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.
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.”
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.
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.
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