Celebrity in cyberspace

Poor old newspapers, TV and magazines have to compete with people posting celebrity sightings, downl

Hard to believe that this month marks only the tenth anniversary of the first celebrity gossip website. In ten short years, the web has become dominated by round-the-clock obsession with celebrity. Mainstream culture has played catch-up ever since. Poor old newspapers, TV and magazines have to compete with people posting celebrity sightings, downloads to YouTube and "citizen-papped" mobile-phone photos. Where will it end?

It is amazing to think that in 1998 none of this existed. I remember those innocent times well, as it was the year I met my husband-to-be. One of the first conversations we ever had was him explaining to me how the search engine Ask Jeeves worked. At the time, I refused to believe him. I'd used email at work for about a year or two by then, but no one I knew used the web regularly. (I know, I know, it's laughable. But cast your mind back. That is indeed how it was.) Where was all the information coming from and how could you be sure it was accurate? Back then the launch of Wikipedia was another three years away.

We now take all of this instant media - much of it celebrity-dominated - for granted. And not everyone likes it. It is fast becoming a cultural norm for anyone with any intelligence to denigrate celebrity culture and bemoan its spread, often blaming the internet or technology in general. On Radio 4's Any Questions recently, the controversial writer A N Wilson even blamed the internet for the recent series of data fiascos: we should return, he urged, to pencil and paper, as computers are not to be trusted. The audience greeted his suggestion with bemused laughter - but also applause.

This view is nonsensical, yet it is true that the internet, with its emphasis on immediacy over measured analysis, has forced "serious" news outlets to review their focus - and not always with the best results. The cult of celebrity is often blamed for this. It has become a byword for everything that is trashy and ephemeral. But a shift is under way - and as with all matters technological, changes can happen overnight.

The editor of the huge-selling Heat magazine, Mark Frith, recently charted one of the biggest shifts in celebrity magazine sales back to 2003, when a rival magazine published pictures of famous people looking awful. It broke a fundamental rule of celebrity coverage in the glossies and made sales shoot to 700,000 within 24 hours. This event spawned the now-ubiquitous craze for pictures of celebrities at their worst.

Since then, the oversaturated celebrity market has fallen apart: fans and cynics alike have tens of thousands of outlets where they can seek titbits, from the ridiculously adulatory to the heartlessly cruel. Every time someone discovers a new way to make money from this market, imitators follow. When Grazia filled the void for a Vogue-meets-tabloid product, many other women's magazines relaunched, too.

But if this all sounds like a celebrity nightmare, think again. Bear with me on this one: the rise and rise of celeb-obsessed internet fodder is a good thing, for star-chasers and fame-phobics alike. The more these celebrity sites, podcasts and downloads proliferate, the more specialised they become. That could be good news for fans of the more high-minded media.

Mainstream media simply cannot compete with the developments, and it's a safe bet that they will soon stop trying. The old-fashioned media will be left to operate in their own universe, featuring celebrities when they deem it worthy and not because they have seeped effortlessly into the news cycle. The celebrity world will become something you can opt into or out of, rather than something that pervades the whole of our culture. With only so many hours in the day, even the most ardent Hollywood fans find it hard to keep pace with what's on offer.

Newspapers used to be a one-stop shop for everyone's news needs: one paper represented how you saw the world. Now people would never expect a website to do this: they expect to have several "favourites" they check into. Similarly, in the future - which increasingly means now - we will see people looking at a celebrity magazine or website for their gossip and a newspaper or its website for their news. So why not celebrate celebrity culture? The bigger it gets, the more it will stand on its own, separate. Then, if you hate it, you'll be able to ignore it completely. It might just take another ten years.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot