Hoax about a hoax.

Have you ever heard of Mediamass? They describe themselves as a satirical website. Their goal is to skewer contemporary media by pointing out the flaws of mass production. I have no problem with satires that target the mass media, if they are done in a way that most people would  identify the content as satire without further explanation. That’s behind the success of The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. They’re court jesters, reminding society of its flaws, one exaggeration at the time.

Unfortunately, that is not Mediamass. The problem is execution. You can’t tell it’s satire just by looking at their content because their concept is “to select the most typical, representative and recurrent articles across Gossip magazines and to make them available for all the celebrities in our database.” In praxis, that translates into a stockpile of articles that Mediamass uses for everyone. Nelson Mandela, Henry Cavill, and Brian Wilson are just a few examples. I did not post screen captions of any of these pieces, though I have them available. The reason? Mediamass doesn’t want you to “reproduce” any of their stuff, “even with permission.” Protective much?

There is a clue that these news are fake. The update link takes you back Mediamass’ “About us” page, which explains their project. I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On the one hand, once your read the description of what Mediamass is/does, then it is clearly a satire. On the other hand,  satire doesn’t need to add a disclaimer. You can recognize the satire in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because no sane person would propose  cannibalism as a remedy for poverty. The exaggeration is evident, as is the object of the satire.

When taken as a whole, the exaggeration and its object are also evident in Mediamass, once you read the “about us” section of their website and other disclaimers they have posted. In their words, “Mediamass articles in the People section are inherently fictitious – but based on real news. Thus, the theoretical possibility of each story, multiplied by thousands of celebrities in our database, makes it statistically inevitable that once in a while one of our fictionnal [sic] story fits the reality.” This is what happened when actor James Gandolfini died. On that day, Mr. Gandolfini received the Mediamass treatment, joining Mandela, Cavill, Wilson, and everyone else. The story has since been taken down, probably due to the backlash that ensued. I highly doubt that, though.  Mediamass replaced the Gandolfini piece with this article, but they also published a second piece, claiming Gandolfini is still alive.

That is standard operating procedure at Mediamass when it comes to confirmed celebrity deaths. They shift gears, and they can do so easily. After all, that’s the beauty of their collection of stock articles. They can just switch out the story.  That is how Gandolfini  received the same treatment as Pierre Mauroy, former French Prime Minister, and Jean Stapleton.

I think the best way to describe Mediamass is not satire. The site is a great example of Simulacra. Mediamass sticks very close to being plausible by design, because their brand of satire relies on the aggregation of content. They are skewering mass production, and what better way is there to mock mass production than to mass produce? However, their “network of artificial signs [is] inextricably mixed up with real elements” (Baudrillard,, 1994, p. 20), which winds up leading the reader back to “the real.” The sad part, though, is not what happens when someone seeking information stumbles upon one of Mediamass’ articles and believes it. The real problem is when media organizations do it. It’s even worse when they copy and paste material from Mediamass to debunk a hoax without acknowledging that they got it from Mediamass. Hoax debunking site Wafflesatnoon bemoaned this practice in their entry about Mediamass.

Perhaps the best lesson to take away from Mediamass is that we need to hone media literacy skills. Even then, we might fall for a hoax, or a hoax about a hoax. As for it’s ability to make society reflect upon the ills of mass produced media, that’s plausible, but only if you read the disclaimer. Otherwise, you would have a hard time figuring out what they’re trying to do.

Does that defy the purpose of the project? You tell me.

Reality revisited, or “the one in which Cy takes a stab at postmodernism”

In the 1990s, many of my peers were using the word postmodern to describe just about anything. I didn’t understand why they did that. Maybe it was a fad, a kind of intellectual posing, which might actually be a very postmodern attitude to have (Baudrillard would say so). Still, I have always wondered what they really meant. Was it a form of praise? an insult? a way of being? a way of understanding the world? A reaction against something?

In general terms, postmodernism is a reaction against modernity and the enlightment. In the modern era, Western society experienced the rise of logical reasoning and science. These would replace religious dogmatism and superstition, and — hopefully — lead human kind into a better society. However, in order to improve society, one must first strive to understand how it works. And the assumption of the enlightment was that you could understand human behavior; you could identify laws, regularities, and principles, which were universally applicable to all human beings, and use those principles to make educated judgments about human nature. Postmodernists, on the other hand, argue that the enlightment is wrong. They argue that there are no universal laws, no essential human nature, no grand-narrative, and no definite models (“Postmodernism”, 2008). Even more troubling, postmodernists like Baudrillard doubt that there reality even exists. For him, simulacra [simulations] have replaced reality.

Reality television is a great example of simulacrum, and Chuck Klosterman does an exemplary job in explaining what happens when a show like The Real World bleeds into ordinary social interactions. Klosterman identifies himself as a huge fan of the show. He seems to have watched every season, and because of this, he is able to identify patterns. People that are “cast” to fit a certain stereotype:

Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of The Real World weren’t sampling the youth of America – they were unintentionally creating it. By now, everyone I know is one of the seven defined strangers, inevitably hoping to represent a predefined demographic and always failing horribly. They Real World is the real world is The Real World is the real world. It’s the same true story, even when it isn’t (Klosterman, 28).

Baudrillard suggests that simulacra have replaced reality to such an extent that society can no longer distinguish between what is real, and what is fantasy.  Doesn’t that sound like Klosterman’s description of The Real World? Here are the seven strangers who live in a house, and there is Chuck Klosterman, writing about how he’s “met at least six Pucks in the past five years” (29).

So, is this what happens when people stop being polite? I think Baudrillard would say yes. We’re all immersed in a world of symbols and images. Disneyland, TV verite experiments, commercials… these are all simulacra that shape how something (society, human behavior, natural catastrophes, etc) appears to us. And we use these images to conceptualize the world, to make certain observations, such as what Klosterman does when he says that people “play the Puck Role.”For Baudrillard, the people who play the puck role have detached from reality, choosing appearance instead. The hyperreal has effectively hidden what is real.

Another good example is Brian Lowry’s argument about reality TV stars. “You’re in trouble when Geraldo Rivera starts sounding like the voice of reason” says Lowry. Quoting Rivera, he adds, “These TV traumas are controlled by producers who create artificial cliffhangers. There’s not a moment of true spontaneity.”

Should we be surprised, appalled? I can’t really answer that. What I do, however, find very ironic is that the television industry — essentially quite modern — produces some of the most postmodern fare out there. The television industry is quite modern because it is organized rationally, to churn out products in an efficient manner. Granted, sometimes the decisions that they make seem irrational, but when you think about it from the point of view of economics, the logic is not absent at all. We have franchises like The Real World, voyeuristic train wrecks like  Jon & Kate plus 8, and inexplicable fare like I Love New York because, for the time being, they are cheap to produce, they get rating, and they fill schedules.