Blog Post

Has Life Become a Reality Show? And Is That a Bad Thing?

This morning I posted a photograph of the progress on our garden shed-cum-tea house to Facebook.   As the image was wafting its way from my Blackberry to my Facebook page, I wondered if my life (and that of my Facebook friends) has become a reality show?  


Well, sort of.  I've written a travel memoir before and also done ethnographic interviews for a book about the closing of the South's oldest furniture factory, so i know well the blurry lines between "public" and "private."   The content in Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji isn't everything about my years in Japan; it is carefully curated and crafted into a narrative about that life designed to be compelling and helpful to readers.   Similarly, the interviews in Closing:  The Life and Death of an American Factory don't tell every insight and emotion about the lives of the workers profiled there but, like Bill Bamberger's exquisite documentary photographs, give a slice of the life of a factory at its end, intended to help us understand more about that process and about our own lives.


Reality TV shows have many purposes.   I admit to being addicted to a number of the ones where the winner becomes famous and, basically, is given a jump-start (an enormous one) to a future career.   The combination of talent and performance, of originality and ability to conform to audience expectations, the talent at accepting feedback while maintaining individuality, and the incredible pressure to do all of this at top speed and in the public eye, not seasoned over years and years of trial and error, failure and success and success and failure on and on, is astonishing.  I find myself unable to look away.   The B-roll background material of these TV shows is as carefully edited as those I make in my own books, usually to make the performers also seem like good, real people who are succeeding, often against some personal odds.   Reality shows like Jersey Shore and the Housewives series are, of course, also edited to make a narrative, usually a sensational one.   It's all about the narrative.


The narrative on Facebook feels quite different to me precisely because it is interactive.  If I post the progress on my shed as it becomes a tea house, someone else is posting the beagle stretching out on the lawn, the opening of this year's amazing crop of peonies (I can almost smell them!), the pie just out of the oven, the adorable birthday cake crafted like a Maryland women's basketball player by the adoring graduate students, and other snippets of real life, offered without cost or expectation to any of us demarcated as "friends."  I smile.  I feel connected. Sometimes I like what I see or share them to my own Venn-ly intersecting Facebook friends, for no other reason than that they made me happy and I want to pass that random joy on.


Not all of it is happy.  Deaths.  Depressions.  Frustrations over books unfinished.  Break ups.   These too come some mornings like extended arms, welcoming the reassuring virtual embrace back.  It feels good to respond, not sanctimonious or costly, but just simply, humanly good to feel someone's sadness offering itself for comfort and being able to hope that the tiny digital gesture of empathy can make a difference.   There's something humbly awesome about the social contract in that exchange.


 And political opinion.   Legislative cutbacks to education.  Headlines.  Ranting together against stupidity or violence or inequality.  And then, sometimes, there will be an irrelevant, random wonderfulness that someone happens to find on YouTube, a snippet of song or dance or comedy, offered as a little boost to random Facebook friends who might be looking at one of these random acts of Internet kindness to lift a day.  


I admit I "like" it, in the Facebook sense of the term.   Yes, yes, the privacy issue is enormous and the targetted marketing and targetted content (that I contribute to, of course) of my browser all alarm me deeply.   I wish there were an open source worldwide Facebook that knew how to "be less evil" (to paraphrase the much paroded Google motto).  Yet, when I feel most alarmed, by life or headlines or the Internet or even my stumbling after the next paragraph, invariably I find myself returning to social media to find those low-threshold impressions of a social world I value and, I hope, contribute too.   It's a digital age contribution to a sociality that modern industrial-era capitalism has, in so many ways, ripped apart.   It's hardly perfect.   Perfection isn't the point, really.   Or the choice.    "Like"  "Comment"  "Share":  not a bad set of options with which to start a day.



For those of us who keep a low profile on Facebook and "friend" only those who really are our friends, the experience of sharing our reality is a satisfying one.  Of course, the Facebook algorithms can really screw us up, too. Take for instance the fact that if I don't click on Harry's site often enought, the algorithm decides that Harry and I don't care about each other and therefore fails to inform him that I have broken my leg in three places. Result? I become upset that, unlike the rest of my friends, Harry has failed to show the least bit of interest in my traumatic event.


If Facebook pages were really like pinning photos and fliers on a personal village kiosk, that would be fine. But it's not that way, and the algorithm is constantly finding ways to manipulate our virtual interactions with each other, changing the way we virtually interact in subtle ways without informing us in advance.


For this reason and my native dislike of being followed, I keep thinking of killing my account, just killing it before this business goes any further. Yet, despite my unease about the whole thing, I just can't quite bring myself to do it.


Yes, the tyranny of the Facebook algorithm. . . and the Yahoo and the Google . . .    The way our contribution shapes our content is fascinating (it actually accords quite well with the way I understand attention blindness:  in fact, I feel another blog coming on even as I type that!)----but my idea is that everything we contribute in life, everything we deem important, makes other things invisible to us (the point of the famous basketball player and gorilla experiment).   And my antidote to attention blindness is calculated disruption upon which to base stuctured disruptive collaborations, where expertise is based on contribution not credentials (the method of the open web).    But that means we have to find greater methods for subversion--a kind of dada-ist anarchic randomness of choices--in order to defeat the preferential content providing of the algorithms of search.   Next generation search might be dislocational rather than locational.


That's deep.   And, yes, as much as I grumble about Facebook (and Google and Yahoo and TSA scanners and surveillance everywhere I go .  . .  ) it is the tool we have at the moment, even if not the ideal tool of choice.   AT&T, the monopoly, was not our communications friend.  Time Warner is not our communications friend.   Their role is to make as much profit as possible.  Facebook too.   The formula is different even if the end is the same.   And I subscribe to the Internet adage that, if you're not paying for it, you are not the consumer, you are the product being sold. 


Thanks for writing.  I hear you.  Believe me.


I also find myself bothered by the privacy issues, the targeted marketing (Most of the time, my ads are about interracial dating, even though I do not discuss my dating life online - especially not with 800+ friends.) and the fact that Fb "owns" all of my images. And yet, I have re-connected with friends from elementary school. I have managed to stay in closer contact with friends from countries I've visited and lived in, whereas before, a letter that went un-forwarded or a postcard that got lost in the mail could scupper a burgeoning friendship almost immediately.

Aside from the social reality, the political reality "show" that FB enables is an important aspect to the site that we can't overlook. From people "donating" their status to argue for good causes, or creating fan groups to protest (the most recent being the CT boy who was banned from Prom for using school property to ask a girl to Prom, but was just un-banned, in part, b/c of the groundswell of support on FB and Twitter), Fb is an amazing resource by which to have substantive arguments about political issues, in a medium that resonates with a wide-ranging demographic. 

I have been on Fb since participation was restricted to certain universities, and I've seen the changes in how it's used and who uses it, and although I've not been particularly fond of all of those changes, I am excited to see how Fb users have taken the platform to argue, organize, fight against, fight for, and express themselves politically - and I hope it continues.



Hi, Kim, Yes, I wish we had better choices . . . but I also like what is possible with the limited and often really coercive ones we have.   Thanks for this response.  Best, Cathy