Monday, August 19, 2013

As Real as it Gets

In 1992, The Real World hit television screens nationwide, and sparked America's love affair with reality TV.

Though, it did not rekindle America's love for beatnik sweaters.

The appeal of the show - and other shows in the reality television genre - came from the unscripted, 'raw' element of the footage. People naturally find other people fascinating, so what kind of zany scenarios could we see if we throw a bunch of complete strangers in a house and film it?

The Internet has emerged as one of the fastest and easiest ways to transfer information, through text, images, and videos. It has become the ultimate reality show, giving us a new window into other people's lives and exposure to situations previously unimaginable.

Social networking has infiltrated most of our lives. With so many people on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, it's become very easy to piece together what people are doing with themselves. If you wanted to take it a step further and really be a creep, you could Google people's names and trace their digital footprint. Search engines like Pipl are designed around looking for information on people, browsing content found on both the accessible Internet and the deep web.

Even though we have all of this information available to us, a lot of people's lives are fairly mundane. For every interesting public meltdown, there are hundreds of stupid Facebook statuses. Sometimes those mundane moments have their jewels, but your typical Facebook feed will just have people talking about their day and their boring opinions. Sometimes you get the people who upload pictures of what they're eating right at that moment.

Thank you for sharing. I...made this joke six months ago.

Some websites exist to highlight the best of those mundane moments. Fuck My Life is a website devoted to bad moments in your life that others would find funny. Websites like My Life is Good and My Life is Average were spinoffs featuring the other kinds of moments in your life. Texts from Last Night post humorous text message transcripts, presumably sent by drunk people. There are websites devoted to moments with funny Amazon reviews, funny reactions to news parodies, funny stories from retail jobs, funny neighbors, funny parents, and whatever else you think an online audience could relate to.

But sometimes people like to up the ante, much like we observe in reality television. While the small, quirky moments can be memorable, sometimes we actively seek the extreme experiences. Sometimes we're looking for narratives that carry extreme shock value. Sometimes we're looking to be put out of our comfort zone, or even to take other people out of their comfort zone.

The Internet offers plenty of brutally real content. The website earned its reputation as a collection of disturbing images and videos. The website has archived footage of corpses, deformities, violent acts, perverse sex acts, autopsy photographs and other gut-wrenching imagery. and the now-defunct Orgrish also reported on news stories that were considered too bizarre or disturbing for mainstream reporting, usually featuring extensive graphic content.

The owners of these so-called "shock sites" often loudly declare themselves as demonstrators against internet censorship, but that doesn't always save them from trouble. In 2012, the website (name says it all, don't it?) got into some legal trouble when it posted the raw footage of a criminal killing and dismembering a Chinese international student. The site owner was arrested and charged with "corrupting morals" on July 2013.

This is terrible! Why can't I look away?

Some shocking images make their way out of shock sites and find more public exposure. In 1999, the domain name was registered. Upon visiting the site, you would be greeted with a man's stretched and gaping anus. The "goatse" image gained tons of notoriety, and it became common practice to trick your friends into seeing the image. Some online places deemed goatse and other shocking photos the "Unholy Trinity", and virtually made it a rite of passage to view these three pictures in succession.

Other such images that gained wider popularity include Meatspin, whose name should explain it all but here's a safe-for-work explanation just in case. Sometimes the name of the website would be completely misleading - Lemonparty, for example, had nothing to do with lemons, but completely to do with old men pleasuring one another. One particularly famous shock video that reached relatively mainstream fame was 2Girls1Cup, a trailer to scat pornography set to unfitting piano music. Not only did the video itself become an online trend, but reaction videos to 2Girls1Cup also began proliferating around the Internet.

There are far more shock sites than those mentioned here, and there are even designated regions of popular websites where you can come to expect such sights to pop up. You usually see them get posted in the "random" or no-holds-barred forums on these websites, where people can get away with posting such content. Reddit's r/spacedicks forum, by virtue of being on Reddit, is likely the most contemporary example.

The fact that shock imagery remains strangely tantalizing to people has been described as "gross-out culture", where spreading the disgust somehow creates more comradery and inclusiveness. I remember when my 15 year old cousin was telling me that his friends made him watch the BME Pain Olympics, another such shock video. It was interesting because I remember being 15 and being shown Lemonparty. There's almost a natural compulsion to show these horrible things to one another and experience them together as a group.

Shock sites are like the most outrageous parts of reality shows. These things are all very real - they involve other humans doing grotesque things, which we can empathize with by virtue of being human ourselves. Our senses are pushed to places that are neither routine nor comfortable, and there's a certain appeal to that. It helps that when we observe these things, we are not putting ourselves in any danger.

Ultimately, the empathy that allows us to react to shock sites is the same empathy that allows us to enjoy people's funny stories about their retail job. That's the most interesting part - all of these things are ingredients to describing the human condition. The most bizarre and depraved aspects of humanity are just as accessible as the mundane aspects.

Never before has human experience been so conveniently cataloged for our perusal. In a way, we're better off for it. We get to read about people's everyday lives, and we learn that we can probably relate to more people than we think. We can read something terrifying and disturbing, and really feel shaken by it, because you know that it involves people that probably had just as many mundane experiences in their life as you do. The online depiction of reality is the great pathos of the Internet.

But, then again, if people really were getting more enriched by reading about other people's experiences online, you'd think that you'd see fewer pictures of people's dinners. Maybe the next time you see someone post food on Facebook, you should link them to goatse.

...No, don't really do that.

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