PlusHeart Issue #18 - Have you earned your empathy?
Creators do cool things. Creators have a hard time. Creators vent to their audience. Creators are shocked to find they've lost support.
PlusHeart is a newsletter about creating on the Internet, creating for passion, and the relationship between fans and creators. It explores Twitch, esports, fandoms, and other places where all these things intersect. Matt Demers writes it.
It’s a bit too easy to go after “people on TikTok doing things I find distasteful.” It’s kind of shooting fish in a barrel, because you’re more likely to find people who agree with you, and then snowball that kind of content from there.
However, this week was a bit different. I saw a tweet criticizing a medical professional for making a melodramatic TikTok about losing a patient; obviously, it was a posed “breakdown” to inspire the emotional sympathy of their audience, and also to signal their own morality. The reaction from people seems to make sense: the act seems hollow and narcissistic, while it also is grossly unethical.
Even though the patients’ identity is hidden, there’s still this feeling that they were “used” for content. There’s that moment of realizing that the content creator needed to set up the shot (or worse, have someone record her), start the video recording, take her place leaning against a wall, and then act out an emotional breakdown/reaction. For TikTok likes.
I’ve talked a lot at length about the importance of authenticity when it comes to content, and that’s what ended up inspiring this issue. It isn’t so much the shitting-on of this kind of behavior (because yeah, it’s abhorrent) because that’s a bit too easy; I wanted to explore how content creators “dig their own grave” when it comes to losing the sympathy or empathy of their audience.
Simply, content creation is based off of sharing experiences that the audience don’t have. This extends to almost every niche and operation: mommy bloggers buy toys and review them so other moms don’t have to, foodies post new recipe videos, and Twitch streamers (esports or not) are either playing games in a way that the audience might not, or travelling to places that their audiences can’t.
All of these things involve a level of vicarious living, and enabling the audience to experience things without spending their own money. From the audience’s perspective, though, their attention is the price of admission; their “view” on a Google Analytics sheet generates income, which then enables a lifestyle that their creator is enjoying.
Whether they know this consciously or not remains to be seen, but it creates a weird dynamic. I don’t want to call it entitlement because that seems to have a lot of loaded connotations, but it wears down the empathy people may have, based on the perception of the creator in question.
For instance, an esports pro who flashes a lot of their cash might have a harder time venting about something legitimately stressful or painful in their life. Because their money is more visible, and to many people, money means a less-stressful life, it can breed resentment in an audience. It seems very cruel to say “what’re your problems? You’re rich.”, but that dynamic is very present in typical celebrity culture (Hollywood, mainstream musicians, etc) and the more informal, Internet-based culture (like influencers, streamers, YouTubers, V-tubers, visual artists).
To be successful is to have an experience to show and leverage for your audience, but to be successful also means managing the perception of how that success has influenced you. It’s the typical “selling out = bad” ruleset, but it feels like it takes a different life when the metagame of social media (and what I tend to recommend people) is authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.
I’ve very much accepted that brands and influencers are in an arms race to “synthesize realness” and construct “more real than real” experiences for their audiences; however, I struggled with the thought experiment of “do people suddenly not deserve empathy as humans because they’re successful?”
What stuck out to me about this nurse example wasn’t whether the person was in the wrong (because, well, personally, I think they are), but if a person that isn’t a content creator still plays the same set of rules. I talked to a couple friends of mine who work in the medical field, and it seems to be a consistent thing to say that the stoicism is built into the job (either just the expectations, or rolled into the increased pay): ideally, you aren’t bringing the personal branding of social media into your workplace, and you sure as hell aren’t using patients for your own gain.
The idea, though, was me thinking about a nurse who wasn’t a nursefluencer (sorry, I had to coin that here) suddenly losing the ability to be real about their stress on social media. In a way, social is built for that, and it felt very unfair.
That flow chart of “Are you in ‘the content game’? ► Yes ► Okay, no empathy for you” seems very flawed; there’s so many variables and personal tastes involved, especially since the judgment of what is authentic is subjective from person to person.
I’m more just bringing this topic to attention because it seems especially obvious in this case what was “too far”; the melodrama, the narcissism, the obvious exploitation, the “this doesn’t feel genuine” feeling.
Through it, we can almost use it as a mark on a scale — but if a prospective creator or public figure is making content, are they able to understand where they fall on it?
Unfortunately, this kind of meticulous manicuring of a public persona and “being just likeable enough to be able to inspire support and empathy” likely comes with so much baggage that it’ll will end up defeating the purpose. A creator will end up trying so hard to craft something that they’ll come off as inauthentic.
For some people, it doesn’t matter if they take that perception hit, because their content is so valuable to their audience that the audience will never leave. For others, it’s a bit more essential.
Maybe the answer is more considering what a lot of people probably asked themselves seeing the TikTok: “who thought that was a good idea to post?”
Being able to take a look at yourself and say “does this make me look like an asshole?” is a very difficult thing, because it requires balance and self-awareness. Without balance, you end up considering that maybe everything makes you seem like a jerk. Without self-awareness, you lack the confidence to know that you can either get your support without your audience, or know that “it’s all part of the game.”
In an ideal world, a creator has enough of a support network outside of their audience that real-world stressors can be dealt with in a healthy way. For others, they will be confident enough to know that despite a negative perception or public backlash, they are still making it profit enough to make it worth it.
I guess I’m mostly seeing more creators (especially in the Twitch and art space) not have those healthy boundaries; they experience massive disappointment when the disconnect of audience perception (“You’re so successful!”) vs reality (“I can’t afford rent!”) smacks them in the face. This is especially true when new creators are idealizing end results that they see in their favourites; people love them, so they hope to get that love themselves.
I worry for those people, especially if they’re looking for that audience to fill a void in their life.
If you’re on Twitch, consider tossing me a follow. That shit helps.
I also revamped my dot-com this week, as well. Hoping to do more work there soon.
Thanks for reading!
Image credit Jonathan Borba