October 2006
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

Now showing: Me

The youth of today are using mass media as means of finding an audience for sometimes even the most intimate side of themselves, acting as if their existence depended on media validation.

“PHILIPPINE IDOL” semifinalist Ira Marasigan is not your typical reality-television contestant. She is, after all, a fresh graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University who is living an upperclass lifestyle. That alone makes her an oddity in a television genre notorious for attracting all sorts of desperate characters who compete over cash and careers in show business.

THE ME GENERATION. Reality TV programs that range from talk shows to competitions have been transformed into a stage from which today’s youth’s personal life story can be broadcast far and wide.

Then again, Marasigan says she saw joining the Philippine franchise of the global TV hit “American Idol” as just having fun: “No one convinced me, I thought it would be quite an accomplishment to make it to Philippine Idol.” It was — considering how many Idol-wannabes auditioned for the show.

Unfortunately, Marasigan never made it to the finals of the competition. Yet, she says, her regular appearance in the program has made everyone proud of her. And for her, “that’s what matters most.”

Now that sounds like the mantra most contestants say after being eliminated. But it’s also true that more and more people are getting into television simply for the thrill and pride of taking center stage. Money is no longer what motivates most people vying for slots in televised contests. These days it’s more about the fun, fans, and fame of celebrity — and in the case of Marasigan, “the chance to prove that I have what it takes to be an idol.”

On of the interesting findings of the 2007 Intergenerational Research released by McCann Erickson in the Philippines is that this generation of youth is far more confident and motivated to succeed than previous ones. Getting ahead and standing out: This is our zeitgeist. And of our kids.

A sense of self-importance defines today’s youth. While the rising number of reality TV programs that range from talk shows to competitions has much more to do with network economics than with experiments in social psychology, the sheer number of those who want to get into these reveals a lot about the need for people to be seen, heard, and counted. We now have the Me Generation, a breed of television viewers and Internet users who no longer consume the media passively, but actively engage these, even shaping media for their personal use. Entertainment, of course, is one such use, but increasingly, mass media have been transformed into a stage from which Generation Me’s personal life story can be broadcast far and wide.

Call it the Kris Aquino syndrome. Even before the reality TV genre and Internet blogs were fashionable, this pop-culture icon was already alternately shocking and charming us with the ease with which she would navigate her private life in public. Whether it’s a family feud, a romantic break-up, or pregnancy, life for Kris, it would seem, isn’t truly real unless it’s paraded across the TV screen. Not quite the unique phenomenon, it turns out, as media scholars have noted how performers are able to validate their stories only if these are told on TV and expressed in the press.

Many dismiss Kris Aquino as a novelty or even as a product of the blatant commodification celebrities are reduced to in our showbiz-obsessed culture. But if you consider an entire generation growing up under the same cultural framework as hers, you’ll realize that Kris perhaps just happens to be its most visible icon.

SURELY, THOUGH, our ancestors must have shared a desire for prestige. Whatever our generation, what drives us to seek fame, no matter how fleeting or limited the fan base, is often little more than a desire for an audience. Pyschologists call it the need for validation.

In pre-mass media societies, however, those who ruled were the only ones with the means to be recognized beyond their village. You needed to be powerful or, at least, truly extraordinary. So-called baby boomers and Gen Xers, those 30 years old and above, may be all too familiar with this. Growing up, most of us aspired for the varsity team, the school paper, or the student council. As adults, a highly visible career in business, media, or politics was a popular choice. Yet no matter how much you wanted to be famous, you still needed the talent, looks or wealth to make it. Qualities only a few possess.

But that was then. Today the entry level to fame is lower than it’s ever been — and yet the desire for recognition is at an all-time high. Shifts in the way we use technology, view media, and define our identity all converge to make sure of that.

There’s money, in fact lots of it, to be made from creating some buzz about ourselves. But most of those who expose themselves to the public these days do so for a different reason: to deal with the otherwise humbling notion of their ordinariness. Their attempts are, as one media critic put it, struggles for visibility. It’s a struggle, however, that has been made easier by technology.

The pop artist cum social commentator Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would enjoy his or her moment of fame. He also said the moment would last a mere 15 minutes, but he uttered those words at a time when even 15 minutes of media exposure counted for a lot. This was before cable TV, YouTube, and the blogosphere. And even if celebrity then was loosely defined to include the socialites and groupies of Warhol’s day, the majority — the ordinary and untalented — remained invisible in the media.

Today all that is changing. New media space and affordable digital tools make it possible for amateurs to bypass the gatekeepers of fame. Personal computers, off-the-shelf software, and camcorders have brought down the cost of producing books, music, films, and just about any form of entertainment. Combine that with the power of the Internet, and you have what Chris Anderson, editor of the technology magazine WIRED, calls the end of the professional era.

Of course, there is still the finite space represented by the fixed airtime of television and radio stations — and the shelves of bookstores and video rental shops that puts a premium on hits and bestsellers. Put simply: if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t offered. Obviously this system favors the professionals, those that have the talent, training, financial backing, and industry clout to produce hits. Before you even get to that level, you would still need to convince a layer of agents, critics, producers, and publishers that you and your work are good enough to be distributed to a larger audience — their audience, that is. So unless you happen to be extremely talented or well-connected, your 15 minutes of celebrity remain dependent on that phone call from some media executive. Unless, like the millions of former unknowns using the Internet to distribute their work, you’ve already discovered how to be famous on your own.

IF ONLY dial-up networks hadn’t been erratic and frustratingly slow in the past, millions more people would have gotten their 15 minutes in the spotlight sooner. The Net has been around for more than a decade, but initially, few had the patience or time to surf or download content on the Web because of the horrible connections. You also had to be some kind of a geek to figure out how to share your work in cyberspace. Nowadays, though, affordable high-speed connection and free and simple software on the Web are giving ordinary people the tools to create and then attract an ever-growing market of consumers.

The Net has more than enough space for everyone — pros and amateurs alike. Here, readers can choose between amateur blogs or professional news agencies for information. Music fans are also downloading tunes from obscure garage bands alongside Billboard Top 40 hits. The same goes for films, photos, poetry, anything that can be digitized and uploaded on the World Wide Web.

The Net offers a global audience that TV networks can’t ever imagine having. Online tools like MySpace, ITunes, Flickr, and YouTube that match your blog, podcast, photos, and video with someone searching for similar content across the planet help you achieve your 15 minutes (and in the case of streaming webcam videos of yourself, more like 15 hours of fame). Producing content, therefore, isn’t the only thing that is democratized today; so is celebrity. As Anderson states perceptively in his book The Long Tail: “The question is no longer how to be a star; it’s more like what’s stopping you?”

Hardly anything, if you ask the increasing number of online celebrities out there — filmmakers, photographers, writers, programmers, collectors — most of them famous only to fans of their respective subcultures and virtual communities. What we are seeing is the waning influence of the traditional media to make stars and how the notion of fame is being redefined altogether.

In the traditional or analog media, space for programming is limited to the number of hours in a broadcaster’s day. Limited space puts limits on the number of stars that can be accommodated in this fixed universe. On the World Wide Web, however, infinite space means an infinite number of niches, with each one able to produce its own pantheon of celebrities. You and I may not make it to YES! Magazine, but that doesn’t mean your network gaming skills or your encyclopedic knowledge of vintage clothing isn’t going to make you a legend among peers. Some even graduate from fringe celebrity to full-blown stardom. Intimate video of hotel heiress Paris Hilton, for instance, was being downloaded in the millions even before she made it to Hollywood. There’s also Bryanboy, the Pinoy blogger whose shopping, travel, and party exploits seem to interest even those in other countries. He’s obviously light years away from being as luminous as the lovely Ms. Hilton, but that alone makes him living proof that anyone, really, can be a star.

AS OUR everyday reality becomes more and more fragmented and our lives increasingly atomized, people seek a spot in the media limelight as a way to share their experiences and reconnect with society. Disclosing your life in public validates your identity. Attracting attention is no longer juvenile, it’s pretty much the norm. That’s why the most popular formats on TV (reality TV) and sites on the Net today (blogs) happen to be ideal vehicles for public confession and exhibitionism. And the more socially invisible or ordinary one feels, the more intense the desire to reveal intimate secrets about one’s self.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in today’s popular reality-based talk shows and competitions. Here, celebrities and ordinary people share the same stage and let us, the audience, in on their tearful confessions. What’s surprising (or no longer surprising) is the nature of information so willingly disclosed: infidelity, addiction, sexual orientation, to name a few. For sure, producers looking for a spike in the ratings coach the guests, and starlets looking to promote a film are instructed by their managers to make up some scandal. Yet, for the most part, these revelations are real.

Public confessions make for good ratings because viewers are generally voyeuristic. Just as people are hardwired to rubberneck in roadside accidents, viewers are transfixed by the brutal honesty of unedited and unscripted reality (or what producers work to make it seem to be). In this Age of Me, however, every minute detail is accorded almost the same attention as one would an important artifact of human history.

In the not-so-old days, diaries were the confessionals of choice for those who hoped to record their thoughts in private. But now the Me Generation prefers to broadcast its feelings. You can argue that memoirs are as public, but often these are written with the hope of being published at a much later age — even posthumously. For the Me Generation, a running account of the day’s activities — in real time preferably — is the way to go. Check out the blogs on Friendster or the confessions on ABS-CBN’s “Pinoy Big Brother” and “Dream Academy” reality shows (and its 24/7 versions online) and you’ll see how naturally this comes to the youth of today.

YouTube software is also helping kids set up their personal reality shows. Some are even global hits. The intimate videos on display may seem disturbing, even perverse, to older generations, but what critics decry as exhibitionism, the Me Generation merely calls self-expression.

You won’t detect the slightest embarrassment in such self-focused monologue. These TV contestants and bloggers often have nothing truly original or interesting to say, but that’s beside the point. Having grown up in a popular culture that celebrates individualism and rewards the self-expressive, these youth (the majority are kids after all) don’t find it difficult to exhibit themselves to strangers.

WE SHOULDN’T be surprised. Our media and advertisements are full of messages proclaiming the importance of Me. Indeed, variations of the theme “Express Yourself” and “Believe in Yourself” dominate contemporary advertising, literature, and academic curricula. In her book aptly called Generation Me, U.S. psychologist and social commentator Dr. Jean Twenge says the emphasis popular culture puts on self-esteem has encouraged a generation to be anything they want to be. More often than not this means being famous. (Twenge was talking about U.S. society, of course, but then we are living in an increasingly borderless world.)

True enough, talk shows and reality-based competitions are inundated by people who say they’re only following their dreams. With the centrality of the Me in everyday life, it’s only to be expected that kids would feel entitled to celebrity.

Expect, too, for talk shows and reality TV to get wilder, raunchier, and louder. The more people want to be noticed, the more they would be willing to go to the extreme to attract attention. Those who refuse to eat cockroaches or tell all in front of a national audience can always go online and find an audience with less voyeuristic tastes. (Although there’s also that segment of the cyber audience that has steelier stomachs than ordinary TV viewers.)

The McCann survey reveals millions of young Filipinos are stamping their identities online, a phenomenon the agency calls the Virtual Self. “Thanks to virtual connectivity technology like text messaging and the Internet, more of their lives are being lived out virtually,” says McCann Philippines Managing Director Nandy Villar.

At the same time, many are finding cyberspace as the surefire way to stardom. Curiously though, sometimes cybercelebrities remain anonymous, at least by “normal” standards. While both the televised and the virtual self can be manufactured to appeal to a desired audience, virtual personalities can be multiplied into a variety of identities. Unlike television, identity on the Internet need not be as transparent, thus allowing kids to pursue personalities as wild as their imaginations permit. The network-gaming subculture is particularly famous for this. Real names are hardly used and gamers are identified by their avatars or online characters.

Still, despite the fictional identities, fame and prestige are equally important to gamers. In the network game of World of Warcraft, for example, avatars who rank among the highest are treated like superstars. In the virtual world, you don’t have to be recognized in the streets to be a celebrity. Your parents don’t even have to know.

You don’t need to be a philosopher or sci-fi writer to realize where all this is going. When the basic human need for validation is unleashed by technology and new spaces for exhibition and performance, the self as we know it will never be the same. Life becomes one long series of shows where the size and location of the audience varies from one narrative to the next. You can create and recreate your life movie anyway you want, just as many do in the popular computer role-playing game The Sims. The lack of wealth, talent, beauty, or personality is no longer a valid excuse for obscurity — only the lack of imagination and a basic skill in self-promotion is.

David Celdran is a television commentator and freelance writer who specializes in media, technology and popular culture.