There are more than a few things we owe the Dutch props for. Like winning a war against the sea or making futuristic bicycle roundabouts. Reality TV however, is not one of them. When entertainment company Endemol ran its first season of Big Brother in 1999, the public’s initial aversion to invading each other’s privacy was quickly overcome when audiences found themselves captivated. The seemingly off the cuff events became a spectacle more interesting than real life itself.
Nowadays we generally understand such shows mostly consist of scripted scenarios, driven by psychological insights and opportunistic manipulations, edited together so as to create comedy and tragedy. The players are egged on in various ways, some more subtly than others, voluntarily submitting themselves to the whims of producers whose main incentive is to milk every day of shooting for maximum drama and effect.
For many audience members, watching reality TV was a status-affirming practice, appealing the most to status-oriented viewers. By comparing themselves to the supposed “ordinary people” on display, viewers’ self-confidence and self-image was improved. There was a curious undertone though. Many saw themselves as the exception, calling reality TV their guilty pleasure. Despite often organizing viewing parties with friends, and eagerly discussing the previous night’s events at work and school, they imagined that the majority of the audience consisted of people of a different calibre, with different motivations. They assumed there was a segment of viewers more like the people the show itself presented: the unsophisticated, the impulsive, those lacking in self-awareness, who would watch with more sincere intent, rather than the superior detached irony the connoisseurs themselves applied.
Even though most of their favorite characters were just that, characters, encouraged to act a certain way by circumstance, gamification and other artifice, people assumed that if put in the same situation and subject to the same caricature, they would come out looking much more dignified. It seemed the best way to enjoy reality TV was to see oneself as the exception, not the norm.
It’s interesting to consider whether any of this applies to the subsequent new wave of mass entertainment: social media, with the birth of large online social networks and the meteoric rise to fame of Facebook and Twitter in the late 2000s. Once these products jumped from the laptops of bored students and office workers to the 24/7 smartphone-enabled pockets of all ages, they became a particularly insidious Big Sister of their own.
There’s just as much psychological manipulation at play, as the design of these sites was endlessly measured, tested, tweaked and optimized. For example, it was quickly discovered that putting more faces on a web page holds people’s attention for longer. People’s own pictures were strategically placed next to empty comment boxes, to create the feeling you were already part of the conversation, reducing inhibition. Instant notifications produced an addictive Skinner box-like effect, while easy to understand and advertise numbers such as likes and followers created an artificial incentive to entertain. The shared communal home page made way for the personalized feed and its targeted messages, filtered by reach, sentiment and reputation. People started to act like different, more stereotypical versions of themselves, more interesting, more adventurous, more successful than real life.
Like on TV, it’s all directed behind the scenes, controlled by producers who rarely communicate honestly, and instead treat their users like reality TV treats its stars: always with an ulterior motive, with nothing forbidden and everything permitted. Rather than a small minority of poor saps who are meticulously selected for everyone else’s amusement, it’s now open to anyone and everyone. The machine intelligence necessary to manage this kind of volume exists today, and people now willingly share in public what was once revealed only in private intimacy and confidence, to the great delight of advertisers and followers alike—friendly or otherwise.
Thanks to the scale-free nature of social networks, and the ever increasing role of microcelebrities in pop culture, people can become Reality Internet stars at all levels of fame, and the Endemols of the web are here to stay. As with Reality TV, it is cheaper to let the public produce the content, selecting just the good bits for mass distribution, than to try and produce quality material all on your own.