A close look at former MTV reality star Spencer Pratt and authenticity on social media.
The Internet is structured around omissions. All of its interactions are driven by the additive impulse of its users, and because we all know different things, we can never quite understand one another when given only a few online posts to go by.
Are all of those blank spots intentional? Are they meant to convey something? Are they mistakes? Are they markers of ignorance? For every thing that propagates online, a flood of responses is sent forth, seeking to fill in all of the empty spaces. And for every two people who understand one another clearly online, there are a hundred who sail past one another on a stream of mistaken assumptions. The longer one stays online the more anxiously aware of our own subjective limitations we become.
Spencer claimed a role that was defined by negative action, creating open hostility and social combat where there had only been simpering grudges and pouty apprehension.
Reality television is a kind of comic dramatization of these blank spots, and it has few figures as dramatically comic as Spencer Pratt. Formerly of MTV's The Hills, the actor has been one of a handful of celebrity villains to regularly unite media opinionists in mutual hatred.
Pratt entered the self-conscious reality show about 18 year-old women circulating in LA's fashion industry, rampaging through the anesthetized sincerity of all the other players with a frighteningly confrontational self-assurance. He fueled audience hatred that, before his appearance, could only contend with the dumbly passive tableaus of interns gossiping at their iMacs.
Spencer claimed a role that was defined by negative action, creating open hostility and social combat where there had only been simpering grudges and pouty apprehension. He ensured the drama of The Hills became a prolonged test of character for everyone around him. Spencer was the villainous Rohrschach blot against which everyone else would have to define themselves, either for or against.
The stress of being forced out of their ambiguous attachments created some memorable explosions of panic, like watching a bunch of drunken teenagers in a wave pool turn on one another over the last life preserver. One marveled at these theatrics, so overblown they couldn't have been real, yet so petty it's impossible to imagine anyone bothering to fake them.
As with the Internet, the audience provides the encapsulating irony of reality television in their willingness to be led to this disbelieving chasm into which one tosses one-sided speculation and analysis. Who are these people? They can't be serious. They can't be real. And the less real we believe them to be, the more self-assured we become in hating them.
While Pratt was recently in England filming a new series of Celebrity Big Brother, he allowed his Twitter account to be transformed into a bit of performance art by his former creative writing teacher at USC, Mark Marino, and collaborator Rob Wittig.
Because Pratt was not allowed to bring his phone on-set, the duo invented the scam story of it having been lost somewhere in London, then discovered by an aspiring young poet who realizes he's stumbled onto a huge platform to promote his own work.
"There’s something about the frustrated desire of the poet that mirrors Spencer’s own desire to occupy and play with the public’s attention," Wittig told Kate Durbin in an interview for HTML Giant.
The most valuable currency of both the Internet exchange and reality television is proof of sincerity, scenes of someone either crying or yelling, two primary emotions that are difficult to fake, and which require the least personal connection to be scrutable on another person.
"People are enormously sophisticated in reading facial expressions and body language—a huge amount of real estate in the brain is devoted to decoding super-subtle variations in these signals—and I think the vast majority of people instantly know the difference between fake crying and real crying, even if they can’t articulate it," Wittig said. "...I think people become junkies for 'the real thing,' their habit gets bigger and bigger, they get very picky, very hard to satisfy."
But there's a subconsciously defensive nature to this pickiness because it comes along with an acknowledgement that wherever the aspect of realism appears it will cause an irrational rush to judgement. There is something fearsome about knowing one has a bullrushing carnivore inside, and so there has emerged an equivalent anxiety about revealing it. Even if the prompting act or statement is genuine, the audience's proportional sense of how it fits with the person as a whole inevitably condemns them more than their target.
And so our communal spaces of rhetoric like Twitter become virtual bullfight arenas. They are made up of self-aggrandizing chaos junkies like Pratt fueled by the collective hatred of a million strangers, aiming their horns at a veil, the silhouette of a body behind it always turning into empty space just at the moment we'd thought we were drawing blood.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.