a tale of true tales
Posted: Friday, 09-Sep-2005 15:48:38 EDT
The boy, as was his wont, watched the man as he wrote. One day, he asked, "Why do you tell stories, Scriptor?"
"Why should I not?" the man answered, bent over his manuscript. "If I did not tell them, who would?"
"Why does anyone tell stories, then? What do they do?"
The man put down his pen and looked at the boy. "After all this time, you should know the answer to that. Tell me, wny do you think people tell stories?"
The boy thought for a long moment. "To ... to learn things?"
"To ... to remember? So that they don't forget things that have happened."
The boy thought long and hard. "To forget themselves. To hear about someone else."
The boy thought long and hard. "I don't know. Why else do people tell stories?"
The man smiled. "Because they like stories. Sometimes, it is no more complicated than that."
People ... like stories.
All sorts of stories. Fairy tales, action, adventure, drama, comedy.
Stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Stories that go on and on without end in sight.
People like stories.
People like real stories. True stories.
People, sometimes, want to tell real stories. And the most real story to almost anyone is their own.
One of these things is not like the others.
Curiously enough, that thing is "Cops".
What do the first four shows have in common?
The people involved are living their lives, or some significant portion thereof, for your entertainment and mine. They're doing it consciously, deliberately, with the full knowledge that rubes like you and me will be pointing at them, making fun of them, saying things about them that they will never in this lifetime want to hear. (Although it may be debated if they realize the full extent of this exposure, how comprehensive it will be, how much of their lives will be turned out for the public to view.) They're doing it because they're being paid, because they expect, one way or another, to gain for the privacy they lose. At the same time, they have no particular choice about what specific parts are televised, how it's presented. Once they've consented to having any of the experience televised, all of it is fair game.
The people in "Cops", on the other hand, have essentially no choice in the matter. Under the guise of "documentary television", their arrests, their putative crimes, the circumstances under which this all happens, all of this gets shoved out onto television whether they want it or not. (And it has been argued, frequently, that appearances on "Cops" can prejudice a jury pool; people too frequently go into a court with the thought that if they've seen someone arrested, then they must be guilty. However, the corrosive effects of reality TV on the court system are neither here nor there, at the moment.) These people cannot choose. They don't choose the editing, they don't choose the presentation, they may not even choose to participate at all. In that case, their faces may be somewhat blurred, but overall, it really doesn't matter. "Cops" presents some of the worst moments in their lives for your entertainment without their consent. The only way in which "Cops" is similar is that in none of the cases does the person involved choose what parts go on the air or how the public sees the events.
It can be argued, overall, that of these shows, "Cops" is in some ways the most honest. Leaving aside, for the moment, the class issue--barring epic disasters, the only persons you will ever see on "Cops" are poor and lower working class, because everyone else can afford lawyers good enough to convince Fox that televising them would not be worth their while, even should they come to the producers' attention--the people in "Cops" choose none of the experience and don't feel the need to live their lives, or any portion thereof, for someone else's entertainment. It's something that just happens that they can't control.
This is not to say that "Cops" is good or wholesome, of course. There's something deeply repugnant about someone being forced to have unpleasant portions of their lives presented for your entertainment. It's just less staged, less dishonest than the others. And, it can be said, in some way the people involved may be more "normal", because they're not choosing to present their lives for your entertainment.
But wait! Culturebox forgot to mention the most fascinating part of Big Brother: The Red Room. This is essentially a psychiatrist's office in the middle of the house. According to the CBS press release, "this room has a table and a comfortable chair. It is an inviting room in which the house guests are expected to share their BIG BROTHER experiences"--with, one must note, Big Brother himself. [...] "This is an important part of the program and therefore compulsory [italics added] for all occupants." ...[...] But still, the Red Room takes the nastiness to a whole new level. The point of Survivor is to get contestants to betray each other. The point of Big Brother is to get contestants to betray themselves.
Many people might say, "Well, yes, OK, if you're talking about Survivor and the as yet unaired Big Brother, maybe. But The 1900 House is PBS! It's educational! It doesn't have fake contests! It doesn't have cameras in every room 24 hours of the day!"
Well ... consider: How is having a family give up their normal lives for a month to live in a situation in which, barring major disaster, they would never find themselves any more real than sticking someone out on an island they'd never be on, competing in contests they'd never normally go near? Yes, the family learned a lot about the differences between 1900 and 2000, and what they would prefer and endure. (Actually, the one group of people, aside from the family, who probably learned a lot was the camera crew that followed them around, thinking all the while, "Thank goodness I get to leave here and go to my nice comfortable 20th century home.") The educational value, although present to some degree--and emphasized by the narrative style of the show, which persists in essentially jumping up and down and shouting "THIS IS EDUCATIONAL!" whenever the narrator speaks, is largely subsumed by the voyeuristic aspects. Although it's fascinating, most people probably really aren't watching "The 1900 House" to be educated.
It's interesting that the reaction against reality television is so strong this year. After all, it's been around for some time. Not in its present form, of course, but still: what else are talk shows if not reality television? The major difference (and one of the reasons that reaction against certain talk shows is so strong) is that on talk shows, within certain limits, the participants get to choose what they tell the world, what side of themselves they present.
Well ... yes and no.
An online journal occupies an uneasy position careening wildly between "Big Brother", "Cops" and both an unauthorized biography and an autobiography.
Big Brother: The 24-hour camera is you, the writer. Unlike the people in "Survivor" or "Big Brother" or (somewhat less definitively) the "1900 House", however, you also control. You control what goes out. You control the editing. You control the presentation. As the writer/producer/director/editor, you control it all. The web page is your Red Room, where you tell people whatever you tell them. Unlike Big Brother's Red Room, you can choose, at any time, not to speak, not to tell, without any penalty. Nobody will tell you that you can't pass go, do not collect half a million.
The other major difference is that you're not living your life, or any significant portion thereof, for someone else's entertainment. You're not arranging it so that something happens specifically for the purpose of winding up in the journal.
COPS: A real problem for online journalers is that for other people they know, the journal itself is like "Cops". Almost exactly. Depending on how you handle the journal, they may have little or no choice about whether or not they appear in its pages (or pixels), and exactly how they appear. If you don't tell them about the journal, they may never know that they're even being mentioned before hundreds, thousands of complete strangers. If this were a small paper journal, hidden away in your underwear drawer or wherever, it wouldn't matter, but it's not. It's public. Unless you take some quite aggressive steps, it WILL end up in a search engine, and, most likely, someone WILL end up reading some part of it. You may invite someone to read it, and the word gets out. Someone may discover it, link to it, and the word gets out. By its very nature, an online journal is a public interface into the journaler's personal life, and the people you know get dragged along for the ride.
The flip side of that difficulty is that if you tell the people in your life, if you let them have some input into what goes into the journal, how it reads, how they're presented, then it's no longer entirely yours. It's no longer your viewpoint. Let's face it; sometimes the people in your life will do things, and your view of what happened will be drastically different from theirs, and trying to present it from their point of view will simply be just wrong. It wouldn't be true to whatever it was that made you start your journal in the first place.
it's really just me putting my own unreasonable, emotionally expedient spin on my life and its participants before anybody else has the chance to do so. I am writing my own unauthorized biography and becoming semi-fictionalized in the process.
What is the point of biography? Conventional biography, studying or reading about or watching the details of someone else's life. Seriously, what purpose does it serve?
For historical figures, it may help us learn more about their lives and times. It may help us learn about important historical events.
But the plain fact is, apart from being required to read biographies as part of a course, the only reasons we really read biographies or watch them on television is because we want to know more. Because we want to be entertained and amused.
Let me repeat: there is nothing wrong with this.
"What's harder to explain is why supposedly privacy-conscious Americans are so eager to audition en masse for these shows or to gleefully spy on others by watching them. But Jeffrey Rosen, whose new book, "The Unwanted Gaze," is the definitive text on privacy perils in the digital age, feels sanguine about "Big Brother." It's "silly to huff and puff about wanting to watch lurid television," he says. "It's a human impulse." He adds that the exhibitionism of the contestants, even at the price of being humiliated in prime time, is also understandable in the post-Monicagate era. "Being on TV is now seen as more important than being a good citizen," he explains. "Bill Clinton showed that in a culture of exposure, shamelessness is a self-defense; no amount of bad behavior is embarrassing as long as you continue to be on television. The distinction between fame and infamy has been eradicated."
Someone once said, in another entry elsewhere, that online journals weren't like Entertainment Weekly or Us or People. That they weren't meant to be read that way.
But ... actually ... they are. Whether their authors mean it that way or not.
Think on it: those magazines purport to give you some insight into the lives and times of the rich and famous, right?
So what is the difference between People and an online journal? Doesn't the online journal purport to give you some insight into a somewhat more ordinary person's life and times and thoughts?
The reader and writer come to the online journal with radically different goals, of course. The writer wants to share some aspect of their lives with you, to reach out and touch you in some way. The reader may want to find out something about people who are the same, people who are a bit different, people who can teach them something ... but ultimately, it all comes down to the same thing, in different forms: people read you to be entertained.
Not entertained in a funny ha-ha way, necessarily. That's not the only form of entertainment, after all.
Oxford English Dictionary - entertainment
Entertainment, even in an online journal, is a highly reputable function.
Beyond entertainment, people read biographies because they want to know. Know more about that person, know what caused them to be the right person--or, as the case may be, the wrong person--at that place and time. What caused their lives to turn out as they did.
People want to know about other people.
It seems that, more and more, we're asking to see larger and larger sections of the everyday lives of everyday people. Reality television, published memoirs of people who aren't famous... online journals. They do pander a bit to the lowest common denominator, but I think they do something even more basic. They communicate the thoughts and actions of people who are alive and on this planet right here and right now. People who aren't making a living doing this. People who could possibly be you or me.
A difference between a tabloid magazine and an online journal concerns the right to know. The tabloid is frequently unconcerned with what people do, in fact have the right to know--absent actual crimes or some sort of involvement with the legal system or, to some degree, public hypocrisy, people have the right to know only that which is presented to them--and what people want to know--everything. But the truth is, unless the person has committed crimes, unless the person is a total and complete fraud, then the people do not have the right to know everything they may want to know. And unlike readers of a tabloid, readers of an online journal are generally content to know that which is presented to them. (Or are at least polite enough not to say otherwise.)
After all, unless they become stalkers, they have no choice.
What's the purpose of autobiography?
Usually, they're written by people of some note. Athletes or actors or politicians or whatever.
It's odd, really. These people object, and rightfully so, to the uninvited intrusions of the press and others into their private lives, and then they turn and publish extraordinarily intimate details.
Ah. But the key, you see, is that word: uninvited. By publishing an autobiography, a person is saying, "Come. See the parts of my life I'm willing to show you. Understand me." An autobiography is an invitation.
An online journal, in many ways, is the ultimate autobiography. Ongoing, with relatively little outside editing. A life, presented for your perusal. An invitation.
As much as people want to know, sometimes, people want to be known. To be understood. To be noticed. At least a little.
Webcammers--those people who voluntarily place cameras in and about their homes and lives so that almost every moment is broadcast live on the web--and online journalers share many of the same impulses. (In fact, many webcammers keep online journals and diaries.) It's the desire to open up some part of your life, to be known, to be, in some way, seen that they have in common. Of course, webcammers are frequently more exhibitionistic than your average journaler. When they're not your average journaler, that is.
It's interesting to chart the lifespan of some webcam sites. The webcammer will frequently start out in a rather sustained burst of exhibitionism, putting every aspect of their life out for you to see--sleeping, waking, going to the bathroom, having sex, sometimes even putting up another camera at work. After a bit, you notice a sharp divide. Those who do it almost purely to satisfy their exhibitionist impulses will continue on this path. Those who did it for some other reason as well may become disillusioned and either change course or shut it down altogether. For those who change course, the webcam becomes a sort of background noise--it's there, but it's not on as frequently, and it doesn't show as many intimate moments.
Of course, there are those who start a webcam and don't have that sort of exhibitionism in mind at all. It's far more difficult to understand why these webcams are put up. Although it's interesting to note that they're frequently linked to online journals.
Ultimately, a crucial difference between reality television and the reality web is in the goals. Both may want to entertain--although with the reality web, that's a more amorphous goal, and the degree to which it is desired can be (and frequently is) debated. But the people in reality television aren't generally trying to communicate anything more than that. Both the reality web and reality television may be done for gain; however, the reality web--at least, the online journal portion of it--is not generally done for money. Most online journalers will see not one red cent for the thousands of words they put in. The lack of monetary gain doesn't make it more noble; it just makes the goals different.
A critical difference between reality television and the reality web is that reality television is frequently less true than it seems. Situations are staged or contrived. On some talk shows, people may be lured on by deception. On some "documentary" shows, the situations are cheated--they either would never occur as they do, or there are guards that are never seen. (Does anyone think that CBS would really allow someone to starve, or come close to it, on "Survivor"?) People are forced to behave as they would never do in real life. But then, just like television, the real web can be edited, and generally is. The presentation of the real web can be just as selective, if less staged, as reality television.
The only concrete difference between the reality web and reality television seems to be in communication. Both seek to entertain, but people on the real web seem to want to communicate, to connect, in ways that aren't possible with television.
Ultimately, it's all about the stories.
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