Reality shows, fame and the retrofeeding machine of loneliness in the age of masses

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published on TAB UOL, in Portuguese.

A new year, a new edition of Big Brother Brazil. But this is not another criticism against reality shows, but rather an analysis about loneliness and isolation, two words that became even heavier in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. But these aren’t new topics either, as pointed by the French historian Georges Minois in his book Histoire de la solitude et des solitaires.

The author is already well known for titles such as History of the Future and History of Suicide, but in this case Minois presents us a panorama of how solitude was pursuit and perceived throughout the past centuries in the West. We travel through time going back to pagan antiquity where we developed the concept of man as a social animal until we find solitude among the desert fathers, and so we behold the intellectual solitude of the Humanist, of the liberalist individualism of the 19th century, and finally arriving to our times where 7 billion loners are online.

In a broader sense, Minois argues that complete loneliness was never something interesting or feasible for human beings. Being it due to its cultural or social meaning or even for the effects on our mental health, it was understood at some point that even hermits needed to take part in communities so they could support each other in daily tasks or for the minimum fare of socialization for the sake of psychic welfare. This, however, didn’t spare all people from being rather excluded by their communities (such as is the case of the expelled and the excommunicated) or by themselves. We see examples of intellectuals such as Descartes or Rousseau who, on one hand, see solitude as an opportunity to think or as the only possible way to be who you truly are and not what you need to be in order to be accepted by society.

But Rousseau spends too much time trying to persuade people that he’s not a bad person just because he likes to be alone. He’s no misanthrope. But all his efforts only made friends such as Hume, Grimm and Voltaire to actually break with him. In his writings, such as “Rousseau, judge of Jean-Jacques”, he ponders about the fact that lonely individuals are not people who hate humanity and thus escape from it, but rather individuals who “love rest and peace, (…) they flee from turmoil and noise. (…) Anyone who finds in himself enough company doesn’t want anything bad for anyone.” That is, the “true loner”, writes Minois, “is not the one who flees from people, but who understands the irreparable difference between what it is to be, or believes to be, and what it seems to be. Confined in his own consciousness, he makes solitude a virtue.” And quoting Rousseau, the historian argues that “the civil man wants others to be happy with him, whereas the lonely man is forced to be himself, or his life is unbearable. Henceforth, the latest is forced to be virtuous, whereas the latter may be only a hypocrite.”

A solitary person, therefore, is someone who searches for a freedom that is hardly achieved in cities, where “we are always requested by neighbors, clients, friends, we can never be ourselves, it’s always necessary to pretend: ‘They don’t cry or laugh after their own feelings, but after other people’s feelings; they act, think and live as strangers [to themselves].’ People measure each other from head to toe, they judge each other. One could say, literally, that in the city, hell is other people.” In spite of that, not every man deals well with solitude and with living only with himself, and this is why being a “hypocrite” makes more sense for some.

Consequently, lonely people were often seen as selfish or even arrogant individuals who didn’t accept to follow the rules of life in community, and so they decided to be isolated as savages. But since the 20th century, with the advent of the masses, we faced a turning point where cityman would find more people during a short stroll downtown than a peasant would ever meet during his whole life in the Middle Ages. Since then, we are rather forced to catch crowded buses and trains, and we try to find in this turmoil the least of physical dignity for our bodies and psychic harmony for our minds. We live in overcrowded but not least solitaire times; we live in times when isolation became a luxury to be paid with money.

However, amidst the confusion of postmodern values, hyperconsumerism and the constant appeal to be always connected, socializing and sharing, solitude and happiness become antithetical words as contemporary society is one that “broke family bonds that constrained freedom — corporations, marriage etc. — , it defended autonomy and, on the other hand, it feels outraged by the persistence of loneliness.” We are a society that historically lived through processes of emancipation and liberation of women, for instance, besides the meritocratic ideal of a self-made man that forces people to become a symbol of professional success while suppressing their personal relationships and mental health.

Minois argues that, on one hand, we have SOS Friendship centers “because loneliness is suffering”, and on the other hand, we have dating websites and apps “because loneliness is an opportunity, in any case, for those to be part of a very exclusive club ‘humor-happiness-joy to live trio’.” If, on one hand, countries such as United Kingdom create a Ministry of Loneliness, on the other hand, companies such as Tinder or OkCupid make profit out of matches and dates which, counterintuitively, are only existent while people are available and thus alone and/or unsatisfied. It’s important to mention that Minois doesn’t address the topic of polygamy in the contemporaneity, but he quotes Gilles Lipovetsky who, since 1983, has been arguing that our current mental disorders are more connected to narcisism than to a character deviation:

“Men and women always aspired to the same emotional intensity in privileged relationships, however, the stronger the lingering, the rarest the matching miracle seems to become and, in any case, it’s a brief one. The more cities evolve to facilitate meetings, the more people feel lonely; the more relationships become free, emancipated from old constraints, the more the possibility to experience an intense relationship becomes rare. Everywhere there is solitude, emptiness, a struggle to feel and be taken out of oneself; this is the origin of the pursuit for ‘experiences’ which simply translate the search for a strong emotional ‘experience’. Why can’t I love and thrill? That’s Narcissus’ desolation, who is too programmed to be self-absorbed to be affected by the Other, to be out of himself and, still, under poor programming since he still lingers for a relationship.”

Similarly to Byung-Chul Han and his concept of achievement and burnout society, Minois also addresses Lipovetsky in a sense that, in spite of being prepared to break with morality and old structures, we weren’t prepared enough to deal with all this freedom which, by its part, made us our own tormentor. At a first glance, this argument may sound moralistic or conservative, as if it suggested that we go back to traditional old values, but maybe the core of this dilemma is rather more connected to our unpreparedness to live after these new models than the impossibility of changing ourselves to adapt. In this sense, we search for compensation as described by Minois:

“Psychologically disturbed, the Self invests more and more in his own body, and thus he aggravates his solitude: obsessed with his health, his hygiene, good shape, his beauty, his ‘look’, ‘the body represents our deep identity’; the individual watches out for the mere sign of decrepitude, he plays sports, excessively consumes pharmaceutical products. The Self is increasingly more the body and the body is what distinguishes us, separates and isolates us.”

The success of social media platforms such as Instagram, in which the algorithm benefits naked bodies and wellness, self-help, fitness profiles, lies exactly on the exploitation of this existential pain. In this context, we are thrown to despair for connection, though, once again, there’s a backfire. Minois says that, in his pursuit for connection and identification, therefore the eradication of feelings of loneliness, contemporary man

“…reveals his intimacy, demands a personal implication, confides, publishes his autobiography, strips himself on Facebook, exhibits himself, exposes, confesses himself, and, with that, instead of getting closer to people, he is repelled because true exchange, true sociability, requires rules and barriers that delimitate the individual, that give him a personality, a consistency and a necessary touch of mystery. When he becomes transparent, the individual becomes indifferent, we no longer see him anymore. The more he gives from himself, the more he disappears for the others, and nothing is more lonely than a ghost, because nobody sees themselves through him.”

O sucesso de redes sociais como Instagram, na qual o algoritmo beneficia imagens de corpos nus e perfis de bem-estar, autoajuda e fitness, está justamente na exploração dessa nossa ferida existencial. Nesse contexto, somos empurrados para um desespero por proximidade que, mais uma vez, age como um tiro pela culatra. Minois comenta que, em busca de conexão e identificação, portanto, de erradicação do sentimento de solidão, o indivíduo hoje

Hollywoodian celebrities already pointed to this outcome, but with the current mechanics of digital influence, we only added more fuel to the fire. In this sense, it is curious to find in the book the following quote: “Only some fragments of ourselves one day will touch the fragments of others — somebody’s truth is actually just that — , the truth of somebody. We can only share a fragment that is acceptable for the others to know, and thus we are almost always lonely.” Minois makes a joke that this quote could be by Pascal, but in fact it was taken from a letter written by Marilyn Monroe in 1961, one year before her suicide. For the historian, Marilyn is a symbol of this paradox of solitude that we face since the 20th century: the age of the masses is the age that “erects idols, adores lonely heroes and consequently censors their isolation. The idol must be at the same time unique and familiar, belong to nobody and belong to everybody.”

The fact that the latest editions of Big Brother Brazil are adding participants that are digital influencers or even mass media celebrities only ties up the loose ends of this mechanics of voyeurism and fame that dehumanizes, objectifies, erases the individual who, ultimately, was trying to relieve his solitude by searching for connection with others that by their turn also wanted to connect to his most exposed essence. But… at the end of the day, everyone fails: the idol and his fans. In Minois words:

“The most fascinating thing in the media is to realize how individuals longing for relationships and freedom stumble upon their own enthusiasm and fall their own prey. They even pay for it; they subscribe and renew. Totalitarian regimes needed to develop sophisticated techniques to spy citizens; but in the age of electronics and huge democratic audiences, it’s the very citizen that share his secrets voluntarily; equipped with actual electronic bracelets, their phones, they can be followed after their smallest movements, smallest payments, smallest thoughts and words. What they judge despicable in totalitarian regimes they enthusiastically accept in the world of electronic hypercommunication. As rats are attracted to the cheese in the trap. The cheese is communication; they were persuaded that it was good for them; so, they communicate, strip themselves, become transparent. They exchange loneliness for loneliness: they are observed, but they are not seen, and they don’t realize that.”

More than falling prey of a moralistic conclusion or even discuss about the topic of online privacy, which was already well discussed in documentaries such as The Social Dilemma, what we see here is the same desire of social animals that until these days desire to connect, but the flipside is that this desire was turned into a commercial and existential trap supported by new technologies that retrofeed solitude through exposure.

There is this meme in Brazil that says: “She asked for a nude. I sent her a poem and she blocked me. I think she wanted to see my body naked. Me, a fool, sent her me naked soul.” It may sound silly at first glance, but it kind of makes sense. Sending nudes today is no longer a synonym of proximity, intimacy, but rather of an emptying of the Self reduced to a body and to an image. In different platforms, we assume different images for ourselves (the different avatars that we use on Facebook, LinkedIn and Tinder) in the hope that we are able to control people’s view of ourselves, but this, again, is just an illusion: “The feeling of loneliness is not overcame after the connected individual loses his unique character”, writes Minois.

The fact that BBB 2021 is already leading to so much controversy and desilusion may have something to do with this. When we put people who were already famous inside a house where they are observed 24/7, not only we enter their intimacy but we also find out that the excess of exposure tends to transform these individuals in stereotypes, characters that try to connect, to be empathetic and sincere, but who ultimately end up generating only more loneliness for themselves and for the others who cannot relate to that fake mirror anymore.

Ok, so is it a better choice to quit watching reality shows and following celebrities and influencers on social media? I’m no one to ask you that, but I thought it would be important to discuss this topic of loneliness that leads us to a pursuit for fame and exposure in the hope to connect, but which turns against us because these very mechanics are responsible for depersonalizing ourselves and thus we are never able to truly connect with people. Either because our idol is not an individual anymore but a product, an image, or because we ourselves have fallen prey to this trap in our search for connection through fame and exhibitionism.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin


Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.