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Communities and Web 2.0

Reality television fandom on social media: A community of Web 2.0

Abstract

This paper discusses the communities formed around reality television and their foundations on social networking sites. Reflecting the participatory nature of Web 2.0 and technological convergence, these fan run forums have changed the power balance between consumers and producers. Despite the many social, economic and marketing benefits these platforms provide to the viewers, contestants and broadcasters of reality television, the ease of access to ‘stars’ and feelings of intimacy reveal a dark side.

Introduction

In the 21st century, communities look different; there are many more, less limited by geographical proximity, oft passion-centric and largely virtual. The use of the internet as a site for community is a key facet of its very utility, an aspect magnified by social networking sites. An outcome of Web 2.0’s conception includes a drastic power shift. Media is no longer solely a dictated thing by producers because consumers have been given platforms to express opinion and a sense of agency and influence. Television is one of the most active form of media within social networking sites, specifically, reality television and Instagram (McBride, 2015). Reality television shows use of social media as an extension of content and this site of community exemplifies the reciprocity participation of Web 2.0, to both the benefit and detriment of members. These communities include not only the fanatical audience leading discussions, but the broadcasters, cast and crew. Broadcasters realised the untapped potential of a social media community providing unbiased reviews and free promotional material, transforming it from frivolous fun to a genuine forum. Audience members have a gathering place to express their opinions and share their common passion, exemplifying all traits necessary for an authentic community. Cast members of reality television shows find themselves with more career opportunities and offers due to strong social media followings as the boundaries between celebrity and audience collapse. Unfortunately, the convergence of mediated television characters and the real-life stars results in blurred lines of appropriate versus inappropriate commentary by fans. The direct line of access social media provides to audiences is a double-edged sword; the stars receiving both love and hate unfiltered. McBride (2015) points out that “the entertainment industry lends itself to pop culture and social conversations”. Not only has reality television thoroughly infiltrated both via their online social networks, the resulting virtual communities have revolutionised the media paradigm and social practices irrevocably reforming the relationships between viewers, contestants and producers.

What makes a community?

Some early scholars of the internet were adamant in their claims that there was no possibility for the web to serve as a virtual host of authentic communities (Hampton and Wellman, 2018). These scholars may have to reluctantly eat their words. Though they present a different façade and operate without traditional face-to-face contact, online communities are just as valid and source of belonging as their offline counterparts. Hampton and Wellman (2018) astutely note this panic, “before we hated smartphones, we hated cities” diagnosing the perpetual dissent surrounding new sites of communication and comradery. Instead of being bonded due to geographic proximity, virtual communities are generally “passion-centric” with a shared interest in something serving as focal point of discussion (Porter, 2015). However, without a distinct sense of community a group of people gathering on similar online platforms is just a virtual settlement. The criteria for this ‘sense’ includes a feeling of membership, ability to exert an amount of influence, integration, fulfilment of needs and shared emotional connection (Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev, 2011). Fans of reality television with access to the internet and a social networking site can easily fulfil these requirements, yielding the satisfaction of contributing to and consuming community fruits.

The nature of social networking sites such as Instagram was initially ego-centric, focusing on profiling an individual person. In recent years, the original intention has been skewed with an additional wing of microblogging developing, with pages that produce specific content in order to reach out to like-minded individuals and engage them (Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev, 2011). Broadcasting networks followed suit and cultivated their television audience into an online following. The social networking pages of programs utilising the reality television format thrived, (Holt, 2017) and thus have some of the most active and engaged accounts.

Community membership as identity markers

In belonging to specific groups, individuals can affix their membership to an aspect of self-description (Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev, 2011). Integration into a community serves as a marker for identity; “I am 21 years old, an Australian, a female, a fan of Survivor”. Adhering to Erving Goffman’s theory of performative identity, people display differing attributes depending on context and act accordingly to the environment they are in (1959). Thus, individuals who are members of a reality television virtual community can feasibly be seen as similar in that they share a common passion, discourse, place of digital occupancy and knowledge of characters. Members of the community understand and are able to utilise their specific reality television terminology on page discussions, using words that may be nonsensical to non-members. “Shontent” sounds like gibberish to those not familiar with the Australian Survivor Instagram page- a portmanteau of “Shonee”, a contestant of the show and “content” is used when referring to memorable moments in which Shonee Fairfax acts humorously. Phrases like “Rose Ceremony” and “Blind Audition” would make little sense without knowing the context they are lifted from (Bachelor/Bachelorette and The Voice respectively). Use and understanding of this referential language exemplifies an individual’s authentic involvement in the community.

Open forums such as dedicated Instagram pages serve as a setting for fans to express opinion, discuss recent development and speculate, fact check and attain knowledge without regard for physical location, providing sanctuary for those who have no others around similarly interested. As is with all communities, contribution is not equal amongst all with some fans spearheading discussions often, contributing loudly and others quietly liking and observing (Aguiton and Cardon, 2007). McBride (2015) notes that “social media is transforming television back into what it was always intended to be: a social, communal experience.”

Broadcasters benefit

It is statistically proven that television shows with a strong social media presence perform better in ratings counts than those without (Holt, 2017). In a world of increasingly shortened attention spans, audiences often require stimulation from multiple sources simultaneously to stay involved and it is up to broadcasters to ensure their viewers are kept captive by producing interesting social media content that they can interact with (Aguiton and Cardon, 2007). Tools embedded in the Instagram platform are used to great success on reality television profile such as polling, Q&A’s, Instagram stories/live, countdowns and fan voting. Utilising such features perfectly exemplifies the shift in power from producers to consumers caused by Web 2.0 participatory nature as well as transforming methods of marketing, advertisement and promotion. In addition to markedly improved ratings and facilitating a more engaged viewership, broadcasters reap the benefits of having access to the unfettered opinion of their audience, their demographics and watching trends (McBride, 2015). Media analytics corporations are paid millions to dissect the social media presence of a television show in order for broadcasters to cater more specifically to the preferences of their exact audience and garner a larger following with effective marketing (McBride, 2015).‘Citizen critics’ proved to be a cheaper, more authentic and useful form of feedback than any focus group or professional reviewer could possibly. Presence of a social media page for a television program has developed from negligible to non-negotiable within the span of a few years.

Reality television celebrity

Convergence has been a cornerstone of contemporary culture (Burgess, 2017). The amalgamation of differing technologies has produced altered social practices. One such technological hybrid is the coalescence of reality television programs and social networking platforms, culminating in a collapse of boundaries between celebrity and ordinary audiences. The ubiquitous nature of mobile phones (and subsequently social media apps), and trend of ‘authentic online self-representation’ means ordinary individuals feel a certain level of entitlement and familiarity with the personal life of virtual strangers (Porter, 2015). Even now, with the presence of social media, the world of high-class celebrity is fundamentally removed from their audience and the relationship is hardly reciprocal. People are used to interacting with detached mediated personalities, feeling they know celebrities intimately and can discuss them as such (Stefanone, Lackoff and Rosen, 2010). However, the line between reality television stars and ordinary audiences is relatively thin at the outset; cast members are stars plucked at random from the same obscurity their audiences dwell in.

Intimacy: imagined and actual

Reality television is described by Bente and Feist as ‘affect TV’, publishing ‘‘the most private stories of non-prominent people to a mass audience, crossing traditional borders of privacy and intimacy’’ (2000, p. 114).  Stefanone et al. (2010) note that reality television often centres itself around the thoughts and interactions of its characters, encouraging them to “ritualistically disclose their private feelings in confessions” to the audience, making them viewers feel as though they are “in on a secret”. Intimacy has no real reliance on physical presence and proximity, being a “dialectic of mutual self-disclosure” (Jamieson, 2013). Through the sharing of feelings and stories promoted by both the stars television show and Instagram page, ambient audiences tend to feel authentically close to these people with whom they have never interacted. Web 2.0 has not only allowed, but actively encouraged the participation of lay people on the internet, fundamentally shifting the relationship of producer and consumers from passive to active (Darwish and Lakhtaria, 2011). Because of this being a relatively new development, active audience participants in the media environment seem to forget that their words will hit the people they are targeted at. There is thus a conflicting practice of viewing someone with a lens of intimacy and personal knowledge whilst simultaneously treating them like a fabricated character.

Imagined intimacy is not a new facet in fandom; it may be considered its linchpin. As with communities built around a central topic, discussions of reality television hold high court in fandoms; programs and their stars somewhat deified. Occurring as a by-product of interacting with an ambient audience, fans feel they hold a real stake in the lives of their idols and core content. Scholars (somewhat cynically) instead believe that the celebrities and producers care more for the statistics and tangible validation than their fans personal feelings (Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington, 2007) The apparent mutual exclusivity of promotion and authenticity actually operate simultaneously within fandom, with fans both consciously aware of the ulterior motives of stars and network and willing to believe they do know the stars on a real level (Lam and Raphael, 2017).

Ramifications of fame

Many reality television stars find themselves a modest level of fame after appearing on their respective program, with some applying for this very reason. Contestants who are portrayed positively generally garner a significant following on social media and can finesse this level of celebrity into a media career for themselves. Instagram followers are now a tangible currency that can be exchanged for exposure, monetary gain and sponsorship. For example, Angie Kent, originally of Gogglebox fame, has since finagled herself onto I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, The Bachelorette, Dancing with the Stars, and become a regular feature on Australian screens. David Genat, recent winner of Survivor All Stars was beloved by audience for his devious antics on the show has branded himself a merchandise line, regular appearances on podcasts and radio as well as multiplying modelling gigs.

Conversely, the scale may tip the other way and actions or editing portrayal results in reality television stars being defamed and subject to immense amounts of online bullying (Stefanone, et al. 2010). Even prior to social media, reality television stars such as Jade Goody from Big Brother UK 2002 were open for mockery by mainstream media with prominent television hosts such as Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross openly ridiculing her on air (Moore, 2019). The easy and essentially universal access to these celebrities via social media infinitely worsened their predisposition to ridicule. Programs such as the Bachelor and Married at First Sight are particularly notorious for this as they present the women characters as “socially aggressive, insult-flinging mean girls” thus exposing them to similar treatment used to combat villains in real life on social media. Abbie Chatfield from the 2019 season of The Bachelor reports being ‘vilified’ by the editing process and was subsequently brutally lambasted on social media (Tam, 2020). Whilst her Survivor All Stars co-star was praised, Sharn Coombes was subjected to horrible online commentary on Instagram, to the point where her co-star, fan favourite David Genat had to publicly plea with audiences to stop harassing her. The mostly unchecked online forum of Instagram can be the site of both great communities and sharing and poisonous destructivity. Globally, over 38 suicides committed by reality television stars have been recorded in recent years, most due to intense online bullying (Evans, 2019). The underbelly of these fanatic communities displays not only the horrible ramifications for the cast of such shows but how the audience culture of seemingly inconsequential “discussions” and barbed comments allowed it. By participating in blatantly inflammatory discussions about real life people, on pages where they are fully aware the subject can see, audiences become numb, if not tolerant, to disrespect, bullying and persecution of strangers, a trend that can lead nowhere positive.

Conclusion

Chikweche (2014) states that “the convergence of a variety of television formats and social media platforms has fuelled the increasing appetite for new reality tv programs that are closely embedded in social media.” Web 2.0’s allowances has intertwined social networking and reality television completely, forming communities in which the programs live and die by. These communities are incredibly beneficial to broadcasters, their stars and fans for many reasons, all sectors contributing and consuming the various fruits of being involved in a community. However, they also suffer the consequences of distal community involvement, some which are incredibly serious. The collapse of boundaries between celebrity and ordinary people in both concept and ease of access has produced confusion in audiences. The dichotomy of interacting with a televised character and their real-life counterpart sees fans speaking as though they are distant and intimate simultaneously.

References

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17 replies on “Reality television fandom on social media: A community of Web 2.0”

Hi Melissa,

I greatly enjoyed reading your paper. For someone who doesn’t engage much with reality television i found this very interesting. i liked how you brought up how the use of social media brings greater engagement between the producers and the audience though polls ect and how ‘citizen critics’ were used 🙂

be sure to check out my article on web2.0 and information at

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/15/communities-are-web2-0-without-them-were-info-less/

Thanks Charles!

It is interesting to see how Web 2.0 communities have tipped the scales of power in realms such as broadcast television. I’m glad you learnt something new! I’ve just left a comment on your paper too.

Hey Melissa,

You’ve chosen a really interesting subject to write about, and I thought you tackled it really well. Like Charles, I’m also not a huge fan of reality TV, but I think that’s why I found it interesting, because it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about.

I thought your look into the blurred lines between fans and stars was interesting, in part because it’s relevant to my paper on music communities, and also because reality TV stars are supposedly ordinary people, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, so they’re likely to have difficulties in the way they handle that fame and interaction in these communities. Quite a different scenario to other celebrities who tend to have far more pronounced barriers between them and their fans.

I also thought your mention of ratings disparity between shows with social media presence and those without was interesting. I’d be interested to explore that a little bit – it seems counterintuitive to me because network TV is a dying platform, particularly among young people so I would have expected that shows with higher ratings would actually be those that are targeted at older audiences and therefore be unlikely to have social media presence. Surprising to read that it’s the other way round.

I’m glad that you wrote about the mental health risks for reality stars. As a keen observer of UK politics and culture, I’ve seen some pretty recent and disturbing stories of UK reality celebs committing suicide – particularly stars from a show called Love Island. It raises really important issues around that increasingly slimming line between utilising social media as a minor celebrity to cultivate a career, or having your life completely destroyed by it.

Thanks for linking me to your paper and well done!

Hey Melissa,
I found your paper to be very interesting as I am a fan of realty tv and often participate in online communities for these shows. You brought up the point of some reality stars becoming vilified because of the way they are edited on the show. I thought this was particularly interesting especially as social media has propagated the negative impacts of this as these reality stars are often subject to online hate by these communities. You opened up a discourse about how this in turn has led to increased suicide rates of these celebrities. Recently, Love Island UK has been heavily criticised after the suicides of the former host, Caroline Flack and two former contestants, and many people have called for the show to be cancelled. As such I want to ask you if you think it should be the responsibility of the show to look after the mental health of the cast after the show ends? And do you think there are any ways to reduce the negative impacts of these online communities?

If you were interested in reading about how communities have become strengthened during COVID-19 you can read my paper here: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/social-network-sites-support-connections-and-communities-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/#comments

Thank you,
Ash-le.

Hi Melissa,
I enjoyed reading your paper and found the topic interesting as someone who used to be an avid reality TV viewer. I agree with Ash-Le who mentioned the vilification of certain people on reality TV and the idea of constructed reality rather than true and transparent reality. The basis of reality tv shows to be entertaining storylines makes it necessary for them to mimic other television shows – to have heroes, villains and elements of drama and emotion. The lack of say reality show participants have in their portrayal which is largely done through post production editing raises the question if there is a moral obligation to participants whether it is to give them a ‘heads up’ before airing? I’m not sure about the content of the contracts when they sign up to be on reality TV shows – do you think contestants accept the possibility that they will be portrayed inaccurately but the opportunity is too good to pass up?

As I mentioned, I used to be an avid reality TV watcher however not so much anymore. Despite the surface level entertainment, the storylines on these shows and characters are constructed and manipulated and edited to fit and tick the desired reality TV boxes.

Additionally as Simon and Ash-Le mentioned, the negative and toxic culture that is created from these shows, most notably Caroline Flack the host of Love Island UK who heartbreakingly committed suicide earlier this year. Do you think that these shows and potentially networks themselves should have the moral and legal obligation to support the cast after the airing of the show and if they should have a transparent and comprehensive discussion with a potential contestant before the contract is signed about the ins, outs and expectations of life post show.

Feel free to check out my paper on the ways Web 2.0 affordances on Instagram has enabled performance of different identities 🙂 https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/communication-and-collaboration-through-web-2-0-affordances-on-virtual-online-communities-for-expression-of-identity-performance-of-identity-on-instagram/

Thanks,
Amy

Hi Amy, thanks for commenting!

I think that, though contestants are likely aware they will be edited to fit a storyline and may face backlash, it is different to intellectually know this and actually experience it. I imagine they think they will be able to handle it and are unprepared for the reality of mass opinion.

As I mentioned to Ash-le, I think programs definitely have the responsibility to both brace contestants for the reality of post-show life and provide mandatory and comprehensive support facilities. They have to be holding themselves to account and care properly for people who may suffer because of their production, whether they consciously knew about the risk or not.

Hi Melissa,
Thanks for your response and answering my questions! Feel free to read my paper. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Cheers,
Amy

Hi Melissa,
Thanks for your response to my questions and I hope you can check out my paper!

Cheers,
Amy

Hi Ash-le, thanks for commenting!

I did want to mention Love Island and Caroline Flack in my paper but found myself running to close to word limit- I also know that Caroline Flack’s death had many other factors involved than just the show, I believe she was in a domestic abuse lawsuit at the time of her death.

I definitely believe that reality television shows should take better care of their stars after they leave! They have quantifiable evidence of the damage these shows can do to their contestants and should take a measure of responsibility for that and provide facilities so they can deal with the negativity.

I’m sure there are ways to reduce negativity in online communities that people are looking into. The thing is, since social media platforms like Instagram aren’t heavily policed for online bullying it’s really more a case of changing the thoughts around it- preventing the idea taking hold rather than punishing perpetrators after the fact.

Hi Melissa,
Your paper was brilliant in the way that it explored the functions and practices of online reality TV fan communities. As someone who has participated extensively in a reality TV community for around 6 years now, I have definitely witnessed a lot of the points you discussed. I really enjoyed reading your take on social media as an extension of content and as a means of creating digital intimacy for fans.

I was particularly fascinated by the point you made about the shift in power whereby consumers gain agency and influence. It’s especially interesting how citizen critics and fan feedback can play such a major role in reality TV shows. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on the way cancel culture has impacted reality TV. Public outcry has removed episodes from re-run rotations, villainised cast members based on heavily-edited representations and in some cases, even caused shows to be cancelled entirely. Do you think citizen critics can be threatening for reality television producers?

Kind Regards,
Kiralee.

Hi Kiralee,

I’m glad you enjoyed reading! Cancel culture and waves of public opinion people seem to get caught in are very damaging- not only to broadcasters and the contestants but the people propagating it. It seems to cultivate a culture of “one false move” and unforgivingness.

I think citazen critics are definitely threatening for reality tv producers as they generally have no ulterior motive for their opinion and are generally considered the most authentic perspective. If they have negative opinions, they tend to catch on to the rest of an audience and can upset a whole production.

Hi Melissa,
I agree wholeheartedly that cancel culture can be very damaging. I have certainly witnessed people boycotting shows solely because of a mistake made by a cast member or producer of a reality show.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!
Kiralee.

Thanks Simon!

The disparity between reality stars and “proper” celebrities and how they interact with their fans is really interesting to me as it’s really just a faux pedestal they are put on- they’re given the expectations of regular celebrities but none of the tools to deal with it.

That is definitely a key reason for the mental health issues I believe- I couldn’t really discuss reality television and social media without mentioning that. I’m glad you mentioned the issues with Love Island UK specifically! I wanted to add in the suicides of 3 the stars but they are included within the number of deaths mentioned. The host Caroline Flack also recently died by suicide but I was unsure whether to add that in as there seems to be too many factors involved rather than just the show.

I was also surprised by the connection between broadcast television ratings and social media. I suppose television use is really only decreasing in the younger demographic and plenty of millennials and gen X would fit in a group that both watches tv and is comfortable using social media.

Hello Melissa,

What an interesting and informative paper! I really enjoyed reading it as you backed up your points with very good research. Well done!

As you mentioned in your paper, “…cast members of reality television shows find themselves with more career opportunities and offers due to strong social media followings…” and I totally agree with you. It is clear that the visibility they gain from their participation in reality TV shows open up more avenues for them. I use to watch TV shows for entertainment and follow some participants on social media and it is surprising to see how fast some of them became famous after their participation. Some are even considered as ‘influencers’ now because of the large number of followers on their social media page.

I’m glad that you also highlighted the dark side and the risks of participating in reality TV shows in your paper. Participants are persecuted by strangers and face cyber-bullying each day and this is an issue which cannot be ignored especially when the participants are committing suicide mainly because of all this hate online. It’s sad to see how one can immediately have millions of followers and lots of support from people online and on the other side, one receiving a lot of hate from people either because of the way he behaved or because he has been wrongly portrayed on the show.

As reality TV shows are meant for entertainment, it is normal that there are dramas, fights etc… as the producers want to have more views and catch the attention of the viewers and but I think that they need to realise that the participants does not have any control on the editing process and that the negative image given to them can have drastic consequences on their mental health and can actually ruin their life.

I also think that the viewers should realise that this is a “TV Show” and that some actions might be scripted. Even if a participant decided to act in a negative way, this does not mean that the viewers can take this as an opportunity to bully him online. The haters should definitely realise that it is not normal to spread so much hate online every day. What are your thoughts about this? Don’t you think that the viewers should be responsible and realised that this is a ‘TV Show’ for entertainment and that they should not take everything seriously? Looking forward for your answers 🙂

I chose the stream “Communities and Web 2.0” as well for my conference paper and if you want to have a look at my paper, feel free to check it out. Here is the link:

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/the-asmr-community-challenging-societys-misconception-on-asmr-videos/

Regards,

Anne-Sophie

Hi Anne-Sophie,

Sorry I hadn’t seen your comment! Thankyou for engaging, I’m glad you enjoyed reading my paper.

I totally agree with you on the front of reality tv stars becoming “influencers”. They are recognised as a low class celebrity and since Instagram is a primarily platform for them to export their fame into followers after the show, they are on par with people who are perceived as wanting superficial fame for shallow reasons. Though they may only want to go on a reality show to compete or find love, they are looked down on and subsequently vilified for being trashy or artificial.

I think the amount of negative hate received by these people is the result of the feelings of anonymity given by social media platforms and confused meld of character/real life person people on RTV exist in. As people are used to discussing characters in movies and fictional television programs without any concern for the the feelings of the fictional character, this blasé attitude carries over to discussion of RTV “characters”, regardless of their real life counterparts. Social media provides a direct route to the contestants and comment on their personal Instagram page as if the person themselves were not privy to the discussion.

Thanks!
Melissa

Hi Melissa,

Your comment on my paper led me here and I really enjoyed reading your paper. Wouldn’t consider myself as a huge fan of TV reality but if the show is highly rated on social media I would still give it a try. However, I admit that most of the reasons for watching TV programs are because the disputes of TV programs are enough to prompt me to watch, although I watched the controversial parts in the form of short films. Certainly, at the same time, I was also annoyed when seeing the cast members were being maliciously edited to attract the audience.

Thanks for commenting on my paper 🙂

Thank you,
Melina

Hi Melina,

Thanks for commenting! To be totally honest, I don’t watch reality television very much either- my RTV viewing is mostly limited to Survivor and highlighted clips of the controversial drama of Bachelor/Bachelorette on Facebook like you. I just find the strange culture around it fascinating, specifically the editing of events and the audience disparity between real life person and their broadcasted counterpart.

Thanks!
Melissa

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