The Social Self

Content Warning: References to the Twilight Zone 2019 S1:E1

Content and Consumer

Content creation is a funny thing. Whether you produce jokes, art, music, software, games, thinkpieces, articles, reviews, videos, etc... When you create for an audience, there is a strange relationship that occurs between you and that audience. At first, the approval and delight of fans over what you've created is amazing. But as the audience grows, so too does your service to that audience. Fans that come to see you do one thing will be turned off if you do something different. A pressure to conform to your prior self comes into play. If you start to become concerned about growing your audience, you might seek more and more things that are likely to have mass appeal. The uniqueness of what you create may fade away as you polish and hone it into a reflection of the audience you desire.

Now, this isn't a bad thing. At least, not inherently. It's a description of some of the ways that content creation relates creator with consumer, performer with audience. To achieve success in finding and keeping an audience is a challenge whose accomplishment is the result of great luck and skill. It's also really important, because so much of our culture relies upon some individuals taking part in content creation of this nature, to mold, shape, reflect, and guide our communal cultures and subcultures.

Watching the first episode of the new Twilight Zone series, it really struck me that it was very much about some of the darker aspects of this. The fact that whenever you build an audience, the audience slowly lays claim to what you are. Deviation from that results in rejection, frustration, and an end to the praise and approval you had derived from creating what the audience had come to provide.

That's one reason why dissociating your content creation from your self can be so valuable. Maybe you produce music as a music act instead of as yourself. So one act could be the name you produce synthwave music under, while another act is your christian rock performance, while another is for your EDM experiments. This is also true of game development studios, review publishers, etc. The audience may lay claim to your act, band, company, studio, publisher, etc... But not to you...

Consumption of self

But the best art can often be found as a reflection of deeply personal experiences. A reflection and expression of you, your own self. . In the Twlight Zone episode, a comedian discovers he has the power to offer parts of his life to his audience to great results. But once he does so, those parts of his life vanish. Ultimately, he gives the audience the only thing he has left, his self... and thus he vanishes.

There's a reflection of this in reality, especially in modern social media. People continually fight for likes, shares, and subscriptions. Tokens of approval and praise. Opportunities for growth and larger audiences. This happens on youtube, blogs, microblogs, image sharing sites, etc. People are hungry to have large audiences for the content they produce. To find what content will draw a large audience and lots of approval. And often? That content is a reflection of their own self.

But as the audience lays claim to that self... What happens?

Youtuber Lindsey Ellis goes into some of this in her video YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)

Youtubers report tons of stress and anxiety about the whole thing. And multiple folks have talked about this experience of having their performer self being an alternate version of themselves. While they attempt to sell themself, they start to build a persona to sell instead.

This idea bothers me at a fundamental level. To see constraints on what one can create. To have an audience judge and demand you create something to fulfill their needs, in line with what you've created before... To see your own self consumed by your audience. It sounds exciting and horrifying at the same time.

Keeping a low profile

Throughout my career as a software engineer, as well as an activist, adventurer, game developer, musician, and more... one goal I've always had is to maintain a relatively low profile. I don't want to be noticed. I never want to develop such a large audience that I feel like I have to maintain consistency within myself to meet their needs. I value growth, change, and dynamicism too much. Even perhaps more importantly, I value freedom.

I grew up being effectively brain washed by my family members. Taught to follow precisely only the rules given. Taught not to ever experiment outside that. Taught to never draw outside the lines as it were, and if the lines were not apparent, to not draw at all. I was constrained and choked as a person and unable to live a full human life. When I transitioned, they literally blackmailed me, stalked me, harassed me, threatened me, and did other things to try to get me to stay within their world and under their control.

As a result, I never want to go back to that. I hunger for the ability to choose my own path as much as possible. Of course, no one can fully do that... It's only by cooperating and working with others that we can live well and happily, and to work with others is to continually compromise and negotiate. But I choose those contraints. I enter into agreements with others to live with those constraints in exchange for our mutual interaction. Partners and I are together for mutual support and love in exchange for having to work towards ensuring one anothers emotional comfort and fulfill one another's needs. Etc.

The parasocial relationships that develop when you've gained even a modicum of fame are terrifying to me. They sound positively awful. To be a figure instead of person. To have people consuming your self without the ability to directly and explicitly negotiate what that self is.

For me, my digital social self must be social, not parasocial. If my relationships with others aren't individually negotiable, I don't want to have them. I don't want to ever achieve or do anything that would result in tons of people knowing who I was and having a parasocial relationship with me where I couldn't negotiate the terms of that relationship back. And I think that is an inherent consequence of building a large enough audience and trying to attract attention, approval, likes, shares, and subscriptions. A modicum of success in having an audience results in this relationship being broken.