My Job Doesn't Exist Without the Support of Fans. How Much Do I Owe Them?
As a public figure, my personal life has become part of my career. The line between disclosure, transparency, and gossip isn’t clear anymore.
An image from a video series where, upon being unable to beat a Mario Maker level created by Giant Bomb's Dan Ryckert, my facial hair was shaved off, with help from WWE wrestler Xavier Woods. We raised $13,000 for charity, too.
Logan Paul’s apology video has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube. In just a few weeks, it’s become one of his most popular videos, period.
This style of public apology, in which one drops a finely tuned personality they’ve become renowned for in favor of something “sober” and “humble,” is part and parcel with today’s social media celebrity culture. In a world where faux intimacy has been commoditized into The Brand, it’s hard to tell where characters end and people begin, and how much of what’s shared is part of an earnest look into the lives of other people—and how much is cynical and planned.
This is not limited to the gross antics of the Paul brothers; it’s happening in games, too. It’s impossible to remove games from the equation because they’re directly responsible: PewDiePie, the most popular creator on YouTube, built his digital empire screaming at them. Just last year, PewDiePe issued his own “apology” for saying the n-word while streaming.
As someone with their own social media presence, whose career is now tied in many ways to that presence, I have a certain sympathy with the struggle over what (and how much) to tell an audience, the way one’s public persona mixes up with a genuine and real human, and the constant question of much is owed to the (often wonderful) fans who’ve supported you. (At the same time, that sympathy doesn’t prevent me from demanding more from these creators when they mess up. I expect the same when I mess up, too.)
These topics are always floating around my head, but became more pronounced after a recent incident on Twitch. On February 5, 2018, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds personality Dr DisRespect returned to streaming, and nearly 400,000 people tuned in to watch him mow down people—a new record. Dr DisRespect had taken a break from streaming after announcing, through tears, he’d been “unfaithful” to his wife and would be “taking some time off to focus on [his] family” because of a “stupid fucking mistake.” He apologized to his fans, sponsors, and Twitch.
(Side note: I’m aware of clips showing, in the name of “humor,” him deploying racist impersonations of Chinese players. His response was, rather than apologizing, to label the person sharing the clips a “desperate for attention, wanna-be idiot” and claiming his “multiracial” wife was proof he wasn’t a racist. It was a bad way to respond to valid criticism.)
The person in the apology video wasn’t Dr DisRespect—it was Guy Beahm, the human being behind the dude who yells a lot.
“This is not who I am,” he said, before turning off the camera. “This is not who I represent.”
The line between disclosure, transparency, and gossip isn’t especially clear anymore.
“Support” used to be a passive, indirect action—you visited a website (or bought a magazine), the ads funneled money to a publication, and the publication paid their employees a salary. 2018 is different. Now, creators, critics, and commentators are often supported directly by services like Kickstarter and Patreon. Follows, likes, and retweets are their own currency. Fans have become a form of management. Does that mean they’re human resources, too?
My job has changed a lot since I started first writing about video games at 14 years old. It used to be the case bylines hardly mattered. People were after information for purchasing decisions, and you journalists merely the rhetorical vehicle being paid to pass on those details. These days, in the age of social media and crowdfunding and likes and subscribes, personality is king, as you seek a way to stick out from the crowd. You’re often rewarded for being honest and vulnerable. Your life—your life’s story—is part of the pitch.
Much of my social media presence isn’t natural. I sharpen tweets, trying to ensure they’ll be shared as widely as possible. I’ll share takes on events in the public discourse because I’m expected to weigh in, and will benefit via social media capital if my words are part of “the conversation.” But it’s also a performance, one that’s several things at once: reflective of my true self, a presentation of who I’d like to be, and what people want to see. Sometimes, all I want to do is share bad tweets about horror movies, but that’s not going to move the needle.
We all participate in this cycle, to some degree or another; the pseudo-democratization of voice through platforms like Twitter have made us all pundits. I’ve increasingly noticed how some friends have decided to turn off various social media outlets. It’s not healthy, they argue. It’s disconnecting them from real people, they tell me. I don’t disagree, but I also can’t rationalize quitting in large part because it’s A) become ingrained in my sense of self worth and B) having an audience disconnected from the publication I work for seems valuable in a world where the whims of media corporations may undercut my paycheck at any moment.
To make B work, you need to feed the beast. But feed it what? As the follower count went tick-tick-tick, higher and higher, the shadow grew longer. I found myself become increasingly convinced this was part of my resume. It was the new normal. It’s what others are doing, so I’ve got to keep doing it. Does that mean people interested in hiring me because of the words I’ve published, or I’m bringing an audience with? Does it even matter, if the point is putting food on the table and ensuring I can pay the mortgage?
None of this became a question for me until I joined Giant Bomb in 2011. I’ve often thought of my career in two phases: before and after Giant Bomb.
Some people may have been aware of my work prior to joining the likes of Jeff Gerstmann and Brad Shoemaker—I’d broken a few major stories at places like 1UP, G4 and MTV—but it was at Giant Bomb where I transitioned from reporter to Internet personality… who also did reporting. It’s where my social media presence took off, and where the forward-facing Patrick Klepek was largely born. I owe so much to my time at Giant Bomb, but it’s a blessing and a curse, because it transformed the way I look at my career, life, and where the two intersect.
Suddenly, people cared what I had to say beyond my thoughts on the latest game. They were interested in… me? It was as flattering as it was terrifying, and I’ll readily admit to getting swept up in seduction of the former, even if it was hard to tell how much was an illusion. It’s a process, one you barely notice, until you realize how much you’ve surrounded yourself in it. It doesn’t take long before you begin to feel a debt to those who follow you.
When my dad passed away in 2012, I briefly moved back home to Chicago to help my family pick up the pieces. I’d been silent on Twitter for a few days, before, in a mixture of exhaustion and hangover, I stared at my phone. “Should I say something?” I thought.“People are probably wondering what’s up.”
My life was forever changed by my father’s passing. It would have been impossible to pretend nothing had happened. If you’ve read my work, you know I’ve openly talked about the impact that event had on me, as it’s informed my reading and understanding of games.
It was also tempting, of course, to fish for sympathy. I felt like shit, and knew people would respond. Giant Bomb fans made an appreciation thread to cheer me up—and it did. But it often felt like I was taking advantage of something other people didn’t have. In the years after, people would write me emails about the passing of their family members. Without anyone else to talk to, they hung onto my tweets, articles, and podcasts about the subject, feeling a connection that prompted them to reach out. Many of them asked me not to respond—it was just a form of venting—but I usually did. It felt like paying off my debt.
These moments haven’t come without consequences that go beyond my own personal psyche. Family and friends have been dragged along. By and large, my wife’s social media presence is either muted, work-related, or private because of her association with me. This became a requirement, rather than a recommendation after GamerGate, when people began seeking out people in my personal life as a form of punishment for a comment I’d made. I know that my wife gets bummed when she has to delete a photo of something she likes that has any identifying mark of where we are because it’s not safe.
I do record a semi-regular podcast about horror movies with her, though, called Til Death Do Us Part. In this, at least, she has agency. It's mostly an excuse to force ourselves into having a long conversation about something we both love. We think of it as a book club, and it just so happens that a few thousand people listen along with us. It's nice...especially the part about it being only a few thousand.
"As the follower count went tick-tick-tick, higher and higher, the shadow grew longer. I found myself become increasingly convinced this was part of my resume. It was the new normal. It’s what others are doing, so I’ve got to keep doing it."
It's not right to suggest I don’t get anything genuine and meaningful out of my daily interactions with fans and followers, though. Their constant encouragement is part of what keeps me going on a bad day. Their ideas and tips for stories help point me in unexpected directions. Perhaps most importantly, when I make a mistake, they’re my harshest (and fastest) critic, helping me stay on my toes. Being kept honest by people who care about you is fantastic.
We live in a moment where the very nature of celebrity is changing dramatically. In the past, the entertainment industry was a monoculture, which meant a small handful of movie stars, musicians, pro athletes, and other celebrities had hundreds of millions of fans. But in 2018, fandom is a more fractured thing. Your favorite entertainer might be a Twitch streamer with "only" 500,000 followers, a YouTube video blogger with a couple of million of subscribers, or a comic artist on Patreon with three backers. And despite the smaller fanbase, you could feel just as strongly about these micro-celebrities as you do about Jennifer Lawrence or LeBron James. (In fact, your feelings of fandom could even be more intense since, through social media and fiscal intimacy, you’re literally closer to them.)
So far in my career, my paycheck has come from the same place: the company I work for. But the ecosystem around my career, and how that paycheck is justified, has changed. I don’t know how to do anything but report about video games—it’s what I love, it’s what I know—and I’ve tried to adapt in order to keep doing that. It’s a balance I’m still figuring out.
On August 25, 2016, my daughter was born. When I found out my wife was pregnant, the natural instinct was to proudly share the news. Instead, after a long conversation, I stayed quiet—or rather, we stayed quiet. She was the one pregnant, not me. It wasn’t until Jessica Rose Klepek entered the world, mother and daughter safe and sound, that I tweeted about what’d happened. I’d tried hard to keep the news under wraps, asking friends and family to keep it to themselves, and took a certain amount of weird pride in making it to the finish line. The fact that I was able to take any pride in that kind of accomplishment says a lot, though.
I knew my life had changed again. That’s why I felt compelled to share—it was a moment.
Once the moment had passed, though, I had another long conversation with my wife. My daughter is unable to exercise much agency about her life. She can choose between cereal and pancakes, Frozen or Trolls, the blue crayon or the red crayon, but there’s no way to convey what it means for her dad to share photo of her with thousands of strangers. So, I don’t. Mostly. I’ve failed to stick by this advice at times, succumbing to uploading a few photos in the year or so she’s been in my life. But in recognizing what role my daughter does and doesn’t have in what’s shared about her, I’ve made a conscious decision to begin weaning off an addiction—and I do think it’s an addiction—to share this, that, and everything.
If we have a second kid, will I even bother with an "announcement" tweet? I don't know.
Some disclosures from big figures in YouTube and Twitch are welcomed. Lirik, one of the biggest figures on Twitch, openly discussing the stress and burnout of streaming every day, is a good thing. I’m glad people have found comfort in my discussions about how death has impacted me. There’s a tangible benefit to realizing people who make stuff are human, and how day-to-day struggles inform the work that brings joy to the people who experience it.
There’s worth, too, in people extracting clips of Beahm being racist into a grotesque highlight reel, making people aware of what’s happening during streams that often go on for hours. You can’t reasonably be expected to watch everything a content creator puts out, and when you’re deciding who and what to support with your money, that information is valuable.
Beahm made me uncomfortable because what he did was naked, raw, and unusually honest. It wasn’t a prepared statement from a public relations firm, the way we usually hear about celebrity infidelity and other missteps. But it also made me question my own role—as a creator, as a fan—in contributing to an ecosystem where such a video was seen as a natural extension of The Brand. Maybe this is an unavoidable consequence of celebrity arriving for game personalities, a path with consequences we’re only beginning to understand, but even if it’s inevitable, let’s not pretend we weren’t complicit along the way.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.