How becoming #BFFs with Kim Kardashian taught me about online engagement, identity and third spaces

This summer I stumbled upon a dangerous addiction. It was a strange universe where Kim Kardashian was my spontaneous best friend, fame was on the other side of a cute outfit and a sassy pose, and all I had to do to inhabit this glorious, though perhaps shallow, world was tap inanely on the touch screen of my iPhone. It’s called Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood and it’s a game that brings the sordid world of reality television together with the world of app based games. It’s a game that teacIMG_0693hes you that dating is expensive but worthwhile because it builds your fame, new clothes can spruce up your image and improve your status, and all of this is attainable to anyone, at any time if you just play your cards right. It’s an attractive proposition, if it existed in real life, to pick a nice outfit, to find a partner in crime, and to suddenly be catapulted to this world of celebrity that taunts media audiences at every turn. (For an interesting analysis of the game and its play look here).   However shallow this game gives us something unattainable, a sense of recognition in this world where every ping on social media is a chance for micro-celebrity. The game is also another example of the privileged cult of self (think Oprah and the idea that all we need already exists within us) that plagues American media, telling us that self-help is the way out of numerous problems, erasing structural inequality, oppression, class, race, gender and sexuality. It doesn’t matter what has brought you down, all the solutions you seek are in yourself.

 

And yet, knowing all of this, I played and played, until I catapulted myself to “top ten” status. I felt somehow invigorated that I had surpassed the various mythical, manufactured, pixilated competitors to rise to the top. So I started on a quasi-academic journey to understand how the third spaces enabled by the world of game play became so enticing, particularly when I found myself extremely self-critical and bashful about admitting this game play to anyone I respected or liked. I wanted to understand what kind of meaning is produced when we play seemingly meaningless games. What work is being done, if any? Or, perhaps I just wanted a convenient excuse to keep playing… But, it’s not just me. Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood is set to make $200 million by the end of this calendar year. This manufactured world, that constructs women and men in small marketable tidbits, defies all rational critiques of our mediated world and thrusts us into a world where it is okay to follow the script that dominant culture writes us and yet criticizes and shames us when we do. So how does it work?

 

Nick Couldry talks about reality television in his book Media, Society, World. He tells that media operate to shape the social. He posits that the media capitalize on the human desire to narrate our lives and how our inability to tell those stories and have them recognized has left us with a lack, or more specifically a media lack. More important than the lack itself, is what fills it. Spectacle rises up to fill us up, to erase the IMG_0669lack that our mediated world fills us with. Celebrity culture, Couldry tells us, is at the center of this lack, he says, “celebrities are also the focus of a huge amount of popular interpretation whose resonance derives precisely from the real recognition deficit that is one side of media’s hidden injuries” (Couldry, 2012, p 102). Celebrity culture wouldn’t be celebrity culture if it didn’t exclude some of us. So we clamber desperately to be recognized in the way, however trivial it may seem, that those celebrities are recognized. And it becomes so much more complicated when we think about the way social media, games, technology and the Internet let us differently inhabit this lack. Our voice suddenly matters, or if it doesn’t matter, it is at least out there in the web of communication that comes together to be our infosphere. It’s the reason why a Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood technical snafu became a trending topic on Twitter and the reason we, despite our better judgment, pay attention to the stories these celebrities weave. The New York Times calls it “microcelebrity” and describes it through the surprising rise to the top of a song called “#Selfie,” that went from a YouTube release to an iTunes top ten spot. The article notes that it is “Owing to the shameless logic of social media, coupled with the glory of proximity to fame, anyone who had a selfie in the video Instagrammed it, tweeted it, Facebooked it, the works. It was a song making fun of selfies and self-promotional oversharing that included and relied on selfies and self-promotional oversharing for its success.”

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It is our very self-reflexive engagement with these platforms that enables them to produce meanings that allow us to be recognized by others, and in turn recognize ourselves. Again we can look to Nick Couldry to help us understand this phenomena. He tells us that “one reason reality TV cannot easily be dismissed as a social form is that at some level, it promises to fulfill claims for recognition that are not fulfilled elsewhere” (Couldry, 2010, p. 81). The level of engagement, this intimate connection with celebrity culture that is so fleeting and dismissive of our calls to it and interactions that butt up alongside it gives us a feeling of authenticity. This simulacrum of authenticity nurtured online can be just as powerful as an organic experience. That’s what Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood does for users, it gives us this sense of the authentic experience that is so often sold to us as desirable in our neoliberal culture. We can surely dismiss it as just a manifestation of the way the market has oppressed us, but we can also see that, in this space, in between reality and hyper-reality, in between online and offline, identity is being negotiated and produced. Perhaps, too, it is easier to negotiate complex identities on the bodies of an avatar than on ourIMG_0694 own, vulnerable, visible physical bodies. Granted the game will often tear your online identity apart the way a bully might in a crowded high school hallway, particularly in the hyper critical words of a “date” telling you your outfit is subpar or in your battles with a fictionalized arch-nemesis Willow Pape, but no mediated experience would be truly complete without a spoilsport to bring us back to humility.

 

It is interesting to look at this game in relation to other online phenomena that allow us to put our offline personas in online performances hoping for authentic engagement. Even Sherry Turkle (2011), though quite critical of these spaces because of the anxiety they produce about our ability to stay ahead of our interactions with technology, notes that the online spaces may enable a process of “working through” where you “use the materials of online life to confront the conflicts of the real and search for new resolutions” (p. 214). Recently Anne Helen Peterson tried to figure out “Why we swipe the way we swipe” on the social media dating app Tinder. She calls it a “shameful secret of attraction.” Her conclusion based on a Tinder simulation she posted to social media (which in the spirit of self-disclosure I will admit I participated in) indicated that attraction online is based on the narratives we invent for the people around us, just as our social media engagement is about the narrative we invent for ourselves. It’s about curation of identity and curation of the identity markers we allow around us. Yes, these narratives are essentialized and biased while being based on complex identity politics that cause us to inhabit certain spaces in certain ways, politics that a quick swipe on Tinder or tap on the screen in Kim Kardashian cannot hope to capture. Yet, these spaces allow us to enter a space of possibility, an unstable space that in its surreal nature gives us permission to experiment, and in its vague connection to us gives us a sense of action.  It’s a stark contrast to more nuanced and powerful representations of gender, race and sex that have been cropping up in complex and nuanced television and streaming dramas and comedies like Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and How to Get Away with Murder. The depth and reflexivity that seems to crop up on television programs is dilluted when it comes into contact with this game’s claims: that power, strength, fame and success are just a tap of a screen away  As legacy media appears to be nuancing our understandings of identity with the powerful and self-conscious “unmasking” of Viola Davis’s character on the latest Shonda Rhimes hit, the aforementioned How to Get Away with Murder that airs as a part of ABC’s #TGIT (Thank God it’s Thursday) line up, social media, games and apps are perhaps taking a disappointing turn towards reproductions of packaged notions of identity, success and self-help culture. Despite this, we cannot erase the agentic act of going to an app, putting your time, your effort and for some even your money behind a mythical world that allows you to embody a persona that is simultaneously reviled and celebrated without having to answer to any of society’s critics for that act. It is the third space that enables this expression, just like it is the third space that enables us to critique it through our own narrative making and identity curation online.

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Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood is not transgressive, it enforces dominant ideas of gender, of beauty, of sex, and of status. It is a privileged take on how to be successful and a false promise that the world allows us to make and re-make ourselves regardless of inequality, oppression, and structural unfairness. And yet, at the same time, Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood is productive in the way it allows users a space to experiment (within very, very limited boundaries) with the narrative of their lives. Our avatars can be anyone, can travel in luxury, and perhaps for a moment fill that lack and, perhaps, if we really believe hard enough, it could even heal one of those hidden media injuries that can only truly be healed by spectacle.

 

References

Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters: Culture and politics after neoliberalism: Sage Publications.

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice: Polity.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.

 

 

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