Avoiding "Idolization" (On the Internet)


#1

this might get weird

I’ve generally been able to avoid the kind of celebrity worship that goes on in a lot of pop culture. I find it pretty repulsive. On the other hand, I’ve found it very easy to fall into the trap of holding too much respect for or focusing too much on certain public figures. Because of my interests, this is frequently game critics and game designers, but it’s not limited to that. It can be musicians, comedians, intellectuals, and so on (though, yes, it is usually people who make things). Maybe this is because I’m a pretty young person. Still, I have a lot of reservations about this mentality. One reason is that, lately, a lot of beloved celebrities (including a few whom I did hold as inspirations) have been revealed to be pretty awful people. The bigger reason for me, though, is that I don’t feel it’s a healthy way to relate to the media we consume and the people who produce it.

I don’t feel it’s a bad thing to respect creators and public figures, and I view inspiration as a pretty helpful thing. What I’m concerned about is developing a presumptuous and often damaging conception of someone that idolizes the “idea” of them. I think this is easier a trap to fall into in the world of the internet and social media, where people’s identities are frequently rendered consumable. It’s easy to feel like you know someone, even though you’ve never actually spoken to them, when you can so easily hear their voice and read their thoughts.

I feel that this is both unhealthy for myself and damaging to the subject. For the subject, it kind of objectifies them. It develops a frequently superficial perception of others. For myself, it too often leads my tastes, my outlooks, and my interests being modified in relation to this other person, rather than to myself.

I recognize the weird irony of posting this here, considering Waypoint does actually create the kind of “personality-driven content” that often generates this problem, but it’s also because of that that I’m wondering. When I am active in this community, I can also end up running the risk of developing an unhealthy perception of Austin, or Danika, or Rob, or anyone else in the Waypoint crew. I think it’s a good idea to address this head on.

Is this something that concerns any of you? Do you think these concerns are reasonable? Have you taken any conscious steps to curtail it? Have you maybe grown out of it? Wondering about all your thoughts.


#2

A very reasonable concern, and a good self-check to have as early in life as possible.

There are all kinds of lengthy debates about divorcing art from creator, and when/why/how to or not to do so, which I have no interest in touching in any vague or generalized ways.

What I will say is - assuming nothing about people whose art, music, design, performance, etc. is a good way to go into your understanding of ‘people whose stuff you enjoy.’ Because you don’t know anything about them, or their politics, or personality, or past. Maybe over time you’ll learn some of it, most of the time you won’t.

What you know about that person is that they made or did a thing you liked.
Nothing more.

They share a political view you don’t? Fine. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by assuming they share any aspect of your world views.

The number of times I’ve had to pick my eyes up off the ground after they rolled out of my head seeing someone tweet at a creator telling them to “stick to music” or “just keep drawing” and to keep their politics to themselves is higher than it aught to be. I should expect it by now, but like - It’s a bad, dumb look.

I think, particularly around gaming, both in design, consumption, and streaming or Youtube/VOD spaces, people are super prone to generalizing, and assuming the best and most relatable of people. Recognizing that, and asking seems like a good sign.

Don’t let your brain fill in those blanks with your information. If 2017/2018 have taught people nothing else, I hope it’s that. Your heroes are people, and odds are at least a few of them aren’t great, at most optimistic.

(Also, with context surrounding specific personalities in the discourse at the moment, you avoid feelings of betrayal or being let down, or mental gymnastics trying to justify why you’re alright with problematic or unacceptable aspects of potential idols. shudders I mean, if the word idol doesn’t kinda give you the creeps, I envy at least one aspect of your worldview time and cynicism have stripped from me.)


#3

This is a key point. Modern media* makes it easy to feel like you know another person, whether it’s through chatting with them on a stream, watching their vlogs or following their personal twitter/instagram feeds. Since most of us probably curate our feeds to people we align with, it’s not a huge step from there to starting to project yourself onto them. This person that I’m following seems so smart and has it all figured out, right?

But people can never align perfectly to the expectations I put on them. They’re likely to eventually say something I disagree with or, just like me, plainly fuck up in big or small ways. And on a large scale, the dangers of this idolization is that we (in or in the vicinity of the followers) build someone up as a paragon of virtue, only to tear them down brutally once they make that mistake. That’s not fair.

I personally keep falling into this trap. I try to get out of it by looking out for things where I don’t agree with the person, keeping in mind that that’s okay**, and remembering that they fart and poop just like me (err, I mean in a non-fetish way). Does it work? Well, everyone believes that they are perfectly rational, so who am I to tell…

*I say modern, but although the speed of communication may pronounce the effect it’s not something unique to the Internet age.
**Some things are not okay.


#4

I just saw this thread pop up on Twitter from Tanya DePass and I think it provides another interesting perspective to this discussion.


#5

It’s been kind of weird as someone who has been around the edges of games criticism Twitter for years, well before some people got to be “bigger” names and therefore friends with people. It’s also been weird to be known for anything myself, as a freelance writer.

It’s been weird parachuting into games twitter for just this reason because seeing people talk about Giant Bomb or Waypoint or the McElroys with the kind of reverence for fictional characters despite them all being real people. That’s the problem I think - personality goes to brand goes to “characterization” and people forget that funny gaming videos still are populated by human beings with feelings and politics. I don’t get that kind of thinking at all.

Any time I’ve rubbed up against people that I admire in this industry, I’ve tried my hardest to know that I’m a person like they are and just been chill about it and respectful. It would be like meeting any new person, but this person is someone who’s social media I’ve read and content I’ve seen but that doesn’t mean I know anything actually about them. I’ve made a lot of friends that way, just not assuming that I know them at all. People who do this to me, even in the tiniest ways, really rub me the wrong way, so it has given me a good perspective on how do that myself to my own personal idols.

I guess that’s the operative word here: idol. Don’t idolize people. Don’t sink all your hopes on the public persona. Don’t attach your life to the brand. Don’t mistake the work for the worth.


#6

I definitely fell in to idolizing companies and people but over time, after understanding the problems of obsessions and knowing about faults in people, I learn to distance myself from them or be a lot more critical on them if there at least willing to change.

I liked Jontron’s work but I have to get away from him when his views on Blacks and how he talked about the Women’s march were pretty negative. Atlus makes games I like that other devs don’t usually fund or do but I’m not going to turn a blind eye on how they represent certain groups of people. Even here on Waypoint I enjoy many articles they write but I’ll speak up when something off or feel there a subject they need to look into more.

I think the main thing many people should do to avoid idolizing is keep asking questions and don’t pretend there isn’t anything wrong.


#7

Thanks for bringing this up! The thread so far has been a good read.

I think think is a really critical part of internet age media literacy. Creators and PR folks have become so good at projecting images that feel really quite personal, and the kinds of media we consume make it really easy for us to (as you say) feel like we know people that are in reality, near to complete strangers.

For me, it helps to understand some of the ways our brain lie to us. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_effect is probably the big one. Just knowing that I’m going to (irrationally) assume that people who do things I like, are going to be people that I like is a great defence against the kind of unhealthy assumptions that can create.

The next level is reminding myself is that any contact I have with internet celebs is carefully curated. Knowing how the sausage is made, if you’ll forgive the cliche, is a pretty good defence against marketing.


#8

Oh dang, y’all are dropping some good advice in here. This is something I’ve thought about from time to time, but usually in the context of the ethics of liking a creator’s work even if they say/do problematic things. And I think I can start trying to apply some of what was said here to help me sort out my thoughts and feelings on those matters.

So thanks y’all.


#9

Idolization in youth is probably so fuckin wild these days. I fawned over so many people I had never met when I was younger, but I knew nothing about them - I could only imagine what they are like outside of the work that drew me to them, based on that work. Now you can watch an hour-long video that your favorite cutie makes presumably just for you, in which they give you daily affirmations of love and appreciation for your presence in their life, and for having you around to just hang out and chat with. That has to shape the way that young people are developing their notion of intimacy.

It was specifically the distance between me and the idol that allowed me the capacity to project my true desires onto them; I think that that projection process is important. It’s fluid, allowing your desires to change, while the idol template remains unaltered, though the projections you cast onto them do not. Eventually you accept they are actually unknowable, and seek the things you now want in the ‘real’ people around you.

With YouTube idol culture, there is virtually no need for projection. There is only perceived reality as it’s portrayed to you with apparent honesty on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. You eventually conclude you do know this person. You do want this person, for all they profess to be. That must affect the way young fans compare the people they idolize to the people they can actually know.

I also realize that delusions in idolization have existed for time immemorial, but what I’m positing is that it takes much less than it used to for someone to cross that line and accept that their idol is someone they actually, intimately know.


#10

This is something I found myself doing a lot around Giant Bomb, and still see a lot of that community doing (people presuming that staff members secretly hate each other has always been a prime example of taking the personalities of the staff there too far, for me).

We are literally fed a daily stream of work from people whos brand is being as personable as possible. It doesn’t mean these people are being dishonest about their personalities, but it does dehumanize them, in a way. Their personalities become a commodity and we begin to project ourselves onto the commodities we consume. When we do this with actual people it becomes extremely problematic, I think. (At least more problematic than when we do this with material goods, but I digress). We expect to find ourselves in others we can likely never truly meet instead of examining the self, or looking within our own communities, and this becomes so easy when we can watch them live for 2-3 hours a day, sometimes.

Going back to Giant Bomb though: the thing that started to break my idol mentality around their personalities was the tragic death of Ryan Davis, and I kind of hate myself for that. It literally took someone dying to solidify in my head that the faces on my screen were human people. Not objects to be desired. Not brands to project myself onto. People. Entertaining people who I like to listen to, sure, but for me they would be nothing more than that. Sure it would be nice to shake Jeff’s hand at PAX or chat with Vinny after a panel, but I couldn’t do that as someone who thought of them as friends. They’re professionals and I’m a fan of their work, and thats a completely different relationship.


#11

That’s a little scary to think about, but I bet you’re right. I think the ease of being able to directly interact with one’s idol in today’s world also can’t be helping. Things like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook comments, etc. now provide people with a closer and more direct access to people they idolize, which I’m sure can lead to some pretty unhealthy feelings.


#12

lots of good posts in this thread! the only thing i can really add to this is, even though its easy to understand how that kind of cognitive disconnection can be alienating, it was hard for me to internalize it until it actually happened to me. i’m on a podcast and one time a fan sent in a jokey message that implied a pairing between me and a co-host, and let me tell you: i have not felt weirder ever in my life. i was left in a situation where, while it was clear to see how that person meant no harm with what they sent, it was still surreal and objectifying (and kinda disassociating as well) to actually read it and process it


#13

Don’t have much to say but:

  1. This scares me constantly as I listen to tons of podcasts on my commute, follow tons of creators on twitter, and generally enjoy personality-based media coverage (be it sports, games, politics, etc.).
  2. I found this video a good introduction to the concept of parasocial relationships.

#15

Speaking purely for myself its very easy to fall into a trap of putting people like the crew of waypoint on a pedestal, to forget they are human beings after all and not anime heroes come to give us hope the art will save us all. As someone unable to really engage in the world outside my own little cat sanctuary and seeing the world purely through a monitor I have often had to self-check myself at that metaphorical door a number of times over my life.

An old tweet of Gita Jackson saying “don’t ship real people” springs to mind of the divide of taking onboard the ideas expressed by people and appreciating them for those ideas, and objectifying them just like the aforementioned anime characters in the saga of a world i’ll never be able to reach.

Rolling this around in my head and reading the other comments here (sorry i reiterate a lot of your posts) I have to admit the more i hate myself the easier it is put Danielle on a pedestal for actually saving lives as an EMT, or getting Teary eyed at Austin’s NYU talk i’m watching because i can’t stand up there with anywhere that level of eloquence. Maybe there’s something in there to fight against, and put more of that hope in myself than just push it on to others.


#16

The thing that concerns me about parasocial relationships is not so much the possibility of misjudging someone based on their public persona (though there are of course valid concerns there) but rather the misjudgement of the relationship between creators and fans.

There was a period in my life where most of the spoken language I heard was in the form of podcasts. When you’re lacking real relationships, parasocial relationships are extremely comforting but also rather dangerous in that you don’t actually have the social intimacy that you feel you have. Minor differences in opinion or other slight annoyances that would hardly be worth noticing in a normal relationship can become really irritating when they highlight the fact that the relationship only exists in one direction.

Awareness of the disparity in the relationship unfortunately doesn’t solve everything and can make things worse in some situations. I think Patrick (or possibly Danielle?) told a story on one of the old Waypoint Radio episodes about talking to someone who was trolling them and that person essentially being surprised that their trolling actually reached a real person. It’s an oddly unbalanced power dynamic in both directions: an individual fan’s capacity to respond to the people they’re following is tiny, but a collective response from a fanbase or the internet at large can overwhelm a creator.

It’s true that many creators, Waypoint included, have methods of interacting with fans now, so there is a bit of two-way interaction, but the relationship still really only exists in one direction. Personally I don’t want any of the Waypoint staff to know who I am (unless I happen to make a cool video game that’s worth talking about) but I think that on a physiological level my brain has trouble wrapping itself around the reality that I can listen to someone talk for hundreds of hours without them even being aware of my existence. It’s a truly weird thing. It’s also not exactly new, since this has existed in some form since the beginning of mass media, but the intensity of it seems to be ratcheting up with new communication technology and evolving norms of social interaction online.


#17

When someone gets weird and quiet about their politics, or even just details about their politics, you should always keep your eye on them, the severity of your suspicion perhaps depending on what detail it pertains too. Here’s the kicker, though: This is an inherent factor in the relationship between content creators and consumers. Sure, the more creators frontload their politics by stating them candidly/boldly, the “safer” it is to trust them more, but the skeptical eye and degree of distance should never fade unless you literally get to know them very personally in real life. They should always be accountable to their own behavior, as you are to your behavior towards them, and I feel this is something lacking even in far-left circles revolving around specific writers.

For instance, here’s three formative leftist creators for me and many others [CW: reference to rape & bestiality apologism]: Hbomberguy, who (outside of me personally falling out of favour with his tone & critical approach) still hosts a playlist of LPs ft. a co-host that was revealed to have sexually harassed his friend, a fact buried in a years-old hollow late apology to the person hbomb ruined a friendship with after a tumblr callout post months after the incident; Garrett, an anarchist Youtuber that’s now deleted his political channel in favour of an “apolitical” film crit channel where one of his first videos knowingly & uncritically references an open antifeminist bestiality supporter as a resource; and Dan Olson, who has done some outstanding journalism on the darkest corners of GG and done foundational work in modern critique of creepy bullshit like exploitative sexual imagery with concepts like The Thermian Argument, yet still had an Akira poster on his wall for a full year of streams (funnily enough, nobody mentions the pointless, exploitative scene of attempted rape of a 14 year old featuring nudity of said child in that film). I bring this up in like, every thread here, but leftist anime communities in particular have a bad habit of handwaving heinous shit and idolizing creators because a work or body of work is so packed full of cohesively “interesting” stuff that’s sure to downplay the gross damaging content in critique, even though it doesn’t have to.

Passionate inspiration can be healthy, reading personality & meaning into creators & their works is inherently presumptuous yet vital to critique as a concept, and “kill your idols” is too platitudinal at this point to be useful to people who aren’t already in on it. You can’t truly kill the influence of the people who’s works you’ve engaged the most with, but you can interrogate and evolve it. It’s tough, it can be heartbreaking, it can be outright miserable and even destroy your comfort zone(s), but it’s necessary to not becoming complacent.

Unfortunately, since most people have neglected this kind of cautious reflection in their formative days (myself included) and few things prompt them to do so, there’s a whole lot of negative energy that can come from this–that is to say, a negative energy that tends to lean more depression than righteous rage due to the defeatism that can come with it-- that means few people ever think to do so, even less people want to do so, even less want to make it a habit, and the idea of doing so is less easily compressed or immediately appealing than a fix of “get mad at these easy targets, feel good you’re not them”. This is preyed on by right-wing reactionaries/recruiters, and it’s something the left can be pretty complicit in because we’re all tired and the depth of modern systemic oppression & group complacency is terrifyingly insurmountable.

Trying to counteract this with extreme distance can be so, so harmful though. I disagree with the sentiment of “make no presumptions” because, well, we do. We all do, it’s how humans do and there’s no getting away from that. It’s the same as saying “be apolitical” or “be a true nihilist”: you can’t. To live is to be political, to exist is to be as a whole entity, to perceive is to presume, it’s just that the privileged among us can carry pretensions that remove them from conscious self-reflection of their presumptions in anything more than the comfortably abstract.

We need to learn to live with our presumptuous nature instead, the same way we must evolve our political and philosophical understandings beyond briefly-convenient non-engagement. We need to apply scrutiny to our own scrutiny, listen to ourselves, what we excuse about… anything, really, and why. We won’t defeat or fully best our own nature in one fell swoop, every pretense of it being that simple has led to it taking control in the darkest of ways. Instead, we have to constantly confront it, challenge it, evolve it in small and massive ways.

There is no good way not to feel bad about the distant figures you admire, whether it’s distance of time or place, whether it’s the nostalgic comforts you could have sworn weren’t this uncomfortably racially coded, or the rich dude you could swear would turn out to be decent. It’s never going to be truly easy, the temptation to slip into abrasive cynicism or willful ignorance/denial is always present when confronting these things, but it’s worth fighting against for when you find the honestly good people that matter the most to your life, and when you find what/why/how you want to express yourself and your ideals to the misinformed and uninitiated.

Sorry this has been such an absurdly long & repetitive post, I have a very personal experience with idolizing & excusing an evidently shitty person for far too long in my formative years, with growing cultural awareness making it evident that they’re not the exception to a rule. Caused me a fair bit of psychological damage and making it kind of the most important part of philosophy to me, yet i’m not at all used to articulating it openly.


#18

your post kinda touches on what i think is the other side of the coin of idolization, which to me feels like tab-keeping to a slightly overzealous degree. i don’t know if i can articulate it well but “be immediately suspicious of someone if they aren’t overt of their politics” feels to me like a level of vigilance that should be reserved for somene entering your immediate social circle and not an entertaining new youtuber / twitter person / whatever. it feels like trying to wrestle intense dehumanising behaviours (idolization) with intense dehumanising behaviours in the opposite direction (scrutiny of that degree, esp. when it turns into one person vs a giant group of people).

like i’m not saying people should excuse terrible behaviour/politics/etc coming from semi-famous online people but in the same way that you say that making presumptions is how humans do, i think maintaining rap sheets for dozens+ people you don’t even know personally isn’t how humans do, and it is intensely taxing on the brain to be like that (and believe me i was like that for a good two years of my life probably and it felt completely miserable). but people still try to, which leads to generalizations or package-sale deals where entire loose groups of minorly successful (and often queer) people get broken-telephone rap sheets on the level of “oh i get a bad vibe off of this person they probably did something terrible”.

i guess it’s tough to talk about this because it’s definitely a case-by-case issue and i don’t wanna come off like i think being a terrible human being should be excused if you make funny youtube videos or whatever, but i feel like wherever your relationship with an internet celeb falls, you probably shouldn’t use the same parts of your toolset for them as you do for your relationships with people in your immediate social circles. which, admittedly, is pretty difficult, because for a lot of people working in ‘content creation’ (ranging anywhere from comics to music to twitch) part of what earns them money is creating a sense of familiarity and community.


#19

i gotta say that the level of familiarity i feel with some of these people sometimes weirds me out. i’m not going to name any specific names, but there are podcasters who i’ve been listening to at least on or off for three or four years. sometimes i know what they’re going to say before they say it. for some reason that kinda bugs me, as i don’t know these people, and i don’t communicate with these people, but if you add up the hours that their voices have poured into my head it might outweigh the hours that my friends, or my family, or my spouse have talked to me over that same timespan. which is weird as fuck. i wouldn’t call it “idolization”, as i don’t think these people are particularly special, but the concept still makes me feel very strange when i consider it. might be time to take a break from this delicious personality driven media …

apologies if this is a tangent.


#20

This is a good rebutt to my post for sure, and as an addendum I also try not to air my own dirty laundry about people without solid and and repetitive basis in fact, or as a broader cultural critique. I don’t feel great about the middle part of my post calling out random leftists on shakier grounds for exactly this reason. It’s still valid to feel bad vibes from specific behaviours, but on more of a personal engagement basis rather than a callout basis.

Also, what I meant by “be immediately suspicious” wasn’t so much as a command, but as more of an observation of an inherent part of how we share our relationships with internet creators, albeit a poorly-worded, misdirected way of putting it. We are all inherently dehumanized and dehumanize others, through these channels. The relationship between creator and consumer will always obscure the principles of both. It’s why the whole air of faux-intimacy rubs people outside of it the wrong way, and why it makes people in that air act real fuckin weird toward their idols in all sorts of ways.

And I hope to also say that when challenging presumptions, that does very much include presuming individuals are ideologically broken based on small random fuckups. As you say, it’s case-by-case and sometimes you can totally feel the wind, but even then, you sit on that feeling until if and when more solid shit comes out. Otherwise, literally nobody is part of every marginalized group and intersectionality is infinitely complex, and in many cases people are just straight-up uninformed and take some time to figure out their behaviour after being informed.

This is why i say that extreme distance is not a good response to the trends toward quasi-intimacy. The ways that self-fulfilling projection can be destructively objectifying to a person can be just as bad as a distant, bullet-points view of them with that one bad tweet angrily scrawled in red ink. Plus, once that attitude inevitably dips into a full-on nihilistic worldview, you start intermingling with the most hateful of the misanthropes ala 4chan or k!w!farms.


#21

I find this discussion very interesting especially since it’s always been easy for me to fall into this trap. The distinction between public vs private is thinning. Before I got my own computer, watching something on the ‘family computer’ meant a certain degree of preparation for that event and separation from the rest of my life. Now I have access to hundred of hours of strangers talking in a fun and personable way. When you listen to something on your commute to work every day, or while brushing your teeth, it feels like those individuals are part of your private sphere.

It is a lot easier to load up a video of some ASMR rp when I feel lonely at 3am than it is to reach out to my friends. There is often a criticism of ASMR videos for being very parasocial; people who aren’t fans of ASMR have often said it’s strange/creepy to see someone projecting this intense intimacy in a one-sided and performative video. But this has always been the appeal of personality based media. At least ASMR is honest with the fact that it is a roleplay.

Nowadays I try to avoid digging too deep into personality-based things when I feel depressed/lonely because it is too easy for me to perceive the way these products makes me feel as some sort of replacement for real social needs. Key word is try, I often do anyway. I’m more cautious now when beginning to engage with nonfiction media and I feel myself not trusting the people in the media I consume. It’s good to question media definitely, but I find this mistrust to stem from the fear of being hurt by the parasocial-‘betrayal’ of someone milkshake ducking than an actual critical urge. I hope that from that distrust I can eventually get to a more healthy and informed relationship with the media I consume, even if it is a complex balance to maintain.