Unrelenting tyranny of reality TV

I can still remember it clear as day. It was almost eight years ago, over coffee with photographer Trey Ratcliff (a pioneer of HDR photography) where I theorized about hyper-personalization and how it would one day lead to what is essentially MeTV.

Having been an early adopter of social media, it became pretty obvious that the very idea of “followers” and “subscribers” was a new age label for what the traditionalists called, the audience. Whether it was sharing our words, links, or photos — we were essentially performing for them. The growing influence of the then still young social media platforms would give everyone an opportunity to turn their life — rather online presence — into a reality television show of their own. Anyone could and would become Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.

Trey didn’t think so — he thought most of us were creating movie reels of our life. He didn’t think we were performing. As an optimist who only sees the sunny side of the street, Trey’s arguments swayed me at the time, even though deep down I was convinced that we “were living inside our own weird version of reality television” and that “reality television can be ugly and sometimes too stark.”

I don’t think we should be surprised at all by these developments; it’s part of the bigger cultural shift. In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention. Narcissistic? Perhaps, but we’re living in this century and defining the ethos for the new Internet-connected age as we go along…..What I can tell you is that the technology companies that benefit from these big trends are those who provide platforms for sharing our lives.

Fast forward to now, and you can see that we are all living in what is a hot-house of Reality TV 2.0. In the Reality TV 1.0, we depended on television and cable networks to bring lives, often scandalous and crazy to the masses and talked about the latest twists and turns on social media. It seemed that social media was needed to amplify and engage with the original show. Reality TV 2.0, starts with social media, and the traditional media channels — both textual and visual — are left to the amplification and adding context.

The networks don’t script the shows. Instead, it is “sources who have gone direct.” Look at our president, who is playing the media circus so well with his daily missives. Vox editor Ezra Klein recently wrote that “in the hypercompetitive enclaves of cable news and social media, where only the most attention-grabbing, conflict-rich content thrives.” He is spot on, and look around you, there are others who are using this to good effect.

From Kanye West to Elon Musk to even presidential reality show spin-off, The Omarosa Show — they are dominating the front pages and monopolizes the airwaves. What Elon Musk says on Twitter determines tomorrow’s headlines, and the amount of time television devotes to other business news.

While some have argued that reality television became popular because it unleashed a latent need for voyeurism, the answer might not be as simple. Some psychologists believe that as we are increasingly disconnected from each other socially, we find “characters” most interesting. We have seen the characters become a leader of their tribes and their tribal enemies.

We have basically replaced the television reality stars with those who live on the small screen. Keeping up with our changing relationship with time, you don’t need an hour to watch the show — it takes a few seconds, scrolling through the feed and moving on to something else. The social media — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — give this sense of having a personal relationship with the characters. We as humans start to believe that these “reality” relationships are real relationships. The act of engagement is done in relative anonymity and that explains why we see the worst of human nature on naked display.

This need to put on a show is why you are seeing Stories — a Snapchat invention — finding more traction on Instagram and Facebook’s other apps. Public storytelling can help the storyteller become a star and in the case of some like Kendall Jenner arguably become a billionaire. So where do we go from here? Forget text-based realism, we are going to see more people use video — Stories — to share their stories.

There are 400 million people who use stories daily — that’s about 40 percent of the billion Instagram users. That number isn’t going down. We already spend over 50 minutes a day on Instagram — expect that to go higher. This is reality TV 3.0. Like I said, the tyranny of reality TV is unrelenting — we want to be amused to death or next show — whatever comes first!

August 20, 2018, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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