On any given day, at around 10 or 11 p.m., my room transforms into a hazy blue hell straight from the pages of “Infinite Jest.” It is my TV time, those sublime evening hours where my eyes glaze over, transfixed at my current cultural obsession — “Big Brother”. “Reality” TV is one of many worlds in a galaxy of media that I’ve been orbiting around my entire life. A Criterion Collection edition of Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” sits upright on my desk, a portal into an imagined Los Angeles suffused with the dreamy nostalgia of a fake yesteryear. During the day, before my recession into the numbness of TV time, I can be found at my desk reading Didion or humming along to Lana Del Rey — two bookends of a California I’m not sure ever existed, one born out of a stylistic pen and watchful eye, the other from its affectionate imitation. Right above my desk hangs a poster of some of my most influential heroes — Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton. Sometimes, before bed, I even make sure to carve out some time for TikTok, all the better to keep my finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist.
Media, in all its forms, surrounds me from all corners. I am addicted to reality, but not my own; rather, I drink up those realities that are refracted through the prism of the profit motive, the impossible daydream, or the far removed past. The question perpetually inscribed on the interior of my forebrain is where do these realities end and I begin?
A Short (and woefully incomplete) History of Influence
To begin answering this question, it’s worth noting how these realities even became so influential in the first place. After all, I know I am not alone. “Reality” seems to be the opiate of the masses. On a recent family trip to Oaxaca, I sat at the head of a table, ready to eat tlayudas with a family that was only there in theory. Each member of my family was too busy writing up future hospital bills for neck pain as they scrolled through the mini realities on their phones. My mom had posted cute pictures of us on her Facebook that morning, and she was checking up on how many likes the post had gained from other moms and coworkers. My dad had added a video of a fish soup he ate that afternoon to his Facebook story, and he enjoyed watching it over and over again, as if he hadn’t truly experienced the moment just hours before, as if the virtual reincarnation of the event somehow beat the original. My siblings were scrolling through the endless timelines of kitschy TikToks and meaningless Tweets about those TikToks. Nobody was talking. I wasn’t on my phone, but not because I knew better. I just didn’t have a signal.
I’m becoming increasingly afraid that mine is the new nuclear family. Less interested in the here and now, these units mill about broadcasting their own lives for the world to see, or at least sit frozen before the immeasurably superior broadcasts of complete strangers. People in ancient times would watch TV in a similar way — they would prostrate before the set, stuck in “A Clockwork Orange” trance of paralyzed escapism. In its simplest form, however, this relationship could be a little beautiful. When I used to visit my grandparents in Sabinas, I was always disappointed that I couldn’t make them laugh the way “El Chavo de Ocho” did. The sounds that escaped from their howling jowls were almost animal — sounds I only ever heard when they were watching TV. They were sounds of unbelievable joy and release.
Television luddites (if those even exist anymore) might point out that the time my grandparents spent watching TV could have been spent doing something else, but it’s not like they only ever watched TV. After an arduous day on the farm harvesting watermelon, corn, or sorghum, my grandfather just wanted to rest and have something to laugh at. The same with my grandmother, who would spend the day cleaning, cooking, or picking lemons, mandarins, and avocados from the orchard in the backyard. Between them, they had nine years of formal schooling, my grandfather dropping out after third grade and my grandmother after sixth. Television was their portal to a world they had known so little of, and it made for a great, entertaining supplement to their daily lives.
I witnessed the same phenomenon in my parents, but with later shows like “La Familia P. Luche”, “El Chapulín Colorado”, ”Vecinos”, or one of Univision’s many novelas. Growing up, my mom was out of the house getting her Master’s degree, and my dad was always out of state on some business, but whenever they came together, there was a lot of TV watching, and the same heretofore unheard laughter would ring out from their bedroom. TV wasn’t a distraction, a sap through which their productive energies were sucked right out of them; rather, it was a counterpart to productivity that made them laugh, cry, and think about situations or events they would probably never experience in their own lives.
Of course, I can’t underestimate the influence TV must have had on the mores or behaviors of my parents and grandparents. Television is the ultimate soapbox, after all. In the U.S., for example, shows like “I Love Lucy”, “Leave it To Beaver”, “Father Knows Best”, or Bush Sr.’s favorite, “The Waltons”, reflected back onto American eyeballs scenes of the ideal nuclear family, replete with its gender roles and encouragement of conformity to the state. It’s not like the Cold War era’s social dynamics were defined solely through television, but it was undeniably a medium employed to reinforce the status quo. Suffice it to say that TV was influential from the very beginning, but at least in my own family, I don’t believe it changed my parents’ behaviors as much as it reinforced very traditional notions they had already recognized as essential. This, however, wasn’t the case for long.
Somehow, under our very noses, this relationship began to change. My siblings and I experienced it before my parents and in many more novel forms, yet the transformation of media’s role wasn’t generational. With the introduction of new technologies and mediums of communication, the way we viewed TV and media generally shifted, and not just for those darned kids, but for everybody.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve prided myself in my being in the know on all things pop culture. Other kids may have played football, but I made videos talking about Paris Hilton’s chihuahua and obsessed over Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster” when I got my first iPad at 11 years old. I had my first Facebook account in elementary school, my first fascination with music when I found my mom’s copy of Nelly Furtado’s “Loose”, and my first edgy emo phase in middle school could be traced back to my discovery of the movie “Prom Night”. Media has been my lifelong best friend, and more than the TV of my parents and grandparents, it molded me into who I am today.
Social Media & The Search for a Personality
Social media, in the form of Bebo and Myspace for my older sister’s generation, and in the form of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for mine, became the perfect place to share our cultural obsessions, increasing their influence tenfold as all our friends began to share them as well. For the first time, I could witness firsthand what the popular kids were watching and listening to, and it became up to me to decide whether I should fit in or create my own path. As you can imagine, I did a little bit of both. Beyond social media’s power of sharing, however, it also allowed us to create our own content. If we were smart, pretty, funny, or interesting enough, we could become our very own arbiters of influence, gaining a new form of power available only in the Information Age. Soon, this pursuit of attention evolved into a type of influence war, fighting for more eyeballs.
Now, teenage daughters obsessively prune their social media presence through minute touch-ups of every possible depiction of their face. Mothers make sure to boast about their children’s every accomplishment — some not really worth sharing but nonetheless shared in the hopes of some endless stream of validation. Boys flex their muscles in mirrors, the flash of their phone’s camera still visible in the photo, all for some hyper-macho pissing contest that now spans the world. The people who do end up making it big become cultural figureheads, with their style of clothing or sense of humor becoming worthy of admiration and repetition.
It would be silly, however, for me to criticize these people. I am as much a defendant as I am a prosecutor, but I do find myself wondering what this all means for us. Media has come a long way since its most ancient incarnation — the book — and it had been snowballing its influence until it exploded in our time into innumerable different sources, each with its ability to change our behavior or worldview. With the millions of TikToks I watch, and the bits I find myself repeating from them, or the musical artists and TV shows I follow, I find it harder to decode what of my own personality I can salvage from the rubble of this media ground zero.
What does it even mean to have a personality? Is it a collection of trinkets from the media landscape, all of which speak to us in some profound way and define who we are? Do I enjoy writing because it produces some indescribable joy in me, or is that indescribability simply images of Carrie Bradshaw reverberating in my skull as I vainly attempt to reproduce their effect? What about my sense of humor, that fount of self worth I’m desperate to draw water from? Is it a refraction of my parents’ humor, or a maladaptation of some orgy of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”–Chelsea Handler-”Schitt’s Creek” comedic stylings? Why am I so drawn to these influences in the first place? Should I form distinctions between “organic” influences like my friends and family and “inorganic” influences like “Jersey Shore” and Kurt Cobain? Is there even a difference? Is one more real than the other?
A Source of Understanding
For a long time, my parents and authority figures described TV or social media as a “distraction,” an obstacle preventing me from doing my schoolwork or being productive. However, whenever I obsess over a new album or TV show, a book or a movie, it doesn’t feel like my attraction comes from a place of distraction or escape. Rather, I believe I enjoy them because they are sources of understanding, tools to decode what I often fail to understand.
For example, I enjoy watching “Big Brother” because it feels like a microcosm of humanity’s darker impulses, a masterclass in how Machiavellian we can become when there’s a worthy prize at the end. I love listening to David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Phoebe Bridgers’ “Punisher” because I feel they depict depths of grief that I could never really understand. I read Baudrillard and Debord to understand the often all too consuming tsunami of spectacle and influence in our own media saturated society, and even TikToks have allowed me unabridged access to the lives of people I never would have experienced otherwise.
I believe our eyes fixate on our phones and TV screens not because we want to escape our own reality, but because we want to understand any reality. This doesn’t mean that all media is or should be educational in some way. It just means that even the most mindless entertainment presents a version of reality that is blissfully simple to understand. To exist in the real world is to be confused, but on Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat, all at once, the narrative is complete. We see peers with inhuman grins, arms around other perpetually joyful creatures, and with only a glance, we understand happiness, camaraderie, dancing, scandalous gossip and embarrassing antics. Whether or not these images honestly depict our friends’ realities doesn’t matter. A lack of context makes them as good as true.
In the real world, however, context is a plague we cannot escape. Nobody just smiles in the real world. They smile and lower their eyes, smile and turn away milliseconds after the camera’s click, smile and scratch their ears, smile and nervously chuckle. The narrative is never complete. They aren’t just happy, but rushed, anxious, insincere, or secretly angry, and we obsess over which is the right answer. On social media, in the pages of a novel, in the bright colors of a movie, between the lines of a song, it is much easier to understand, or at least to feel like we do.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are no abstractions in media. The meaning of the spinning top at the end of “Inception”, or the green light in “The Great Gatsby”, or the yam in Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” aren’t always clear. However, gaining an understanding of those abstractions is always possible, unlike the relationships, events, and developments of our own lives that we cry and stress over because we can’t seem to wrap our heads around them. There will always be that Genius interview to explain the singer’s intention or meaning, or that video essay on YouTube that explains what did or didn’t happen at the end of that movie, years upon years of interpretations from all over to explain why an author chose this word and not that one. Often, like on Snapchat or Twitter, all the meaning you could possibly need is wrapped up with a nice bow and presented before your eyes without challenge.
By contrast, there are no such orienting forces in our own lives. Where could I go to explain why my girlfriend broke up with me, or why my mom is disappointed in me, or why professors always seem to be put off when I visit their office hours? Because we can’t answer these questions, we attach ourselves to realities that we believe can, and they begin to form an integral part of how we understand our lives.
This phenomenon is certainly not new. Replace “media” with any other source of mass obsession, and there will be some time in history where people were simply unable to disentangle themselves from the web of that idea’s influence. Religion is the perfect example. Some people define their entire lives through the decrees of their faith, unable and unwilling to see themselves apart from it. If that isn’t a problem, why should my attachment to media be one? Movies move me to tears, and poetry makes me want to love, and books let me live in a world that is no longer possible to visit myself. Even TikTok has its merits. I’ve learned some wonderful recipes, heard beautiful stories, and most importantly, had some unbelievable fits of laughter. All these many realities collect in the purview of my experience not always to distract, but to sometimes enrich my life. Somewhere there are grandmothers whose only connection to their loved ones is through Facebook, or small TikTok and YouTube creators who are dedicated to entertaining or educating the masses, or even old men who find pure joy in the gestures of a play, scenes of a book, or lyrical excesses of a song.
Nonetheless, consuming media doesn’t always feel great. I often make the fatal mistake of forgetting that media only ever depicts “reality,” or some distorted version of the world I live in. Even the forms of media that purport to be unfiltered views into the lives of real people are often the most artificial. The casting of the world’s most beautiful people in “reality” television or the lavish looking lives of my friends’ Instagram posts could sometimes make me feel inferior, but it helps to remember that media never provides the full picture. Often, it only highlights the best or most scandalous parts.
The phenomenon of “fake news” and its power in influencing millions to believe what is simply untrue stems from this same media-replacing-reality. If we forget that the producers of content might have ulterior motives, we might fall into the trap of believing what they say without actually thinking about it deeply. My father once sent me a video he found on Facebook of a gas station exploding, and the caption blamed the blast on a man using his phone while pumping gas, even though that has never happened before. Or, worse, social media can be weaponized to spread falsehoods meant to sway users’ politics one way or another. An understanding that media is rarely the whole truth might be able to prevent both.
At its best, social media’s ability to allow anyone to produce content democratizes media and allows for incredibly different perspectives or forms of artistry to flourish on some global platform. Just think of all the small time musicians and producers who found success through TikTok or SoundCloud. At its worst, however, social media can be the battleground of vapid influence wars or incredibly dangerous information wars that expose us to lies or worsen our mental states. In the end, it’s worth reminding ourselves that media’s purpose should be to supplement and improve, not distract and destroy.
Of course, a lot of people overdo it. Spending hours upon hours on TikTok or staring blankly at a TV screen is definitely not productive. We should all try to avoid falling in the trap of sitting around a table for dinner immersed completely in our phones and not in conversation. Ultimately, a solution might lie in diversifying our media consumption. We might spend less time on social media, and more time consuming traditional forms of media, like books, music, or theatre. Or, as a vehicle of self-expression, we could embrace modern media’s democratization and create our own content. In a crisis of meaninglessness, these sources might help orient our lives and provide some semblance of comfort.
Nevertheless, I find myself resigned to the idea that this is the status quo. Some version of this problem has always existed, and all I can do now is realize it and work to create some distance from those many realities I’ve fallen in love with. We all should. However, now is not the time for big questions, it is TV time. Shush! I can’t hear “Big Brother”.