short thought: parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships are a hot-button topic right now, primarily motivated by the frankly hilarious state of Twitch’s “just chatting” section, and by the pandemic’s impact on people’s inability to socialise through normal means. People are bonding with online figures through a method of interaction that boils down to “pay me fifteen dollars and you’ll get to say a sentence to me through TTS like I’m the most expensive therapist in the world”. There’s been some push-back, though no movement (that I’ve seen) from the platforms that host this stuff because, honestly, this is their revenue feed. Did you think they were ever going to touch it? Maybe when you see some global news stories about how people can’t talk in public without throwing a handful of change at each other, and yelling “POGGERS”. There’s, I think, another reason for these companies delivering a deafening silence on the frankly poisonous environment that these platforms have so successfully curated.

J Allen Brack, then the new President of Blizzard, walked up onto the stage of BlizzCon 2018’s keynote and delivered an incredibly milquetoast opening speech. The dry cheers from the crowd as he lists their new product lines, with all the energy of someone reading aloud from an Argos catalogue. For a moment, Mr Brack seems to forget he’s attending BlizzCon, and announces a record-breaking Call of Duty event to a somewhat cold reception. He smiles like a man who was just engaged in conversation by a stranger on the underground. He announces an expansion for Destiny 2, a game that would leave the ActiBlizzard platform a year later to the celebration of many players. Again, a mild reception, and Mr Brack seems confused. These talking points had gone down so well in the Q3 investor’s call, why aren’t these chimpanzees hooting and hollaring at them? He diverts onto charity — the people love charity, even when the sums being talked about had already been made by Blizzard in the time it took him to say the sentence. He moves on, spending a lot of time talking esports. God, he’s talking an awful lot about esports. Oh there’s a Heroes of the Storm character trailer, it’s that game they’d wholesale murder just over a year later. This also does not seem to be landing terribly well with the crowd, and you can almost feel it.

Through all of this though, there’s a thin film of crud that coats the whole keynote. It’s the C-word: community. Even when the bits and pieces being shown are dull, pedestrian and thoroughly corporate, there’s a gloss covering the experience. The gloss says this is for you, you’re part of something greater than yourselves! You’re in a place with people just like you, who think like you! You belong! Every BlizzCon has had something along these lines acting as a central pillar, but when Blizzard was independent and beloved, BlizzCon felt more like an amateur dramatics performance. Delightfully rough around the edges, with a sometimes rowdy crowd and hugely uncomfortable speakers, it looked more like a university society meeting than a corporate event. That energy is gone now — now they have flawless, glistening panel hosts talking like it’s some sort of bizarre sporting event with no rules, middling viewership, but lots of money down.

Yes, this is a casting desk.

BlizzCon is now essentially indistinguishable from any trade show that I’ve ever been to, except with one key difference. Nobody at a trade show pretended to be my fucking friend, whereas nowadays, every corporation is absolutely hell-bent on doing just that. Let’s use my absolute favourite example of the Fall Guys Twitter Account. They’ve dialled it back a bit ever since the popularity of the game fell off a cliff, but if I had to describe it in one word it would be: pathetic. “No! We’re zany though! Look at the number of emojis we use! Big Chungus xD!” Groan. There are innumerable examples of what people have begun to refer to as ‘brand personality’ — a term that someone with a business degree probably uses with glee and gusto, but one that I’d put in the same category as ebola. The artifice here is to move the company one step closer to personhood, one step closer to something that people can empathise or associate with. It is far easier to sell products when the company sits in that position, far easier to deflect criticism, far easier to get brainless clowns to defend you.

Media companies have absolutely no interest in limiting the spread of these parasocial relationships, because they themselves have been exploiting the very same mechanism for decades. They make you think you’re part of something, and that something just happens to be defined entirely in terms of the products you buy. The more you pay, the more ‘part of the family’ that you are. While games like Star Citizen have taken it above and beyond the point of comedy with the VIP concierge nonsense, the sentiment and fundamental rationale is exactly the same. How many people define themselves as an Apple person, or a Playstation fan? Want to be a person, corporations? Then you better be up to the same standard that I hold friends and family to: the very high standard of “I don’t need to pay them piles of money to keep associating with them”. Somehow I feel that this is an element of personhood and human relationships that the corporations aren’t willing to parasitize.

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