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Intimate Strangers--Gawking, Snarking, and Gould-ing

Written By mista sense on Saturday, May 24, 2008 | 8:52 AM



Cable Gamers might not know the name Richard Schickel, but they ought to, because more than two decades ago, Schickel wrote the most profound meditation on the way that the media, goosed along by cable, was altering our collective relationship with stars, starlets, and wannabes.

Schickel's 1986 book, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, was a profound media-meditation with an instantly communicative title, which endures easily into the Internet era.

Schickel's point was that TV, so constant and ubiquitous, has encouraged us to think of celebrities as our friends, that we shared our lives with them, and that they shared theirs with us. And in a way, of course, they do--we can watch them on TV, read about them in the tabs, and, now, keep up with them on the Net. So yes, celebrities are rich, but at the same time, through the power of our Nielsen ratings, our pocketbooks, and our Doubleclicks, we can make them bow down to us.

And so celebs who want to stay in our collective good graces have to live the life we want them to live. For example, they have to stay glamorous, and that means, most relentlessly, they have to stay in shape. Not just stay thin, but stay in shape. As any dieter knows, there's nothing that drives one to a cigarette--or an eating-binge--faster than hunger. And so many celebs crack up.

Of course, such a public crack-up is part of the celeb-narrative. Stars can go crazy on camera, which is, to say, the world stage, a la Britney Spears, and that has some audience value--and the late Anna Nicole Smith, had even more such ratings-value.

But woe betide the ordinary celebrity that gets fat, or even flabby, or even a little dimply.

If he or she--especially she--falls off the tightrope of taut and toned, then that star will be mocked unmercifully. Actually, the popular verb for such mocking these days is "snarked." And so as Hannah Seligson,writing this month in the The Wall Street Journal, observed, "bodysnarking" has become a recognized web-industry, on innumerable blogs, on legit social-networking websites such as Facebook, and on cruel(albeit voluntary) sites such as Hotornot. Here's Seligson:

Fifteen years ago, when Facebook was still two separate words, that too-tight dress you wore out on Saturday night might have been a topic of conversation for a few days among the handful of people who were on the scene. In 2008, your button-popping image can instantly be sent to everyone in a cellphone's address book, so that even before you've made it home from the party the picture has been blasted to MySpace, posted on Flickr, kibitzed about on Twitter and shared with the world on Tumblr for random, anonymous comment.

And so Schickel's vision of everybody being false-friendly with celebrities must be updated: Today, everybody is false-friendly with everybody.

So now we come to Emily Gould, the former editor of Gawker.com, who gained her first 15 minutes of fame in April 2007 when Jimmy Kimmel verbally decked her on CNN, filling in for Larry King. In particular, Kimmel hit Gould over the "Gawker Stalker" feature, which obviously, from the name alone, encourages stalking.

I don't think of Kimmel as particular funny, but he seems intelligent and incisive. He might thus make a pretty good Cable Gamer.

(beat)

Too bad he's chubby.

I am kidding, of course--The Cable Gamer is in no position to criticize others for excess pounds--but the dominant media culture is not kidding. You can't be too thin, and if you are, well, good. You might get rich.

Like 'em or not, Gawker and Gould are part of the phenomenon of "intimate strangers," and that's a permanent part of our techno-culture. And for her part, Gould is articulate cog in that phenomenon. As she told Kimmel, Gawker offers "unfiltered immediacy," which is exactly what people want. And they can get what they want, because technology is "shifting the definition of what is public and what is private for everyone."

But of course, there's another dimension to this strange kind of intimacy, and that's jealousy, even hostility. Last year Vanessa Grigoriadis, one of The Cable Gamer's all-time favorite brunettes, wrote a a seismic piece entitled, "Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the rage of the creative underclass." That title sums it up--the feeling, among uninsured and underpaid twentysomethings, that they have a right to punish those who are older and better off. And of course, because of technology, they can. Except for Nick Denton, they probably won't get rich, but they will have their say. There will be blood, to coin a phrase.

So yes, there's a little bit of non-economic class warfare going on here, but there's an even deeper phenomenon: plain old narcissism.

Gould is an articulate writer, but her subject material could use some elevation--elevation out of her own navel. She
published a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine in which she happily described her literary output:

Almost every day I updated my year-old blog, Emily Magazine, to let a few hundred people know what I was reading and watching and thinking about. Some of my blog’s readers were my friends in real life, and even the ones who weren’t acted like friends when they posted comments or sent me e-mail. They criticized me sometimes, but kindly, the way you chide someone you know well. Some of them had blogs, too, and I read those and left my own comments. As nerdy and one-dimensional as my relationships with these people were, they were important to me. They made me feel like a part of some kind of community, and that made the giant city I lived in seem smaller and more manageable.


Nothing wrong with writing about yourself, but surely that's not an end in itself: Except that in her case, it is. Here's some more of what she put in her various blogs:

I described the symptoms and probable causes of a urinary tract infection. And I wrote about how painful it was to pack up my things in my old apartment as Henry — whom I referred to as “William” — stood over me watching. I puzzled over “how comfortable I feel around him, in spite of the fact that at this point I basically feel that he’s a crazy person who I sort of hate.”


Maybe you heard the letters, "TMI," as in, "too much information"?

Gould is a smart cookie, and she gets credit for staying as a brunette, but when I see all those tatoos on her pretty young body, I think to myself, "No, girl!"

The Cable Gamer has also seen a connection between tatooing and other forms of self-laceration. And as for laceration, well, sometimes it hurts to watch, or to read, as when Gould writes, "A few weeks later, I arrived home in the early morning hours after abruptly extricating myself from Josh’s bed — he had suddenly revealed plans for a European vacation with another girl."

OK, but now here's the techno-twist, as the Internet supercharges the ability of the neurotic to broadcast--OK, narrowcast, but it is, after all, the world wide web-- themselves to the world. In the next breath, Gould continues her narrative: "And immediately sat down at my computer to write a post about what had happened."

Take that, Josh! But actually, take that, Emily. Because you are cutting into yourself. Into your soul. Yes, you are famous, after a fashion, and yes, you might even make some money, but from those pix of you, I think more and more of Amy Winehouse. And Emily, you don't want that. At the rate Winehouse is going, she's not even going to leave behind a good-looking corpse.

And yet this is an issue for today's media, too, in all its many forms--mass, major, mainstream, pajamas, micro. Just because it can be done, doesn't mean it should be done. And doesn't mean that it's a good idea.

Keep some things private, Emily. Resist the trend to get intimate with all of us.

Of course, others have a responsibility,too. Cable Gamers might be mindful of the general weirdness of some of what they produce and some what they watch. If it works, OK.

But as Schickel would say, there's something strange indeed about a culture that has all of us thinking that we know Britney, and Anna Nicole, and JonBenet.

We don't know them. Never did, and never will. They are little girls lost, gone to a place where today's media can't find them.

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