From Media Darlings to Public Enemy No. 1 in Five Years or Less

Why Are the Online and Offline Communities So Up in Arms About Certain Pseudo-Celebrity Bloggers?

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It's hard for me to believe it's been this long, but five years ago this summer, in my waning days as an editor at New York magazine, I took Elizabeth Spiers, then the founding editor and writer of Gawker, out for coffee with the intention of poaching her. She seemed amenable to the idea, and by September she scandalized her blog audience by departing for the greener (financially, at least) pastures of Mainstream Media. She titled the post announcing her move "I sell out."
Arianna Huffington yachts in Tahiti while her bloggers toil for free.
Arianna Huffington yachts in Tahiti while her bloggers toil for free. Credit: Tim Wagner

It's worth noting that I was also friendly with Nick Denton, Elizabeth's not-quite-yet-notorious Gawker boss, and he was a good sport about my poachery. Gawker was barely a year old, and Nick, while surely a bit nervous about her departure, was eager to find out if the Gawker brand was bigger than his star blogger (so in a way I like to think I did him a favor by accelerating the inevitable).

It's hard to imagine, but at the time there was something magical about the blogging moment. The best bloggers could become almost instantly beloved cult media figures. They were, it seemed, self-actualized mavericks who'd thrown off (or never even taken on) the shackles of media-conglomerate overlords. They were gutsy, outspoken, fearless, funny -- the polar opposite of the MSM.

Fast-forward to 2008. A May 25 New York Times Magazine cover story about the hazards of oversharing titled "Blog-Post Confidential," by former Gawker blogger (circa 2006 to 2007) Emily Gould, inspires such vitriol that the Times shuts down the comments function on the online version of her piece after accruing hundreds of frequently vicious comments.

What the hell happened to the blogger as media-cultural hero? In Gould's case, it didn't help that during her tenure at Gawker, she was known for being ultra-snarky, so there's an obvious bit of turnabout-is-fair-play-ism at work here. Of course, anybody who read Vanessa Grigoriadis' New York magazine deconstruction of the bloggy "culture of bile" last fall knows that Gould is just a bit player in a larger drama. In March, Michael Arrington, of TechCrunch fame -- in the wake of the suicide of advertising exec Paul Tilley, who many indelicately speculated had been distraught about attacks he'd endured from ad-industry blogs -- wrote a post titled "When Will We Have Our First Valleywag Suicide?" about Gawker Media's Silicon Valley blog and the distress it causes in its often blindsided subjects. And then Ricky Van Veen, the editor in chief of College Humor, writing on his thoughtful (generally noncomedic) personal blog, speculated that Gawker Media's cruelest bloggers could be, yes, murder victims if one of their more thin-skinned targets snapped.

As for the notion of the self-actualized, non-wage-slave blogger? That's turned out to be, for many semi-famous bloggers, complete bullshit. Never mind all the hype about the select few blog stars, mostly in the tech realm, who are actually getting rich doing what they're doing; they've invariably fashioned unhealthy, obsessive-compulsive-disordered lifestyles for themselves way worse than anything any old-media slave drivers ever concocted. (See: GigaOm blogger Om Malik, heart attack victim at 41.)

Meanwhile, many pseudo-celebrity bloggers have finally figured out that they're as disposable -- as cog-in-a-wheel-ish -- as any of the cubicle-dwelling suckers populating old-media combines. That realization started, in part, when Gawker Media dismissed a blogger who didn't make her page-view quota. But just wait until the Huffington Post -- which still doesn't pay most of its bloggers -- tries to sell itself.

Remember Mayhill Fowler, the "citizen journalist" HuffPo blogger who recorded Barack Obama's ruminations about "bitter" working-class Pennsylvania voters at a San Francisco fundraiser? My favorite bit of back story about her blog post appeared in the Los Angeles Times. "The story was reviewed up the website's editorial ladder all the way to founder Arianna Huffington," James Rainey reported. "Vacationing on a yacht in Tahiti, Huffington gave her assent." Ha! I'll tell you what: When the Huffington Post eventually sells (executive-suite insiders, priming the pump, floated a valuation of $200 million this spring), Fowler and the other industrious HuffPo bloggers sure aren't gonna get yachting vacations in Tahiti out of the deal. (The question is just how quickly all those bloggers who have been dutifully tilling the fields will suddenly run screaming from Arianna's media plantation.)

At least Fowler, who is 61 years old, is a grown-up. But it made my heart ache to read 26-year-old Emily Gould's oddly guileless account of how she was unwittingly cast, at 24, as an emotional exhibitionist in Nick Denton's highly profitable (for him) online version of "Survivor." Scorned by much of the blogosphere, she's been left humbled, damaged and bewildered, with a tawdry level of fame that's somewhere below, say, third-tier-cable-reality-show notoriety.

Not long ago, the mainstream media was divided between resenting bloggers and fawning over them. But over time, the sinister subtexts of pseudo-celebrity blogging -- the bile, the bitterness, the dupery (financial and otherwise) -- helped definitively flip a switch in the media hive mind in regard to how bloggers are perceived. ("I wonder if I should take Gawker off my résumé," a former writer for the site said to me recently, realizing just how radioactive it made him seem in some eyes.)

By the way, Elizabeth Spiers? These days she's a columnist for MSM mainstay Fortune, she has a book contract for a novel and she barely ever blogs. God bless her, you know?
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