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Stalk Market

March 23, 2006

Why is putting the fear in celebrities

Post image for Stalk Market

Keanu Reeves 99 Prince St Mar. 18th, 2006 @ 10pm Post-dinner @ Mercer Kitchen, spotted Keanu Reeves and a blonde canoodling on one of the couches in the hotel bar. After too many Black Cherry Martinis, my friend thought it’d be funny to shout ‘there’s a bomb on the bus.’ We were asked to leave.

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New Yorkers are known for blithely abiding celebrities in their midst. It’s a point of pride. But the appealing colours and ruffled feathers of fair game in the wild hold a certain long-standing appeal, too. This spring, more than ever, it’s open season on celebrities in Manhattan.

Early last week,, a heavily trafficked media gossip weblog, lobbed a small but spirited grenade into the arena of celebrity journalism when it launched an enhanced version of its Gawker Stalker feature. The user-submitted digest of star sightings — where they were, what they wore, how they acted and what they were doing — has been an enduring fixture on the web publication, widely considered a flagship among privately owned new media properties. (Gawker will soon open a storefront behind a plate glass window on Crosby Street in SoHo.)

Now, sightings are linked to a Google Maps interface, tagged by name, time and location. It’s a little crude, but users can get street-corner-specific coordinates for roaming celebrities. Interns have been hired to provide updates throughout the day; there’s no night shift yet. (Full disclosure: I tossed my name in their hat a month ago.) Gawker Media publisher Nick Denton has alluded to further technological innovations to come. An expanded role for mobile technologies — like phone-cam images uploaded to the web — seems natural.

“And people thought that the web would be pure and beautiful, a media world made anew,” teased Denton in his launch announcement.

The immediate media response has been loud and contagious, with publicists and celebrities expressing shock and disdain. Not only do the pinpointed map coordinates constitute a new invasion of privacy, they insist, but Gawker Stalker is potentially fomenting a DIY paparazzi movement. Leslie Sloane Zelnik, who represents Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and others, went so far as to say, “at some point the government is going to have to step in and regulate this.”

The reaction by Gawker staffers like co-editor Jessica Coen has been to dismiss these concerns out of hand. She maintains that real stalkers already have all the tools and genuinely crazed devotion they need.

“I’m not a security expert, but I can’t imagine this is going to bump up the threat level from yellow to orange, or whatever celebrities use to gauge their fear level,” notes gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who first reported on the new Gawker Stalker in the New York Daily News. Grove feels Gawker’s is a “sophisticated and non-threatening audience.” Others share Grove’s sanguine view.

Michael Musto, the about-town columnist for New York alternative weekly The Village Voice, is no stranger to the celebrity dance. He himself was the subject of a recent Gawker Stalker sighting.

“Yes, this is one of the dangers of being a celebrity,” says Musto, “but I don’t see the problem with it. Most [celebrities] are desperate to be noticed.”

Why doesn't this car have tinted windows?: Geri Halliwell, ambushed by photographers. Photo Sean Gallup. Getty Images. Why doesn’t this car have tinted windows?: Geri Halliwell, ambushed by photographers. Photo Sean Gallup. Getty Images.

The more interesting question is: where does this appetite for tabloid entertainment, combined with novel technology, lead us? Perhaps to something closer to the truth of celebrity lives than what publicists soft-pedal to the mainstream press on a daily basis.

From cave paintings onward, gossip is probably the oldest genre of literature. Actor Keanu Reeves recently told Playboy that our need for gossip is timeless and “just human nature. We like talking about other people.” Yet, as Grove adroitly observes, “Celebrity journalism is an expanding business.”

Even in its previous, text-only form, Gawker Stalker was a fresh channel for anyone — not just agents, publicists, media narcissists or navel-gazers — to freely comment on their celebrity interactions. Gawker maintains an adamant policy of not fact-checking these items. People rightfully question their accuracy. But Gawker Stalker’s residence outside the elaborate spin-control apparatus represented something new and unfiltered in the media ecosystem. It remains wildly democratic. Don’t call it a media critique; but it does wreak havoc with the meticulously sanitized picture offered up by corporate, celeb-pandering vehicles. This is the face of indie gossip journalism.

Anyhow, there is no road back.

Author Cintra Wilson, whose book A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease is a scathing yet cerebral primer on celebrity journalism, claims to be unfazed by these developments. Gawker Stalker is relatively toothless and cute, she says, lagging “20 years behind” the notorious British tabloid press.

“There’s a Pandora’s Box element here, obviously,” says Wilson. But celebrity cyberstalking, she maintains, is in its infancy. She expects more noteworthy developments, “such as tracking devices implanted in Natalie Portman’s thong.”

“Heck, I believe any plucky teenager will soon be able to figure out the algorithm for certain celebrities’ internet surfing habits. The Department of Homeland Security has already gotten us far here.”

After all, the loss of privacy is a concern that goes far beyond the grazing and mating tropics of the stars. In the West particularly, it is emerging as a defining debate of our times.

Meanwhile, the safari goes on, and caged birds named Lindsay, Jen and Jessica keep on singing.

“I really think we need a catch-and-release policy for celebrities,” concludes Wilson. “You can trap them, keep them awhile, but then you must always return them back into the wild.”

Jeff MacIntyre is a Canadian journalist living in New York.

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