ICorrect and Celebrity Rumor Patrol

8 04 2011

What I love most about celebrity culture is the constant battle for dominance amongst its various players. My own work focuses on these tensions, drawing out how gossip media outlets, for example, are based on the idea of breaking down the celebrity facade so carefully constructed by publicists, managers and even the celebrity him/herself.

Tabloids are built on the premise that audiences want to know more about the stars than the stars will give up. Audiences love to play the game of determining what is “real” about the star and what is “fake” or controlled by other forces. Are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really dating, or is it just for publicity? It’s the ability of tabloids (and, of course, blogs) to intervene into the more controlled system that makes them so appealing.

Is she really going out with him?

At times, this intervention into the star’s image has radical implications. Britney’s shift from good girl pop star to party girl to Hollywood cautionary tale is largely related to the tabloid construction of her image. She and her manager/publicist/other official team members work(ed) hard to counter these constructions and regain control of her image, its circulation and its meaning in popular culture. I’ve written about a component of this particular struggle before, and am currently working on an article about how bloggers offer a new sort of intervention into celebrity culture that draws on both their roles as audience members and as producers or official commentators on celebrity culture. I’ll be presenting a part of that project at ICA this May.

Anyway, such interventions are a necessary part of the celebrity system, in part because they keep us the celebrity in the public eye. Celebrities (and their handlers) know this, and certainly turn to media outlets (including tabloids) to attempt to counter stories that tarnish their image. They typically turn to more “legitimate” celebrity media sources, notably places like People magazine, because they’ll be treated with kid gloves and get the chance to at least attempt to regain control over a tarnished pubic image in a way that gives the appearance of authenticity and truth.

In the midst of a potential divorce scandal, Britney turned to People to set the record straight

This is nothing new, stars have been doing this since the earliest days of the studio system. For example, in exchange for “exclusive” information, Louella Parsons would allow stars to put out their side of the story during scandals (often ones she herself broke and perpetuated). In addition to using these media outlets, celebrities now can harness the tools of new media (indeed, the same tools that are used to expose them via blogs etc) to attempt to control their own images. Celebrities have official websites, some cultivate relationships with fan sites, and many have turned to Twitter as a place to get the news “direct” from the source–the celebrity herself.

Within this tension filled system comes a new, and frankly puzzling, mode for the celebrity to “correct” rumors and media reports: ICorrect. The site’s founder, David Tang, was the guest on Wednesday’s episode of The Colbert Report. You can watch the interview here. Basically, for an annual fee, Tang’s site offers a place for celebrities to write their own corrections/rebuttals to any and all rumors they feel need to be addressed. My cursory look at the site reveals such shocking revelations as Tommy Hilfiger countering the (age old) rumor that he doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes and Cherie Blair denying she will take part in Strictly Come Dancing (the British Dancing with the Stars. Riviting.

I have to say, I don’t get it. Why does this site exist? Who is reading it? And what’s in it for the celebrity, who could find many other outlets to do this sort of image correction/management? The stars have historically turned to places like People because they already have an audience, and I just don’t see a large audience being drawn to this site (in part because the layout is terrible, imo). It seems the cache is that the celebrity (or, let’s face it, a manager or publicist) can quickly correct and control a rumor. Not every star or rumor can get on the cover of People, yet every little rumor can play an important role in the star’s overall image. So ICorrect offers a way for stars to deal with any intervention into their public image.

But how does that make ICorrect different from Twitter or a celebrity’s official website? I’m not seeing how the fact the correction is on ICorrect makes the audience feel it is more “real” or “true.” ICorrect positions itself as “the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace.” Um, how is a correction on this site any more “permanent” than any other?

In his interview with Colbert, Tang says ICorrect addresses the fact that sites like Twitter don’t verify that the person tweeting/writing is actually the celebrity. But Twitter does verify “well known account users” and gives them a “verified account” checkmark to indicate they have passed the “real” test. It’s all here. So, again, how is ICorrect offering a new sort of intervention into the gossip game that allows celebrities greater control? Yes, Twitter can be more fleeting, but, really, so are most rumors in terms of impact on a celebrity’s image. Remember when Ashlee Simpson got busted for being drunk at McDonald’s? Yeah, I thought so. Are audiences going to look up the “truth” about older rumors? Is such permanence really necessary, particularly in the age of new media where celebrity rumors are constantly changing?

Furthermore, how ICorrect is supposed to reach a larger audience than any other source? This is the most important part of rumor control. If no one reads it, who cares? Now, when celebrities use their websites or Twitter to counter a rumor, you often see those posts/tweets pop up on blogs or in other celebrity media as part of the story. This is crucial for the recuperation of control over a particular story. I know my gossip blog reading isn’t what it used to be, but I haven’t seen ICorrect popping up anywhere. The first time I heard about it was on Colbert. It needs way more access to the media side of the production system in order to become truly effective.

ICorrect also claim it “enables the Corrector [celebrity] to post precise corrections, without the danger of third parties quoting them out of context.” How are they going to prevent third party persons, like a blogger who reposts the “correction,” from quoting them out of context? If they need outside media exposure to bring attention to the correction, how can such a thing be controlled?

So while I love a good intervention into the celebrity system of production, this is, well, lame. It strikes me as an attempt to catch up to new media’s impact on celebrity culture, but one which is way behind. As my friend Zach would say, “Welcome to 2005!”





Thinking about New Media: Interactivity

19 02 2011

My TiVo is on the verge of exploding with films about stardom, but I’m going to take a brief break from that series. Spring break will be here soon (one more week of classes!) and TiVo and I have a date for a stardom film series that will hopefully result in some more posts as well. But for now, I’ve been working on a couple of more think piece oriented posts about new media and its influence not only on how we get our content, but also on what that content looks like and how audiences actually engage with/read/invest in that content.

I’ve been considering new media in a broad sense this semester, for a variety of reasons, and here I am just trying to work out some major ideas that have been floating around in my head. This is sort of like a comps exam (because weren’t those fun?) where I’m trying to get a hold of scholarly approaches to new media and relate them to my own particular interests. In short, these are some ideas informed by a lot of the reading I’ve been doing this semester as well as some questions that I’m still working through. This is the beginning of my thinking—not the end—so I would definitely appreciate feedback.

What’s so “new” about new media?
The umbrella term “new media” has been used to refer to a wide range of media platforms and technologies. But the vast array of platforms makes it somewhat confusing to really think through exactly what new media are, and, indeed, what’s so new about them. If Netflix streaming is clearly a new media platform, does that mean that Netflix home delivery system is not? Or, is an iPhone the same sort of new media as Netflix? Each technology serves a different function, but the potential spaces of overlap (using your iPhone to watch streamed movies as opposed to using it to make a phone call or send a text) makes, I think, a precise definition of “new media” pretty challenging.

But then again, part of the shifts brought about by new media come from the fact that the technologies are so varied and can be harnessed for many different purposes. Though the technologies that have reshaped everyday communication and media are vital to understanding this new category, but, as I suggest to my students based on the work of numerous scholars in this area (including Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Nancy Baym and many others), what’s so new about new media are the ways the technologies enable users to interact with information and with each other. These interactions are tied to how the technology functions or what it makes possible (e.g. the iPhone lets you make phone calls, text, surf the web etc through its digital platform) but also to how individuals actually use that technology in their everyday lives. (

What’s so new about new media, then, is the fact that users can be both producers and consumers of content (even if that production is limited to a very small audience). New media trouble traditional media consumption models that assume users/audiences are on the receiving end of the communication and do little but absorb meaning. Instead, new media shed light on the range of (sometimes invisible) active meaning making that goes when one consumes media and/or communicates with others through these platforms. While it’s easy to see how things like iPhones or Twitter are considered new media, I think we should also consider how older media forms have transformed to meet the demands of our new media society. I think new media, for all the fancy technological advancements, also offer new sorts of ways to think about and engage with “old media.”

One example I’ve been considering recently is the case of reality television. Reality TV certainly has roots traced back to the early days of television (in the form of game shows, documentaries, etc), its explosion into our television consciousness within the past 10 years is, I think, tied to the simultaneous shifts in media platforms and consumption practices. In other words, I want to argue (and I know I’m not the first to do so) that reality TV is a form of new media. Even if you view it on regular “old” broadcast television, I think reality television embodies some important characteristics that, at the very least, strongly tie it (and its contemporary ubiquity/success as a genre) to new media.

1. Reality television assumes (varying levels of) interactivity
Some reality shows are explicitly built upon the audience as a participant in the production of the show, making new media technology and engagement central to the existence of the program. The most obvious examples here are reality shows, like American Idol or Big Brother, where audiences vote for their favorite contestants, thus securing participants a place on future episodes and, ultimately, choosing the winner of the show. Of course these votes come through a range of new media platforms, like text messages or online voting, but the key is that they enable the audience to play (or at least think they are playing) a vital role in creating content of the show.

Text message voting for American Idol

The success of Idol comes, in part, from the idea that we are the ones that are deciding who will be our next pop star or who will stay in the house for the next week. The (in)famous “Vote for the Worst” campaign that, for example, kept mediocre singer Sanjaya in the running for several weeks during the show’s sixth season, is clear evidence that audience participation shapes the show, and sometimes in ways unanticipated/unintended by the show’s producers. Nevertheless, if no one voted, there would be no show. The feeling of participation in the show is an important space for audience pleasure that hinges on interactivity.

There are, of course, elimination style shows where viewers do not directly vote for contestants, such as Survivor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, Project Runway etc., as well as a range of reality television shows that do not feature any sort of elimination (docu-soaps like The Real Housewives or any number of celeb-reality shows focused on the private life of a star). But even these shows encourage audience interactivity as a key part of viewing the show. There is something about the focus on back stories of contestants or narratives about what goes on outside the competition (like on Top Chef) that calls up a certain notion of interactivity to me. That audiences are given “more” than “just” the competition narrative seems to be a different sort of engagement. Not sure how to work this out yet, but something about this extended engagement strikes me as more interactive than fictional TV in its style and form.

On one hand, I think new media technologies play an important role in increasing this sort of implied interactivity. Advances in digital and handheld cameras are important to how reality television is actually produced. For the most part, we’re not talking about the participants creating their own footage for the show, though we do sometimes get some glimpses of this (an old example: Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was based in large part on the actual footage shot by Brit-Brit and K-Fed during the early days of their courtship). I’ve written elsewhere about how this emphasizes her “authenticity” as a star, and that’s related to the way the digital camera allows the audience to interact with the real person behind the pop star image. Here’s an outtake that didn’t make the show that shows the use of her personal footage. You’ll see how riviting this footage is and why this show lasted a full half season!

Even without the sense of the footage being shot by the participants, digital technologies have increased the range of the voyeuristic eye of the camera, allowing it to more easily go wherever the “reality” is happening. We are in the homes, cars, work places, etc of reality show participants. The fact that the bathroom is the only place where cameras don’t go on The Real World means that we are able to get into the lives of the housemates and, in a sense, interact with–or at least observe–them at any and every moment.

But it’s also about how audiences are encouraged to engage with these shows that highlights the centrality of interactivity to the overall style and narrative of these programs. Fictional narrative television has, of course, long inspired fan communities and people who want to take their engagement with a show and its characters beyond the boundaries of the narrative offered in the weekly broadcast. I think narrative reality television shows as well as the non-audience voted elimination shows named above are increasingly built on the assumption that audiences engage with the characters/participants and narrative outside the boundaries of the weekly broadcast.

The internet plays a key role here, with character/participant blogs giving us a way to read beyond the actual events of the show itself. In other words, to interact with the characters/participants in other platforms as a way to extend viewing pleasure. I, for one, was pretty obsessed with the RHONJ blogs as a way to get each woman’s perspective on the drama of that week’s episode as a way to see what was left out in the actual episode. Yes, I know that many fictional television shows have websites where their characters “blog” about that week’s episode. I’m wondering if those stay as closely tied to the overall narrative of the show as reality TV character blogs? I have to admit that I don’t know because I don’t follow any fictional character blogs.

However, in another connection between “old” and “new” media, the reality shows have the added extratextual site of engagement in the tabloids. Print tabloids like Us Weekly and In Touch are increasingly built upon the backs of reality television stars. The women of The Hills, Teen Mom, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians would not have the same level of fame, nor would their shows have such high ratings, without the constant coverage from these outside sources. More on the connection between celebrity and reality in my next post.

Interacting with Teen Mom in tabloids

What’s fascinating to me is the “inside information” revealed by these gossip magazines is pretty much always the plot of the next week’s episode, as opposed to any new information! So they are giving audiences some information to bring with them to their viewing of the episode, allowing them to interact with the narrative using that knowledge, as well as encouraging them to watch the show. You don’t see Michael Scott on the cover of a magazine talking about his argument with Dwight on next week’s episode of The Office because he is clearly a fictional character. The appeal to “reality” in RTV means that even though we know these shows are edited and that the action is scripted or at least prompted by producers, we are still encouraged to see the participants as “real” people. Thus, by interacting with them in these outside sources, the audience enriches their viewing experience.

Audiences do have some choice in how they interact (or not) with these shows, a topic I will return to in a later post. Additionally, reality television is certainly not the only television genre where new media technologies have had an impact in form and content. Nevertheless, I think the case of reality TV provides some clear insight into the ties between new media interactivity and the production and consumption of media in this shifting landscape.





Can’t Be Tamed

21 06 2010

And I thought I’d have more time after I defended my dissertation! But when it rains, it pours, and my life has been pretty hectic lately. Between getting a job (yay!), looking for new apartments, doing revisions for a journal article, revisions for my dissertation, and working as an RA, there’s been precious little time for blogging. Since I’m headed out of town for a mini-vacation/family wedding this week, I figured I better get something up. Not to mention this whole Miley Cyrus/Perez Hilton fracas nearly demands that I comment upon it!

On June 15, notorious gossip blogger Perez Hilton (allegedly) posted an upskirt paparazzi photo of 17-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus on his Twitter account. The original photo (allegedly) showed that Miley, in the tradition of Paris Hilton and Britney, was not wearing any underwear. Though Perez took the photo off his Twitter account, we all know that once something goes out in the world of the internet, it’s nearly impossible to delete it completely. So the photo continued to circulate on other web sites, though most blurred out her lady parts.

The problem, of course, is that Miley is underage and such a photo could be classified as child pornography. Perez has faced a lot of legal problems before, but this is a new one. And in his typically classy way, has defended himself by saying that 1) he blurred out the naughty bits anyway (though then backtracks and said he didn’t pixilate anything) 2) Miley “should know better” because she’s been in the business too long to make such an “unladylike” exit from a car when she “knows” paparazzi are present and 3) (and this is my personal favorite) that the pictures aren’t pornography because they “aren’t arousing”. That’s the nutshell of his “side,” but you can watch his full interview on Joy Behar here:

I think his main justifications are ridiculous (particularly when he backtracks) and really just designed to keep the controversy going so that he can reap some pageviews. But Miley is also in her Britney-esque moment of trying to break free from the Disney pop princess image and become more of a grown up pop star. So to me, this just raises a whole set of questions about the sexualization and objectification of female celebrities in general. Miley is, in a way, trapped in this moment where she has to become more sexual in order to continue as an adult pop star while simultaneously being lambasted for doing so because of her Disney past that is absolutely reminiscent of Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” moment. For example, see her new video for “Can’t Be Tamed,” which is clearly working to make her more of an adult (read: sexual) star. The fact that I could see Britney doing this exact same song is really no coincidence.

Miley’s just playing the game as it, for better or worse, exists for female celebrities in general. Perez makes this point, though, of course, in a bratty sort of way that slut-shames Miley for expressing her sexuality in any form. This is certainly not the first time he has slammed her for behavior he deems to be inappropriate, further shrinking the already precariously thin line separating proper female sexuality from “slutty” behavior. Margaret Schwartz has a great piece on the upskirt photo during its Paris/Britney heyday of early 2007 that I highly recommend as a way to think about the construction of female sexuality and agency in these moments of exposure. But this, of course, is not the way most of the media discuss this controversy.

I find it maddening, but not particularly surprising, that few people are talking about the overall objectification of female celebrities inherent to these sorts of photos. While I would certainly take some pleasure in Perez (finally!) going down for something, I think to consider the photo a problem only because of her age is missing some of the larger issues at work here in the construction of female stardom. Even though Miley may claim she “can’t be tamed,” such “out-of-control” female sexuality is simply recuperated back into a contemporary celebrity culture in which female stars are both praised and shamed for their sexuality.





New Media and Bieber Fever

25 05 2010

I’m in the midst of preparing my dissertation defense (that’s why I haven’t been posting…I swear!). In trying to discuss future directions for my research, I’ve been thinking about the role of social networking platforms (most notably Twitter) in celebrity culture. Celebrity gossip blogs have already changed the game in important ways that are directly related to the rise of new media as technology and social space. The most obvious way is the immediacy of the internet. No longer do we have to wait for the weekly tabloids to hit the newsstand to get our latest gossip fix. In fact, the magazines can’t even keep up at this point, and my survey of gossip blog readers suggests many see the magazines as “old news” and don’t necessarily read them regularly, let alone subscribe. Yet we are also closer to the daily lives of celebrities than ever before thanks to the constant stream of gossip updates provided by paparazzi photos on gossip blogs.

Which brings me to Justin Bieber. I do not personally have the Bieber Fever, but after seeing him perform “Baby” on SNL (rerun last week), I get it. I mean, OMG, he is so cute!!! His songs are typical catchy pop and he has a cute baby face and fancy hair. So I get it, tweens, but he’s still not for me. But then again, he’s not supposed to be. If you are unfamiliar with the non-threatening boy adorable-ness of Bieber, here is the official video for “Baby.” I’m not saying he’s the greatest singer ever to grace this Earth, but he is a reliably cute and reasonably talented boy band sort of pop star. Watch at your own risk, as this song will get stuck in your head for DAYS…DAYS I TELL YOU!!

He may not be for me, but he is ENORMOUSLY popular with younger audiences. Which makes it particularly interesting that he apparently doesn’t move magazines. He still is regularly featured in teen-oriented celebrity magazines in their “gallery of stars” type coverage where they feature photos of a bunch of young stars, but his solo covers are not big sellers. This seems to indicate that how and where (particularly the young) audiences go for extratextual and “private” side personas has changed. By which I mean, social networking platforms.

When Bieber was on the cover of People back in April, the issue sold 20% below average. But in the new media age, this makes perfect sense to me. Why buy a magazine when you can read his inner most tweets for free? Indeed, Beibs has over 2 million Twitter followers and frequently among the top trending topics, indicating that he has a large fan base who are interested in the details of his private life. Even more interesting for the old vs. new media divide is that Bieber actually tweeted that he thought he “looked as crazy as heck” in the People photo just before the issue was released.

I doubt this is the only reason for the poor sales of Bieber’s People cover (a magazine aimed at an older audience than Beiber ‘s typical fans), but it does reflect a change in how fans interact with their favorite celebrity. Though you can’t hang a tweet on a wall like a pull out Tiger Beat poster (or a People cover), social networking platforms like Twitter offer access to the star that (at least in appearance) is more authentic and intimate than a magazine profile. For (young) audiences well versed in the revelation of the self through social networking platforms, it seems this would be more satisfying than any magazine profile.

But the move away from old media as primary extratextual source of celebrity lifestyles is not related just to the youth of Bieber or his audience. This Daily Beast story argues that celebrities as cover models are not selling (non-gossip) magazines as much as they once did. Unless they are young celebrities, like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift (because Angelina Jolie is so 2008). Even though these younger stars are more likely to be active social network users (Cyrus in particular famously “quit” Twitter and even used her YouTube channel to let fans know why), there is still some sort of appetite for magazine features on the (new/young) celebrity. The key seems to be integrating the two by giving something new across the platforms to keep fans/audiences interested. Younger audiences may be much more interested in the daily minutiae of a Twitter feed, so the magazines have to figure out how to give something new in their profiles that will still draw these audiences. Often it is images in the form of official photos exclusive to the magazine (as seen in the above People cover) that are glossy and beautiful in contrast to grainy paparazzi photos. So maybe Bieber’s “crazy as heck” cover photo was not enough of a draw both because of his Twitter-take on it and a lack of appeal to the fans.

Celebrities and magazines both have to adapt to this new media world. But, celebrity-oriented magazines, whether gossip tabloids or more legit outlets like Vanity Fair, are not going anywhere. Sure, their numbers are down, but they still rake in millions. Some, particularly Us Weekly and People, have online counterparts that, along with the print versions, remain major players in the gossip industry. More importantly, the magazines continue to have access to celebrities that the blogs and other online outlets do not, Twitter-feeds notwithstanding. They still claim to bring us a private and unguarded side of the celebrity that one wouldn’t necessarily get in a 140-character tweet.

As I mentioned before , the bloggers I interviewed pretty emphatically told me they are not journalists. Blogs, even Perez Hilton and all its alleged “exclusives,” are largely reactive. They rely on existing online content (culled from places like People.com) as a springboard for their commentary and gossip talk. This is certainly a problem for the magazines, as audiences may be less likely to buy a magazine if they’ve seen the pictures or heard the details of the story online. But it can also help. I’d wager the Sandra Bullock People cover was helped by the fact that the gossip blogs were exploding with this revelation and many audiences wanted to see it for themselves. Even though I saw all the pictures online and knew most of the details of the story, I still bought this issue (which, unlike Bieber’s cover, sold twice as many newsstand copies as a typical for that week).

So there’s still a place for print magazines as well as the type of content and access they bring to the gossip media landscape. But I’m fascinated with the increasing popularity of Twitter as a medium for celebrities to (again, allegedly…many celebrities (like Britney) do not actually write their own tweets) bypass these media outlets to bring their fans a more intimate view of themselves. And how the media (both “old” and “new”) is working to incorporate this sort of perspective into their own content.

Finally, is it wrong that I find it oddly soothing to watch Justin Bieber dry his famous hair? It’s some sort of Zen moment for me.