The first “soap opera” I followed regularly was the original Beverly Hills 90210, back when I was way too young to be exposed to the exploits of Dylan, Brenda, Kelly, Brandon and all the other kids in their zip code. This was the first truly episodic television experience I remember, hanging on until the following week to see if Brenda was going to go off the deep end or if anyone would ever figure out Andrea was too old to still be in high school. It established a certain kind of viewing mindset for me; I wanted an inside look at these character’s problems and I needed it in regular doses.
The next cliffhanging, edge-of-your-seat voyeurism into people’s sordid existences I remember following was the O.J. Simpson trial. Not even Donna Martin’s graduation could compete with the human grotesqueries of one of the most covered trials in history. And they were all real; suddenly, the stakes were so much higher. Aaron Spelling got pushed to the side and we’ve been TMZ-ing ourselves on celebrity scandals ever since. It’s been argued that the Simpson trial in the ’90s led to reality TV in the early 2000s, and it’s not a huge leap to imagine that these two are somehow related.
Now, with all television (even reality) on the wane and binge watching changing our episodic relationship to programming, where are we to get our daily doses of other people’s lives? Look no further than your status feed.
This phenomenon occurred to me recently while browsing Twitter: I looked at the celebrity accounts I follow and realized there was more than one deceased person on the list (Elizabeth Taylor, Maya Angelou, and a couple others too embarrassing to name). I had followed them to death. Then I thought about the living celebrities I followed. Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Brett Easton Ellis, and an assortment of even more embarrassing figures have all lived out their dramas publicly on the platform and we’ve been there for our 140 character fixes every time.
When the recent Ryan Chamberlain explosives story broke in San Francisco, I, like many journalists in the city, followed his flight and bizarre postings via Twitter up until the day he was apprehended at Crissy Field. I was actually at a party a few hundred yards away the night he was captured. Of course, the first place I reported it was Twitter so that the people following the soap operatic foibles of my existence could get their fix.
Is social media feed-stalking the serial for the millennial generation? Move the celebrities and local fugitives to the side; haven’t we all followed the drama of a high school classmate’s divorce, a distant cousin’s pregnancy, the splendid Instagrams of a friend’s vacation or any number of other happenings with the same intensity we once used to distract ourselves with soap operas?
In many ways, maybe our cyber voyeurism is bringing us back to our earliest and simplest selves. Instead of obsessing over fictional lives, we’re magically transported to an earlier time in the history of man; we sit around the metaphorical campfire of our devices and tell stories of the other villagers or the people from the neighboring tribe, the tales carried not by the wind but by the currents of social media. Whether you want the scandals of an Anthony Weiner, the shenanigans of a James Franco, the meltdown of a Justin Bieber or just the minutia of an anonymous life, it’s all there in your feed. Tune in regularly for status updates.