Fifteen years ago, if we wanted to find out why Kourtney Kardashian and Younes Bendjima really broke up, someone would have had to get her — or, more realistically, someone "close to her" — on the phone. The call would need to be made by a professional who already had the right contact information saved in their phone or buried in their email. Their reputation would need to be established enough that they'd be trusted with the scoop that, no, Kourtney's breakup with Younes was not amicable. In fact, Kourt had sneaking suspicions that some shady business went down while Younes was on holiday. Then, the caller would print that information in some magazine or other, and we’d head to the nearest supermarket checkout to read all about it. But it’s 2018, so instead we got this:
"Alexa play 'heard it all before' by Sunshine Anderson."
This comment by Khloe Kardashian, plus a similar sarcastic remark from sister Kim, appeared in the comments of a post by The Shade Room that documented Bendjima’s response to media fervour about the breakup. These comments were then spotted by Comments By Celebs, who posted a screenshot on their own account, blasting the news that Bendjima did the Kardashians dirty to their over 766,000 followers.
A recent piece in the New York Times laments the death of celebrity journalism, citing lacklustre profiles, softball interviews between two celebrities (instead of between a celebrity and a journalist), and, above all, social media, as the tolls of the knell. It’s true that access and reputation can, and often do, prevent a publication from delving into certain celebrity topics unencumbered, but they’ve arguably allowed for the rise of something altogether more exciting: citizen pop culture journalism, in which fans circumvent the assumed authorities (Us Weekly, People, E! News) to uncover and discuss gossip among themselves.
The Kourtney and Younes Split isn’t the only headline that’s broken thanks to the work of celebrity Instagram vigilantes. A similar process led to the discovery of Kylie Jenner’s decision not to share pictures of her daughter Stormi, and of flirty (but apparently hacked) comments between Cara Delevingne and Ashley Benson. While spotting a celebrity IRL used to be de rigueur for pop culture publications which have the resources and connections for a scoop, a recent flux of Instagram accounts and Facebook groups have decided to take matters into their own handheld devices.
It was clearly an untapped base.
"We started the account in April 2017, and really we just capitalised on the algorithm change," the two women behind Comments By Celebs, Emma Diamond and Julie Kramer, told Refinery29 over the phone. They’re referencing Instagram’s switch from displaying comments in chronological order to bumping the comments from verified and high-profile users to the top, and displaying them below the photos as you scroll through your feed. Diamond and Kramer were screenshotting interesting comments and sending them to each other before they decided to go public with a dedicated account. Now, they post screenshots every day of fun and noteworthy comments written by celebrities on Instagram photos, capturing everything from compliments to clapbacks.
"It was clearly an untapped base," Diamond told me, and followers agreed. By February 2018, the account had 80,000 followers — now it has almost 770,000. Those nearly 800,000 people also participate in the account’s mission, tagging it in interesting conversations and making sure to send tips of stuff that’s gone down.
"I think that we’re really lucky in that we have followers who feel that they’re very much a part of it, and they are, they’re constantly sending us things so if we did miss anything we get it sent to us," says Diamond. "For example, the Kylie Jenner lip filler comment that we did a couple weeks ago, that probably got sent to us like 200 times a minute after it happened."
Diamond and Kramer weren’t the only ones to discover a gap in the celebrity gossip market. The two Toronto-based sisters behind CoupleOfCelebs, a now-defunct (more on that later) Instagram dedicated to celebrity couple photos, also started their account due to frustrations with typical celebrity news publications.
"When we would go on celebrity culture websites we would see the pictures and there would be a bunch of corresponding text, but I never read the text that went along with it," they told Refinery29. "I would just look at the picture and I was satisfied."
They decided to cut to the heart of it, and began posting photos of celebrity couples along with succinct, playful commentary that people would continue in the comments.
Meanwhile, the Facebook group Who? Weekly, a leg of the popular pop culture podcast, boasts over 12,000 members who take to the group to post screenshots of celebrities’ social media and other media-based celebrity antics that no one person could possibly keep up with solo. It could be as simple as spotting a celebrity cameo or reference in an episode of a TV show to positing full-blown conspiracies about famous bloggers. Why, instead of turning to an established outlet that can present the facts, are fans more satisfied swapping unverified gossip in Instagram comments tucked away in a corner of the internet? It could be because traditional outlets no longer seem to deliver readers the information they really want.
Social media also gives fans something to do with the information beyond just absorbing it. Much of the joy of groups like Who? Weekly is the participatory nature that inspires commenters to build on the gossip with their own memes and jokes, giving an open forum for anyone to contribute supplementary information, related observations, or general feelings that don’t come with a straightforward news piece. In the end, the content produced in reaction to the news is often just as entertaining as the news itself.
Plus, there are benefits to putting your trust in social media sleuths. First of all, accounts like CoupleOfCelebs and CommentsByCelebs and groups like Who? Weekly are made up of armies of these amateur reporters — way more than any one newsroom could hold. They also hinge on hard evidence. Without a photo of a couple or a screenshot of a comment or a link to video, a post cannot exist. Plus, the seedy aftertaste of celebrity voyeurism is (for the most part) eliminated because celebrities have to opt in to the commentary. By putting themselves out on social media, they’re consenting for their content to be seen.
They trust us to be a safe space and that we’re by no means trying to just gossip about them.
But what’s interesting is that even if that weren’t the case, both CoupleOfCelebs and CommentsByCelebs agreed on their own editorial standards to avoid celebrity backlash.
"When we first started and we had no followers, we posted a picture of Paris Jackson and she was with a male companion and so we made a comment like, 'Maybe this is her new man'," CoupleOfCelebs' creators remembered. "And she commented something like, 'Why can’t I just have friends?' And it was that moment when we were like, okay, if we have this account...unless we have some sort of confirmation from multiple sources that a couple’s together, we’re not going to post them."
CoupleOfCelebs also wouldn’t post photos of celebrities in compromising positions, or that perhaps weren’t flattering. Similarly, CommentsByCelebs isn’t interested in posting anything salacious.
"We try to keep most of our content relatively positive or light-hearted, so there have been comments definitely that are juicy but we’d rather not do it just because it’s not the vibe that we’re trying to convey," they explained. It’s stuff like this that has allowed celebrities to feel comfortable interacting with their posts, and even showing up in their DMs from time to time.
"I like feeling like they’re on board because it makes me feel like they trust us to be a safe space and that we’re by no means trying to just gossip about them," Diamond said.
That’s something mainstream publications are grappling with too, as public appetite has shifted. Universal familiarity with social media has changed the conversation about privacy and consent. The internet is now a place where celebrities have heavily condemned the invasive photos of tabloids past. It’s not enjoyable to see a blurry photo of a celebrity’s child when that celebrity has been vocal about their desire to keep their family private, or, for instance, to gawk at an old photo of Lena Dunham when she’s taken to Instagram to reveal her struggle with her weight and body image during that time of her life.
Of course, not being an established publication with funds and partnerships has its downfalls. Shortly before we were scheduled to speak, CoupleOfCelebs lost their account.
"We started getting posts taken down," they told me. "A ton of posts taken down, and we couldn’t figure out why. We said to ourselves, 'I don’t get it! We’re crediting all these photos!' And after we researched it, you actually need to have a licence to post these photos even if it’s on a social media platform, and you need to be paying for every individual photo that you post."
While Instagram doesn’t comment on individual accounts, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that CoupleOfCelebs was removed for violating Instagram’s guidelines.
"Instagram takes intellectual property rights seriously and we work quickly to remove infringing images when they’re reported by the person or organisation who owns the rights," Instagram’s Brand Communications Manager Stephanie Noon told Refinery29 in a statement. "If a rights holder sees their image being improperly used on Instagram, they can file a complaint and we will evaluate and take the appropriate action."
The women behind the account don’t deny that they (unknowingly) broke the rules, but they are one of many accounts that posts copyrighted photos. However, their popularity pushed them into the eyes of the copyright holders, and the only way to maintain their status while still posting would be to pay up big time. A typical photo of, say, Ariana Grande on Getty Images can cost around $500 — and that’s just one post. (It's still not unusual for outlets like the Daily Mail to pay tens of thousands or more for news-breaking exclusive paparazzi photos.)
"You need to have the funds of an E! News and Daily Mail, you need to have their financial support," they explained. "You need a lot of money. You need to have an investor."
You get an unfiltered way people perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media.
Then there’s the fact that, as dedicated as they are, they’re not actually journalists. Before creating the account, Diamond studied communications and social work, and Kramer studied psychology. However, any scepticism of Instagram citizen pop culture journalism arguably mirrors how blogs were mistrusted over a decade ago. Jimmy Kimmel notably got into an on-air argument with former Gawker editor Emily Gould about a similar subject. He took issue with the amateur and unverified contributions to Gawker Stalker’s documentation of celebrity sightings, whereas Gould defended the vertical’s unfiltered reporting, stressing that people don’t necessarily read it because they know it’s true.
"What the 'Stalker Map' is is citizen journalism. People don’t read it with the expectation that every word of it will be gospel," Gould explained. "Everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all. What they read it for is the immediacy. You get an unfiltered way people perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media."
This was an answer to the untouchable nature of celebrity 10 years ago — and Instagram could be that answer now that blogs themselves have joined the ranks of the established and verified.
While still getting their footing, these Instagram accounts are laying the groundwork of what could be possible for the platform. CommentsByCelebs landed its first advertising deal, and Instagram has the benefit of putting posts into followers’ feeds whether they were looking for them or not. Followers consume that content alongside their cousin’s baby shower and a sale announcement from a store. Plus, with more people turning to social media for this reason, platforms may adapt to facilitate it. Could Instagram one day provide photo partnerships for accounts like CoupleOfCelebs to thrive? Could celebrities start giving exclusives to accounts like CommentsByCelebs, with whom they have a good relationship?
That being said, Instagram sleuths could never replace professional journalism, at least not as things stand right now. However, the two could definitely benefit from working together as digital media embraces and reports out the same nuggets these accounts are highlighting, often with hat tips to the accounts themselves. It's Instagram that's changing the landscape — as long as everyone else keeps up.