Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Television, Facebook, and Entertainment

-- By SamSalyer - 22 Mar 2012

Seeing Others as Entertainment

In 1993 the Review of Contemporary Fiction published an article entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” written by David Foster Wallace. Wallace, working from the premise that fiction writers draw their material from time spent observing others, spotlighted the effect that hour upon hour of television viewing have on writers. Rather than watching people, he explained, writers now watch television. And when they do make it outside their homes, writers have no choice but to watch people who have themselves spent hour upon hour being trained to adopt the too cool mask of practiced unself-consciousness – the omnipresent mask of television performers.

"We receive unconscious reinforcement,” Wallace wrote, “of the deep thesis that the most significant feature of truly alive persons is watchableness, and that genuine human worth is not just identical with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching. And that the single biggest part of real watchableness is seeming to be unaware that there's any watching going on."

Today the television voyeurism that Wallace confronted seems quaint. Television dramas gave way to reality shows. Reality television evolved from clearly “fictitious” scenarios (16 strangers on an island competing in obscure challenges for a cash prize) to shows with a much more complicated relationship with truth (a family navigating the challenges of being reality television stars). In turn came “news” programs covering the off-screen actions of reality television performers. Television watchers have been trained to be more comfortable viewing produced reality as entertainment.

This progression has moved beyond television and into social media. Once, logging into Facebook brought participants to their own “profile” page. Now they are immediately brought to a “timeline” page, filled with timely anecdotes about their “friends.” The site tracks user behavior and learns to show users more updates about the “friends” to whom they pay the most attention. But friend is a loose term. Many, if not most, Facebook users are connected to hundreds or even thousands of people. One time acquaintances or co-workers continue to appear as anecdotes on your Facebook “timeline” (and vice versa), even once the actual person behind that anecdote has become sufficiently distant that you wouldn’t say anything (or wouldn’t notice) were you to pass them on the street. We have all become each others' entertainment.

Seeing Ourselves as Entertainers

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace explains how screenwriters use a variety of techniques to reference the viewer within the show or to develop “in jokes” of which the audience (but not the characters within the program) are a part. At some point, television stopped pointing out to real life and instead became largely self-referential. When much of what viewers see on television is referring to or critically engaging with other things that have also been broadcast on television, the role of the viewer is simply internalize the program and draw the appropriate connections. In this way television trains viewers to adopt a “spectatorial posture” (and, as Wallace notes, when the average American watches five hours of television a day, much of their life is indeed spent as a spectator).

Similarly, Facebook has helped teach us new modes of behavior. Once we begin to see the constant information stream we are presented with on Facebook as a form of entertainment, we are encouraged to cast ourselves in the role of the entertainer. Just as television located the viewer in a spectatorial posture, Facebook locates the viewer in a participatory role. It makes the viewer also the viewed.

Reality television provided an early model for how an individual’s “real” life could become entertainment for others. Social media tools now enable anyone to cast themselves in this template. However, once we begin to consider ourselves as a participant in Facebook, what we choose to display about ourselves is heavily edited and polished. We present a constructed version of ourselves. This construction cannot help but be shaped by television – after all we have been watching five hours of it a day for most of our lives. It has shaped our national and personal ideas of what is attractive, attainable, and realistic. Among other things, television has taught us that “the single biggest part of real watchableness is seeming to be unaware that there's any watching going on.”

Part of social media broadcasting is an explicit acknowledgment that someone may be watching. People choose to make all variety of information available on Facebook, as if that information were limited to a small group of friends (a notion Facebook certainly encourages). Most users do not consider just how many people will have access to that information. Even fewer contemplate the uses Facebook itself (or another entity) might find for that information. Even when confronted with this information, most chose not to internalize it. Part of being a successful entertainer, of being watchable, is not to acknowledge just who all might be watching.

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r2 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:54 - IanSullivan
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