Monday, November 2, 2009

Showtime

It's no secret that I love me some good Internet fakery.

I blogged earlier this year about stumbling upon a blog I sensed -- and later proved -- was a fraud. The woman behind it, who had the unmitigated gall to represent herself as a mother devastated by the death of her small daughter, actually wasn't a mother at all, but rather a career scammer with a criminal record to boot. (Note to self: never post stock photo of infant on blog and say it's your daughter; too easy for curious reader to be puzzled as to why a family photo is named "newborn-baby-girl-three-3-days-old-face-closeup-1-DHD.jpg." And then a quick google just might lead them right to a free online image gallery.)

Just a few months later, my brother Matt, who had been one of my three trusty sidekicks in the case of Scooby Doo and the Imaginary Dead Daughter, called me all excited. There was a story on CNN about an even bigger blogger being exposed as a fraud. This time it was the "April Rose" hoax perpetrated by one Beccah Beushausen. Beushausen had strung legions of devoted readers along for months, blogging in great detail about her heartbreaking pregnancy with a child she knew would die at birth, a child who...she totally invented. (Note to self: never try to pass off photo of a doll as photo of a real baby. Those people on the doll forums are totally eagle-eyed, I tell you.)

So naturally, my interest was piqued when I heard that a story causing quite a buzz throughout the twitterverse -- a story I confess I initially passed along without verifying -- turned out to be how shall we say? not quite as it seemed.

I am not going to rehash the details of Nicole White's fifteen minutes of virtual fame; this post does it far more thoroughly than I could ever hope to. The Cliff's Notes version? White used Twitter and her blog to disseminate a highly melodramatic account of having overzealous TSA agents in the Atlanta airport take her 18 month old son away from her while they were being searched at security. It was a story that she apparently knew would generate enormous media interest. (Check out the screen shots of her twitter feed here.) The only problem was that nine different security camera angles begged to differ. Oops.

Nicole White's response to being called out was to insist that she had shared something called "her truth." my truth was told, shared, tweeted out in the hopes of changing something for the better, she wrote in that trademark high school literary mag lowercase prose, in a post entitled "ownership." i own that. it’s up to you whether or not you choose to believe it. (So we each get our own versions of the truth these days, to disseminate as we please? Suh-weet! I knew I loved the interwebs.)

Maybe I'm just jealous. On our way to Boston this summer, those same persnickety TSA agents actually snatched LaLa, Alec's much adored constant companion, right out of his hands as we were about to walk through the metal detector. Full-on hysteria ensued until the two were happily reunited at the end of the belt, but somehow I failed to seize the opportunity to use my trauma (LALA's GONE! THEY TOOK LALA!) to become a minor Internet celebrity. Oh well, there's always next year.

Anyway, as I said before, this post isn't about proving whether or not Nicole White lied about what happened in that airport. Instead, I'm going to get all meta on you.

In one of those awesome moments of serendipity that only Neil Postman or Marshall McLuhan could have concocted, the White story broke the very same day as that ghastly Heene family perpetrated Jiffy Pop-gate, using a similarly terrifying story about a missing child to generate interest in them for a reality show. A story that as we all know, turned out to be false. They presented a distorted version of their "real" lives to broadcast to the world via television. Or, more to the point, they whored out their six-year-old son and scared the shit out of eleventy billion people watching live on CNN so that they could get on tv. (And I'm not even touching the part where the kid then puked on the Today show in the middle of being interviewed. Or that his name is Falcon.)

The TSA and Heene dramas are part of a much bigger cultural ripple that I find alternately fascinating and horrifying: people's lives are increasingly turning into a kind of for-profit performance art. For better or worse, the endless proliferation of media technologies have allowed us countless vehicles for documenting our day-to-day lives in excruciating, mindboggling detail. (Lunchbox blogs, anyone?) And because we have become ever aware that we are, on some level, being watched, we increasingly play to the gaze.

I see it in the faux shock of the spoiled teenagers on My Super Sweet 16 when, inevitably, the car with a ridiculously huge bow is wheeled out for them. There's always a car, kids, always. That's just what happens when you go on this show. Stop pretending we think you're surprised.

I see it in the trainwreck of Jon and Kate Plus 8. Just as McLuhan predicted, the medium trumps all, and the reality these reality shows claim to document inevitably becomes tainted through the very process of showing it. What started as a show depicting the real lives of a family with eight children became a perfect inverse of itself: the Gosselin family's real life became about being on the show, and more and more of what they did/ate/wore/played with (Crooked Houses! Let's play in our Crooked Houses! Wait, did someone just say Crooked House?) became a construct of the show. Eventually, it seemed there was no "real" life left to document. Their very lives, in other words, became a kind of performance. (In one episode, Kate chastised Jon for referring to something having happened in a previous "season" rather than a previous year.) And not surprisingly, their once very real marriage -- a ten year partnership that produced eight very real children -- gave way under the pressure. Didn't the advertisers feel even a little bit...dirty? And why are people, both famous and not, still lining up in droves to be on reality shows?

I see similar forces at work in the blogosphere.

Heather Armstrong, queen of the mommy bloggers, now supports her family of four simply by sharing her family's life -- the cute outbursts, the quirky food aversions, the mind-numbing sleep deprivation -- with millions of readers through her blog. Which means that advertisers sponsor her...life. Don't get me wrong. Given the opportunity, I'd probably do it, too, but am I the only one who thinks there's something a little Truman Show-ish about it all? (Scratch that. I just googled "Dooce" and "The Truman Show." I'm not the only one who thinks that.)

But anyone who blogs publicly, from Heather Armstrong on down to, well, me, is, in effect, conducting a kind of performance. Until we reach that futuristic moment when our actual, unedited lives are streamed live to our "viewers," by blogging we are putting forth versions of ourselves to be consumed. We choose which moments we share, even the unattractive or painful ones, and we choose the words and photos we use to present them. We might be entirely honest, constructing personas that are quite reflective of our "real" selves. But we are, on some level, performing for an audience. And just like being on reality tv changes your reality, the fact that scores of people are paying attention to (and potentially paying money for) your life via your blog changes things, in ways both subtle and not. When traffic to that blog about the contents of your child's lunchbox starts spiking, you feel that much more pressured to actually make your child the kind of lunches that you want people to see on the blog. And voila! The act of blogging has changed, ever so slightly and entirely benignly, your real life. (I believe that mommy bloggers have, via this mechanism, actually forged a new model for contemporary motherhood, but that's a whole 'nother post.)

As the stakes become higher and higher, with more and more eyes watching and more and more advertisers paying, that same benign impulse that makes you pass over the Lunchables in favor of the quinoa salad allows those who traffic in exaggeration and embellishment to waltz right in and take advantage. In this climate, it's rather easy to embellish, and not that much harder to entirely manufacture drama wholesale. It's the Internet equivalent of a publicity stunt during Sweeps Week.

Mercifully, the most egregious lying liars are almost always tripped up eventually by some stubborn piece of evidence of the real world that they've failed or forgotten to hide: a photo, a video or an IP address. But often not before they've sucked in an eager audience which then feels betrayed.

And why does it matter? Because playing to the camera really works.

I'll leave you with a bit of a math problem. (And thanks to Amy at SecretSpinelessWhine for opening my eyes to this.)

For the eight months prior to posting about her TSA experience, (or should that be "experience?") SiteMeter shows that Nicole White's blog received a total 22,512 visitors, for an average of 2,814 a month. But in the month of October, when she told her TSA story, she got an astonishing 161,225 visitors. That's an increase of 5,629 percent. (Or so says the Internet percentage calculator I used.) 'Nuf said.

Now I'd love to stay and chat with you all about this, but there's a homemade spaceship in my backyard that I've been sorely neglecting. I'll be sure to tell my boys to wave for the cameras.

44 comments:

  1. And I can't figure out off the top of my head how much BlogHer ads pay for 161,225 visits, but it's no chump change.

    If Nic had a shred of self-respect she'd donate every last penny of that money to charity.

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  2. I'll go you a step further and say that I think people--especially teenagers--increasingly feel like they're stars of their own yet-unfilmed reality TV shows, which is why they talk at the top of their lungs, exaggerate every laugh, movement, and reaction, and generally behave as if the rest of us are watching them with interest rather than with rolled eyes. If that's true, though, you have to wonder why people continue to pick their noses while driving without considering the possibility that someone--everyone--can see them. Weird.

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  3. Great post, Jen. But we have to reach a tipping point with this stuff, right? I mean, the very the nature of fame itself had changed. Everyone is a blog, reality TV show, or scandal-of-the-week away from being famous. So what's so damn aspirational about that? Now, if only we could find someone to pay people to NOT be in the spotlight. George Soros? Anyone?

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  4. Great point, Max. I, of course, am desperately hoping my blog will make me famous. BWAHAHAHAHA!

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  5. On TSA agents....they really did take my now (just today) 8 yr old out of my arms when he was only 1 at Kennedy airport so he could be WANDED. One of us beeped when I was holding him while walking through the metal detector. My hubby had already gone through and they wouldn't let him back in to hold the baby. TSA grabbed him out of my arms to wand each of us seperately. Some random stranger did him (while he screamed) and someone else did me. When I mentioned that the beep probably came from my nursing bra...and I offered to show them...and then the wand beeped near my strap... and I offered to show them... THEY SAID "NO, that's ok." So after all that - after taking my child, causing him all that anxiety - they didn't even want to see what it was that was causing the beeping.

    Getting off my TSA rant now... thanks!

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  6. I understand what you're saying and totally agree. However, anyone who thinks a lunchbox blog is inane (or just fanatasizes about having a low-budget Mindy McConnell in their kitchen) should lose themselves for a few hours in the BentoTV archives! rn

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  7. Love this post. You nailed it.

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  8. so, what you're saying is, I'm not really missing much by not watching CNN or The Today Show?

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  9. (among all the other things that you're saying, of course)

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