Turn On Reality
“You just have to look at her Tumblr. It’s just like, so her soul.”
— Kim Kardashian
Back in the good old days of 2011, it used to be that a single reality TV series was the top rated show on television: American Idol. Yet over the past five years, Reality TV shows themselves have proliferated… A dozen Bachelors per Kardashian, a hundred Vanderpumps per Trump. As a genre, it now dominates the ratings: By the Summer of 2016, nine of the top 10 broadcast shows were Reality TV.
All the while, our lives have become increasingly enmeshed in our own Reality TV imitations. Storyboarded, broadcast, and consumed by the people for the people via an ever-expanding — and deceptively personal — fusion of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Youtube, and their ilk. Social media has become Reality TV 2.0 — Immersive, always on, and best of all: Everyone gets to be the star of a custom designed digital echo chamber.
Unlike bigger screen Reality TV stars, us denizens of Reality TV 2.0 even get to control who’s allowed into our audiences… Unsurprisingly, we have a tendency to stack them full of people quite similar to ourselves. For every Clinton voter who couldn’t name a single Facebook friend supporting Trump, there was a Trump voter who couldn’t name a single Facebook friend supporting Clinton. Nobody signs up to be cast the villain in Reality TV 2.0, so we rarely disagree with our digital friends, lest we lose likes.
According to one recent study, we now spend an average of nearly two hours per day on social media tending to our Reality TV 2.0 personas, and consuming the broadcasts of our ‘friends’ and/or ‘followers.’ I hypothesize that even two hours is a gross underestimation of time spent… Just as the polls missed the secret Trump voter, third party research misses the secret social media addict.
I’m a part of the problem. Where I work, in the Silicon Valley venture capital industry, the most appealing businesses to invest in remain these social media centric companies, for they are so engaging, so addictive, that they require less outside capital to grow than almost any other type of business in the world. They don’t require marketing; they spread on their own. We call this “viral growth” — It explains the rapid rise of every social media platform ever, although very few endure. But when they win, they win big league. Just like Donald J. Trump.
In today’s whacky social media milieu, even Ken Bone has a quarter of a million followers on Twitter. And sure enough, it’s almost always impossible to discern the authenticity from the agenda. Exhibit A:
Are your two best buds really fist fighting in that GIF, or are they just playing around? As if your ex is that in love with his new girlfriend… That pose has gotta be staged just to max out Instagram hearts. Right? Well, it’s tough to tell. When it comes to celebrity of any degree, separating reality from theatre approaches the art of the impossible.
Which brings us to the oldest theatrical genre of them all — Politics; the art of the possible — an unabashedly optimistic turn of phrase until this past week. Today, for many, an ominous one: He broke all the rules, and he won? But if we step back and consider his campaign amidst our all-you-can-post culture of micro-celebrity for the masses — where the only things stranger than the fictions we share on our feeds are our true selves — is it really any wonder that our President-elect is Donald J. Trump?
Trump… Probably not a self-made millionaire back in the ’70s, but certainly a self-made celebrity in a pre PC age. Trump… Possibly not a billionaire as of the day I write these words (and now, truly, we will never know), but absolutely the pioneering star of a reality TV genre that’s made the networks billions. Trump… Definitely not a wrestler, but he fakes a fight more skillfully than the biggest names in the WWE.
Presidents reflect our culture, and since the dawn of Hollywood, our culture has been celebrity-obsessed. For decades, it was a somewhat innocuous obsession — the Reagan ’80s come to mind — but by 2016 it had metastasized into an unabated societal social media addiction where a fix is always just a click away. In parallel, millions upon millions of American social media participants have perfected, through years of practice, the magic trick that makes all great Reality TV tick: Fact must be indiscernible from faux.
It’s against this sui generis backdrop, this alarmingly cataclysmic recipe for cultural corrosion, that President Trump makes a sort of strangely sobering sense.
“I’m talking about the Klu Klux Klan” — Jake Tapper
“I just don’t know anything about ‘em” — Donald J. Trump
Whether you consider it colorful theatre, or hateful pandering (it’s the latter, duh), as of today, it seems irrefutable to me that the Trump campaign’s truths, untruths, and things left strangely unsaid have left millions of Americans feeling vulnerable and voiceless . Where fear flourishes, violence follows.
But hey, everyone loves to watch a good fight, right?
Trump World premieres in sixty eight days. It’ll trounce The New Celebrity Apprentice in the ratings department, which itself is a sequel to the seven seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice, which itself was a follow up to The Apprentice, the legendary original that endured for fourteen seasons — the show simply must go on — and on, and on — and our Host sure knows how to up the ante… Twenty-four-seven, for at least four years! Every American’s a contestant! It’ll be the Greatest Show on Earth! “I alone can fix it!” He said in the previews; it must be the new “You’re fired!”
Half the nation will rejoice on inauguration day. Every moment will be captured, tagged, jubilantly shared in every digital format imaginable by millions upon millions.
What they’ll miss, amidst all the pomp and circumstance, is that Trump has consolidated power so masterfully, and against such long odds, that He Alone is empowered to write the script from here on out. Like all great protagonists, Donald J. Trump owes nothing to nobody (as far as we know, at least… and I for one don’t speak Russian). The cliffhanger is so obvious it writes itself: Will our Constitutional Republic survive?
If we take Trump seriously, it may not be safe for me to write a post like this a year from now. If we take Trump’s “Director of African American Outreach” and former Apprentice contestant Omarosa Manigault literally, it isn’t safe for me to write it now . If some of the most frightening rumors circulating already are true, than I will face retaliation just for writing these words today. I hope and pray those rumors are false. Time will tell.
Regardless, a handful of trusty ringmasters will stand ever by Trump’s side, Omarosa, ‘natch, amongst their lower ranks — “Bow down to President Trump,” she warned us on PBS.
Like I said before, it all makes strangely sobering sense — a fever dream of the future reconstituted from junkyard parts past.
Only this isn’t just another television show. This isn’t just another Twitter war. This is the most powerful nation in the one world we’ve got, folks. And while I hope to be proven wrong in the years to come, from all I’ve seen thus far, a world in which President Trump makes any sense at all is not the world I want my grandchildren to inherit.
Just as social media platforms spread virally, so too does fear. It’s spreading now in many circles — mere days ago more visceral, today concrete and categorizable — The fear of violence from an angry left, the implications of a newly empowered KKK; the fear of retributions for speaking critically, of friendships lost over speaking at all.
The antidote to fear is empathy. Inconveniently, empathy is perhaps the only emotion that’s more viscerally abstract than fear. It doesn’t photograph well, so there’s a dearth of it here, in this Reality TV 2.0 world that’s propelled us to the Trumpian brink.
For those of us who feel for others, there’s but one path left.
We must stop endlessly curating our personal brands in our digital echo chambers. We must make the time and space to tend to one another, leaving the comfort of our known audiences so as to bring comfort to those who are different — and probably even voted differently.
We must tune out of Reality TV 2.0 so that we’re able to tune in to reality once again. We must do this right away in order to soberly assess and rapidly react to the radical change that President-elect Donald J. Trump has promised is in store for the United States of America.
Just as only you know whether the smile in your profile photo is one of genuine happiness, only Trump knows where Trumpian truths lie. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to build their follower count, just like the rest of us. For now, all I know without a shadow of a doubt is that on November 9th, 2016, my voice became too valuable to expend tending to the frivolities of my social media micro-celebrity. Yours did too.