Posts Tagged ‘max weber’

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.

Max Weber and The Rationalization of Reality

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

The End of Reality: Part II.

This is what happens in the blogosphere: I vow to post more persistently, then go five months without an update. No more vows — just a futile hope that I can muster the energy and wherewithal to actually record my thoughts for you, my faithful(?) audience.

So where was I?


Yes, even reality shows can jump the shark, because even reality shows can have artistic integrity and grounding assertions. In the case of Project Runway, it had continually cast itself as the high-brow reality show (embracing the implied contradiction), insisting it is meritocratic even within its convoluted constraints.

During its last season, Heidi went so far as to verbalize its internal logic: “three strikes, and you’re out.” But in Christopher’s survival past three egregiously heinous strikes, the foundational arguments of the show were thrown over and the series — or, at least, the season (for each new batch of contestants provides its own potentially-redemptive slate-wiping) — jumped the shark.

Where does this leave us? With the realization that we are nearing, at, or just past a critical inflection point in the genre.


It’s taken for granted these days that “reality shows” no longer represent anything “real.” Shows that, at their launch, trained their cameras on non-camera-trained individuals in unfamiliar settings and constructs (The Real World, The Bachelor, Survivor, American Idol) have become repetitive and clichéd. New reality shows have eschewed the goals of their antecedents entirely, uninterested in gleaning insight about real people in microcosm (The Hills, the entire VH1 reality line-up).

When Court TV distanced itself from trial coverage, moving towards documentary shows about true crime and dangerous jobs, it renamed itself “TruTV” and worked our disenchantment with reality TV right into its motto: “Not Reality. Actuality.” “Reality” as a TV genre has become meaningless, a codeword for nothing more than non-fiction (not necessarily unscripted) starring individuals playing themselves, or versions of themselves (not necessarily non-actors).

But the meaninglessness of “Reality” and the inescapable cliché of contemporary reality shows are merely symptoms of culture — they are not the ding an sich (the thing in itself).

Of what are they symptoms? The Rationalization of Reality.


Father of sociology Max Weber described “rationalization” as the unavoidable progression of systems (both physical systems and systems of thought) from inefficient abstraction to cold logic that occurs as we gain better understanding of means and ends, cause and effect, and adapt accordingly. It’s a bit of a difficult concept to understand, and I’m doing it no favors with my abstruse attempts at definition. Examples are the best way to get at it — metonymically.

Bureaucratization is a great example: From early governments and companies that deal with issues ad hoc, with messy delegating and overlapping domains, we develop bureaucracies, with clearly delineated institutions and internal hierarchies for each carefully differentiated issue. So we get the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA Issues in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Health has also been extremely rationalized over the last few centuries: from a vague understanding of illness tied into conceptions of sin and virtue, we’ve developed keen observations of patterns of sickness and of the world on a microscopic level — we now understand how germs are disseminated, and we’ve developed highly organized systems of treatments for every conceivable array of symptoms.

Even something as simple as our usage of a park can become rationalized. From an open field, we develop well-trod paths where the most people have found the most amenable routes. From free and spontaneous play all around, we designate an area for picnics and an area for baseball. From inconsistent self-policing, we develop rules and guidelines and post them on big green signs forbidding cell phone usage from 11am to 4pm.

While rationalization makes these systems and our lives more efficient, we become constrained by the rigidity of the structures we’ve made for ourselves. We become, as Weber wrote a bit melodramatically, trapped in an “iron cage” and our world devolves into a “polar night of icy darkness.”

But we can see where Weber’s coming from. In a hyper-rationalized landscape of, for instance, mental health, every possible deviation from “normalcy” becomes its own syndrome. As Louis Menand recently wrote in the New Yorker (paraphrasing David Healy in “The Antidepressant Era”), “if a drug (in this case, Paxil) proves to change something in patients (shyness), then that something becomes a disorder to be treated (social anxiety). The discovery of the remedy creates the disease.” As we are constantly hone in on more taut relationships between causes and effects, we can become blinded to the bigger picture.


From a brief survey of reality programming over the last decade, we can clearly see the bigger picture of authenticity being lost as shows become rationalized to milk drama from ultimately inauthentic characters and conventions. But before we can perform that survey, we have to understand the shows and the goals of their subjects and producers.

To generalize, there are two main sub-genres of reality TV: the documentary series (The Real World, The Hills, Jersey Shore) and the game show (Survivor, Project Runway, The Bachelor). Though the lines are blurry — there’s not much fundamental difference between I Love New York and New York Goes to Work — there is an essential distinction. While contestants on game shows are competing for a prize (be it a million dollars or the love of an over-the-hill 80s hip hop artist), with individuals often voted off each week, the subjects of documentary series need only exist within the contrived situations mapped out for them (New York works at a farm! Eight strangers stop being polite and start getting real!).

The goals of the early contestants on game shows was to win. Now, contestants want to win, but they also hope to gain some moderate level of fame and future opportunity through participation. Tabatha Coffey parlayed her appearance on the reality game show Shear Genius into her own reality documentary series, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover; Big Brother’s Jeff and Jordan won $500,000 and $25,000, respectively, and won enough of America’s affection to land them on The Amazing Race; myriad former contestants on American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway have leveraged their fifteen minutes of fame into much longer periods of moderate success in their chosen fields.

The goal of the subjects of reality’s documentary series was, at one point, simply to participate (think the early Real Worlders). Now, it seems their goals are primarily focused toward the attention they can earn by being interesting “characters” on their shows.

In both cases, the goals of the shows’ producers is viewership, achieved by making their programs interesting. Interesting can take many forms — cloyingly romantic (The Bachelor), cringingly pathetic (Celebrity Rehab), explosively charged (The Bad Girls Club) — but, in all cases, producers hope that their programs’ drama will translate into throngs of dedicated viewers.

Understanding the goals of the constituent individuals, we can see how reality TV can become rationalized: participants and producers better understand the means and ends of achieving success however defined (a million dollars, future opportunities, high ratings) and acting accordingly.


Let’s consider game shows first. Like people walking in a well-trod park looking for the best routes, early participants in reality contests found themselves more or less successful depending on different strategies of behavior, leading to the carving out of conventional types. From the complete blank slate of the first season of Survivor — in which Sue Hawk and Rudy Boesch had no touchstone against which to judge Richard Hatch, no model for suggesting they should suspect his scheming and double-dealing — there is now the season of “Heros” and “Villains,” with contestants from past seasons so neatly fitting into the types pioneered by their reality forbears that the subtextual “types” have become the text itself.

Every kind of game show — from talent to matchmaking to social experiment — has gone through enough iterations to develop these same conventions, these same paths through the park, and now contestants cannot help but retread the same steps. Reality game shows now have such clearly articulated narratives of success and failure that contemporary seasons cannot feel like anything more than variations on a theme.

And what about documentary shows? At the beginning, producers plumbed drama from the conflict between individuals from disparate backgrounds in contrived social situations. Untrained and unfamiliar with what patterns of behavior would lead to post-participitory fame — and unfamiliar with the notion that participation could lead to fame at all — the individuals on whom the cameras were focused acted authentically, and to the fascination of viewing audiences. But once producers noticed what moments were most likely to lead to the camera’s and audience’s attention — fights, sex, sloppy drunkenness leading to fights and sex — they began casting participants most likely to slap each other, sleep with each other, and drink to excess. The first season of the Real World becomes every subsequent season, with the frat-boy jock, the Mormon, the gay guy, the alcoholic — characters who were at one time simply compelling real people — cast to foster the contrived drama the producers think will attract audiences and that now-savvy participants think will attract future job opportunities.

In some cases, like The Hills, the producers have gone so far as to hire writers to ensure that each episode has the drama that unscripted reality shows cannot guarantee will arise on a regular schedule. Whole shows like Celebrity Rehab are built around premises designed for maximum pathos with little regard for documenting relatable human experience. Reality documentary shows are so manipulated to foster the drama that authenticity once provided that they have become scripted echoes of their true-to-life ancestors.

The problem with this rationalization is that any value reality TV once had as a genre inhered in its represnetation of authentic human experience. Settings like Survivor’s deserted island or American Idol’s big stage or the Real World apartment were contrived, but there was no behavioral model to follow for the early participants — no conventions of “successful” participation. Their behaviors and conflicts were thus authentic and engaging: Pedro on The Real World, Richard Hatch on Survivor, Jay McCarroll on Project Runway, and Omarosa on The Apprentice were compelling because they had not yet learned they were performing.


But there is hope for the genre; or, there was at least a glimmer of hope during the fall of 2009, when MTV assembled a group of youngsters who wanted no more than to participate in the opportunity provided: a summer at the Jersey Shore.

What made Jersey Shore so compelling to viewers was that it was authentic in a way reality TV hasn’t been in years. Snooki, Sammi, JWow, The Situation, Ronnie, Pauly D, and Vinny were not there to perform — and, indeed, they seemed unaware of the promise of recognition and fame (unaware even of the cameras) until after the show had begun airing. They were there only for a swank house on the Shore and like-minded guidos and guidettes with whom to party. Indeed, Angelina’s early departure is evidence of the fact that her goal was not to be the focus of a reality camera; when she dragged her trash-bag of belongings into the house, one sensed she was there for no more than a good time. When she failed to have that good time, she left.

Though some of the conflicts on the show may have been prompted by the producers (one can’t believe that Vinny really seduced the girlfriend of his boss and landlord unwittingly), the interactions between the characters — and between them and the other people at the shore — was strikingly, unsettlingly realistic.

The phenomenon was fostered by the guido/guidette-framed nature of the grouping. Unlike The Real World, whose social experiment was once premised on people from diverse backgrounds coming into conflict, Jersey Shore had no such pretensions of diversity — a shallowness that in fact bolstered its representational success. When one goes from a community of like-minded people to a setting in which one is a minority (think The Mormon on The Real World), one must be as much a representative of one’s group as a normal version of oneself. Snooki and her kin did not need to be “the guido” in an unsympathetic group — they needed only be themselves.

But the magical moment of Jersey Shore season 1 is not replicable. Copycat shows (the as-yet-unnamed-Brighton-Beach-based spinoff, Jerseylicious) now have an implicit script to follow, characters to cast. Even the cast of Jersey Shore season 1 will be camera-trained and ratings-minded when they shoot season 2 this summer.

Still, there is a lesson here: Rather than manipulating reality shows to wring compelling television out of known-to-be-dramatic characters and conventions, we must find the last batch of people who are not yet characters and the last batch of contrivances that are not yet conventions. Any show with an existing script for success and drama, a script written by the last decade of the genre, will be fated to staleness. Only by a renewed commitment to authenticity can we break out of the “iron cage” of rationalization — only with a jettisoning of characters and conventions can reality TV be real again.