On my 20th wedding anniversary I faced a modern dilemma: whether or not to post something on Facebook. I went through the iterations of a post. Would it be a pack of matches from the restaurant where he proposed? A wedding picture or one from when we first started going out? Would I tag who we were with? And what was the point of such a post? Who would the audience be? How sad would it be if no one “liked” it? And what do you write?
In the end I decided not to post anything because it seemed too personal or too smug or too fake or too meaningless. We’re just not that kind of couple. You know, like high school kids asking each other to the prom on YouTube. It’s become so hyped, this business of “promposals.” (But never mind, I’ll blog about it instead.)
Listening to middle-of-the-night Radio 4 (we’re that kind of couple) I heard an episode of The Reunion, which featured the producer and three cast members of the original UK Big Brother, from the first season, the summer of 2000. It all came back, not in a big flood but in sizable enough pieces to remember the chickens and the older guy from the advertising agency who got kicked out for espionage and the rows about cooking, their little sleeping cubicles with the bright green sheets where they pulled each other in for confidences. It was all so banal, the petty concerns and the vanity of self-presentation, the myth of your own likability. But of course we watched.
The younger daughter was a babe in arms. We would have just moved. The only TV I can remember watching in that flat was for very young children: Sesame Street (later replaced in the schedule by the deeply inferior Elmo’s World), Teletubbies, Boobah and this earworm show called The Hoobs. But we must have watched grown-up television, too, post-watershed, with cursing and adult situations.
And yet the decor and vibrant colors, the artificial-looking garden, the communal living and random challenges of the Big Brother house were a lot like the Teletubbies. Substitute chickens for rabbits. Both lived in a futuristic landscape, looked over by a disembodied, all seeing narrator and improbable sunlight.
In The Reunion, the producer of Big Brother reflected that the show happened at a pivotal moment, bringing a cast of young people who didn’t mind oversharing to an audience of older viewers who watched in horrified fascination. It marked out new territory as to what constituted viewing. And there was the unmentioned social experiment aspect. Would someone crack under the pressure? Was it psychologically cruel for us to watch? Another novelty was that you could watch online. You could text in to vote people off. It was interactive seepage from the show into our lives, of the ordinary life as media entertainment, to now when we all share online, photos, inner thoughts, death.
Later, when the show was an international fixture, with Celebrity Big Brother, it was on the Indian version that they informed a contestant on air that she had cancer. Another boundary crossed, and another as the nation would witness her rapid decline over the months that followed, in a kind of bathetic shadowplay to the public spectacle of Princess Diana’s death and funeral. There seemed to be no subject unfit for viewing anymore. One show on healthy eating began with the visual representation of a week’s food consumption and a lab analysis of colonic irrigation.
Anna, the woman who had won second place on Big Brother 2000, the sensible, gay, Irish ex-nun, recalled how thin the walls of the house were, that you could hear the whirring of the camera if you were having a camera-worthy conversation, or you could hear when they left you for another, more interesting person. And so, the feedback loop was in place.
There are not many “special occasion” restaurants where we live and those that we have are all owned by the same person. He has just opened a fourth one, conveniently situated for military business travelers, in a hotel.
“This looks like a London restaurant,” the older daughter commented on entering. She was right. It had the bold palette of the Big Brother house, the shiny objects, the textures of the early 21st century, ironic little swatches of what in America, to the mirth of the British, we call shag carpeting.
I could have then snapped a picture, to share with you, but it was not something I needed to post. The anniversary, the anniversary dinner, were about us, not about you, not about your congratulations. Instead, I showed the photos to my husband and our daughters as we waited for our food to come.
But the camera in our mind follows us, whirring and clicking. We have an experience and even as the tire blows the narrative voice is kicking in. It’s just that we have so many more tools with which to tell our stories and more channels through which to broadcast them. And maybe also we believe that there are more things in our lives that are worth sharing and more of us feel that we have something to say. It’s not all bad. In 2012, the unnaturally bright lights and the vivid green sheets no longer feel like a set. The walls may be thin, but no one says you can’t close the door.