Transforming Celebrity Blog Gossip into the Stuff of Fantasy

First there was fantasy baseball: competitions where participants buy rosters of athletes at the beginning of the season and watch their imaginary teams rise and fall in the “standings” based on the real players’ statistics. Then came fantasy football, fantasy basketball, fantasy name-your-sport, fantasy investing (e.g. The UpDown) and even Fantasy Congress—in short, a fantasy league for almost every public activity that generates a continuous stream of data. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that someone would figure out how to score the shenanigans of our beloved celebrities, from Britney to Brangelina, and make them fodder for a fantasy celebrity league.

The honor for achieving that feat goes to Fafarazzi, a creation of Somerville, MA-based Web startup Eastland Media. The name is a combination of “fantasy” and “paparazzi,” and the site itself is a gloriously wicked combination of celebrity gossip and serious mathematics.

Co-founder Todd Galloway, who gave a brief presentation about the site at Monday night’s Web Innovators Group event in Cambridge, says the site grew out of the dual realizations that existing fantasy-sports fans might enjoy applying the fantasy-league model to realms outside sports and that celebrity hounds can be just as intense about their obsession as fantasy-league addicts. “All of my guy friends were playing in five or six different fantasy football leagues, and as far as I could tell that was the only thing they did at work all day,” says Galloway. “At the same time, my sister Megan had just started a new job, and she said it seemed like the only thing her friends did all day was read the gossip blogs. Some friends and I had been talking about why there isn’t a fantasy league for real-world stuff, and so we started talking about scoring celebrity gossip.”

Great idea—but how it would it work? Celebrities don’t score home runs and touchdowns, after all. The answer, it turned out, was blowing in the blogosphere. For the first six months after the site was born in mid-2006, Galloway and his sister would monitor a set of celebrity gossip blogs manually, alotting points for every event in a celebrity’s life. “In fantasy football, a touchdown earns a certain number of points. In celebrity gossip, a dating rumor might be worth a point or two, but if you get married or have a baby it would be like eight points,” Galloway recounts.

The original scoring method was “fun,” but it was also both highly subjective and time-consuming, Galloway says. “So we started an experiment where we monitored the blogs automatically and based the scores on the number of mentions per celebrity. It turned out that it pretty much jived with the manual scoring we were doing.” So Todd and Megan (who run the site together) turned the work over to their software, which continuously analyzes the RSS feeds of about 40 celebrity blogs and news sites such as CNN Entertainment, E! Online, Star Pulse, and TMZ, and, tracking about 500 celebrities and awarding one point to a celebrity for each mention of his or her full name.

The pair now devote their time to business development and cultivating the community features of the site, which has “tens of thousands” of registered users, according to Galloway. Banner ads generate revenue for the company (although Galloway isn’t saying how much), along with the fees paid by the “commissioners” of invitation-only “VIP leagues.”

Players earn “trophy points” if they finish a season in first, second, or third place in their league. Members of VIP leagues can convert trophy points into Amazon gift cards, but everyone else plays simply for bragging rights and a position atop the site’s leaderboard.

Among the site’s other attractions are graphical tools that allow users to compare celebrities’ blog scores over time. I will admit to making a graph pitting “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isaiah Washington, now infamous for his allegedly homophobic remarks about fellow star T.R. Knight, against Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey, who allegedly came to Knight’s defense in a near-fistfight. (Washington’s numbers have sadly overshadowed Dempsey’s for more than six months.)

In August, Eastland Media launched a companion site for Fafarazzi called Dirtlocker, managed by Marc Hedegore from the company’s Cleveland office. The new site completes the fantasy-league circle by giving users the chance to trade on gossip about sports celebrities.

“It’s exactly the same model as Fafarazzi, except that our database is a lot bigger, with about 7,500 athletes tracked on 46 blogs,” says Hedegore, who also tends bar at an undisclosed location near Browns Stadium. “Fantasy sports has a pretty fanatical following—people spend a lot of time researching and analyzing their teams. For the people who are really into that, it’s easy for them to join one of our leagues, because they’ve already got all this sports information at the top of their heads.”

Eastland Media is a highly distributed company, with Todd and Megan Galloway and co-founder Chris Keller in Somerville, Hedegore in Cleveland, and Dirtlocker community manager Jon Sistowicz in Philadelphia. It’s useful to have the company’s center of gravity in a sports-crazy region like Greater Boston, says Galloway. “We’ve met a ton of people, and it’s very beneficial for us to be here.”

So, how long before Eastland launches a fantasy business league, with users bidding against each other for draft picks like Steve Jobs and robots scoring blog mentions on TechCrunch and Xconomy? For now, Galloway is staying coy. “Believe me,” he says, “we’ve thought about all the different ways we could apply this.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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