Archive for April, 2010

One Last Rationalization Post: ChatRoulette

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

And while I’m on the topic of rationalization and its discontents, I must mention another darling of the zeitgeist — another phenomenon notable for its sharp break from a rationalized narrative: ChatRoulette.

Like reality TV, online communication has become rationalized over the past decade. We used to sign on, unfettered, to loosely categoritzed AOL chatrooms, for no other purpose but to converse with strangers about whatever came to mind.

Within the world of public online discourse, new structures popped up to help us find more quickly and accurately what — or, I should say, whom — we were looking for. Special interest message board sites for new parents, golf enthusiasts, and arthritis sufferers appeared. Surfers created sites for posing questions in deeply nested categories (Yahoo! Answers), while other sites for listing goods to buy and sell staked claim to their own turf (Craigslist, eBay).

For those of us who just wanted to talk, we got new tools to weed out the weirdos and promote interaction with our friends (or friends of friends): from a/s/l, there were Friendster and Facebook; from chatrooms, there were Google docs and groups and waves.

We gave ourselves better tools to find the right people and talk to them about the right things, but in the process we walled our communities in — and walled in ourselves.

That all changed (for the moment, at least) with ChatRoulette, a website that provides each user a complettely unfiltered video chat connection to another, randomly-selected user. One can stay to chat or click through to the next stranger out in the world of the webcams — an unmediated, unrationalized communication landscape. Like an early, almost empty AOL chatroom — with cameras.

Millions of users’ curiosity has been piqued enough to sign onto the site and see what they might find (even though they often find a close-up and uncensored view of some other user’s genitalia), and it’s easy to see why: ChatRoulette breaks down the barriers we’ve spent a decade erecting, and it unmasks us from the usual anonimity of blog comments and user reviews. It takes us from a bureaucratized present to a wild west past.

But, as is natural with all human processes, we may soon find ChatRoulette fall victim to a self-undermining rationalization that we saw befall reality TV. We will be moved to carve it up into interest-based rooms, we will “like” some users and “friend” others, and soon we will be building a city on what is now an empty landscape.

Sam Anderson described this rationalizing impulse in a piece on ChatRoulette in New York Magazine, at once predicting ChatRoulette’s fragmented future and exalting its unbridled present:

I found myself fantasizing about a curated version of ChatRoulette—powered maybe by Google’s massive server farms—that would allow users to set all kinds of filters: age, interest, language, location. One afternoon I might choose to be thrown randomly into a pool of English-speaking thirtysomething non-masturbators who like to read poetry. Another night I might want to talk to Jets fans. Another night I might want to just strip away all the filters and see what happens. The site could even keep stats, like YouTube, so you could see the most popular chatters in any given demographic. I could get very happily addicted to a site like that.

But that site would also lose a lot of what makes ChatRoulette, for now, so weirdly magnetic. If I’d been able to curate my experience, I might never have had what ended up being my favorite interaction: a half-hour chat with a twentysomething, vaguely Kurt Cobain–ish guy in Pittsburgh. We started with the obligatory ganja jokes, but suddenly he turned serious. “Actually,” he typed, “I’m a mystic.” When he offered me a tarot-card reading, I considered clicking “next” in search of more dancing Koreans. I’ve never had a psychic reading—in fact I’ve actively refused them on many occasions—but something about the strangeness of the context made me accept. Although I only vaguely remember the content of the reading itself (I like nature, have been thinking about taking a big trip, etc.), the experience was surprisingly powerful. It felt generous and deep and oddly very human.

Contemplating the filtered, statistically-tracked, rationalized version of ChatRoulette that Anderson fantasizes about  — while considering the losses that would come with an inhibited version of this paragon of inhibition — we realize that, even when we discuss a website built 90 years after his death, Max Weber was right.

Gawker Agrees: The End of Reality Postscript

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Continuing the trend of major publications echoing the ideas discussed here, Gawker’s Brian Moylan last Thursday traced the same narrative in reality TV that I described in my last post from artless, captivating beginnings to streamlined, artificial ends. His recapitulation (which doesn’t appeal to the concept of Weberian rationalization) was conducted, though, in support of a pointed overarching argument: MTV Must Cancel The Real World.

In his polemic against the documentary series, which just concluded its 23rd season, Moylan picked up on the adverse effects reality TV’s rationalization has had on its ability to say something authentic about human experience:

I remember the excitement, the magazine covers, and the buzz surrounding the original sociological experiment. This was the first time a bunch of strangers had been throw together and the results taped. They fought, they loved, the hooked up, they went on vacation. It was just like the program is now (minus the vacation, which D.C. skimped out on) except it seemed that the people had real lives.

Sure, we never heard much from Heather B’s rap career or Andre’s band Reigndance after the show, but these people seemed less like characters or types and more like actual people. There were ambitious twentysomethings already involved in finding their way in their chosen field. They also had some sort of life in the city where it was being filmed, so outside friends and interests filtered onto the show, much in the same way that sharing a house with a bunch of roommates really does. Over time, the characters calcified into “types”—the angry black man, the gay one, the slut, the conservative, the sheltered zealot—and people were cast less as individuals, but as stock characters who would create conflict.

The serious sociological aspect of the show quickly started to diminish after the San Francisco season, perhaps the shows most poignant and famous thanks to the death of AIDS activist Pedro Zamora and the ouster of his nemesis Puck, who was so nasty the roommates kicked him out of the house. Remember on that season that Pam was in med school while it was being filmed? That was some serious stuff. Now we’re lucky if one of the kids works one day a week at something other than exhibitionism and self-promotion. In later seasons, the show started giving the cast projects, like starting a business or working a job, to give the show some cohesion, but even those shortly fell by the wayside.

What do we get now? The people on the show don’t seem to be actually doing anything outside of the house. They have silly internships that don’t involve much work and seem more like pre-arranged camera dates than documented work experience. Either that or they have little hobbies that the producers try to blow up into a huge thing. Callie is a photographer! Andrew is an artist! Emily is a (really bad) poet! Erika the quitter and Josh are musicians! Ashley is…well, just whiny!

No, they are practically forbidden to do anything outside other than get drunk, go to the gym, party, and hook up with people. Otherwise, they are trapped within the confines of their messy, faux Ikea domicile to claw each others eyes out, sob on the phone, and have petty squabbles and heavy petting. Thanks to the rule-breaking Las Vegas season, which was the start of The Real World’s descent into trash for trash’s sake, there is only a thin patina of social relevance to the entire enterprise. Ironically, it is that earnestness that makes it seem stodgy and outdated.

From casts of participants whose interpersonal interactions were authentic and dramatic, we have “types” cast only for their predisposition to engage in explosive and pathetic behavior. From a show structured to document real life, we have contrivances designed to maximize conflict.

But Moylan blames audiences as much as producers and participants for wanting to be fed only the fat of the reality animal, arguing that it is our hunger for disembodied discord that spurred the rationalization of reality. We have forced the devolution of documentary, from representational of real experience to manipulated, empty interactions between easy-to-cast types. And, he claims, it was the early seasons of The Real World that served to whet our appetites:

Thanks to The Real World itself, we have catapulted ourselves headfirst into the reality television black hole. Now seven eight strangers followed by cameras is no longer a novelty now that every two-bit celebrity will mug for the camera and countless shows pit strangers against each other in much more extreme and exotic locations. The audience no longer demands low brow entertainment disguised as high brow documentary. We want to wallow in the muck. Give us the Kardashians. Give us Tinsley Mortimer and her fake racist socialites. Give us the Bad Girl’s Club. Shockingly, MTV mastered this art form quickly with Jersey Shore, the crown jewel of the reality treasure chest. If you’re going to lock a bunch of people in a house and make them drink, fight, and fuck their way to fame and salvation, that this is the way to do it. No Real World cast ever will be able to top Snooki, The Situation, and crew in unabashed trashiness. With its continued innovation, MTV made their old innovation obsolete.

He and I agree that shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Bad Girl’s Club are the product of rationalized reality — the food of early reality processed to extract the basest bits — but I can’t get on board with the assertion that Jersey Shore is this trend’s apotheosis (or nadir, depending on how you look at it).

No Real World season to come can top Snooki and The Situation, but not because the latter are more trashy. Unlike the current seasons of The Real World, The Jersey Shore and its participants are compelling because they are untrained and artless. As fake as they are, we watch them because they are real.