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Gossip Cop: Patrolling Celebrity

Rex Sorgatz designed Mediaite and Gossip Cop, the new site co-founded by Mediaite publisher Dan Abrams and Gossip Cop editor Michael Lewittes. Here is his explanation of the site, which launches today.

Let me ask you, what kind of person do you think Scarlett Johansson is?

You have probably never met her, and I definitely have not, yet we both seemingly feel like we could describe her personality with reasonable accuracy.

This is peculiar.

It’s not shocking to learn that humans enjoy making personality judgments based upon scant evidence. But with celebrities it seems exceptionally dubious, since we actually know literally nothing about them first-hand. Lohan, Aniston, Springsteen, Cruise — why do all these people seem to have well-formed personas? How much of it is real and how much is manufactured? What are the sources we use to scrape together these mysterious portraits?

There are a few known mythological origins. Maybe that profile in Rolling Stone had some lasting influence, and perhaps those eight minutes on Leno left an impression. But these sources, mediated and filtered and manicured, seem exceptionally unreliable. So what else is there?

Oh yeah, we have their work. Scarlett gave a lasting impression in Lost in Translation, so perhaps we know a little more about her because of how she gobbles sushi with Bill Murray. But wait — she was acting. Can we really conclude anything about her personality from these flickering screen moments?

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time considering this question: why do we think we know people who we’ll never actually know?

Here’s my best guess: we trust gossip.

Before mass media, gossip was merely personal information shared about a mutual acquaintance. In other words, pre-modern gossip was the original conversational marketing: valued information shared by reputable sources.

With the onset of broadcasting, publishing, and eventually the internet, the intimacy of gossip bred with the entertainment industry, birthing the hybrid offspring known was celebrity gossip. Of all the animals in the media zoo, celebrity gossip emerged as the most chimerical creature. Every day, hundreds of weird little stories pop up on sites with names like Hollywood Tuna and Egotastic and Celebrity Puke. Sometimes they make outrageous claims (Amy Winehouse just ate a drunk baby!), and other times the narratives are ostentatiously mundane (Tara Reid just ate a taco!). Through these morsels of checkout lane anti-matter, we form lasting opinions about celebrities.

That finally brings us to today’s launch of GossipCop.com, a site that I did the strategy/design/development on. The premise is simple: investigate the accuracy of the daily anecdotes, the rampant rumors, and the cubicle grist known as celebrity gossip. Think of it as TMZ meets Smoking Gun. Or maybe Perez Hilton meets Columbia Journalism Review. Whatever — the prevailing idea is that even seemingly unknowable information can be investigated in today’s info-rich economy.

My three favorite features on the site:

+ Truth Meter. Every post investigates a piece of celebrity gossip and provides a rating, from 0 to 10, based upon the likelihood of the story.

+ Paparazzi Patrol. Rather than churn out more celebrity video, Gossip Cop looks at the underside of the celebrity gossip business. By turning the camera back on the paparazzi, the site reveals the gossip creators for what they are. (This feature was originally dubbed “Papsmeared,” a name I really loved but which was ultimately dropped.)

+ Twit Happens. With its direct interaction and unfiltered access, Twitter could end up being the greatest invention in celebrity journalism since the camera. It is quickly become the ultimate device for determining how impressions are made, rumors are debunked, and celebrity battles are fought. This hand-picked list contains the best tweets of the day.

Truthfully, I’m not much of a celebrity news consumer. But I hope this site adds a new angle into the salacious, rumor-driven celebrity culture.

And maybe I can finally get to know Scarlett.

Rex Sorgatz is a writer, designer, and media consultant based in New York. His consulting agency, Kinda Sorta Media, launches new sites for media and commerce companies. He is a contributing editor at Wired and his work has appeared in New York and NPR. He blogs his internet life in real time at Fimoculous.com, where this post was first published.

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