I promised to enlarge on this Twitter thread, so I will. Unfortunately the inciting incident has fallen prey to that terrible depressing habit of bulk-deleting one’s tweets on a schedule, but the point Michael Hobbes was making was about the way all kinds of tiny niche interests have developed a recognisable structure of celebrity-fan relationships, and how this gave rise to a lot of unhealthy weirdness, whether driven by beefs between obsessive fans or else by stars dragging their fanbase into their own idiosyncratic beefs.
To get somewhere near the point, let’s take a look at a case study. In November 2017, indie game developer Max Krieger did a Twitter thread about an American restaurant chain’s bizarre and very specific choices in architecture and interior design. It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes Internet culture worthwhile – a brilliantly curated dose of irreducible eccentricity – and it went enormously viral, derricking Krieger to the status of a nanocelebrity and getting him onto the front page of Time. Krieger suddenly – overnight – had fans to whom he was a star. This had its satisfactions, and permitted him to parlay all the attention into selling one of his game projects. This, though, caused his fanbase to turn on him, accusing him of being a cynical sell-out.
It’s very common for creative people to use their problems as a source of inspiration. Conversely, on the demand side, the rest of us use their creativity as a solution to our problems. The relationship that arises between the two is notoriously difficult for both sides to manage. The problem now, though, is that access to the celebrity role has become much more available – rather than a one-to-many relationship, it’s become a many-to-many relationship – and also more direct. You can do a thread about fast-food interior design and end up with an obsessive number one fan! It could happen to you! And you are unlikely to have the apparatus of image management – PR people, lawyers, administrative support – that proper celebrities use to distance themselves from the public and maintain what sanity they manage to maintain.
I’ve touched on this before regarding why the mainstream media embraced Twitter when it rejected blogging, the degree to which even the negative sides of a more direct relationship with the fans had their uses, and the way this bent the people involved out of shape as they obsessively stoked up their own rage in order to rile up the audience. Krieger himself takes up the story here; in his telling, the original inspiration for the Cheesecake Factory thread was a mental health crisis he was experiencing. Not surprisingly, having a fanbase that wanted nothing more than more of the same did him a power of no good. I very much recommend the thread.
This dynamic interacts horribly with scale. If you have 100,000 daily-active users, you need to expect an event of one-in-a-million weirdness every ten days, or more usefully, it’s more likely than not that such an event will happen in any given week, and a one-in-ten-million event is more likely than not in any given quarter. In practice, the activity distribution will probably be skewed rather than normal, so the inevitable weirdness will originate from an unrepresentative subset of users – for example, the kind of relationships this post is about.
On a related theme, I just finished Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding, a biography of the core group of Astounding Science Fiction writers, and I was greatly amused by the fact that the first ever Worldcon degenerated so badly and so quickly that, before it technically opened on the first day, one group of fans inside were being picketed by a rival group outside handing out flyers headed Beware of the Dictatorship! It’s the way we live now and it’s terrible. There’s a reason why, despite the fact this blog was promoted at its very beginning by Charlie Stross, the Nielsen Haydens, James Nicoll, and others, I’ve always deliberately avoided being identified as a fan, opting into the subculture too much, or engaging with them.