and the war,” says Michael K. “Gossip and politics are almost becoming one. Politics and what’s going on with the world is becoming every day gossip.” ONTD’s Liz agrees: “The campaign is being covered like any other celeb story. Every detail is nitpicked to the point of ridiculousness.” Evidence for her contention can be found all over the “legitimate” news media: Pieces nitpicking Hillary Clinton’s fashion and hairstyle choices have cropped up in The New York Times. And the 24-hour coverage of the election has been using the new media gossip format for a while, as the news reports in 2004 comparing the tie collections of George W. and John Kerry demonstrates.

So where does the future of gossip lie? Michael K sees no ends in sight: “it’s going to get meaner and raunchier. I already see the tabs taking bigger and deeper stabs at celebrities.”

Vanegas agrees that gossip blogs aren’t going to go away: “Blogs in general cover so many topics, I think gossip blogs just fit in with the rest of them. The bottom line is that goss fans are going to seek out the goss no matter what is going on in the world.”

But Liz of ONTD has noticed a change recently. “I was surprised and glad that people did not want to see the photos of Heath Ledger once he died,” she says. The subtext of her comment: It’s really up to gossip consumers, not writers, to draw the line between what is distracting spare-time entertainment and what is exploitative and unnecessary.

Perhaps the future of gossip hinges on the younger consumers, who are driving its expansion on the Web. But if they reject the blogs, that might mean a tomorrow with far less of Lindsay’s Lohan’s crotch and cocaine addiction, Lauren Conrad’s pathetic fashion line, Heidi Montag’s heinously staged photo ops, or Paris Hilton’s anything.

Far less, but not none. “No,” Michael K laughs, contemplating a Paris-free future, “she’s a cockroach. She’ll outlive us all.”

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