E-Kon

E-Kon

05-08-2022

05:00

A seizure prevented me from addressing it at the time, but I want to talk about the uproar around @Vox_Akuma about two months back. The circumstances are unfortunately common, but he responded in a unique fashion, with unique consequences, it's a riveting case. A long ๐Ÿงต

With so many new vtubers debuting recently, I figure this is a good time to reflect on this particular situation, there's a lot we can learn from it. The intersection of virtual youtubers, parasocial relationships, and idol culture are rarely addressed in depth,

either brushed aside by a willingly ignorant fanbase, or milked for views by dramatubers. Still, Vox's situation is a perfect storm, gifting us with an incisive look.

While it might seem like all fun and games atm, I'm pretty sure that two decades from now sociologists will be looking back on vtubers and parasocial elements with great interest, with fields of study, as a whole generation of zoomers start appearing with digital malaise.

Most of my analysis I will borrow from Galbraith's 2012 "Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture", even if I don't cite it verbatim. His book is a fantastic read if you'd like to learn more about parasocial relationships and idol culture.

While much has been said in the aftermath of Vox's situation, by Vox himself, other Nijisanji members, and other members of the community. However, for the most part their takes have been focused on a cursory examination that can be summed up as "Reimu Good, Parasocial bad",

and not considered the complex factors that contribute to these circumstances, the nature of parasocial relationships in general, and concrete goals to help vtubers avoid bad circumstances in the future.

Anyways, back to the beginning. After three successful waves of female vtubers, Nijisanji EN decided to debut a fourth, all male wave in December 2021, called Luxiem. Nijisanji always found success with their male vtubers in Japan, and they were ready to break into the EN market.

Heading the wave was Vox Akuma, a suave, British vtuber with the voice of a BBC Radio host and the FNAF obsession of a tween boy.

In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Vox was a smash hit. Arguably one of the fastest growing vtubers of all time. He quickly amassed a large audience on YouTube - and a vast one on Bilibili. For whatever reason he was a magnet for Chinese fangirls, who went crazy over him.

His content consisted of the same game streaming fare as most other vtubers, but also a fair amount of ASMR, roleplay, and material aimed at female fans, which is generally unusual in the western Vtubing sphere.

This cultivated a fandom of what are colloquially referred to as "Yumejoshi", female fans who imagine themselves in relationships with idols or celebrities.

Concurrently, Vox was also building connections with other vtubers and content creators, in and outside of Nijisanji, forming friendships and professional relationships. Sometimes fans would ship them.

One of these was Reimu Endou, a fellow Nijisanji Member who grew quite close to Vox. They had a history of interactions that one could characterize as flirtatious, and the Yumejos didn't like her much from the start.

Perhaps part of this is natural animosity between Asians and Latinos - I hated my time in Miami - But this culminated on May 29th, when Reimu was playing a game of FNAF, and struggling with a tough section of the game. She tried multiple times to message Vox for help, in vain.

Her chat informed her that he was in the middle of an ASMR date stream, and despite that she kept badgering him, to the extent of calling him on stream, interrupting the ASMR date stream with a slew of Freddie Fazbear related inquiry for about 30 seconds.

Honestly kind of rude, but mostly harmless, it seems. Well, the Yumejoshi took it as a major insult, and began sending a barrage of harassment up to death threats to Reimu. I'll leave the really nasty, disgusting, British food tier stuff out, but you should get the point.

She basically withdrew entirely from social media and streaming, in a mix of guilt, fear, and confusion.

The day after, Vox released a video titled "Addressing some serious things", in which he talked about the situation. And here's the really startling thing - he was precise about it. Really hit his shot. Unexpected, given England's usual Football performance.

Usually when vtubers confront this kind of drama, especially corporate ones, they try to tiptoe around it. Avoid naming anything specific, condemning any group of fans, denounce "bad actors" and leave things nebulous - maybe even make the talent apologize to their harassers!

This sort of thing is deeply rooted in idol culture because in the end, toxic fans are the ones buying the most CDs. Like the time three middle school girls were caught eating with... BOYS. So the company made them cut their hair in penance. (Guess which one didn't go for KBBQ)

But then you're always two steps away from a Yukiko Okada cordless bungee situation.

Vox was different - he was firm and specific. He pointed out the individuals to blame, the explicit circumstances and behaviors that he wouldn't tolerate, and made it very clear that he wasn't any delusional yumejoshi's boyfriend.

The conversation led into discussions of shipping, kayfabe, whole video's about 40 minutes long, and though the English man's so angry you can almost hear the poorly aligned teeth grinding - it's an interesting watch. A lot of fourth-wall breaking stuff here.

Perhaps the most interesting and contentious bit was the long and pervasive condemnation of "Parasocial relationships" - a term for one sided relationships between fans and celebrities, first used to refer to the almost familial role TV hosts came to have in 50s households.

Vox saw this - Fans obsessing over him and butting in where their participation wasn't wanted - as being the root cause of this whole affair, why Reimu was attacked by hordes of his fans, something he felt great guilt over.

With Vox's condemnation, many other Nijisanji members also took stances, most with him. Perhaps this is cathartic, the release of long-suppressed frustrations with fandoms, or perhaps it's just some attempt at bandwagoning onto a burgeoning cause.

Though some people were quick to point out that some of these vtubers own behavior were definitely prone to cultivating these obsessive fandoms, and that a lot of their own revenue came from these somewhat unhealthy fandoms.

Others came out in defense of Parasocial relationships, saying they were either harmless, or a necessary component of virtual youtubing. One other Nijisanji member, Zea Cornelia, made a long video discussing the nuances to Parasocial relationships that she saw.

But while the conversation was ongoing, the story just keeps getting weirder, because during his 800k celebration stream, Vox talked about the aftermath of his stream, and how he felt like that after his angry rant, he's become alienated from his audience,

There was something nice and comforting about the closeness that they had before, the mutual trust and acknowledgement, the sense of community, even if it was "parasocial", and now that it's gone away, he's on the verge of tears.

That before he looked to his audience for "love, support, and comfort" and now it's harder to do so and that in conversations some people found it strange how he prioritized his audience as much as he did "real friends".

It's not as if he was just greedy, the sweet siren call of Yumejoshi SC's calling out to him, my man genuinely sounded depressed over all this. Distraught. Confused. Like an Englishman when the mega chippy's out of mashed peas 'n pie innit

There's not a whole lot of conclusion here, but later on he tweets that he should probably look to find some therapy - no cap, smartest thing any vtuber has ever said on any toxic fandom bullcrap.

This is a stressful profession and vtubers are too often no life shut ins to begin with, honestly everyone should have a shrink.

The whole Vox situation has its ups and downs and contradicts itself many times - Vox doesn't have it all figured out, he's fumbling through uncharted waters, and he goes back to doing boyfriend roleplay a bit after the fact -

but I think its a perfect observational study into parasocial relationships. Lets take a look.

The foundational definition of a parasocial relationship is that it is one sided, not reciprocated. I might feel warm and fuzzy when I see Timothรฉe Chalamet but I doubt he'll feel that way about me. At least, for now. Soon, my pretty, soon.

The archetypal example is that of a TV host, right? And that's how Vox, at first, assumed the relationship was between him and his audience. But the truth, as he would later realize, is a bit more complicated. It's more reciprocal.

Each and every audience member has a relationship with "Vox", but Vox doesn't have a relationship with every audience member. However, Vox does know this immaterial, nebulous thing called "Chat". He considers it a friend and confidant.

It's a kind of strange relationship made possible only through the internet, where one group is privy to a personal relationship, while the other has a composite of fractional individuals that build up a sort of collective community. But it is fundamentally reciprocal.

I wouldn't even call this kind of livestreaming culture parasocial. A panel at the 2022 Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences defined it as a "Cybersocial" relationship - a middle ground between a personal and a parasocial relationship fueled by digital mediums.

In that sense, streamers can perhaps be seen as being closer to digital geisha, where interactivity is a main commodity and there is an attitude of mutual social dependency, rather than a one-way parasocial relationship.

But unlike flesh and blood livestreamers, there's something to be said about the virtual, animated avatars that vtubers use, that simultaneously make them more approachable and uniquely vulnerable to the kind of harassment that Reimu faced.

In becoming a vtuber, you hide away a bit of who you really are behind a fictional mask. You sacrifice a degree of personhood in order to achieve something else - attractiveness, backstory, kick ass hair. -300 pounds.

In doing so, and fictionalizing yourself, you also objectify yourself. You make yourself something that fans feel more comfortable "owning", "playing with", fantasizing about. When you dress up like an anime character, people start treating you like an anime character.

Galbraith puts it well, back in 2012, when he was describing the appeal of digital idols like Love Live vs real, 3D idols, that fans feel more intimate and more comfortable "possessing" 2D idols, imagining their own narratives and fantasy around them.

This also means the source is "sacred" - the original Vox must be kept pure and as vanilla as possible. If canon Vox shows favoritism toward Reimu, then that means our Vox ships with other people are gonna suffer. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as OOP.

This applies to all forms of celebrity. The talent agency Johnny's would deliberately create a sense of aloofness and inaccessibility to their idols, such that they were simultaneously the boy next door and the prince atop the ivory tower.

In fact, Johnnys was so successful they've formed a template for many modern idol groups, everything from BTS to AKB48 to even vtuber agencies.

This concept of letting fans create their own narratives and fantasies is why so many vtuber agencies in Japan have official, or unofficial, "no male collab" policies.

And there's good incentive behind it - often times, the most obsessive fans are the most dedicated, the biggest whales. Fostering these delusions makes financial sense, for both individuals and corporations.

Heavily fictionalized, vtubers can create uniquely immersive experiences for the viewer, and vtubers who provide content specifically for that fantasy are often referred to as providing the "Girl/Boyfriend experience" - GFE or BFE for short.

While a little bit of romantic or sexy roleplay can be titilating and fun, it can easily be seen by certain people as characterizing the entirety of your character as part of that fantasy.

When your character is literally two dimensional, it's difficult to assign a proper kind of human nuance to it.

The viewer isn't sure what to expect, whether you're just in it for a little bit of fun or whether its a major part of your character unless it's made very clear to them from the start. It's up to the vtuber themselves to make this clear. Especially when you're profiting.

For fans to have specific fantasies in mind isn't a bad thing. If they really want the GFE and they don't want their vtubers to collab with men, that's honestly fine. Calling these people names or complaining about them doesn't make them go away, it just embitters them.

But identity must be something the vtuber consents to. Vtubing is a flexible medium, with a lot of room for different types of identities. Are you a fully fictional character, a regular streamer who alternates between an avatar and facecam, or something else altogether?

However, there's been this growing trend in vtubing, exacerbated by the fact that some of the biggest companies in the vtubing space are obsessed with the digital idol image, of what a vtuber "should" be, and that creates implicit standards,

That all vtubers should just be nothing more than anime characters for people to fawn over. The community itself starts to enforce an idea that because you're a vtuber, you must act in a certain way, instead of letting each vtuber set their own rules.

The reason Reimu got people so mad is because they broke this "unspoken rule", but they don't want to speak this "unspoken rule" because it would make them sound like lunatics.

Still, one look at places where you can't be held accountable for sounding crazy, and you can see this sentiment expressed unashamedly. You know what I mean.

And vtubers themselves can often be complicit in this, fostering toxic environments because they don't want to confront the uncomfortable truth that a major source of their income are their most dangerous fans. Vox is no exception, his own weird hangups aside.

In the aftermath of the Vox and Reimu ruckus, some vtubers came out as explicitly - yes, I will literally just be your digital girlfiend. Parasocial good, actually. And honestly, while I won't be watching any of them, I think thats the perfect way to go about it.

The way to avoid conflicts like this in the future is just to clearly communicate your boundaries to the audience. Although that does sometimes require breaking the fourth wall, breaking character, and I can understand why some people are reluctant to do that.

It can perhaps be as simple as just saying, I'm going to do GFE/BFE, roleplays, or not. I'm going to go full immersion, or I'm going to be more flexible.

Say what you will about the idol and K-Pop companies, dehumanizing, immoral - but at least the "dating ban " policies make it clear to both the audience and the talent what they're getting themselves into.

It can be a little awkward, I agree, and sometimes it can just ruin immersion, but you have to understand that though 95% of fans might understand where you're coming from,

there are always going to be a subset of obsessive nerds who will choose to wrap themselves up in their own fantasies until you slap them out of it. So you might as well do so sooner than later, instead of being mired in fear of something bad happening down the line.

In other words, if we acknowledge that the relationship between vtubers and their fans is a personal relationship, however bizarre, and not just parasocial, then rule 1 of any relationship is always the same - establish boundaries. They teach you this in therapy, see?

We should acknowledge the unique challenges vtubers face, as well as the different nature of relationships in the internet age, these systems are really very complex. Muddied by the constant crossing over between reality and fiction.

But that's not a good excuse for them to constantly dodge difficult questions either, and in doing so they might just be setting up a worse environment for their successors down the line.

Whew, that was a long one. But there's a lot to say on the topic, and it's a really interesting story that connects a lot of points I've wanted to address for a long time. End of Thread.

Addendum: Perhaps the most difficult question in all of this is why the hell all these Chinese women are going gaga over a man from Ingerland? I swear, have you seen these people?



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