No Privacy a Big Deal
By Carol Posthumus, Tue Oct 09 00:00:00 GMT 2001

What do you get when you cross reality TV with mobile technology?

The 12 confined South African housemates on reality television show Big Brother living in splendid immobility and zero-privacy artificial reality, televised in all their glory and the rest to millions 24-hour a day, have caused an overnight sensation. According to media pundits, the public response to this play, after only a few days into the plot, has been unprecedented.

Fascinating that people, who seem to be constantly chatting about Big Brother, seem not most mesmerized by the contest for the million rand for the winning housemate. Rather, more often to surface in a Big Brother chitchat is 'oh the horror' at conditions, luxurious but absolutely lacking privacy and any kind of external communication. These losses suffered by the heroes are frequently deemed 'not worth any money' by the watchers.

Could it be that observing ordinary human beings in captive conditions of absolute non-privacy, with no external communication or information access and controlled immobility - under 24-hour surveillance - is now universally more alluring than watching a race for huge money or "normal" extreme challenges, such as climbing Everest?

It is maybe telling that in South Africa Big Brother's phone call-in service (for voting to evict a contender) for the public has garnered response numbers outstripping audience reactions to similar hot lines for other big hits such as Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, early on.

The Big Brother housemate eviction vote line, on a mobile number, within 36 hours of going live, attracted more than 200 000 calls. "The huge response, in such a short period, is unprecedented, in our experience," says iTouch Marketing Manager Simon Leps. iTouch is a mobile service provider serving up a range of goodies to eager Big Brother audiences: from a range of "Big" SMS offerings to ring tones plus logos. The company has had a team of eight people working away on the Big Brother project.

Sponsor of the show is South African cellular network operator, Vodacom. It seems not without irony that a company all about mobile communications is backing a show that takes away movement and communication with the outside world. Not to mention one's personal information tech weaponry. All this in a country where people just love their mobile phones.

Mobile phone withdrawals

Notably, housemate Ferdinand, a likeable tour operator, who was roundly witch-hunted for anti-social behavior ("fertilizing" the garden, after a bit too much to drink: an act debated by the sages to one of territorial marking or rebellion) said at the outset that he would miss his mobile.

Meanwhile, sultry schoolteacher Janine, a great communicator - her sessions in the Big Brother diary room are always impressive - apparently, too, according to her family, would be suffer from seclusion. Her clan has pointed out that along with missing her children, she especially enjoys her cellphone and music. According to Margaret her miss-most items would be "car, phone and library".

The bad boy of the group Bradford, who has a liking for pouring out his heart and views on life (often in early morning soliloquies, playing to the audience), responded in novel fashion to fellow housemates' conspiracy theory that fellow inmates are "connected."

His poetic view was: "The most connection they have here is through MTN and Vodacom, they don't know what connection is." (MTN and Vodacom are South African cellular networks).

It may seem that given this creative metaphor, said in true godfather style, and coming from a computer science student, that mobile phones (or connections and communication with a support group 'outside') are playing on people's minds as they go about life in an isolated, increasingly competitive game. Bradford's "miss-most" list consisted of "newspapers, Internet and Nandos" (the latter being chicken fast-food)

Interestingly, the kind of one-on-one communication taken for granted with friends and family in day-to-day reality; seems to transfer in a big way to the Big Brother diary room. Here housemates sit before Big Brother and talk (and vent) in private to the disembodied voice - a lot.

Naked in shower, preferable to no mobile

Vodacom Group Executive Joan Joffe tells TheFeature that their sponsorship of Big Brother was a business decision (and a good one too, given the huge public interest in the event). As a communications company, she says, the group has the infrastructure and technology to facilitate the myriad communication networks and needs of the organisation and public arising from the show.

Joffe muses: "Going without ordinary communication, as the contestants do, would be extremely trying. For me, personally, I'd rather be seen nude in the shower, than having to go without my cellular phone."

Joffe, who has been at the helm of Vodacom since its start-up just over seven years ago, adds: "To go without communication with friends and family is truly difficult. To exist in isolation takes a very special kind of person."

A clinical psychologist at a psychiatric hospital in South Africa, Corne Eybers, says that the contestants on Big Brothers' loss of access to their normal support structure, in a competitive environment, coupled with loss of personal privacy makes for seriously stressful conditions. Lacking external contact with the outside world is a very difficult part of the game, she says. The ongoing physical contact between housemates - ranging from four in a bed to frequent massage sessions - is probably a way to compensate for external loss of contact, reckons Eybers. "It's a way of coping."

Extreme need for connection shown in reality TV

Eybers says that an extreme need for external contact with the outside world often shows in reality television. "In the Australian outback series of Survivor, the contestants showed pure joy when they were able to speak to family and friends via e-mail and a satellite link. Their happiness at having this need for contact met certainly appeared greater than having a huge meal presented to them. This interaction really seemed to genuinely lift the groups' spirits."

What does the huge public interest in Big Brother say about people? "We are interested in other people's lives - and fascinated to see how other people really handle vulnerable situations, such as having one's privacy removed," she says. Perhaps too, though, it is a symptom of the isolation of people. "Years ago, people did not live such isolated lives as often happens in a high-tech age - now people sit behind computers at work and often live behind high walls, far away from one another."

Whatever magic is driving Big Brother, the fact is that it is huge in South Africa. Indeed, within days of the show starting, the local Internet went into overload and jammed up, thanks to public interest. Service providers explained this as being 'due to the unforeseen traffic surge to the Big Brother site' and a sudden huge demand for video and audio streaming. Two weeks later, Big Brother ("Is It Love or Lust" etc) is steadfast occupier of front pages of newspapers (alongside stories such as the World Conference on Racism and a fire in the Kruger Park). Meanwhile, aircraft were warned by authorities to stop flying so close to the "Big" house - and keep proper range.

Aircraft voyeurs and big, big SMS offerings

For those people without aircraft or satellite television, a pumping information machinery efficiently reports on Big Brother.

From those peculiar bonding sessions (wearing condoms as hats or back hair removal sessions and lots of hairdressing) to fancy dress dances in g-strings and romantic intrigue (plus a ton of boring domestic tedium) is fed to Big Brother junkies with head-spinning efficiency. SMS updates (these are both pushed or pulled, whatever one desires), live video streaming, 'talking web' (calling a mobile number and get talked through the web site by voice recognition prompts) and e-mail newsletters. A range of information services tells all on the doings of Lara, Steve, Janine, Irvan (household names now) and company in their captive reality.

Moreover, the Big Brother website after a mere 10 days had signed up 156,000 users, says Oracle Sales (responsible for Big Brother Online Sales) General Manager Richard Fyffe. These users have the option to sign up for a range of services - and around 50% are going for the SMS updates on the show.

Fyffe feels Big Brother has gone beyond being a television show; it is "a multimedia event". Services like SMS are serving to communicate with fans and also drive people to the show. He comments that request rates for the Big Brother ring tones and logos have been "pretty good" too.

Besides entertainment and stirring up public debate, Fyffe says a major technological spin-off of the show has been the successful introduction of people to new technologies. Services like WAP and live 24 hour audio/video streaming, he points out, positively can jump, as the Big Brother phenomena has shown, on the back of huge public interest. People who never would've tried live audio or video streaming leapt in - and surprised many with their demand - at the start of Big Brother.

"The audio and video streaming service took off with a vengeance - it's a great thing, in my opinion, that the show has also introduced many new users to more technologies too."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance writer, analyzing business and technology developments and how they impact our lives. She lives in Midrand, South Africa.