This year’s Big Brother Nigeria made the headlines but mostly for all the wrong reasons. Except for the purists though, it probably was a record-breaking performance for the organisers of the reality show that continues to divide opinion in equal measure. Unofficial figures, provided by show host, Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, suggest the show recorded over 250 million votes with about 50 million of those coming in the last week alone. The total votes this year is an increase of 47 percent over the 170 million recorded in the third edition of the show held in 2018.
Nigerians were quick to calculate that as much as N7.2 billion was spent in voting, although it’s unclear how those figures were arrived at. Regardless, and despite question marks over how much Nigerians spent on voting, as can be expected, the story was all over social media and was actually published by some national dailies. Ignore the dispute for a moment and think about the sheer popularity of the show, and you will understand why the poll numbers are annoying for more serious Nigerians who see the potential in such an active voting force being involved in the democratic process.
Somehow, we knew this year’s edition would be wild, especially with the crazy scenes recorded at the BBN audition for the show in February. The crowd alone suggested the increasing popularity of the programme, but as I mentioned in an earlier article, the clearest signal that all was not well was that Legit.ng video of the young girl who tried to justify why she skipped church to try her luck at becoming a housemate. That young girl’s misplaced enthusiasm should be properly understood, for it speaks to something more fundamental – something, which defines the attention economy that social media is forcing on us. Her desire to become a housemate should not be misinterpreted as a shot at the prize money, although N30 million looks like a good enough motivation for anyone of the twenty-one housemates to invest three months of their lives in reality TV. However, if we think about it, would that prize money have been enough motivation for Khafi Kareem to risk losing her job with the UK’s Metropolitan Police all so that she can take part in BBN?
No, the real prize, it should be understood, is the social and cultural capital that ‘fooling around,’ locked up in a house for three months brings, and this is where I think the real winner is Anita Natacha Akide (aka Tacha). One of the by-products of the social media era is the pervasive use of social networking sites (SNS) for self-branding to produce micro-celebrities. At the core of the idea of self-branding is the need to develop a unique selling point, or an online identity very much like brands and products. In the social media era, where the likes of Kim Kardashian are standard-bearers, a lot of girls and women believe that their authenticity is located in the body, and therefore see their bodies as holding the key to their becoming celebrities.
As those who are knowledgeable about these matters have suggested, female celebrities are required to perform in line with the parameters set by hegemonic markers. It’s why a lot of women tend to believe that unless they meet the spec – of a ‘tall, slim, hairless body, long (often blonde) hair, clear (usually white) skin, manicured nails,’ they can’t be successful. Thanks to this carefully orchestrated framing, and to social networking sites especially Instagram, the marketing of flesh as a commodity then becomes almost like the measure of success.
I have written about the crazy, rotten girls of Instagram before and Tacha has to be one of the best examples of all that is wrong and right with that platform. To put all of this in context, there are two categories of celebrities – those who have attained such status from what they do (think of the professional footballer, the music artiste, and actors/actresses); so, the likes of Davido, Wizkid and Mikel Obi, for instance, will belong here. And then, of course, there are the ordinary folks who ‘gatecrash’ the party through aggressive marketing of their personal lives on Instagram, Twitter or any of the other social networking sites. Of course, Tacha, Naira Marley, and their likes belong here.
Now, the formula for growing a following is simple. As mentioned already, for girls (the body is the commodity, and nudity pays), but generally, luxury selfies are sure bankers. Combine the two – that is, commodification and crass display of the body as well as luxury selfies, and you can become a micro-celebrity in record time. Celebrity culture is a funny business, of course, for while they aggressively market themselves through the constant personal stories on Instagram and the other social networking sites, they’re careful in which aspect of the performance of their you can see. Performance being the most important thing in this attention economy, micro-celebrities come into the social media space to act carefully scripted dramas. Erving Goffman in his book, ‘The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life’ identified two sections of performance in this space – the front region and the back region. The front region being the area where micro-celebrities show what they want their followers to see emphasized, and the back region being the place where they hide what they don’t want people to see. So, for example, no micro-celebrity will allow you to see the dirty things they do to be able to afford some of the luxury selfies they post on the social media platforms like Instagram. You don’t get to see the money rituals, the jaw-dropping Internet frauds, or the sex-for-cash that help them maintain their image on social media. If in doubt, just take a look at the trial of upcoming musician, Azeez Fashola (a.k.a Naira Marley) and the recent arrest of Ismaila Mustapha (a.k.a Mompha).
This is why the difference is always made between their on-screen or reel and off-screen or real lives, the aggressive and careful management of which they devote most of their time in an attempt to gather some authenticity and therefore retain their ‘star-power.’ If the sly and manipulative management of the reel and real lives represent the bad, the fact that micro-celebrities can grow social and cultural capital via Instagram and the other social networking sites is one of the positives. In addition to democratizing communication, Instagram and the other SNS enable social mobility in the way I have described here, and this is where I think one of the real winners of this year’s BBN is Tacha. From hawking anything – and I mean anything – on Instagram, to making it into the set of BBN, you have to credit her one way or the other for arriving at the point where a state governor sends her a goodwill message.
As I mentioned earlier, micro-celebrities come into the public to enact carefully-scripted performances, so forget all the controversy in the House or her eventual eviction. Those are all performances that ultimately feed into the reel life she wants her followers to see. To know whether or not it pays, go and check her Instagram account, and notice the unbelievable growth in the number of followers beginning from around July. In the social media space, where likes are the currency, she probably stands to make more money in the long run than any other housemate.
But then, regardless of the transformation of people like Tacha made possible by working the system in the attention economy, the fundamental question must be asked. What is the overall impact of the growing appeal of the celebrity culture? I see no need to indulge in the moral debate, the moralists have done that by pointing out the fact that our democracy would have benefited more if those who voted during the show had turned out during the general elections. Others have dwelt on the gross things that go on in the House and even called on the authorities to ban the show. Both sides are correct, but I think the far more worrying thing is the fact that the success of micro-celebrities like Tacha could lead other young girls to think becoming another Kardashian is their only route to making it. Or for our young men to think that being a Naira Marley or a Mompha is the easiest route to moving up. That, for me, would be sad, for both views are dead wrong.