Every day, Hollywood cedes territory to video games, blogs, text-messaging, MySpace.com, etc. There are bored, lip-syncing teens on YouTube.com now scoring higher Nielsen ratings than half the shows on basic cable.
But here's the thing: While you may feel no pressing need to see Lindsay Lohan's latest attempt to out-act Dakota Fanning, you're at least vaguely familiar with her efforts to out-skeeze Paris Hilton. Not so long ago, celebrity gossip was a moribund art form, domesticated by punch-pulling softies like Liz Smith, neutered by the red-carpet suck-bots of Entertainment Tonight. Once urbane, sophisticated even, a fizzy cocktail of venom and cynical wit, celebrity gossip had flattened into tepid stuff, a supermarket staple aimed at housewives.
But then the Web came along to resurrect it. Visual, voyeuristic, convivial to rumor and speculation, the Internet is to gossip what sheep dung is to azaleas. And everywhere you look, gardens of schadenfreude and comeuppance are in vivid bloom. If you like your creepy sycophantic voyeurism with a dash of corporate polish, try AOL's wildly popular entrée into the field, TMZ.com. If your tastes run more toward sole practitioners but you find the Drudge Report too wonky and articulate, you may enjoy PerezHilton.com.
In the old days, you had to spit on a photographer to get coverage on Hard Copy, but on the Internet, the demand for content is endless: Just be hungry and vaguely recognizable and eventually you'll show up on Celebrities.com, a site whose CIA-quality surveillance of popular L.A. restaurants proves that Hollywood stargazing can be almost as entertaining as watching a 7-Eleven security cam.
Luckily, the photos and the video clips don't all have to be jaw-droppers or even mildly interesting -- in the online world, they're just a jumping-off point. Gossip has always been an intimate phenomenon, a chain of whispers passed from busybody to busybody, idler to idler. Mass media speeded up this process but did little to connect all the nodes on the grapevine. The Web, on the other hand, does this very well. When TMZ.com documented the somewhat counterintuitive way Mel Gibson has of expressing his Semitism, the post inspired nearly 6,000 user comments. Even an unflattering mug shot of Liv Tyler's latest zit can inspire days of follow-up wisecracks and analysis.
But while gossip on the Web is a communal, user-centric experience, celebrities are, and will always be, a necessary ingredient. You don't need a movie star to make a YouTube.com blockbuster. And sites like MP3.com and Purevolume.com aggregate so many surprisingly adequate bands that they're well on the way to making the title of "rock star" as meaningless as "porn star." A few hardcore fans may recognize the occasional standouts, but to the masses, they function simply as disposable, interchangeable, semi-anonymous content-providers, here today, gone today.
Gossip without celebrities, meanwhile, is like bourbon and water without the bourbon -- it may satisfy your thirst, but it won't warm your heart. That's because gossip is a dish best served ruthlessly, and while the Web makes it easy to give your worst self free reign under the cover of anonymity -- on the Internet, no one knows you're a homicidal misanthrope with atrocious spelling skills -- some gentler souls still hesitate to ridicule strangers. But celebrities are larger than life, not quite human, blessed by fortune. Shielded from our petty swipes by a thick armor of privilege and a great set of abs, they make excellent piñatas. Traditionally, this has been their burden to bear, a fame tax of sorts. Now, as our interest in the forms and mediums that made them famous wanes, it may be their saving grace.