The dream of the ‘00s lives on in gossip blogs

The dream of the ‘00s lives on in gossip blogs

November 16, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan

Mostly, the internet is worse now than it was 20 years ago — but at least it looks better. Now that “going online” is more often a job than a hobby, the internet looks appropriately sleek to match: by adults and for adults, by professionals and for professionals. Platforms have different personalities, from the cutesy quirk of Etsy to the clean, friendly usability of Slack. But, in general, if a website is popular, if it is large enough to be the primary income source for its creators, it is both navigable and beautiful in a minimalist, Scandinavian-boutique-hotel sort of way. The look of a website is intentional and made by a well-paid committee. Very little about the internet’s appearance, short of a bug quickly remedied, is an accident.

But there was a time recently when most of the internet was an accident, a thing people did while they were doing something else, a guilty pleasure. And one of the few places that blasé vibe still exists is a certain brand of celebrity gossip blog, a cadre of Peter Pan sites that have never grown up because they never had to.

One of the most prominent of these sites is the mega-popular, infamous blind-item gossip site Crazy Days and Nights, with its black background, white text, pale green headlines, and a header banner depicting a nighttime Hollywood landscape, crowded on all sides by garish ads. Enty, the blog’s anonymous proprietor, describes his design choices, and the fact that the site exists at all, as an offhand decision that was barely intentional.

“I started the site one day when I was bored at work,” he tells The Verge. “I chose Blogger because it was free and took two minutes to set up. I don’t remember why I chose the colors I did. Mysterious, maybe?”

The design feels iconic now, but perhaps only by virtue of the fact that nothing else looks like it anymore. Enty, for his part, did attempt an update at one point. “For about a three-year period, I tried WordPress and used servers and everything that goes with it. I hated it,” he says. “The colors were different, the layout was different. It was a nightmare. The other nine years have all been on Blogger, always the same style and format.”

Today, the site looks entirely unchanged from its mid-’00s creation. Conventional wisdom might hold that a website should always look as current and of-the-moment as possible, but Crazy Days and Nights proved to be an exception to that rule. The update was infuriating for the site’s creator in part because of WordPress’ comparative usability, but also because it changed the very thing the site offers.

That low-effort aesthetic is all part of the distinctive feeling of Crazy Days and Nights. The familiarity defines it — for both its creator and its audience. Over the past 15 years or so, most gossip blogs have, like Enty, refused to update their design significantly. The reasons vary, but the results make these blogs a unique little time capsule corner of the internet.

Neon text on black backgrounds. Text that spins and sparkles and bubbles and pops. Paragraphs in which the text changes color two or three or eight times for no reason at all. Obtrusive background images and blinding pop-up ads that follow you around the page. Websites in the late 1990s and mid-‘00s didn’t look like a minimalist office; they looked like a party thrown by a hideously uncool college student who had taken a lot of acid and then decorated their dorm.

Perhaps the zenith of this aesthetic was Myspace. Myspace was always yelling. Everyone used the “SpongeBob meme font,” but it wasn’t a way to make fun of people; it was jUsT hOw PeOpLe TaLkEd aBoUt ThEmSelVes. It was hideousness — not merely as a visual aesthetic, but as an overwhelming version of the world. It was like an ugly, forced cheerfulness or a party full of the absolute worst people you’ve ever met that’s a little bit more fun than it should be, but one you’ll regret attending if you stay for more than 30 minutes. (If you’ve watched NBC’s The Good Place and seen its depiction of The Bad Place, that’s exactly what Myspace was like.)

The Myspace era was also the heyday of brand-new celebrity gossip blogs like Crazy Days and Nights. In the mid-aughts — when anyone with an internet connection could suddenly accrue a readership in a way previously unprecedented — blogs began competing with tabloid magazines as the place to get the best, meanest, and most immediate celebrity gossip. Lainey Gossip, Crazy Days and Nights, Perez Hilton, DListed and Oh No They Didn’t all started between 2002 and 2007. The party kid celebrities of that era, with their Myspace pages, rehab stints, party hijinks, and coke habits, all fostered a minute-by-minute reporting to which the internet was far better suited than print tabloids.

When asked about his original vision for the site, DListed founder and creator Michael K says, “I had no vision. I had no expectations.” He never expected it to become a professional endeavor. “DListed was a hobby for me. I honestly thought it would last a few months, max. When I first started the site, I mainly wrote for myself since I was the only one visiting it. When I realized that people were actually reading it, I wrote less and less about myself and more and more about celebrities and pop culture. The site became a job, a business, and I later brought on other writers to produce content more quickly.”

DListed was part of a small group of semi-professional gossip sites that, in many cases, became bigger than their creators imagined they would be. “A lot of tabloids were slow to jump onto the Internet and capitalize off of it, so the creation of independently run gossip blogs was inevitable,” says Matt James, creator of the popular Tumblr Pop Culture Died in 2009. “People said whatever about whoever, and because there wasn’t social media as this aggregate to really connect everyone, unless you were making a conscious effort to read a particular blog, a lot of things went unchecked.”

Some of these blogs, of course, have undergone a redesign, updating their aesthetic to be somewhat more current and their sites to be more easily usable. Michael K, for instance, chose to change DListed’s look from its original free Blogger template through several updates to its current, professionally designed iteration.

Many of these sites, however, have never changed. Even those that redesigned are still louder, tackier, and more swollen than their more contemporary counterparts. To visit them now is like getting in a time machine with a destination that is set to 2003. It’s like stepping backward through the internet and emerging into the neon frontier town of cheerful hideousness that existed a decade ago.

Perez Hilton has gotten a few visual updates, making the site feel more modern than many of its competitors, but its color scheme is still a screaming rainbow dominated by neon Barbie pink. Lainey Gossip has undergone several site makeovers since its official founding in 2004, but it still retains the loudly color-clashing logo and bare-bones, basic blogger aesthetic of a previous decade. Oh No They Didn’t, a popular LiveJournal gossip community founded in 2004, is, well, still on LiveJournal. And, of course, after its brief foray into WordPress, Crazy Days and Nights has retained the exact look with which it began. All are heavily festooned with moving, blinking, and highly invasive ads. Visiting any one of them still has a Myspace feeling to it, which is at once gross and welcome.

This stubborn sameness may simply be financial. While many of these blogs still boast enormous readerships — Lainey Gossip enjoys over 1.5 million unique visitors per month, as of 2016 — they have nevertheless been rendered less profitable by the newer version of the internet. Facebook and Twitter are better and more efficient means of transmitting the same information. James guesses that the relationship between the changing internet and these unchanged sites is simply a matter of practicality.

“I think their dated layouts are mostly due to the fact they’re not exactly rolling in cash,” he says. “They do their best with what they have. I don’t think it’s deliberate, but more so practical.” The old designs are ugly, but they still work. Without a bunch of extra cash lying around, there is no reason to invest in fixing the design of something that already does what it’s meant to do. While all of these sites are still profitable, even Lainey Gossip cites monetary considerations in her FAQ as the reason for not making an app.

But, as with Enty’s reasoning, it could also be more intangible than that: the original designs, as ugly as they were, are part of what defined and branded these sites. To make them neat, elegant, and conformatively modern would be to make them less familiar to the reader. While these sites’ creators are always hoping to increase their traffic, they are, in general, not seeking to leverage their work on the site into a more prestigious job, and they are thus beholden only to their readers. Even those professionally redesigned sites remain loyal to a mid-‘00s aesthetic, likely because the memory of that time is part of what these sites offer. To lose that might drive readers away.

The cozy familiarity of these sites and their financial concerns are certainly linked: that time-traveling authenticity is part of what they are selling. Nostalgia happens lightning-fast online now; everything is always receding into the distance and becoming eulogy fodder. Not long ago, LiveJournal was a thing most people were embarrassed to mention; now, if someone says “LiveJournal,” half the room sighs wistfully. Eventually, anything can become nostalgia if it stays the same long enough.

When I ask Michael K if there is a nostalgic aspect to DListed’s readership, he responds, “Definitely. There’s a core group of devoted readers who have been checking in since nearly the beginning, and I believe that many of them continue to visit because of the nostalgia.” Enty agrees. “Since I returned to the original format a year or so ago, the traffic has steadily increased. I think people enjoy the familiar.”

Gossip blogs, with their acidic hearts and mercenary approach to human emotion, seem like an unlikely target for wistful sentiment. And yet, if these sites feel somehow nostalgic, it may be less for their aesthetics and more because so little of the internet remains a low-stakes guilty pleasure that finding one feels like going back in time 10 years.

James cites his own longing for a less sanitized and smoothed-over internet: “I do miss a time when there was a lot more snark when it came to coverage of celebrity.” It’s a longing that also contributed to his creation of a Tumblr in tribute to this recently past era. “That’s gone now, for the most part.”

There is certainly no shortage of gossip sites on the internet now. But for James, the difference is in the tone and the approach; that difference sets apart this more polished era from a previously uncensored one.

“I mean, look at E! Online,” he says. “They used to have fun columnists that took the piss out of celebrities. Us Weekly used to be the bible, there would be a serious effort that went into their stories back in the Janice Min days. But when you flip through a current issue, it’s as hard-hitting as someone’s Pinterest feed. Everything’s shaded in pastels; everything is baby showers, diet tips, or Z-List weddings.”

Pastels are tasteful minimalism, the sort of color scheme that might grace a professionally maintained website. They are the opposite of the abrasive Myspace aesthetic. James’ praise of that era speaks to what may keep readers coming back to the gossip blogs of the ‘00s — not in spite of their ugliness, but because of it. Many of us are looking for a relief from pastels.

Gossip blogs are one version of the internet’s id, a place where we go and don’t tell anyone we went. In a time when everything about one’s relationship with the internet is supposed to be public, gossip blogs are still private and impersonal. These are not links that any of us are going to post on our Facebook or Twitter to demonstrate our superior taste or good politics. We are not going to use a blind item to “start a conversation” in the ceaseless-networking parlance of social media.

We’re also all getting older. “The demographics of readership hasn’t changed too much over the years,” says Michael K. “If anything, the demographic has gotten older since people have aged with the site.” While the appeal of these sites seems obvious to someone like me, who grew up with them and shares James’ feelings about what they represent, they are also a generational specificity. Nostalgia items are defined by their lack of utility, and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have long since rendered these sites unnecessary for the basic task of acquiring gossip about celebrities.

It may be inevitable that sites like these wither away as their readership ages. Often, nostalgia is really just expressing that we miss a time when we were younger and had more of our lives ahead of us. If familiarity is what is selling gossip blogs, these sites are not long for this world. But for now, they are a joyously vitriolic museum piece, a record of a moment of transition in both the internet and the larger culture around it. For those of us who grew up with them and have watched the internet age into one big networking event, they still feel like a breath of fresh air.

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