Recently, Elizabeth Rice prompted a discussion regarding how the Magic social sphere facilitates parasocial relationships. For me, this lead to some discussions on the ethics of how these play into the overall relationship between content creators and consumers. I have thoughts on this matter that I figured I’d shoot into the aether.
One of these days we are going to have a chat about how MTG encourages parasocial relationships to the nth degree but Ive had a bottle of wine so it wont be today
— Ellieoftheveil, snackgoblin (@ellieoftheveil) December 30, 2020
Parasocial relationships form when a consumer is given a window into the life of someone with celebrity status, within the Magic social sphere that commonly applies to content creators. What happens is that as a consumer ingests more and more from a creator or group of creators they begin to feel as if they know the producer on a personal level.
The underlying issue here is that only one person is placing any meaning on these interactions. To quantify it, say someone reads and interacts with 10 Tweets from their favorite creator and they maybe get a response to one of their replies. In the consumers head, there were 11 interactions that happened, while for the creator there was 1 interaction. You also have to consider how much value each person is placing on the interactions themselves.
For the creator, their reply is one of potentially hundreds of fan interactions they’ve had that day and, as such, there isn’t much importance placed on it. The flipside is that for the consumer, it’s probably that this is their only interaction from someone that they idolize within that day, week etc. We as a community can takes steps in order to address this unavoidable but negative dynamic that we should collectively take steps to mitigate the worst aspects of.
While all social spheres are breeding grounds for parasocial interactions, what makes Magic a space that encourages them? Well, Magic is “the Gathering,” a social game at its core. It’s common for people to learn the game from a friend, which leads to them going to a local game store, meeting people and playing with them, which often leads to traveling to event, meeting more people and so on. As such, a cultural contract has formed in Magic that on some level, everyone is accessible. When the boundary between fan and celebrity is so thin, it’s common for it to seem nonexistent.
One of the common issues surrounding these dynamics is that the mental idea of the creator that the public builds is intrinsically flawed and not holistic. While someone may watch Youtube content, a Twitch stream or read the tweets of a figure, they don’t actually know who they are. Everything that’s presented on those platforms are most commonly personas created for public consumption. There will be aspects of the person’s personality and life that will be genuinely communicated by these platforms but not nearly enough to build an accurate image of who they are.
Unfortunately, fans often don’t understand this and, alongside the mental personification of the content creator, they’ll also start to feel as if they’re owed something. “I’ve spent X amount of time consuming your content and donated my amount of money to you, the least you can do is give me Y in return.” These demands range from just simple wishes of acknowledgment to greater demands of time. What’s interesting to me is how the requests are often oblivious to the interests of the creators themselves.
For example, I’m a fairly irrelevant figure yet people have expressed interest in not only meeting me, but also playing games of EDH with me even though I’ve expressed an abject disinterest in the format. A common excuse that’s made is that the Magic community is somewhat of a safe haven for people from all walks of life. While this may be true to an extent, it isn’t unique to the Magic social sphere. The same dynamic happens in video game circles, table top RPGs and any other subculture.
Parasocial dynamics don’t evenly effect all content creators. Presentation of gender has a huge effect on how fans, specifically male fans, interact with creators. With all creators it’s common for their fan bases to idolize them as a figurehead in a way. Fans often put creators on a pedestal and look for their approval in some way. As previously mentioned, it’s common for fans to want to spend time with the content creator, and in some extreme cases they want to “be” them or at least follow in their footsteps. However, for fem-presenting figures, it’s common for fans to take things to an extreme. I’ve also seen that it’s common for people to want to humble or prove superiority to fem-presenting figures as well as pursue non-platonic relationships with them.
In my time playing Magic, I’ve know many women who have reached various levels of celebrity and here’s a short list of some of the experiences they’ve had with overzealous fans:
- Death threats towards the person and those around them.
- Sexual assault threats including: the figure themselves, their friends and in one case their underaged sister.
- Being sent lewd fan art (imagine the grossest thing you can think of then take it up a notch or two).
- Having their address sent to them alongside menacing messages.
- People showing up to their house unannounced.
- Being followed at events.
- Making multiple accounts to harass them..
- Finding their cars tampered with at events.
The list could on and on but these are just a few of the examples I could think of off the top of my head.
While, it is possible for masc-presenting creators to also experience the events listed above, it’s not only less common for sexually motivated transgressions to happen but, in addition to that, it’s less common for physical threats to escalate to a point of significant danger.
Anecdotally, I’ve also had a large percentage of my fem friends mention people they don’t know messaging them through private channels and requesting emotional labor of some sort, which is another thing that I don’t think happens as frequently for masc-presenting content creators.
I should start by saying that in most cases, I feel that creators are generally altruistic when engaging with their audiences. While the general outlook on parasocial interactions is that they’re largely perpetuated by the fans themselves, it would be remiss of me however to not mention how content creators profit from, and sometimes encourage, parasocial interactions.
One thing that isn’t commonly discussed is that a large percentage of successful content creators take advantage of parasocial interactions in order to profit. It’s common for creators to lean into personas to be more appealing. Sometimes it’s via a generalized sense of openness, by heavily engaging their fan bases, or other times it’s by directly leaning into dynamics of subcultures (#RepresentationMatters and so on) and I’m sure there’s more.
A trend that’s been increasing in popularity is fan Discord servers. When a creator makes a statement along the lines of “Join my Patreon for exclusive content and access to my Discord server where we have cool discussions and movie nights (or other similar perks),” that’s an acknowledgement of the fans’ desire to interact with them on a more interpersonal level. Some people will look at the Discord aspect of that statement as a cool additional perk to having access to more content to consume. For others, the increased access is the primary attraction. When you look at platforms such as Twitch, Twitter, OnlyFans and others from an analytical standpoint, they follow a similar standard in garnering attention from individuals.
I posit that a large number fan interaction follow a similar arc to this:
- A would-be fan discovers a creator that they like and start consuming their content.
- The fan slowly start to engage with the creator either via chat, comments or replies.
- At some point, the creator starts to acknowledge the fan’s presence which acts as encouragement for further engagement.
- The fan starts donating to the creator financially which commonly leads to more acknowledgement.
At this point for a lot of consumers, steps three and four repeat ad nauseam. For some people, things go on from there. Sometimes they’ll become a mod of a stream or a personal friend of the content creator. To me, the interesting aspect is how the pedestal that the creator is placed upon leads to a dynamic where reciprocated attention creates an addictive response in their fans. For content creators who are aware of the above dynamic, there’s a delicate balance of managing fan engagement without being actively exploitative.
Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), having so many front-facing employees, has created a humanizing dynamic for the company. Being able to interact with Mark Rosewater (MaRo), and other figures at WOTC directly allows a unique peek into some of the companies inner workings. Being able to get information on the design process, charming anecdotal stories and slight insights into the lives of employees is great from a fan perspective. This is a stark contrast to being a fan of the products of a company such as Marvel comics. Insights into the companies working are usually disseminated via interviews, articles or other refined and edited outlets that act as a buffer between creator and consumer.
So while you can tweet at MaRo, Ari Nieh, Andrew Brown, Donald Smith and others about cards they created or sets they work on and will likely get a response of some sort, the same isn’t happening with Marvel. While this seemingly interpersonal connection is great at face value from a human relations perspective, it’s lead to some likely unexpected results.
When WOTC makes a decision that displeases the player base, there’s often a visceral outcry that takes on a different timbre than other corporate backlashes. For comparison, if there’s an issue with a car part, a baby seat or any consumable good that needs to be recalled, there might be a communal outcry of frustration but it’s often directed at the company and not individuals. You don’t know the person or people who designed or approved a defective car part that’s being recalled. With Wizards’ transparency regarding its employees, you sometimes do know who made these decisions.
What’s interesting is how common it is for blame to be mistakenly placed upon the wrong person. From an onlooker’s perspective, it’s been equal parts fascinating and disturbing how common it is to see outcries that MaRo should be fired because of various issues with a sets, cards that are seen as poor designs or even the product release schedule despite the fact that he was not an active part of these projects.
Recently, Wizards announced that there would be more IP crossovers in the wake of the Walking Dead Secret Lair being the best selling product in the lineup from last year. The response from the community was not one of most consumer bases that are disinterested in a product. Generally, when people experience buyers’ fatigue or are presented with a product announcement that they aren’t interested in, they might express disinterest or just not buy the product. This situation was a bizarre contrast because the tone of the replies was one that made it clear that the Magic community felt as if they were betrayed by a friend.
Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, isn’t Mark Rosewater. Every decision they make is made by a group of employees you may never have heard of. As such, if a product, or series of products, sells well, then they’re going to keep producing them because obviously plenty of Magic players enjoy them. Concepts such as “the spirit of the game” or “I want to play Magic that feels like Magic and not like some other IP” are not the only metrics for WOTC. The community at large needs to dispel the idea that public outcry is not always going to succeed. While there have been times where WOTC has listened to public outcry (#PayThePros), that doesn’t always work, and giving Gavin Verhey a hard time won’t change that.
Moving forward, what are some do’s and don’ts of interacting with content creators?
- DO respect the boundaries that the creators set. Some people are going to be more guarded and private while others are going to be more open and willing to invite fans into their lives. There are some content creators who are open to fans reaching out to them via private means such as their DMs or their private Facebook pages but the majority are not comfortable with that level of intimacy. If you find yourself unsure, then either assume that the door isn’t open or just ask.
- DO respect the boundaries of friendship. Just because you see a content creator interacting with someone frequently that doesn’t mean you have an open invitation to take part in that interaction.
- DO remember that you should never idolize people. Everyone’s human, everyone’s flawed and putting people on pedestals is extremely unhealthy.
- DON’T do any of the things I discussed that have happened to people I know. Don’t stalk, threaten people or sexually harass/assault them.
- DON’T ask content creators to do emotional labor for you, and if for some reason you do and they refuse, then don’t start asking their friends to do labor for you. Yes, this is also something that’s happened to multiple people I know.
- DON’T follow then unfollow someone over and over. I think it’s an attempt to get a follow back but it’s a fast track to getting on a mute list.
- DON’T offer unsolicited advice.
- DON’T think that because you’ve followed for someone for an extended period of time that you know them on a personal level. It’s common for fans to make jokes that don’t land right.
- DON’T try to emulate jokes that you see content creators making with their friends. Having a rapport with someone is huge in setting the tone for interactions. A content creator and their friends might interact with each other in a playfully rude way. Don’t try to jump in; they have a rapport with each other that makes the statements acceptable but a regular consumer doesn’t. This especially applies to topics of a lewd nature. Comments like this between people who have an established dynamic are acceptable. but from a random internet person? That’s sexual harassment.
As an aside, not all public figures are going to say that something is making them uncomfortable. It’s very common that, as a matter of safety, people will avoid outright rejecting someone for fear of retaliation. If someone’s getting called out by a friend of the creator or being talked to in their mentions or DMs, they need to take the hint that they don’t want to interact with them and move on.
A common question to ask is “Lawrence, is it possible for me to become friends with my favorite content creators?” In short, yes, just be respectful and don’t expect a creator to reciprocate similar interests. Content creators don’t owe consumers anything, and having a relationship beyond creator and consumer isn’t really something a consumer should long for.
Also, if you as a consumer come to realize that you might have trampled the boundaries of a content creator then it’s probably best to send them an apology and give them some space. While the Magic community isn’t unique in its social disfunction, I do think that the closeness makes it unique in how quickly social issues can be addressed, and that gives me some hope for the future.