When the world is going mad and 1,500 years of civilization seem at risk, what better way to spend your time than wandering the back alleys of Hollywood gossip?
A few months ago -- probably from a link off Drudge or a political blog -- I tripped over a Web phenomenon patterned after a very old kind of journalism.
These are the celebrity gossip sites: Egotastic, I Don't Like You in that Way, the Superficial, Defamer, DListed, Hollywood Tuna, City Rag, Pink is the New Blog, etc., etc. The oldest have been around for several years, but it seems that in the last 18 months there has been an explosion of these sites, perhaps driven by what appears to be a pretty impressive amount of advertising from the very industry it seeks to wound. Right now, there are literally scores of these sites, all offering roughly the same service and almost the identical content.
I'm sure some sizable fraction of you readers have seen some of these sites, and some of you may visit them regularly. If so, please bear with me for a moment to explain these intriguing Web sites to everyone else -- who might well be astonished by their content.
Snarkier, More Aggressive Coverage
I've been following the celebrity gossip sites pretty regularly lately, because I sense I'm seeing something interesting and important emerging. As a reader of them, I'm probably pretty unusual in that I don't really go to Hollywood movies anymore, don't watch much mainstream television, and have dealt with Hollywood enough in my own career to have learned that I don't give half a damn about this month's hot new celebrity.
But most of the thousands of other people who visit these sites, one can safely assume, have just the opposite interests and attitudes. And indeed, their numbers are legion: Wander around one of the sites and notice the extensive advertising from major movie studios, TV shows and big Web sites like E! Online -- the advertising agencies for those outfits only place spots where there's real traffic. Ditto for those sites that allow reader comments: Some grainy photo of a nearly passed out Pete Doherty or Drew Barrymore flipping off a photographer always draw a couple hundred messages -- far more reader participation than all but the most popular political blogs.
When I first started reading these sites I assumed they were simply online versions of the established E!/Entertainment Tonight formula. But they proved far more snarky than that. Indeed, the maverick nature of the Web, combined with the growing power of technology (quick time videos, links, armies of paparazzi with digital cameras, private citizens with cell phone cameras), quickly drove these sites into seamier districts than television would ever dare go.
In fact, it didn't take long to realize that the celebrity gossip sites had reached further back in time, almost before even television, to the notorious world of yellow journalism gossip rags of the post-War era; there are striking similarities between those old Robert Mitchum dope-bust pictures and today's Lindsay Lohan drunk-in-a-limo snapshots.
Was this intentional? Hard to say, but one suspects the source was less the Hollywood Reporter and its ilk and more the representation of those magazines in movies like "L.A. Confidential."
The More Things Change…
Certainly, there are parallels to the past. As with the old magazines, there is a tireless curiosity with the endless sexual and marital realignments of movie and TV stars (Dunzo!), tireless speculation about hidden homosexuality, and of course, criminality (the slagosphere -- for want of a better word for this digital demi-monde -- lit up recently with close-up photos of a bag of a suspicious substance in Paris Hilton's purse). There is also the perpetual discovery of some new beauty, who is treated with awe and respect, right up until the moment she is declared a slut and a has-been.
There are also the bete noirs, the public figures who earn endless calumny on the gossip sites -- Ben Affleck, the Olsen twins, Nicole Richie, and, of course (to their credit) the execrable Ms. Hilton.
And the stories are reported in the same old sly, judgmental narrative voice -- no longer a self-proclaimed insider and celebrity like Walter Winchell or Hedda Hopper, but an anonymous figure (often male, sometimes gay) who admits to being an outsider and a frustrated and resentful nobody.
What's missing from the old formula -- thank God -- is the gore. Anyone who remembers the original National Enquirer will be relieved to know that the new gossip sites eschew the endless geek show of bloody car crashes and crushed bodies.
Instead, the everyday grammar of the new gossip sites includes some new obsessions, most of them made possible by modern digital cameras. The most bizarre and notorious of these -- and the thing that this genre will likely be most remembered for --- is the so-called "nipple slip." Literally every day, one or all of these sites will carry a photo of some starlet who, a victim of the current fad for low-cut gowns with no undergarments, manages to momentarily expose herself, .and when that happens you can be sure there will be a photographer nearby with a 10 megapixel Nikon snapping away a succession of hundreds of images, one of which captures the moment.
Nipple slip photographs are so ubiquitous on these sites that they have become a kind of subculture in themselves, generating their own specialty Web sites. Who knows? They may one day be seen as emblematic of our time, like the Dust Bowl photos of the 1930s. (Not surprisingly, I guess, the nip-slip shot is being challenged lately by up-skirt photos of starlets immodestly climbing out of cars.)
Capturing Stars' Not So Fresh Moments
The second thing that the new digital imagery technology has made possible for these gossip sites is the "ugly" shot. These take two forms: the unflattering, high-res close-up of the aging siren (Pamela Anderson) or skanky rock star (Fergie), and the out-of-uniform celebrity on his or her day off (Mary-Kate Olsen dressed like a homeless person, Jake Gyllenhaal in dirty sweats).
This kind of stuff was almost impossible in the old days, not just because the studios stage-managed their stars to always dress well in public (I remember a picture of Susan Hayward washing a car in what appeared to be a cocktail dress), but because low-resolution photos printed on cheap paper stock all but voided the effect.
Now, thanks to the unique characteristics of the Web, the money shot can be shown on the front page along with a lewd comment or two by the reporter, with a click-through to a dozen other, similar photographs, or even a video.
It is only after you track these sites for a while that you notice yet another effect of the new technology: linkage. Because the actual amount of daily gossip is finite, these sites steal from each other like crazy. All that's required is that you toss in a wicked sentence about the topic and then link to another site that carries the photo or video. Unlike most big news sites, the gossip sites don't seem to care if you link away from their page. They seem to assume that eventually you will come back, which is probably true.
A Forum for Feedback and Copycats
And then there are the comment. The Web is already notorious for being the collective id of the modern world, but the vicious and hate-filled comments you read on these gossip sites make even the nasty comments you read on something like Fark.com seem courteous. Nathaniel West would have a field day with some of this stuff: Call it the Day of the Digital Locust -- the poor and plain celebrity obsessed locked in an eternal love-hate relationship with the rich and beautiful and rich celebrity obsessed.
Picture some community college dropout who works part-time at the mall and gets wasted every weekend looking at the picture of the slightly inebriated 22-year-old starlet who has just finished her eighth movie in three years, and calling her a "lazy drunk skank." You couldn't make this stuff up.
So why am I writing about this odd little world? Because whether we like it or not, it is still true that as goes Hollywood so often goes the world. Visit a few of these gossip sites -- and then go to MySpace or FaceBook. Look at the photos people post of themselves, particularly the young kids showing themselves drunk, pretending to be lesbians, overly made up in glamour shots. Read the snarky comments.
Remind you of anything? Yep. Even if you aren't reading the gossip sites, your kids probably are. And when your daughter gets all dolled up and then spits in someone's face, don't worry, she's just being Avril Lavigne…
Tad's Tab: The latest from the teen tech trenches Malone's 15-year-old son, Tad Malone.
I just came across a Web site called FutilityCloset.com. This site updates at least once per day with all sorts of interesting information about oddities and strange historic events. The first time I read it, I didn't stop until I had read through to the last post. Crystal skulls, Oak Island, the Japanese lady floating in a bowl in the ocean, the 500,000 year old spark plug. If you are a fan of the unexplained, but are still relatively rational, this is the site for you.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.