x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

We are all contestants in the reality show of Facebook

As Facebook makes clear, we're not immune from the compulsion to be more interesting than we really are, writes Rob Long.

A friend of mine has finally hit the big time. She was asked to star in her own reality television series.

She turned it down flat. "I know myself well enough," she told me, "to know that in the course of a day, I say and do things that would make me look pretty crazy and repellent.  With the right editing." She was smart to turn the offer down. These shows are created in the editing room, by producers looking for the most lurid and nutty angle.

Reality television stars always say the same thing. "I'm not that awful," they claim. "I'm just edited that way." The producers always wanted them to pitch a fit/betray a friend/drink too much/create that scene. It's television, they all say, when confronted on Oprah or the inevitable "reunion" episodes, in which feuding reality stars hit the sofa for more fireworks. Don't hate us, they say, we're just performers. In reality, we're not so interesting. On reality-television, though, we're compulsively watchable.

This is more or less confirmed by the people involved with producing these kinds of shows. For years, the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriter's trade union, has claimed that the story editors - those sad souls tasked with watching hours of footage and cutting it all down into hour-long powerplays of nastiness and psychosis - aren't just editors, but writers, and as such covered by the basic agreement between the Guild and the studios.  They shape unformed material into a story, says the Guild, and that's what writers do. And the material, in turn, is shaped by on-set producers who goad and prod their subjects into being just a little more angry, just a little more crazy, just a little more… interesting.

The result is a creepy kind of feedback loop: the story editors try to identify and shape emerging storylines, which they relay back to the on-set producers, who manipulate their subjects into delivering satisfying moments of television based on those emerging storylines - big end-of-show blow-ups, promotable snippets of suspense - so that what is billed as "reality" is, in fact, carefully plotted by everyone involved.

And we, of course, can tsk-tsk all we want. But we're not immune from the compulsion to be more interesting than we really are.

I have a friend who updates his Facebook status several times a day. Sometimes his updates are innocuous - "enjoying the new Ryan Adams CD" or "loving my chicken caesar salad wrap" - but often they're more complicated, mentioning certain restaurants, chic venues, glamorous locations. "Drinks at Chateau Marmont, then dinner at Lucques! I'm loving LA in April" - things like that.

In one amazing 24-hour span, his Facebook updates reported a power breakfast ("Omelets at Geoffrey's in Malibu with my agent!") and a business lunch ("Chipotle burritos with writing staff to work out this season's storylines") and a romantic end of day ("Grateful for Michelle and a beach sunset at the end of a busy day") absolutely none of which was true, because on that day I happened to run into him at the E-Z Lube near my house, in shorts and a dirty T-shirt, getting his car's oil pump replaced. Which was a four-hour job.

I confronted him about this later. "I've done all of those things," he insisted. "Just not in one day."

"But that's lying," I said. "You're lying on Facebook!" I'm not sure, in retrospect, why I thought this was such a big deal. He certainly didn't.

He looked at me strangely. "So?" he asked.

"So," I said, "Facebook is supposed to be true. It's supposed to be factual."

"Oh," he said, leaning back smugly. "So you really like everything you 'like' on Facebook?"

"Well …" I muttered.

"And you're really 'friends' with all of your Facebook friends?" He had me there.

"Stop thinking of Facebook as something real," he said. "It's not. It's just …" and here he paused for a moment, searching for the right word. "It's just … content," he said. "That's all. Just content." He shrugged. "I'm a Hollywood writer," he said, "I'm just delivering what people want to think a Hollywood writer does all day. I'm just giving people something interesting to read."

He's just providing content, in other words, like one of those reality television stars. He's doing what he thinks he's supposed to do, in the reality television series called "Facebook", the one in which all of us are cast members trying to be interesting.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood