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Reality stars have their uses … for big business

Fame at last for the cast of Geordie Shore. Ian West/PA

The rise of social media over the past ten years has radically changed how we perceive “celebrities” and the corporate machine around them. While most of us understand what is meant by a “D-Lister”, complex patterns of public engagement brought about through Facebook, Twitter and other new media means the list is more fluid than ever before.

Imagine the future doorman’s dilemma: a star’s value is measured through social media, so the names on his guest list fade in and out on the iPad while his hand hovers over the special red rope. Should yesterday’s Big Brother evacuee (watched only by members of his extended family and the postman) be replaced by a finalist from BB 2009 when the show was in terminal decline? Does a minor ex-soap-star with a fresh sex scandal involving aubergines count more or less than a current starlet who photographs well? It’s a bit like the stock market, only more colourful and moody.

Early celebrations of social media celebrated its democratic potential. Old media told us what to do, think and buy but social media allowed the public to really say what they wanted. The rise of reality television also suggested that the time of the public has come, and that we too can ascend the gilded staircase to the stars.

What was perhaps not foreseen were the many ways in which big corporations would take advantage of these changes.

MTV, for instance, has played a powerful role in directing the energies of social media towards its products. The station is founded upon a series of rolling advertisements designed to sell the passing fancy of the pop song. Ephemera sells ephemera. Little wonder, then, that when MTV began to invest in television series it chose reality TV.

From The Real World in the eighties to Geordie Shore today, MTV has utilised the ambitions of a generation to be famous. Striving is the theme throughout. Once the series is over, the participants’ lack of talent means they have no reason to dwindle upon the stage beyond the fact that they have got used to it.

Such individuals represent the core of the D-List. They are flexible, interchangeable and redundant. In order to hang on to the vestiges of fame and its attendant majesty they have to work. The form of labour they undertake, and our own contributions, are fundamental to the many fluttering engines of social media.

Consider how corporate ambition and individual striving come together in MTV’s The Valleys. This reality show features a handful of individuals from the South Wales Valleys all seeking work in the music and glamour industries. From the very first moment onscreen we confront individuals whose defining characteristic is their desperate hunger for fame.

MTV’s official website requests contributions asking us on every other page “what do you think?” Our response is not just a digital register of engagement but also represents information on MTV’s consumer base that can be utilised to introduce targeted programmes and adverts. To entice us into a world already deeply invested in the ephemeral, the website offers “behind the scenes” snaps of couples who appeared to be onscreen enemies holidaying together while on promotional tours for the show.

But trying to decide what’s real is not the point of reality television. MTV’s objective is to engage us in the artifice by developing our e-skills in the name of selling these product-people.

The participants in the show are all upfront and determined to work on the product of their self and so they self-brand with matchless enthusiasm, utilising every media outlet as an opportunity to disseminate their commodity-identity. To go back to ordinary life is to be “nothing” and it is this fear of being forgotten that drives them on.

They set up their own websites, hire agents and managers and trainers and publicists. In short, they work. When we fire up the engines of social media by engaging with them, we provide some of the energy they need to sustain their little treadmills of celebrity. While they dance on the fringes of the D-List and feast on glitter pies we hover over the keyboard awaiting direction to the next passing fancy.

When pop stars, newsreaders, actors and sports-folk tweet their biscuit-choosing dilemmas it seems for a twinkling moment as if celebrity and fan both dwell in a flattened out universe in which they are just like us, hovering over the Hobnobs.

This cosy illusion hides a very old fashioned commercial imperative. Social media has distracted attention away from the corporate directive and offers instead the illusion that we are in charge. It is precisely because responding feels so light and ephemeral that we consider our engagement with it as a sort of game.

And yet beneath this bonanza of banality remains a newly flexible apparatus of big business, relentlessly pursuing profit.

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