The best way to understand where that path has led is to go through a litany of first names: Omarosa. Santino. Dominic. Elan. Marcel. Kwame. Jacinda. Mohammed. Kynt and Vyxsin. Holly and Molly. Brody, Heidi, Lauren, Spencer. Somehow, these people are as familiar as the folks in the next cubicle. The Real World laid down the asphalt for every reality show from Survivor to Sunset Tan—for a new way of creating television. “Real World Season 2 introduced the confessional,” Murray says. “Well, the Catholic Church introduced it before us, but we stole it. I wish I had patented it.” Graden remembers hearing from a kid in a focus group who’d grown up on The Real World and had trouble sitting through a scripted show. “Wait,” the kid said. “Why do I want to watch an actor pretend to do something that I can watch somebody really do?”

But The Real World prefigured something else, too. In 1995 a paperback titled The Real Real World was published to capitalize on the success of the first four seasons of the show: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London. A few pages were devoted to the cast members from each season, studded with grainy snapshots and factoids. Flip through the book today and contemplate Kat’s favorite song (“Africa,” by Toto), Puck’s favorite snack (“Nuts, exotic ones”), and Becky’s preferred mode of transportation (“I usually walk”), and it doesn't take long to realize that you’re looking at an early, analog blueprint for a social-networking site: the beta version of Facebook. “We’re living in an age where everyone has to be famous,” Graden says. “There’s a current belief that every small thing I do is fascinating, so I’m going to share it with all my friends.” If you think about it, what The Real World ultimately wrought is the friending of America, a borderless and invisible network in which everyone’s on a first-name basis with everyone else. We started out with seven strangers. We ended up with thousands, maybe even millions, of best friends forever.