Democracy, Big Brother Style

When Americans get the choice [on American Idol]...they constantly surprise the producers and the celebrity judges. They go for gospel singers and torch singers and big band singers. They vote for fat people and geeky people and ugly people. They go for people like themselves....This is the most important thing that any business can learn from the first wave of this revolution and its impact on entertainment. We want the power to choose....In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us.

-- Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager More People Vote for the American Idol Than...

A lot of fuss has been made lately about the "fact" that more people voted for the most recent American Idol than voted in the last presidential election. This is seen as a signpost of a decline of civic responsibility on the part of the current generation of American youth. I have been asked about this phenomenon everywhere I've spoken in recent months.

The claim just doesn't happen to be true. True, there were more votes cast for the recent American Idol contest than in the last presidential election but since there is no restriction on voting multiple times and since it is well known that some young voters use redial or text-messaging (not to mention other more elaborate electronic devices) for repeated voting, we have no reason to think that anywhere near as many people participated in this process.

Of course, if we could have cast multiple votes for our favorite candidates in the last election, there's no question that the folks at and Salon and... would have stood there all day casting their ballots for John Kerry or that churchs would have weighed in even more heavily across the Bible Belt.

The Case of Big Brother: All Stars

We can get a better understanding of how reality television show voting is and is not like real world democracy by looking at issues that have surfaced this summer around the selection of contestants for Big Brother: All Stars.

Big Brother has had difficulty with American's erratic voting habits from the get-go: during the first season, Americans routinely voted out the most colorful characters, gradually ridding the house of all interesting conflict, with the result that the contest became one of the survival of the blandest. After that, the producers re-invented the contest's mechanics so most of the voting occurs within the house and the public only got to decide weighty issues like what piece of exercise equipment the contestants got to use.

Everywhere else in the world, the public decides who stays and goes. As far as the producers are concerned, Americans aren't ready for that responsibility.

Last season, the show allowed the public to vote a booted guest back into the game -- with surprising results. The public overwhelmingly voted an Iraqi-American (Kaysar) back into the house over his arch-rival, a New York Fireman (Eric). For once, the producers should have been pleased because Kaysar was a colorful character who introduced a great deal of drama into the series. Unfortunately, the other houseguests voted him right back out again as soon as he was eligible for eviction.

The Power of Gossip

Reality television is an ideal form for a networked culture. As more and more of us move on line, we find ourselves engaged in conversations with people who know very few if any of the same folks in common. Yet, there remains a core human desire to gossip. Sociologists tell us that gossip serves a basic human need for the sharing of secrets and the making of evaluations. Who gets gossiped about is less important than the bonds that get formed between those who are sharing gossip with each other. Reality television is designed to produce moral conflicts and ethical dramas involving real people who become shared reference points for gossip amongst people nationwide. In effect, the houseguests (as the producers call them) or "hamsters" (as some fans call them) have agreed to allow the rest of the country to gossip at their expense.

So, how do you campaign for such a position? Look at the kinds of statements made by the candidates in this election:

Well, I caused a lot of drama in season 4, basically because I was dating a schmuck. But now things are different. I've matured and found the love of my life! Most of the HouseGuests from my season left hating me. It changed me, and it made me a stronger and better person. (Alison)

Don't vote for me... I dare you. You are looking around at the other options, and the truth is they all fall short. If you want the most entertaining contestant, you need look no further. You know it and I know it. (Will)

If I get in the house, you'll get the same competitor you saw last season. Love me or hate me, I'm here to play and here to win. (James)

Well, you get the picture -- each has presented themselves as offering the most opportunities for gossip.

Fan Politics

From the outset, the producers were hedging their bets -- hand selecting the nominees and then allowing the public to chose half of the contestants, reserving the right to cast the rest and thus counterbalance any strange patterns in the voting. Networks still tend to think of television viewers as socially isolated individuals, making decisions from their couches without much interaction with others. Maybe they were hoping that we would debate this around water coolers. Maybe they would imagine that we might vote along identity politics lines, voting for the African-American or Hispanic candidates, or amongst the gay candidates, with the hopes that the population of the house would look something like America.

But, where there are elections, as our founding fathers well knew, there are apt to emerge political parties -- efforts to combine votes for maximum effect. So, online, various hardcore fans began to campaign amongst themselves to cast their votes together to shape the outcome towards one or another favorite candidate, hoping to produce "the best show ever." Many of them were already calculating which candidates the producers would prefer and then pushing their votes towards weaker but interesting candidates who wouldn't get into the house otherwise.

Vote For the Worst

And then there was the Vote for the Worst party. Vote for the Worst first emerged as a player in reality television fandom around American Idol. Here's how the group characterizes its mission:

The show starts out every year encouraging us to point and laugh at all of the bad singers who audition. We want this hilariously bad entertainment to continue into the finals, so we choose the contestant that we feel provides the most entertaining train wreck performances and we start voting for them.... Vote for the Worst encourages you to have fun with American Idol and embrace its suckiness by voting for the less talented contestants. We rally behind one choice so that we can help make a difference and pool all of our votes toward one common goal....Our aim isn't to win every single week, but to get a bad contestant as far as possible. If our VFTW pick is ousted from the competition, we'll move onto someone new. If we can help someone undeserving inch a spot closer to winning, that's a great success! We care less about succeeding every single week than we do just enjoying the bad performances as they happen.

Some argue that the Vote for the Worst folks have their own aesthetic -- they are simply the folks who think it is more fun to see bad singing than to try to take the contest seriously on its own terms -- and their own politics -- they are the folks who don't want the producers and judges to tell them who they should vote for. (Interestingly, the movement got picked up and promoted by more explicitly political groups, including some which were involved in the intellectual property law suits against the RIAA. Anyone who wants to screw the recording industry was seen as an ally.) Critics, on the other hand, describe it as pure negation -- an attempt to exploit the public's right to choose in order to inflict as much damage on the show as possible. Critics claim that many of those participating in Vote the Worst are not even regular viewers of the show.

When the Vote for the Worst movement became public knowledge during the last season of Idol (and when some of its candidates seemed to remain on the air well past their logical rankings in the pecking order), the network executives and producers were quick to dismiss the idea that Vote for the Worst was having any real impact on the results. Here's part of the Fox Network's official statement:

Each week millions of votes are received for each contestant, and based on the tiny number of visitors this site has allegedly received, their hateful campaign will have no effect on the selection of the next American Idol. Millions of fans of American Idol have voted for their favorites so far this season, and that success speaks far louder than any vicious and mean-spirited website.

For their part, the Vote the Worst people have questioned how Fox could call them "mean spirited" when the show itself makes fun of bad performers like William Hung. Indeed, the early shows featuring bad performances often receive higher ratings than all but the last few weeks of the actual contest.

Chicken George's Revenge

Yet, speculation has run high among hardcore reality television fans that the group could have an impact on Big Brother which has significantly lower ratings than American Idol and might be predicted to have a much lower vote count overall.

Here's what they were advocating for the Big Brother election:

Vote for Chicken George to go back into the Big Brother house! The man cracked under the pressure of BB1, not even really having to evict people. Putting him back in the house would be excellent. Also, his wife staged the first ever VFTW by getting an entire town to vote for someone else to save George. We owe it to the chicken family to make the crazy chicken man an All Star.

Why "Chicken George"? Once again, there's a history here: during the first season, a fan campaign sought to smuggle messages into the house, where guests were allegedly kept in isolation, renting planes to fly over, lobbing balls containing messages inside, trying to convince the houseguests to walk out in mass and leave the producers holding the bag. If you've seen The Truman Show, you've got a pretty good idea of what this campaign looked like. Chicken George emerged as a key player in that effort -- the person most shook up by the messages they were receiving and the person who almost led the walkout of the program, before the producers succeeded in talking everyone into staying. Can we perhaps see the Vote the Worst campaign as a more refined strategy for foiling the plans of the producers and wrecking a primetime network series?

Suppose we applied the Vote for the Worst approach to national politics, the Democrats would have nominated Dennis Kucinich and the Republicans would have -- well, come to think of it, the outcome wouldn't have been radically different after all. :-)

Battle of the Autobots

Elsewhere, rumors surrounded other Vote the Worst efforts as contestants widely regarded among hardcore fans as bland, colorless, dumb, or annoying seemed to move up on the polls at the expense of long time fan favorites which others hoped to get into the house. (Keep in mind, though, what happened on season one when it turned out that these were the kinds of 'houseguests' who consistently got the most votes from the viewing public. Maybe we just want to vote for folks who don't cause trouble.) All of this might be passed off as simply partisanship among rival fractions within the fan community if it were not for the fact that the Vote for the Worst people were actively and openly deploying autobots to cast as many votes as they wanted:

Click here to open up an autoscript that will continue to vote for chicken George every few seconds. Get it set up on every computer that you can, it will vote without you having to do anything.

There is some dispute about how effective such devices may be. The official website urges viewers to vote once a day, implying that only one vote per machine counts in any 24 hour period. Yet, the site seems to register multiple votes on the same visit, and the best of the autobots will switch aliases from vote to vote, making it much harder for the vote counters to dismiss its input. But suppose that they work: a small number of people, consistently using such devices, could overwhelm a much larger majority of voters, trying to cast their preferences within the system.

The fans, themselves, are speculating about whether the network will want to discount all of those autobot votes. On the one hand, counting the votes may allow the producers to have an inflated vote count, implying greater public interest than really exists for the show. We've already seen how American Idol likes to use the most inflated numbers possible and loves the analogy to the 2004 presidential election. Others think they will discount bots because such votes may distort the results and end up with a program which has little or nothing to do with what the public wants to see. Because reality shows rarely announce the actual vote spread (using only raw numbers of the total votes cast), many viewers distrust the results on general principle, suspecting that the whole is simply a smokescreen that allows the producers to more or less do whatever they want. We have enough trouble trusting the results in national elections when we count every hanging chad -- imagine if they just announced which candidate won and didn't give a vote count. Which scenario is true? It all depends on how cynical you are -- and in what direction your cynicism takes you.

<Exporting Democracy

As always, these issues of participatory democracy are taken more seriously everywhere else in the world except in the United States.

The Chinese equivalent of Idol, the curiously-named Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Supergirl Contest, has run aground with the Communist government. The American news coverage has emphasized the debate about manners and language displayed on the show but my friends from China tell me a somewhat different story. The show generated enormous public interest and resulted in huge levels of voter participation. After all, for many of the Chinese viewers, it was perhaps the first time that they had been allowed to cast a vote in a contest where there was more than one candidate on offer. The show became the focus of enormous public discussion, emerging as a metaphor for the hopes of democracy within China. Here, there can be no question that reality television has explicitly political effects. But then, they seem to take democracy more seriously in other parts of the world than we do in the United States.

Happy Independence Day, Mr. and Mrs. America.

Thanks to Henry Jenkins IV for his help in preparing this entry.

Update: The cast of Big Brother: All Stars was announced on thursday July 6. Chicken George did indeed make the final cut as did several of the others who had been the target of vote for the worst campaigns, such as Alison Irwin and Diane Henry. Many of those supported by some of the other leading factions -- especially the team of Howie Gordon, Kaysar Ridha, and Janelle Pierzina -- also made the cut. The network expanded the number of contestants in the house from 12 to 14, possibly to accomodate the feedback from fans (though spoilers note that there was a picture showed in earlier previews with the series which, if frozen and scrutnized, showed 14 slots for pictures, suggesting this may have been part of the plan all along.) The show said that they received 15.7 million votes, which is lower than some of the estimates that circulated among those who had used autobots to cast votes.