Portrait by Matthew Leifheit
Celebrities typically refrain from addressing the gossip sites that taunt them. But earlier this year, after bloggers accused Lady Gaga of tweeting a picture of a Metallica concert, claiming it was a photo of the audience at her ArtRave: The ArtPop Ball show, the pop megastar broke the fourth wall.
"Here's a proper pic," Lady Gaga tweeted at a gossip site, along with a picture of a packed arena. "Maybe the Madonna fans on your site can use a microscope to count the fans."
The tweet sent shockwaves throughout gay-and celebrity-oriented corners of the internet. After all, Gaga wasn't tweeting Us Weekly, People magazine, or even her archenemy, Perez Hilton. She had tweeted at Oh No They Didn't—a ten-year-old celebrity-gossip community on the archaic social media platform LiveJournal.
Oh No They Didn't has a cult-like following. Users submit all the content on the website (or copy and paste material from other publications, including this one) to the moderators, who then decide whether to publish it. Despite the lowercase headlines, typos, and dated purple-and-white layout, more than 22,000 people follow the website on Twitter, and according to a source at LiveJournal, the site remains the network's most popular online "community" in the US.
If the site sounds like any other gossip rag online, that's precisely what makes it unique: It was started, in 2004, by three black teenagers—Erin Lang, Bri Draffen, and Breniecia Reuben—who were looking for a place where "Black 'indie' kids who felt out of place [could] talk about music (and life) with other Black kids," blogger Rafi Dangelo has written about the teens. Youth of color contributed the majority of the comment threads. The site's mission, according to its founders, was to create a safe space where members could discuss pop culture with an authentically black voice without being exclusively black. Because users of the site both created and read the content, site members believed they were reading gossip "by the people, for the people."
This spirit resonated with fans, and Oh No They Didn't soon surpassed its niche audience. O, the Oprah Magazine, named Oh No They Didn't one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2007, and when Anna Nicole Smith died, that same year, so many users visited Oh No They Didn't that the community's server crashed.
But on the way to infamy, some believe, the community lost its original mission, becoming infamous more for its trolls than for its vision of a celebrity-gossip utopia. Today, few users even know three black girls founded the site.
What's more, according to Lang, Brenden Delzer and Elizabeth Carter, the two white adults who currently run the community, stole Oh No They Didn't from her and the other founders.
"They locked us out of our own site," Lang, who is now an aspiring actress and writer, wrote on her LiveJournal earlier this year. "i have tons of witnesses and screen caps. tons. but we cant take legal action. just spread the word that they are liars. im coming for their asses now."
Lang's accusations launched an online scandal this summer, when an anonymous user left a comment in an Oh No They Didn't blog post on July 6 confirming Lang's version of events.
"i used to be one of the original mods at ontd. yesternight [Lang's username] started the community," the comment began. "yesternight added brenden and ecctv [Carter's username] to the community as mods. BIGGEST MISTAKE!"
The user described how Lang had taken time away from the site because her mother had died of brain cancer. She explained how Lang made Delzer and Carter moderators and then took a temporary leave of absence from the community. When Lang returned to the site after a year hiatus, she discovered she had been removed as a moderator.
"what kind of shit stains of a human being does that when someone is mourning a loss of a loved one?" the anonymous user asked.
Delzer denies Lang's story and insists that Lang has exaggerated events to discredit his success in turning ONTD into a pop-culture phenomenon.
Did Delzer and Carter steal the community from Lang and the other founders, or was Lang a manipulative liar? We spent a year examining the many contradictory narratives about Oh No They Didn't and found out the truth.
Archival image of the Oh No They Didn't founders courtesy of Bri Draffen
Like many stories of whites allegedly stealing black culture, this story begins in the South. In the early 2000s, Lang lived in Mobile, Alabama, with her parents and brother. Her family had moved there from Los Angeles, where her father worked on television sets at ABC, and from a young age, she obsessed about the entertainment industry. But in the 1990s, after the Rodney King riots, they moved to Alabama in search of "a more calm, stable environment."
"I wanted to be an actress," Lang said. "I was really bored living in Alabama, so I would read about other people's lives, and it was really cool to sit around and talk to other people about film and gossip—but it wasn't always about gossip. It was about ticket sales and music videos, and it was about all types of things."
When she was around 17 years old she started gossiping about Hollywood on LiveJournal. She wrote on a personal account and also on Negroclash, a community created for black "indie" teens, according to Dangelo. "It was pretty much just alternative black kids."
Through LiveJournal, Lang met Draffen and Reuben. Like Lang, the girls felt like outcasts in their towns—Reuben lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Draffen lived in Kansas City, Missouri. Every day after school, the girls would read gossip and talk on AIM about the latest celebrity news.
"Being a person of color at schools that were predominantly white for most of my life," Draffen said, "since I got older, I've definitely sought out those connections, but with people who could commiserate, so that's where all that started."
One day in 2004, Lang noticed a post of hers had received about 150 comments and thought, Hey, why don't I start my own thing on the side? She spoke to Draffen and Reuben about the idea.
In the comments section of a post, Draffen asked Lang, "Erin, are we still doing that celebrity gossip community? HMM? Edit: I think we should call it ohnotheydidnt. Or not. Random thought. Sonic Youth & Le Tigre in Columbia next month? Anyone?"
Lang replied: "!!! le tigre!!!! we're so there."
Though the site was mostly made up of black participants, the trio also befriended plenty of people of other races on LiveJournal, like their white pal Sam Gavin. Lang made Draffen and Reuben maintainers and later added Gavin and other members. Maintainers can approve community members and posts, unlike community moderators, or mods, who can only approve posts.
Lang established the community's conversational voice in the first post, which was, in true mid-2000s fashion, about Britney Spears's relationship with background dancer Kevin Federline, or K-Fed:
hey guys you can start posting now. ignore the lack of layout and info.
lol @ Britney Spears buying her own engagement ring. They seem to be really in love. I was reading Entertainment Weekly (the most important magazine on Earth) and she in the interview they were jus so giggly and cute. She was the one that popped the question and he said no. then he turned around a few minutes later and ask her. Even though its really random and fast that they are getting married, i find it oddly romantic.
Users published scanned copies of magazine articles, lifted from other blogs' content, and wrote witty commentary about celebrities. In the first few months, the community remained small. "Back then, we were probably 25–50 young people on the Internet, at least 80% Black, and just shooting the breeze with our friends about celebrity stories," Dangelo wrote in a blog post.
The site became a full-blown online phenomenon when a user leaked Pete Wentz's dick pics.
"I was the one that approved that Pete Wentz story," Reuben recounted. "It was just some random girl that was like, 'Yeah, I've been talking to Pete Wentz, and he sent me these pictures.'"
Photo by David Keeler/Online USA/Getty Images
"I always think there are two types of people," Petersen told us recently. "People who want to believe exactly what the stars say they are and people who want to challenge those assumptions—and those people discovered how to display that in a way that's never been done before. The stuff online was so much more flagrant than any of the stuff even in the National Enquirer."
The new media revolved around Spears, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and, most of all, Paris Hilton—America's first reality TV star. Although Hilton's detractors criticize her for being "famous for showing up," Petersen points out that Hilton was far from our first socialite. New York gossip columnists, like Walter Winchell, covered the city's socialites throughout the 20th century, and in 1961 the movie magazine Photoplay's cover said "America's New Star" was Jacqueline Kennedy. (If you subtract JFK from the equation, Jackie O was nothing more than a stylish socialite who married well.) Hilton changed American culture because, for the first time, Americans were talking about a socialite more than any movie star.
Few gossip bloggers or Oh No They Didn't users saw Hilton and her peers as anything more than characters at their disposal, but Hilton felt their heat and understood the media world was changing: "It was like the first time people were writing rude things on the internet and lies about people," Hilton told us. "I was a teenager, basically, and people who don't even know me were writing lies, and just in the beginning, it was hurtful to read things that were just not true—but you can't control it. Someone's hiding behind a computer."
Lang and the other founders soon learned what Hilton felt when bloggers attacked her. Oh No They Didn't started with a utopian premise—gossip as a means for people to communicate, without the interference of advertisers—but quickly became a mirror for the way fame and money destroy people. As Oh No They Didn't became more popular, Reuben said, users became jealous of the maintainers' power and directed their jealousy at them in mean comments.
"People would just get jealous that we had that power," Reuben said, "even though it wasn't even a real power."
Reuben and her co-founders worked long hours monitoring the community, but they never received a paycheck for their work. In the early years, LiveJournal never even sold ads to display on the community. A maintainer had purchased a permanent account for the site, meaning that, according to rules established by LiveJournal, users did not have to see ads when they viewed Oh No They Didn't posts.
In October of 2005, less than a year and a half after founding the community, Draffen decided to stop monitoring it on a daily basis. She was now attending Kansas State University and had a job and real-life friends to socialize with.
"It became hard to keep up with the job of monitoring posts and keeping up with comments and dealing with people who were trying to hack the site," she said.
At some point, Reuben decided to leave the community too. Lang eventually left as well—but for entirely different reasons.
In 2004, Lang says, her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died four months later. Lang moved around and started taking care of her younger siblings. In the midst of this personal crisis, working for free for a website seemed ridiculous.
"Obviously I'm going to be depressed [while] going through real-life family stuff," Lang said. "I didn't really have time to be online anymore."
Two years passed, during which time Lang's participation on the site slowed to a trickle, by Lang's own admission. During this long absence, several users criticized Lang for failing to moderate the site on a daily basis. According to her account, Delzer and Carter, today's maintainers, belonged to this angry mob of users. Lang told them, "I'm sorry. I was just really overwhelmed, and if you think you can do a better job, why don't I add you [as maintainers]?"
They accepted the offer. Lang worked with them for several months, communicating with the other maintainers in a private group, but after she lost access to a computer, she stopped talking to them as often. Both Lang and Delzer say Lang occasionally emailed the maintainers to tell them she lacked a computer.
Lang didn't return to the community until spring of 2009. Still without a computer, she lived in Birmingham, Alabama, with Brian, another community member.
Lang knew she had created a site with a huge cult following. As a kid in Mobile, she dreamed of working in the pop-culture sphere, and her creation—a site run by black girls that wasn't exclusively for black girls—now belonged to that world. Done mourning, she returned to reclaim control of her baby.
I'm ready to start posting on this again, she thought.
But when she logged on, she said, she discovered that the passwords had been changed and the maintainers had removed her and Reuben as maintainers.
"It wasn't like they were like, 'Hey, why aren't you posting? We really need you to be on it,'" Lang said. "They just blocked me out."
Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images
What happened in spring 2009 doesn't surprise many Oh No They Didn't members.
"The crew that took over were all trolls," Calvin Stowell, a notorious former Oh No They Didn't member, recently told us over drinks at a gay bar in Manhattan.
Stowell would know this better than anyone. Today his face looks like a movie star's, although he has the body of an everyman, and he works at the nonprofit Do Something, but as a teenager, he acted like a troll. A closeted teenager at a boarding school in Vermont, he spent roughly an hour a day on Oh No They Didn't, approving posts during study hall.
Stowell never became a maintainer—he never surpassed moderator status—but he became popular enough in the community to belong to the Kewl Kidz, an exclusive community offshoot of Oh No They Didn't that Stowell said was composed of the "popular kids," whom he also called "the biggest trolls."
"I was never an inflammatory troll," he said. "There are people who think it's fun to be racist or homophobic or sexist on the internet—I think that's just gross."
Delzer and Carter belonged to the Kewl Kidz and shined more than other members, according to Stowell. Only a few of the Oh No They Didn't members we spoke to said they know what Carter looks like—and she would only speak to us via email or Facebook chat—but everyone in the community knows her for her Conan O'Brien avatar.
"She has had the Conan icon since as early as I can remember—literally since I was 14 or 15 years old," Stowell said.
Carter and Delzer maintain that their actions on Oh No They Didn't were for the best of the community. This belief led them to discuss removing Lang and Reuben from the community with the other moderators.
"It wasn't my decision," Delzer told us in a phone call. "It was me asking this group of moderators, 'What should we do? Because people are getting hacked.'"
According to Delzer and Carter, numerous hackers had attacked the community. Lang rarely used her LiveJournal, and they believed an intruder could easily hack her account. On top of this, Delzer viewed Lang as unimportant: "Nobody understood why somebody who was gone, who literally did not log on for two years, could help out the community."
"They hadn't been doing anything in the community," Carter said. "If their account had been hacked, ONTD could have been totally deleted. One of the other maintainer's accounts had been hacked, but she was quick to tell me when it happened, and I removed her powers until she was back in control."
Carter says she questioned from the get-go the decision to remove Lang and Reuben: "A big reason I was so hesitant, personally, was because I knew they had started it." But she thought their accounts posed a security threat. In early 2009, she says, they removed them as maintainers, but Lang and Reuben could still approve and deny posts. On March 9, they removed Lang and Reuben as moderators.
Reuben learned of their decision when she tried to log in to the community that same day. She instant-messaged Draffen to tell her the news.
"oh hale naw," she wrote, according to screencaps Draffen shared with us.
"What's up?" Draffen asked.
"BRENDEN JUST REMOVED ME AND ERIN AS MAINTAINERS OF ONTD."
Lang contacted the maintainers and asked them to give her role in the community back.
"They were like, 'Well, you're not contributing, so that's that,'" Lang said. "And I was like, 'Please.'"
Over a month later, on April 20, Delzer agreed to allow Lang back as a maintainer, but when she, once more, failed to participate every day because of her lack of a computer, he removed her again.
"I will admit that I could have been more active—totally," Lang said. "I'm not going to say that's not true." Looking back, she wishes she had never chosen Delzer as a maintainer: "It's my fault."
Since her departure, racial issues have become a problem in the comments section. A user in the Midwest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said racist tags aimed at black celebrities were an issue in the community. To solve the problem, maintainers banned tags about black celebrities, a decision that struck some people as racist in itself. The anonymous user told us, "People fought against that because they were like, 'We still have a Latino tag and Asian tag.'"
Lang believes Delzer used the death of her mother, and the effect it had on her life, as an excuse to remove her so he could take credit for her creation. But Delzer and Carter didn't take over the site until at least two years after Lang's mother died, a time during which Lang's contributions to the community dried up almost entirely.
"I lived with a single parent all of my life," Delzer said. "I grew up without a father. My father died, and I would never, ever stoop so low."
Lang nonetheless maintains she told Delzer about her mother's death shortly after it happened, but he says he only found out on April 10, 2013.
"I had no idea Erin's mother died until long after the fact," Carter said. "I would have preferred it if Erin stayed an active member of the community as a mantainer. I joined ONTD as a fun community... but when there are tweets and emails making fun of me, calling me racist, threatening to kill my cat, it isn't fun."
Photo by M. Von Holden/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Delzer and Carter were not necessarily humbled by the success of the community they took control of. The two enjoyed some major perks as leaders—for example, tickets to MTV's Video Music Awards, which they covered in a September 2010 post called "Liz and Brenden's Excellent Adventure."
Controversy and jealousy over the two accepting tickets and press passes to the awards show erupted in the community, which Carter addressed: "I have heard a lot of people trashing my darling [Brenden] for going, but if he hadn't have taken [the tickets], neither of us would have gotten it. It was a miracle we got a ticket in the first place and I told him to go. I forced him. So don't hate on him for that, seriously."
In a telling microcosm of the ONTD experience as a whole, Delzer got to enjoy the free ticket to the show, while Carter didn't get one (though both were allowed on the red carpet). The two interviewed and interacted with the celebrities they so often covered from afar (their photos and interviews are a time capsule of the who's who of 2010, with breathless coverage of the Situation and Jenna Jameson and Snooki) but also got to be the stars of their own post, covering their lives in the same tone they might use for their favorite celebrities. Carter ended the post by thanking the community members, saying, "I really want to take this time in the post to thank all of you guys for making ONTD what it is so that we could go to the VMAs."
As ONTD's success and popularity continued, LiveJournal decided to swoop in and take ownership of the community. During this time, Oh No They Didn't still operated on a permanent account, although the community brought enough traffic to shut down the site. (According to Stowell, whenever there was a breaking celebrity scandal, the amount of users logging on to ONTD would crash LiveJournal's servers, and NBC reported that LiveJournal's entire site went down during the death of Michael Jackson as a result of traffic on ONTD.) LiveJournal's corporate office complained to Delzer and the rest of the moderators and then took ownership of the community away from the moderators, seemingly so they could display ads. Reportedly in 2011, LiveJournal brought Delzer on in an official, paid capacity to stay with and moderate ONTD, meeting at their Burbank offices for the discussion.
Today, Delzer works full-time at LiveJournal in San Francisco. His job consists of multiple responsibilities beyond Oh No They Didn't, including contributions to LiveJournal Prime (the company's social media platform) and the company's photo file, along with maintaining a LiveJournal community called LOLcats. He says that managing Oh No They Didn't now consists of about 50 percent of his duties, but remains cagey about his work with the community for the company: "I don't know how to explain it," he said. "It's not everyday moderating activities so much as it is email requests and member requests and insights, and there are a lot of things I have to report to my boss that I don't feel conformable speaking with you about." Carter also continues to work for LiveJournal, in true beta form, as a volunteer, although she claims she has discussed working at LiveJournal in a paid capacity.
When we emailed LiveJournal for comment on Delzer's employment, CEO Katya Akudovich personally responded, surprisingly, indicating that the company may be more of a mom-and-pop operation than it lets on—or that they're nervous about the history of Oh No They Didn't. Akudovich has been at the helm of the company for only a few months, and her résumé is a roster of libertarian activities, institutes, and think tanks, with internships at the Koch-sponsored Cato Institute and jobs at the Cato/Koch-affiliated Atlas Economic Research Foundation and Students for Liberty. Despite these illustrious credentials, Akudovich's initial correspondences looked to be written by a Nigerian spambot account, and were riddled with emojis and exclamation points:
Thanks so much for your email and your interest in LiveJournal!!
I was wondering what prompt your interest to write about ONTD specifically? It's just one of so many wonderful communities that our users engage in on LiveJournal platform!!
Oddly, she claimed that LiveJournal had not, in fact, hired Brenden Delzer:
As for Brenden, he has never been hired as a professional moderator. There is no such thing.
Moderating is a purely volunteer thing that our user all over globe do. We as a company have no oversight into when and how that happens.
We asked her why, despite her cheerful denial of his employment as a maintainer, Delzer had a corporate email account with the company, and she quickly became evasive and tried to stall communication before cutting it off altogether. After two phone calls, Delzer also stopped corresponding with us.
Are people profiting off Oh No They Didn't? While much about the business side of the site remains cryptic, it appears that the answer is yes. In 2010, ONTD entered a partnership with celebrity-gossip network BuzzMedia (now called SpinMedia), which also published popular gossip blogs like Go Fug Yourself, Just Jared, and Celebuzz. BuzzMedia was excited about the size of ONTD's audience, and ONTD was ready for the potential promotion and the wealth of development opportunities and advertisers BuzzMedia could offer. Delzer explained the decision to partner with the company in a post on ONTD:
So, what's this Buzz thing about? Well, advertisers are fickle people. They saw ONTD and didn't want to touch it with a 40 foot pole. Tits? Penis? Cunt, fuck, shit, bitch, whore on EVERY page? No sir, they didn't like it. They wanted us to tone it down—I said no, ONTD is staying the way it is. I didn't want ONTD to succumb to advertiser demands and change just because some mattress or tampon company didn't like it.
Delzer defended the decision by arguing that monetizing Oh No They Didn't would allow the community to protect itself from advertiser influence, but users didn't buy this explanation and instead argued that selling the site would betray its premise as a gossip utopia where people could talk about celebrities as a means to escape real life.
"Exactly, why the fuck should i be excited over this?" commenter k0liverbby wrote. "Why should anyone be excited besides the moderators bc this means they can probably turn all this into a legit job. oh wow 'i maintain a site, by having the members that are essentially lackeys make all our posts~~~~!@@ and they don't make a fuckin dime."
Meanwhile, founders of the site like Lang believe that Oh No They Didn't's reputation as a community is now just smoke and mirrors. LiveJournal has monetized their idea without compensating the founders or the users who generate the content, she believes. And she has a point. Delzer compares the user-generated content to YouTube, but YouTube gives users who create popular videos a share of ad sales.
Some members have undoubtedly managed to use Oh No They Didn't to launch careers. Matt Cherette, a popular contributor, left Oh No They Didn't in 2010 to work at Gawker, where he essentially wrote the same kind of blog posts he had perfected as an unpaid Oh No They Didn't member. (He later left Gawker to become an early editor of BuzzFeed.) Stowell, meanwhile, has made good on his teenage hobby.
"I think being a troll really helped me with my career because you learn how to elicit emotional responses from people," he said. "You can make someone happy; you can make them sad or angry."
Stowell, Cherette, and Delzer have one thing in common: They're all gay white men. Gay men are minorities, but like straight white men, they learn skills that schools, families, and the media, perhaps, rarely ingrain in young black women. Or maybe they were just more ambitious and smarter than the founders of Oh No They Didn't. Whatever the reason, whereas Delzer recognized he could turn his after-school hobby into something bigger, Lang, Draffen, and Reuben never imagined they, or anyone else, could monetize their ideas when they created the community.
Over the years, the three founders have contemplated a lawsuit, but legal action would be difficult. Earlier this year, Lang spoke to a lawyer and was told she didn't have a case.
"Even to this day, it's hard [to pursue legal action] because it [takes] money that we don't have," Reuben said.
"I don't want to be a paid LiveJournal employee. That doesn't appeal to me," Draffen said. "I [just] think that credit should be given where credit is due."
Today, Erin Lang works as a waitress, and on one of her days off she stopped by the VICE office in Brooklyn to be interviewed for this story. She rocked pretty shoulder-length braids and an evil-eye bracelet, but looked beat from what she calls "post-traumatic Oh No They Didn't disorder."
"I've gone into boutiques, and the girls sit around the computer [reading Oh No They Didn't]," she said. "We were just hanging out with [a Pixar employee], and someone was like, 'Erin started ONTD,' and [the Pixar employee] was like, 'Oh my God!' I was like, 'You work at Pixar. Why are you excited?'"
At the restaurant where she works in midtown Manhattan, she sometimes sees customers reading gossip on the Oh No They Didn't smartphone app. Lang imagines—if she had never made Carter or Delzer a maintainer, if she had the foresight to monetize her idea—that she might work at a large media company's office, just like the one we were sitting in.
What bothered her most about the whole experience? I asked.
"Some of those people," she said, "have no idea that I even existed."