I began watching Big Brother (US), CBS’ summer reality television show in which 16 houseguests compete with each other for the right to live in a house for four months, in 2016. The show was in its eighteenth season, just a few years younger than I was. Equipped with a bit of extra time on my hands that summer, I committed to following the show with a friend.
It didn’t take long before I discovered the show’s cult-like online fanbase. Fuelled by access to 24/7 live feeds of the house, a large portion of Big Brother viewers devote much of their summer to watching the players’ every move, discussing their strategies via a plethora of online platforms, voting on their favourite characters daily, competing in fantasy leagues, or watching live streams of full-time show analysts dissect the goings on of the house.
Big Brother’s producers give viewers more access to the stars’ actions than any other reality show on air in the US. It seems voyeuristic, even creepy to follow a group of people living out their lives (which includes changing, going to the bathroom, sleeping, and sometimes, having sex) at all hours of the day. But for a genre of television known for often being scripted or dishonestly produced to create false plotlines, the idea of seeing the behind-the-scenes of a reality television show is unprecedented. And it’s helped Big Brother attract a following closer to that of a sports team than of a reality TV show.
Two years and three seasons of watching later, I set out to get into the minds of some of Big Brother’s biggest fans and unpack what exactly it is that can make the show such a life-consuming pursuit.
One of the cornerstones of the online Big Brother community is the Big Brother subreddit, an online space that currently boasts about 83K subscribers who post and follow daily updates of the goings-on on the live feeds, discuss players’ strategies, and share spoilers. The level of thoroughness in discussion of the show reflects an intensely devoted fanbase putting hours of labour into thinking through and critiquing players’ strategy. It’s your classic cult passion-like subreddit, a community with its own lingo and nuanced understanding of a reality TV show that many write off as frivolous and low-brow.
The subreddit’s 23-year-old creator, Cameron Lowe, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, told VICE he founded the online community in 2011, at age 15, after being introduced to it by his parents one season prior.
“I just wanted to start a community there where I could talk about this show I really liked with other people who enjoyed the show,” Lowe said. “I had a couple of friends who watched the show but who definitely weren’t as into it as I was, like I didn’t know anyone IRL who watched the live feeds or who would read the updates from the live feeds like they would just watch the show and enjoy the show and that was it.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that the subreddit began skyrocketing in subscribership. Prior to its creation, devoted viewers relied upon old-school forums like Joker’s Updates to post and read minute-by-minute feed updates, participate in online discussion, and view daily-updated charts documenting houseguests’ popularity among fans. Joker’s Updates still exists in this capacity, and remains a haven for Big Brother superfans, and has since also extended its online presence to Twitter, where its account auto-posts live feed updates as they happen.
Some superfans use similar forums like Morty’s TV and Hamsterwatch to discuss the show; others participate in online discussion through chat applications like Discord. These forums all provide the luxury of anonymity.
Then there’s Twitter, a public space which provides the option of anonymity, on which users use that season’s hashtag to discuss, in bite-sized doses, their opinions on each player. Many of these accounts are anonymous fan accounts devoted to individual players. And on completely public online spaces like YouTube, some superfans opt to post vlogs and video discussions of episodes. Some of these receive thousands of views and comments.
The Big Brother online community is vast, and like any subculture, is home to a number of super-devotees and leaders. Among these leaders is Taran Armstrong, a Boston, Massachusetts-based correspondent on the Rob Has A Podcast (RHAP) network, a series of reality TV fan podcasts and live episode discussion videos started by former Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino.
After getting hooked on Big Brother at age nine in 2001, when the show was in its second season, Armstrong began following the live feeds and online episode discussions closely in his free time. He eventually turned this passion into a nearly full-time job when he began working at RHAP, which pays all of its staff—most of whom are part-time—thanks to financial support from advertisers and Patreon donors.
Armstrong, who livestreams feed updates and episode discussions for his 18,000 Twitter followers, says he devotes the majority of his day to tracking the live feeds and houseguest’s behaviour. He supplements his work for RHAP with freelance video production and editing gigs. He spends his mornings combing through late-night posts on Big Brother online forums and watching feed highlights that he missed while asleep, then curates a set of notes, and goes live with a morning update.
He then spends much of the rest of his day watching the live feeds and online discussion forums to track the goings-on of the house.
“I have lots of monitors everywhere I go,” Armstrong says. “One of the monitors I’ve usually got the feeds on, or I’ve got Twitter open, if something happens so I can turn the feeds on so I can watch. And if i’m doing something, if I’m out, then when I get back I’ll check to make sure I didn’t miss anything, if I did, I’ll go back and I’ll go see it, so, it pretty much is a full time thing to make sure you’re on top of everything that happens.”
Armstrong says the workload of monitoring the feeds is unmanageable when working a full-time job, which led him to quit his a little over a year ago, making RHAP his primary occupation.
But many of the Big Brother fans creating content devoted to the show do so in their spare time, as an unpaid labour of love. One of the most active Big Brother subreddit moderators, /u/diary_room, estimates that they devote on average 40 hours per week to moderating the forum and participating in online discussion each week. They keep the live feeds on in the background of many of their daily tasks, including while at work and while doing chores at home.
A.J. Olsen, the man behind @MyMagicMobi, a fan Twitter account devoted to sharing memes and photoshopped screencaps from the live feeds also keeps the live feeds on at all times, a luxury he’s afforded by working from home full-time. He aims to create and post his memes as quickly as he can in order to keep up with the live feeds.
John Bonaccorsi and his wife Putra Bonaccorsi, co-developers of one of several popular Big Brother fantasy league websites, fantasybb.com, estimate that it took them over 300 hours over the course of a year to develop the site. Bonaccorsi created the site as an alternative to the fantasy sports league sites he’s seen many of his friends participate in.
Many of the other superfans I spoke with also compared Big Brother to a sports game, including /u/diary_room and Olsen, who compared the show to a “four-month football game.”
“It's the same kind of draw as an annual sporting event or an expected movie sequel,” /u/diary_room said. “There's hype and drama, competition and uncertainty, favorites and underdogs and maybe even a little friendly trash talk with your friends.”
Further, many of the active fans I spoke with distinguished their viewing experience from that of a “casual,” or a viewer who primarily keeps up with the episodes but seldom ventures deeply into online discussion. They all say they enhance their understanding of each episode by following the live feeds and discussing Big Brother online.
“Live feeds don’t lie, they show you everything,” Olsen says. “The way that the characters and the cast are edited by CBS presents what CBS wants the viewers that aren’t the live feeders to see, so there’s a disconnect between the two audiences.”
A portion of the fanbase also undoubtedly enjoys watching live feeds as a way to understand more about players’ psychology and social behaviour by watching the way they converse with each other, react to their housemates’ behaviour, and execute mundane tasks like cooking and cleaning. Armstrong says unpacking the psychology behind houseguests behaviour is one of the primary draws for him to remain as involved in the community as he is.
“In terms of like, people how will remain loyal to people or who is willing to betray people, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff,” Armstrong says. “That’s really what drew me to the show, even as a kid, just like, well these people are behaving in weird ways, and it was so interesting to me.”
And while Armstrong says much of this fascination with the players is in good spirit, he admits that it can also lead fans to develop a sense of entitlement over the players. It’s not uncommon for fans, accustomed to tracking houseguests’ every move in the house, to then bombard them with comments and messages on social media after they leave.
“When [players] get out of the house, [fans] feel like they’re entitled to know things about their lives and they feel like, ‘I know you and why aren’t you mad at this person? Did you hear what they said about you on day 54?’” Armstrong explains. “There’s a reason that Big Brother people tend to have a much larger following outside the house than Survivor, and it’s because people get so attached to them...There’s a lot of voyeurism to the live feeds.”
In the past, this devotion has even affected the game in real time. In one famous case, a contestant’s loved one flew a banner over the backyard of the house, which is located in Los Angeles, with a message communicating his disappointment with her actions in the game. In other instances, fans (known by the community as “wall yellers”) have stood outside the house and shouted messages over the backyard walls, in an attempt to influence players’ game strategy.
Lowe argues that much of fans’ sense of entitlement is rooted in their ability to know more about what’s going on in the game—through live feeds—than the players themselves do. This all-knowing view gives many fans a sense that they’re smarter than the characters, and has historically been the cause of many of the harmful comments that moderators clean up on the subreddit, often of a racist, sexist, or homophobic nature.
“You’re like, omnipotent,” he says. “You just get to watch these people perform for you. It’s weird and really quite unprecedented, there’s nothing quite like it.”
“It is very prevalent in this community,” Lowe went on to say about the number of offensive comments he’s seen on the subreddit about players. “There’s just some people who will, out of passion for the show, just really start railing on a particular houseguest...and it will have crossed the line, because these are real people and that’s something that’s sometimes forgotten in the community.”
Like in any community, it can be easy to take fandom to extremes, and in these cases, intense viewer devotion is harmful to players. As a whole however, Armstrong says the Big Brother community is a positive one.
“I think a lot of people feel like the Big Brother community, a lot of people talk poorly about it, they say that it’s a negative place, it’s a toxic place,” he says. “There is a wonderful side to it too. I think there’s a negative part of any community and the negative parts of the Big Brother community can be especially negative, but there are also very very positive parts, and I don’t think that should be forgotten.”
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