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Twitter, outrage and the nature of parasocial interactions - A case study

Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, April 16, 2021

Buckle up. This is going to be a dense one.

Social media dominates our lives. In the webcomic community, content is generally in the form of comics, however, we have podcasts, YouTube videos, Instagram accounts and of course Twitter. We immerse ourselves in the online world, broadcasting our efforts and ideas to an audience that, for the most part, we don’t see.

Those behind their screens develop a parasocial relationship with the creators they follow, learning more about them over time, whilst the content creator remains distant by virtue of their chosen medium of expression. In other words, a parasocial relationship/interaction, refers to the psychological relationship experienced by an audience with content creators. The audience comes to consider content creators as friends, despite having limited interactions with them, thus establishing a one-sided relationship. The creator does not experience the same depth of feeling for the individuals in their audience. However, there are instances when the collective opinion coalesces, particularly on platforms like Twitter. The hive mind’s opinions greatly affect the content creator, at times more so, than those we see in the “real world”.

On March 26 2021, Lindsey Ellis, writer and YouTube essayist, was subject to virtual dogpiling. In response she shut down her Twitter account. And there was much rejoicing.

That was until she released this response.

Click here to watch.

In it, she breaks down the way in which Twitter’s UX design leads to the manufacturing of outrage leading to an increase in engagement as well as how her turn at being the social media monster of the week lead to her reliving and, in turn, bearing out the trauma she endured in her attempt to provide context for what was, in effect, a mass and deliberate mis-reading of what amounted to a pithie tweet about Raya and the Last Dragon.

It’s an excellent video, regardless of whether or not you like Lindsey Ellis, as it highlights a pressing issue facing all content creators. The nature of “The Beast”.

She says,

“A friend of mine named it “The Beast”. The name for this fear that we all live under but don’t acknowledge. And over the last few years, I’ve had so many of my colleagues… voice to me the constant anxiety that they live with, about maybe saying something wrong that will get them on the bad side of their own communities. Every thought is a hostage situation. Is this the tweet that’s going to sink me? So what do we call it? What is the name for this unspoken, unacknowledged culture of fear where we all know that one misstep can ruin our lives?

…We can’t even talk about it because The Beast does not have a name.”

Language such as “woke”, “cancel culture”, “fake news” becomes appropriated by bad faith actors, thus leaving these terms devoid of any meaning; divorced from their original culture and commentary.

I watched this video late last night, after talking to my significant other about my responses to comments I had received on my videos. The shadow of “The Beast” loomed over my shoulder as I carefully typed my response, afraid that one word in the wrong order would shut down a hobby I so enjoy.

This fear extended to recent character designs I had done for one of our comics. Noticing the dire lack of diversity in our comics, we have begun pushing ourselves to correct this, to expand our experience and skills in an effort to be inclusive. However, The Beast, the imaginary impact of this parasocial experiment, overshadowed my work as an artist, leading me to sit with my anxiety in attempting to draw characters of other cultures.

“What right do I have to try?”

Or, more importantly, “What if I got it wrong?

As if in response to Lindsey’s video (it wasn’t, just a happy coincidence) an Australian comedian/political commentator, FriendlyJordies posted his own video, which echoed similar sentiments as Lindsey Ellis, albeit from a different direction. You can watch the video here for context, however the takeaway from his video that stayed with me was this:

“…It’s called mass hysteria. It happened in the inquisitions, Mccarthyism, the witch hunts, regular people after a while who have nothing to gain from it, accusing others of whatever the flavour of the day boogeyman is, just so the finger isn’t pointed at them.

…And at that point society is under the control of those profiting from the lie. If you’re an artist, one of your only services to society is to quash these lies. As you are the given license to think differently. It was the comedians who stopped McCarthyism by laughing at it. It was the artists who subverted the inquisitions and it is for this reason artists that are heavily targeted by the inquisitors.

…Guess which were the artists remembered by history? The ones that defied the elite by challenging the conventional thinking of the day rather than submitting to it. That is what a true artist does. They challenge thought.”

As artists, writers, creators of content, navigating the minefield that is the court of public opinion is one fraught with anxiety and fear. However, let these two videos stand as case studies of the nature of hive minded outrage and how one responds to it.

Because, ultimately, we cannot control how people react, only how we respond.

What are your thoughts on the nature of parasocial relationships and cancel culture? Let us know in the comment section below! And join us on Sunday evening for our Quackchat at 5:30PM(EST)!

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artisto_escondido at 9:45AM, April 18, 2021

Andreas_Helixfinger at 12:35AM, April 17, 2021

There is this short horror animation titled "The Backwater Gospel" I found on youtube that I feel accurately illustrates "the beast". This aura of guilt, shame and fear that catapults people's minds into this savage "flee or fight" mode where they are ready to lay the shame, and the guilt and the blame on anyone else as long as it isn't laid on them. As the characters in this animation exclaims "Well, it ain't gonna be me!!! Here's the linK: I also know a poem written by author and poet Charles Bukowski titled "The Genius of the crowd" that describes how hatred becomes an artform for those who can't create art of their own. There's a Youtube video with a reading of that poem. Here's the link to that:

Kou the Mad at 9:43PM, April 16, 2021

I don't have anything to add, I quit Social Media years ago (Unless you count youtube, and even then I use those for Funny Videos, Let's Plays, and the Occasional news.).

hushicho at 3:22PM, April 16, 2021

It also occurs to me that this sort of bad behavior by so many of the same horrible, hyper-judgemental pack of beasts migrating from failed sites like tumblr to twitter has made them more hair-trigger reactionary and made the whole social justice movement harder too. When you have people who dogpile on others for a questionable or outright illegitimate reason, that cheapens the act. Cancelling, now, means much less than it did before it was directed at people like Natalie Wynn and Lindsay Ellis, and others who did nothing but dared to say something that some rando disagreed with. I am, to quote Lana Del Rey, "fresh out of fucks forever", and I was one of the most passionate supporters of social justice, a long time ago. It was one of the only ways to actually answer the many, many offenses that the corrupt police force and equally corrupt political landscape will not address. But as always, it became too easy and went too far. People want an excuse to hate and be lazy.

hushicho at 3:10PM, April 16, 2021

Very well said. I left social media some time ago not because I was cancelled -- I don't think anyone would be stupid enough to try that -- but because social media was failing to hold anyone accountable for the tremendous harm they were doing. Twitter was the worst of them all, and only started doing the "fact-checking" remarkably after the problem had reached levels which they could not ignore. I say, do what you want to do, do what you feel, and to hell with any of the idiots who want to try to make you a punching bag. They make it much harder for those of us who actually fight mob mentalities, those of us who are minorities struggling for human rights, by acting like a bunch of insane children. This is not the way to even the playing field. It's bedlam. And so many of these sorts are just horrible puritanical prudes in practice...the exact opposite of what they present to the world or purport to fight for. I won't tolerate that.

Hapoppo at 10:13AM, April 16, 2021

The way I see it, if you want to escape cancel culture, or "the beast", or whatever you may call it, you have one of two options: either keep doing your own thing and be prepared to fight back, or just stay away from social media and avoid creating any kind of online presence. The rules are ever-changing so it's only a matter of time before you've retroactively broken one, and apologizing is only seen as an admission of guilt. It's good to see more and more people are starting to stand up against it though, it can only really survive as long as enough people fear it.

Banes at 9:17AM, April 16, 2021

Interesting! I'm partway in to the Ellis video. I think I've heard her name before but didn't really know who she was. So often I hear about a controversy/outrage, and then go digging for what started it and to find a very innocuous comment was what sparked it. Outrage can be manufactured from practically nothing at this moment.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 7:49AM, April 16, 2021

On a more positive tone, thank the powers that be for this, the wonderful corner of the internet that is the Duck Webcomics🤗 It has no shame, and it's well off for it👍

Andreas_Helixfinger at 7:26AM, April 16, 2021

It is hard to add anything that hasn't already been articulated in these two videos. I guess what I can say is this. Art should always be dictated by the passion and intelligence of the artists, not the fears and insecurities of a mob, nor the greed and unscrupolousness of the opportunists banking off of those fears and insecurities. These social media scapegoaters are just looking for people to put on the shame-and-blame-pile, in a futile attempt to lift themselves just a little bit above the rising flames of the hell they themselves created. As a creator myself, I simply will not have it! Shame is one of the worst forms of dark magic ever to curse the collective soul of humanity since the beginning of culture itself, and I will not tolerate this poison! No one should! If shame and blame is now the life blood of plattforms like twitter, then fuck plattforms like twitter!

Furwerk studio at 7:25AM, April 16, 2021

I've seen it and feared it for years, even before sites like twitter existed when a proto-form of the hivemind would fester on balkanized fanfiction archives where they would take established characters and racebend them into "minorities" to show how progressive they are, and no one would challenge them. I quit writing fanfiction when I started seeing "fanfiction academies" on ffn and mediaminer, basically reading about how someone is going to murder, rape, torture and harm real world people for their "transgressions" against fictional characters was distressing and lead to my paranoia they would actually trace me down and murder me and my family. A more recent form of this was when I was on comicfury and I asked about Aesops people didn't like, I honestly don't remember how it spiraled out of control but it wound up with me banned, my comics and most, if not all, of my posts removed from the site. The beast is made of a thousand tiny teeth and they are mean, and pompous.

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