In an ironic turn of events, we recently stalked — er, caught up with — the creator of new NYC-based celeb-sighting site omgicu, Hugh Dornbush. Sort of like a full-time Gawker Stalker, after joining omgicu, you report your sightings on the fly, via text message. Likewise, the site will text you about sightings of celebs you want updates on.
Flavorpill: You call omgicu “participatory celebrity gossip,” where anyone can determine who’s worth knowing about. What’s wrong with good old US Weekly?
Hugh Dornbush: Celebrity gossip readers are still given the same stale news about the same stale people. We’ve seen how disruptive services such as Blogger, Netflix, or YouTube allow different types of mass media to be broken up and consumed by niche audiences in a more individualized fashion. But gossip is still controlled by a handful of tastemakers who determine who and what is newsworthy, and then they feed it to people. We can empower the consumers of celebrity gossip and culture to become the creators of it. We can say: I just saw someone who I think is remarkable for one reason or another, and here’s what they’re up to right now.
FP: Besides users sending texts to the site, if someone tells omgicu about a celebrity, you send another text about it immediately. That’s like a stalker’s wet dream. Aren’t you worried about a celebrity getting… bombarded by fans?
HD: Obviously we’re not aiming to promote stalking and I don’t think this does that. The word “stalker” conveys something far more proactive than registering for text messages. Stalkers are nuts and dangerous to be sure, but it’s just incorrect to accuse them of being quite this lazy.
Celebrity sightings have been happening since there were celebrities. The urge to share celebrity sightings when they happen is undeniable. We all do it. The whole nature of what we’re doing is rooted in a longstanding cultural phenomenon in New York City: it’s where regular people and famous people cross paths randomly. People have fun with that and we’re just trying to make it more a part of everyday life.
FP: To play devil’s advocate here, what if what you’re doing with this technology is creating an army of TMZombies and Perez Hiltons? Is that at all a concern you have?
HD: TMZ basically deploys professionals to go and track down and annoy celebrities, forcing footage out of them. We’re not doing what they do. We’re aiming to tell our users only about people they actually care about, and we’ll get better at that as our users share with us their preferences. Why should celebrities tolerate mercenary TMZ reporters and not their own fans? That doesn’t make sense to me.
FP: What’s your favorite submission to omgicu thus far?
HD: It didn’t end up on the site because it took place in Las Vegas, but Paris Hilton was submitted over the weekend. That’s our $20 bill on the wall above the cash register.
FP: In that same vein, what’s your personal top celebrity sighting?
HD: I’m actually not very good at recognizing famous people myself. A few years ago, I was playing pickup basketball with some friends and a bunch of strangers at the court on Canal and Sixth Avenue. I ended up guarding Jake Gyllenhaal for the next two hours without knowing it. My friends were cracking up, saying things like “We should play again… the day after tomorrow.” I just thought they were being weird.
FP: Any plans to expand the service for smart phones, so people can write more than a brief SMS, or send a picture, too?
HD: Totally. An iPhone app is in the works. I’m really intrigued by the real-time connections between the Internet and the physical world that mobile phones allow. Mobile phones represent windows into real-time happenings on the streets of New York, from anywhere. Regardless of your feelings toward celebrity gossip, that’s cool.
FP: I heard that computers are part of your family history, and that your dad worked on the team that developed the mouse…?
HD: Folklore among mouse geeks often traces its origins to Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, but that’s not the whole story. The first public demonstration of the mouse was at Stanford Research Institute in 1968. Xerox PARC didn’t even open until 1970, so that doesn’t check out. My dad worked on some early versions of the mouse at SRI in the early ’70s.
FP: Does your dad use omgicu?
HD: Yeah, of course, but he doesn’t know who many people are. Yet.