Still Watching?

As it ends after a ten year reign of terror, Matthew Judge analyses how Big Brother changed the ways in which we value celebrity and privacy.On the 10th of September 2010, Big Brother closed its watchful eyes and toasted a final chapter in reality television. The remaining fans mourned, realising the prospect of no longer witnessing its diary room dialogues, dramatics or downfalls.Since its initial broadcast in the Netherlands in 1999, Big Brother has had a huge impact on the world we live in and how we interact with reality and celebrity. It has facilitated our curiosity about human relationships, contributed to our obsession with celebrity life and encouraged the deterioration of privacy. On second glance, it seems that the anguish of Big Brother fans is the primary phase of withdrawal for reality television addicts.Originally a social experiment, Big Brother soon transformed into a corporate machine notorious for manufacturing celebrities overnight. From Jade Goody to Chantelle Houghton, television audiences have come to recognise average working-class citizens as national superstars.For ten years, the Big Brother franchise has showcased its contestants, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame. In modern society, the concept of celebrity is nonsensical. Not so long ago, we adored inspirational figures who contributed to society. Today, we shiver at the thought of another informative speech delivered by Bono or Bob Geldof and instead favour the latest YouTube sensation waiting in the wings of fame.It’s important to note that even though Big Brother was a pedestal for transforming normal people into ‘celebrities’, its failure to protect contestants from excessive exposure to the media was obvious.Take Bart van Spring in’t Veld, the first ever winner of the Big Brother franchise. Since being crowned the winner in 1999, Bart had suffered five breakdowns due to his private life being exposed to the media. This brings into question the validity of the rigorous psychological evaluation which contentests are routinely treated to before appearing on the show.In an intimate interview with the Guardian, Bart revealed how he was unprepared for his newfound fame and how he had gambled recklessly with his privacy. In the interview, he comments on his own participation in promoting the Big Brother franchise. “If I helped to create the mindless monster, I’m not too proud of it; Big Brother took away the need to make inspiring programmes and replaced them with mindless chatter.”Every day we are introduced to potential ‘celebrities’ promoting their latest antics on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace. Two billion videos are viewed each day by YouTube users and five hundred million Facebook users are actively roaming the site.In theory, it is marketing genius. Yet it’s frightening to see the lengths that people will go to in order to be accepted and recognised by their peers. Oftentimes, these celebrity wannabes will allow their fellow YouTube and Facebook colleagues in-depth access to their private lives.The ideology and cult status of Big Brother has made way for revolutionary social and entertainment networks through which we can communicate with others or just reveal our own personal thoughts to the world. Essentially, it has helped spawn a society in which privacy and achievement is being increasingly devalued.We have come to rely on the efficiency and convenience of sharing information through these social networks. Lost in this necessity to communicate, social network users often forget the benefits of anonymity and get trapped into releasing details about their personal lives, friends and social activities without prior contemplation.If Big Brother was a corporate machine that created celebrities overnight and laid the foundations for privacy-endangered social networks, then we must ask ourselves who drove this machine? The answer is we did.It is in our human nature to be curious and attracted to the drama of human relationships. Voyeurism is a part of our genetic make-up and Big Brother has facilitated this curious nature for over ten years. It’s hard to let go.Similarly, what does this say of the value we put upon geniune talent? Our celebrities are now talentless reality stars, whose private lives and problems we scan fervently. What has happened to the talented film, television and music stars of the past? We have replaced recognition of true talent with the celebration of attention for attention’s sake.However as one door closes, another one opens. Hit shows like Jersey Shore and The Hills have also captured our attention and promoted the creation of the overnight celebrity. Even through Facebook and YouTube, we are playing out our lives on our very own online reality show to five hundred million viewers.Big Brother has been a key cultural icon for the new millennium. Some mourn its absence and some revel in its departure. It has introduced a level of voyeurism and celebrity obsession in society that has become the norm. It has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, from a revolutionary beginning to a weary end. However, due to this cultural monster, you can be assured that there is always someone watching.