Before it became a college internship in binge drinking and casual sex, this ur-reality show was an actual interesting social experiment—if not the kind it was advertised as. No, it was not really about what happened when seven kids living under cameras “start[ed] getting real.”(That’s why it was all the more arresting in season 3 when actual reality intruded on the show in the form of AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, who died soon after the season aired.) It’s about performance, and young people’s complicated relationship with authenticity and privacy in the Internet age. Survivor added a million-dollar giveaway to the concept, but in The Real World—as in Laguna Beach, and for that matter, nearly every MTV reality show since— attention itself is the prize.
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