“A lot of people you see on the internet HAVE to be on the internet.”Donald Glover, Interview Magazine
Recently, Rolling Loud festival announced that headliner artist Ye has dropped out of their festival. A lot of Ye fans are, rightfully, righteously indignant—this is the second time this year he has dropped out, last minute, from a major festival (see Coachella). Still, it’s not entirely unexpected, for the aforementioned reason, and because any fan of Ye’s know that there’s no guarantees with anything.
When your life (or business model, philosophy, the game you chose) requires you to be liked by many people, you end up with a lot of problems. In this post, Gurwinder Bhogal explores one risk to fame and making money in the creator economy: audience capture. He unpacks the concept here:
While it may ostensibly appear to be a simple case of influencers making a business decision to create more of the content they believe audiences want, and then being incentivized by engagement numbers to remain in this niche forever, it’s actually deeper than that. It involves the gradual and unwitting replacement of a person’s identity with one custom-made for the audience.
To understand how, we must consider how people come to define themselves. A person’s identity is being constantly refined, so it needs constant feedback. That feedback typically comes from other people, not so much by what they say they see as by what we think they see. We develop our personalities by imagining ourselves through others’ eyes, using their borrowed gazes like mirrors to dress ourselves.
Put simply, in order to be someone, we need someone to be someone for. Our personalities develop as a role we perform for other people, fulfilling the expectations we think they have of us. The American sociologist Charles Cooley dubbed this phenomenon “the looking glass self.” Evidence for it is diverse, and includes the everyday experience of seeing ourselves through imagined eyes in social situations (the spotlight effect), the tendency for people to alter their behavior when in the presence of pictures of eyes (the watching-eye effect), and the tendency for people in virtual spaces to adopt the traits of their avatars in an attempt to fulfill expectations (the Proteus effect).
Bhogal uses the example of Nikocado:
Nikocado, moulded by his audience’s desires into a cartoonish extreme, is now a wholly different character from Nicholas Perry, the vegan violinist who first started making videos. Where Perry was mild-mannered and health conscious, Nikocado is loud, abrasive, and spectacularly grotesque. Where Perry was a picky eater, Nikocado devoured everything he could, including finally Perry himself. The rampant appetite for attention caused the person to be subsumed by the persona.
If there’s a solution, it’s to be yourself; to have the courage to be disliked. But as Bhogal writes, it’s really difficult to “be yourself” because your “self”—your identity—has already been replaced by one you’ve made for your audience. For (many!) other people. For better or worse, people follow you like you’re a religious leader; how is one to keep a straight head?
In situations like this—and I daresay any one of us who lurk or publish on social media experience a version of this, although the experience is probably even extended because of mobile cameras, etc.—it’s essential to make things you won’t show anyone else. (Glover has spoken on this as well, and I expanded the idea into a creative prompt for my book; here’s an excerpt.)
It’s also an insight that recording artist Ye has spoken on (the title of this post is from his song, “I Am A God”). Ye’s response has basically been the opposite of Nikocado’s, which is to actively make people dislike him. He explains it as an attempt to cull away his own desire to be loved:
But I can’t let nobody love me too much, because I’m gonna get into this trap of love. And then I owe it to everyone to be the person that they fell in love with. And I’ll never be that person. I have to always have the freedom of being disliked, so I can always be me.
Unfortunately, Ye’s stance sometimes seems reactive—whenever he sees something that catches his attention, he chases it. The best way to get him to do something is to tell him he shouldn’t do it (e.g., when people told him he shouldn’t wear the red cap or endorse Donald Trump); in that context, he also suffers from the same challenge as Nikocado, his reaction is merely the opposite.
As Ye has said before on “Brand New,” he’s still the guy “You love to hate/But can’t, because you love what I make.” This option is to be useful. Offer expertise, or some other value, in addition to your creativity; people might not like you, but they’ll still do business with you because you can solve a problem that they can’t, or can give them what nobody else can (in Ye’s case, art and products).
I’m writing this from the creator’s perspective, and in the interest of creators—not consumers or fans. If you’re playing the game of creativity, you want to play it your way and to express what you have to say responsibly (this post is for informational purposes only, is not legal advice, etc.), not to work in the algocracy of platforms or for other people’s expectations.
Otherwise, it’s all too easy for creative work to become just another job. (Honestly, that’s not such a bad thing either, if you mean to do it! Another post for another day.)