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What happens when big brother is watching Big Brother?

By Pamela Weatherill - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2012


With most of us already living in a fish bowl of social media, having voyeuristic friends and colleagues watch our every (published) move, is there still an attraction towards the Big Brother reality TV phenomenon when it launches on August 13th 2012? Is the social experiment element of Big Brother Series 9 still worth a social scientist watching, four years after its hiatus and ten years after its first viewing?

Produced by Endemol Southern Star, this global reality show was loosely based on Orwell's Big Brother from his science fiction/allegory on society novel 1984. The show creates an environment where 'housemates' who are strangers to each other, yet whose every move is seen via hidden and not-so-hidden cameras, battle one another and face eviction weekly until one is left standing - and named winner.

The term 'Big Brother' is also often used to describe the phenomenon produced by social media, especially with the advent of so many mobile devices such as Smartphones and Tablet computers. The permanency of postings and Tweets, the mobile nature of devices from which to send news and photographs to social media sites, and having the majority of the population attached to social media in some shape or form, means nearly everything we do is viewable or reportable from pretty much anywhere. The only difference to Big Brother the TV show, is that social media evictions take the form of 'unfollowing' a Tweep, and voting for someone is usually in the form of a 'Like' on Facebook.

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When Big Brother first aired in Australia in 2001 the Internet was well and truly becoming part of daily life in Australia. But with the advent of social media and its exponential uptake there has been a vast change in our behaviours and attitudes as both consumers and viewers. The first eight seasons of Big Brother aired alongside the growth in technology and social media. Series nines will fail or succeed because of it.

According to the Sensis Social Media report [http://about.sensis.com.au/ignitionsuite/uploads/docs/sensis%20social%20media%20report.pdf]

nearly 2/3rd of Australians on the internet use social media platforms. While new social media platforms come and failed ones disappear, the two major social media likely to impact on how viewers experience Big Brother Series 9 are Facebook and Twitter, which were both around for latter Big Brother series in Australia, but not to the ubiquitous state they are today. When Big Brother aired previously, blogs were a common space for dialogue, gossip and influence - but without the immediacy of Smart Phones and micro blogging platforms such as Twitter.

Facebook launched in 2004, three years after Big Brother's Australian launch. The number of active Facebook users has increased nine fold since 2008 when Big Brother last aired. With over 10 million Australian Facebook users it is fair to expect Facebook conversation about Big Brother no matter what their ratings are. At publication the official BB page already had nearly quarter of a million 'Likes' - before the show has even aired.

Twitter launched a little later in 2006. With over a million Australian users, and television producers already seeing Twitter's value in adding to audience engagement on other shows (reality or not), the Twittersphere is already agog with pre Big Brother chatter. At publication the official Big Brother Twitter account (#bbau9) had nearly seven thousand followers.

The biggest technological shift in the hiatus since the last series, is the mobility of social media with the ever increasing use of Smartphones and tablet computers. Smartphones now represent around 65% of all mobile phone and are now selling faster than PCs. [http://www.cebit.com.au/mobile/2012/future-of-mobile-smartphones-tablets-outsell-pcs ]. Remember that while Smartphones have been available since 2001, the 'industry standard' iPhone wasn't launched until 2007 and was only just beginning to catch on in Australia by the time the Big Brother series 8 was axed. Together with the social media culture shift, and increased mobile access to the internet, it is fair to expect to see an impact from Big Brother technology on Big Brother Series 9.

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In Chanel Nine's first run at Big Brother, the theme for this year's Big Brother series will be about having a secret. All housemates have a secret which other housemates have to guess. We all know examples where social media and secrets really haven't mixed all that well. It will be interesting to see how long before each of their secrets are 'outted' to the Big Brother audience with so much social media and so many fans accessing it. Even Big Brother's executive producer Alex Mavroidakis doesn't think it will take the viewing public long to play detective and have the house mate secrets leak. [http://www.bigbrother.com.au/news/8511547/the-man-behind-big-brother] It's obviously not seen by producer s as a risk to the show's success.

As a technology social scientist I am interested in both the Big Brother element of social media and how the digital reporting of Big Brother will change the viewer experience. The Meta view of Big Brother watching Big Brother should be interesting to say the least. However I am also intrigued to see the effect of social media on housemates. Will housemates suffer social media withdrawal? How will social media affect voting in the new system of 'Vote to Save' housemates? How will Channel 9 use social media, and yet not distract viewers from the show? Will housemates have thought about the privacy settings on their social media sites before going into lockdown last weekend? And will having access to social media mean housemates will feel they have to live up to their current social media profiles? The combination of social media and Big Brother is an endless source of questions, and perhaps the answers will assist us to better understand the impact of social media on us all. After all, we are experiencing a major social shift and it is always difficult to see the effects, while in it.

After it's controversial axing four years ago, many are questioning whether Big Brother has any chance at being a success. With the advent of our own Big Brother in the form of social media - who knows if it will be a success or not? I know I will be hitting my own favourite social media after watching the live taping of the launch 24 hours before it goes to air - I'm happy to be part of the secret leaking phenomenon that drives reality TV. Suffice to say Big Brother social media will be watching Big Brother Series 9 and reporting its own version of the digital reality experience. As a technology social scientist, I have a responsibility to have a little peek.

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About the Author

Pamela Weatherill is a technology social scientist, currently undertaking a PhD on computer mediated communication and teaching online at Edith Cowan University Perth, and residing in Queensland. She has a number of journal and magazine (and e-zine) publications and a Blog (on computer mediated communications) at http://www.text-to-me.com/.

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