Life. Unscripted?

Curator's Note

As a child I distinctly remember being upset by Candid Camera:  “What right did the show have,” I thought, “to inconvenience others in order to profit from their unease?” So maybe I was a bit naïve about fame and unpaid labor but the sentiment has haunted me as American culture has become increasingly influenced by reality television.

And although the intertwining of media and deception is certainly nothing new, one might argue that the emergence of the Internet has allowed a resurgence in pranking that often revolves around representation and identity. From efforts like “A Gay Girl in Damascus” and the YouTube series lonelygirl15 to the Jimmy Kimmel “twerk prank,” we see producers developing stories that play with authorship and authenticity in storytelling.

It is against this backdrop that we consider a hoax perpetuated by Elan Gale during Thanksgiving 2013. While on a flight, Gale, a producer for The Bachelor, tweeted the passive-aggressive exchange between himself and a passenger, “Diane,” that quickly escalated into a note that, in part, read “Eat my dick.” Popularized by Buzzfeed, the incident spread before finally being revealed as a hoax.

In a certain light, Gale’s tweets could be thought of as the production of engaging real-time creative content that shifts serial storytelling onto a micropublishing platform. Simultaneously, however, the Gale “hoax” is perhaps indicative of a shift in the way Americans view themselves in relationship to the world around them as a result of exposure to the most recent wave of reality television.

We can use the Gale hoax to ask, “What happens when we begin to perceive our surroundings through the logic of reality television?” What does it mean to think of the environment as something to be manipulated in order to produce entertainment? To capitalize on situations, if not manufacture them outright? Used with skill and empathy the practice of deception can afford us new insight into the world around us but, at their worst, hoaxes privilege our perspective of the world as it already is, finding delight in the thought that we, of all people, know the “truth.”

With that I hand it off to fellow contributor Elizabeth Lenaghan to muse on  the implications of "catfish" becoming a verb.

Comments

Dustin Zemel's picture

Reality Environments

Chris, the idea of “perceiving our surroundings through the logic of reality television” is a very interesting idea, and I totally relate to the anxieties you experienced while watching “Candid Camera.” The ambush show (like all hidden camera shows) exploits the “authentic” reactions of individuals who don’t realize they’re in manufactured, and recorded environments. They are then often offered money in exchange for their likeness so the show can air their reactions.

The reality environment is similar in a lot of regards, but also something very different. Financial arrangements in reality shows are dealt with up front. Producers and subjects during production both actively work to construct entertaining personas or camera identities that, arguably, audiences are increasingly understanding as such. Refer to the “Jersey Shore” as a documentary in a roomful of undergrads and see what kind of backlash you get. (Sidenote: The shift in audience and participant understanding between hidden camera and reality modes is articulated somewhat by Irene from Real World Seattle who claims she didn’t understand what she was getting herself into until it was too late. http://vult.re/MlV3i5 )

Like you, I think control over the environment and identity are important issues here. You mention that this hoax might be “indicative of a shift in the way Americans view themselves in relationship to the world around them as a result of exposure to the most recent wave of reality TV.” I would like to hear you expand on this idea, and your thoughts on whether or not this effect of Reality TV has further implications beyond our abilities to document and air our real world experiences.

Chris Tokuhama's picture

Surveying the Scene

Reading through this week’s posts, I was reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem that I often reference when discussing topics related to reality television and contemporary engagement with media:

The show is not the show,

But they that go.

Menagerie to me

My neighbor be.

Fair play—

Both went to see.”

Although I might amend Dickinson’s opening line to suggest that “The show is not the [only] show,” I typically utilize the poem to engage students in a discussion about the content of media but also the way in which the surrounding culture exists in dialogue with the artifact itself. In part, I hope to have students consider the ways in which their watching or “interaction” is a form of labor that is increasingly becoming monetized by entertainment.

And the notion of watching—of surveillance—seems to be a theme that manifests in each of our cases so far this week. Returning to Laurel’s point about labor in her piece, Mark Andrejevic applies Foucault’s work on surveillance to online media in The Work of Being Watched (http://www.csun.edu/~pr4027/coms454/454Supp/workofbeingwatched-csmc.pdf):

Foucault’s discussion of disciplinary surveillance offers an approach to the question of power that seems particularly relevant to the development of the online economy since it focuses not so much on the repressive force of panopticism, but its productive deployment. The potential of the online economy that has recently attracted so much speculation—both financial and cultural—is predicated in large part on the anticipated productivity of generalized network surveillance. The power in question is not the static domination of a sovereign Big Brother, but that of a self-stimulating incitement to productivity: the multiplication of desiring subjects and subjects’ desires in accordance with the rationalization of consumption.”

Part of what Andrejevic suggests here is that the culture surrounding online media is suffused with the logic of capitalism and, as such, has necessary implications on viewing practices. Although I do not wish to intrude on Elizabeth’s topic, we see how the “rationalization of consumption” has spread in an interview with a Catfish producer on Slate’s Culture Gabfest (http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/culturegabfest/2013/07/the_mtv_se...) as she notes how she now looks at the world in terms of future reality television shows.

The online hoax, then, might be considered in the context of a culture that is largely concerned with surveillance of the self and of others; in addition to the quest for the truth that Dustin mentioned there also exists the possibility of pleasure in regulation and disruption. Many of our posts have touched on the concept of media literacy and thinking about the hoax in terms of production and although I love to explore the potential that this stance portends I must admit that I also remain a little cautious. Rather than be truly transgressive I often feel that the hoax further validates the overarching exploitation of labor—one might say “the work of watching”—even as it theoretically redirects the profit toward new forms of production.

As Elizabeth is having her students read and respond to this week’s posts, I am curious to see how they conceptualize and react to the hoax. In some work that I was doing with Business undergraduates and advertising, I often found that students voiced the opinion that it was the consumer’s responsibility to “know better.” Thinking about the online hoax, is it our job as consumers of media to evaluate the claims to truth in media events before engaging with them? To what extent do we delegate this responsibility to news agencies and is this trust appropriate? Is hoaxing harmless and/or have we just come to be more tolerant of (numb to?) being lied to?

Elodie's picture

finding hoax to find reality

Hoax is not a new phenomena in American culture. As a European person who lived in California, I do understand Eco’s and Baudrillard’s notion of American hyperreality. I am not saying that all American culture is neither empty nor fake, but a sort of fake shallowness. Like Dallas Royce from the sitcom Suburgatory. First she seems to be a trophy housewife, but she is a caring mother and very enthusiastic person. Another character describe Dallas perfectly :”under a giant pair of synthetic breasts, you can find a giant nonsynthetic heart”.

I think people admire those who can pull a hoax, just like magic tricks ( the movie :Now You See Me ). Is being media literate enough to spot a hoax? Every new media will have its Orson Welles “war of the worlds” moment.As an audience, how much are we willing to believe? Very thought-provoking post.

Elizabeth Lenaghan's picture

Student Responses

Chris et al: My students have had troubles with the interface recognizing/accepting their registration requests, so I’m posting these comments (and I may have more), on their behalf. I’m sure they’d love to hear back from you, even though they weren’t able to post themselves:

Carolina writes: Chris, in response to your last question, I say that only when hoaxing is harmless can we been numb to being lied to. When it comes to news like Jimmy Kimmel’s “twerking disaster” and Elan Gale’s twitter rant, consumers can easily forgive these hoaxers for lying to them. The stakes are not high and most people have lost nothing, except maybe a few minutes watching the video, or reading about the tweets. Instead, hoaxes such as these provide entertainment for watchers and readers. Harmless hoaxes result in tolerance from consumers, as they do not take anything away from them.

On the other hand, hoaxes with results that negatively affect consumers should not be taken lightly. Intolerance to hoaxes, such as that of Linda Walther Tirado, a woman who wrote about poverty and, as a result, received over $60,000 in donations to aid her in her economic difficulties, is encouraged, to prevent harm to readers. Lies in important news sources should not be taken lightly. When the stakes are high and there is something – even trust – to be lost, consumers should be sensitive towards being tricked.

I believe that, in the end, what matters most is not what is being said, but how it affects those who are reading what is being said, that matters when analyzing how hoaxes should be received.

And Michael writes: Great post Mr. Tokuhama. I was particularly intrigued by your discussion of how Gale’s tweets shifted “serial storytelling onto a micropublishing platform.” While in a novel the entire story is written down to be read at the reader’s leisure, in Gale’s twitter story he is able to control the pace of the action in real time. This is similar to how a TV show is able to break up the action into short segments which, if watched live, can only be viewed one at a time. Since a TV show can only air content at certain time slots given to them by networks, sets of consecutive tweets such as Gale’s are a valuable tool for authors and storytellers, who now have the ability to not only control the content but also the minute by minute pace at which the audience receives new information. These tweets could be indicative of a future style of novel, where authors release lines or pages at whatever speed they desire in order to heighten tension and better control the suspense experienced by the viewers. Would people be interested in reading stories conveyed in this manner even with the knowledge that it was a work of fiction? What would be the implications of such a novel?

Elizabeth Lenaghan's picture

Student Responses 2

From Carol: Mr. Tokuhama, regarding your questions about what it means to think of the environment as something to be manipulated in order to produce entertainment and to capitalize, if not entirely manufacture situations, I believe is already our reality. It seems like the more I look around, the more I find out that a great amount of what we are exposed to every day is manufactured. From images being edited with Photoshop to the extent that the subject in it is unrecognizable, to reality shows that claim to unravel on the go, when we actually know that every little detail is planned out ahead of time, the amount of manipulated material we are surrounded with currently is ridiculous. It has come to a point where I am skeptical of everything I read to be true on the Internet, especially when it comes to pop culture. Mediums like Twitter and Facebook provide us with the opportunity to instantaneously publish without any fact checking whatsoever, leading to an incredible amount of manufactured and manipulated information. My question is: is there or could there by any solution to this phenomenon? Is there any way in which content is checked so that there are no manipulations or manufacturing? Or are we past that and at a point where we will never be able to be sure again whether something is truthful or not when it is posted or seen on television?

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