Parasocial Activity — my interview with Fadeke Adegbuyi

This interview was first published in Plumes With Attitude ( 🇫🇷 ), my personal newsletter on the benefits of writing, on August, 2021.

Fadeke Adegbuyi is the author of Cybernaut, a newsletter on the many faces of internet culture that is part of the Every bundle. She’s become a master at observing some of our strangest behaviours online while covering the deepest corners of the web. As a big fan of her writings, I had a lot of questions about her methods, analyses and findings. Below is the recap of our conversation.

Note: This interview was recorded on October 5th, 2021.

Hi Fadeke, thanks for accepting my invitation! As a loyal Cybernaut reader, I’m happy to have you here to talk about your experience building this awesome publication. Before launching the newsletter with the Every collective, you worked on content marketing at Doist. During my research for this interview, I also realized that you wrote the fantastic Holloway Guide To Using Twitter that I have recommended a lot in my newsletter. You were initially focused more on actionable content than in-depth analyses of internet cultures. So I was wondering: how did it all start for Cybernaut?

Working at Doist helped me fall in love with long-form writing. Our pieces on remote work or productivity were anywhere between 2500 and 6000 words –– not your typical content marketing. Besides that, I’ve always been interested in technology’s impact on society. Hence the idea of Cybernaut: a newsletter with long-form essays exploring how people and platforms interact with one another. I wanted to write about how platforms shape people and vice versa. These are phenomenons I read a lot about and get the chance to observe within online communities. My goal with Cybernaut is diving into internet culture topics and spending time cataloging and discussing what I find.

And you do it wonderfully! I shared several Cybernaut articles in the newsletter and the one on LinkedIn is probably the funniest take I’ve read this year. Before digging your (vast) topic of predilection together, I wanted to ask you: what is exactly “internet culture”? And does it concern everybody online or just some of us?

Internet culture has a ton of different definitions. It’s often associated with Gen Z but I consider it much broader than that. There was briefly a solid line between “real life” and whatever happens online. But since everything we do is embedded within the web, internet culture has simply become culture itself. We can't escape it.

For instance, it was so interesting to see the response and discussion while Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp were down [the day before the interview]. The noticeable difference we experience when these platforms are gone reveals the huge facets of our lives they represent. The reactions on Twitter yesterday showed an interesting aspect of internet culture: what happens when some of the sites that we rely on are no longer available to us?

The good news for you is, internet culture seems an endless source of inspiration for your writings. So far you have covered topics like parasocial relationships, online fandom, and the hustle narrative. How do you pick the topics you write about? And what’s your approach to analyzing the cultures you choose?

I read a lot online and tend to fall down rabbit holes. When I notice an interesting trend or phenomenon, I often want to know where it starts and where it ends. So I just keep digging. For instance, my article on the Study Web was born out of seeing a lot of study content on TikTok. I was familiar with such content on YouTube and I wanted to see differences with platforms like Reddit and Discord. I found out that there are so many corners of the internet where students are relying on one another to succeed at school. There is also a lot of pressure and anxiety around achievement. Of course, it’s a phenomenon that has accelerated because of the pandemic. It would have been much harder to analyze this if students were on campus instead of all being online.

So digging and observing is stage one. But if I am actually decided on writing on a topic, then I'll go further. I reach out to people within those communities to see if they're willing to chat and give me more insight. I recently wrote a piece about anti-fandoms, that is communities where people bond over the common practice of loving to hate on public figures. I found the phenomenon bizarre –– I didn't understand it on the surface because I couldn't imagine myself or people I know doing this.

So I really wanted to speak to people within the community and ask what they find so captivating about these spaces. I managed to talk to three people within a particular community, Gossip Gate, that was dedicated to hating a wide array of influencers. I discovered they had actually been true fans of the influencers at one point. They somehow became disenchanted along the way and considered these spaces as a form of entertainment. So you can’t just observe such phenomenons and hope to understand without having any interactions with the community.

This explains how you manage to keep a certain neutrality by not being judgemental in your writings. And yet, some traits of the cultures you observe can appear as cringe, shallow, ridiculous or even depressing. Still, you introduce yourself as a “tech optimist” in your Twitter bio. What makes you feel that way about the Internet?

I believe that technology has a positive impact on the world –– which is not to say that it can't have a negative one. I'm hopeful that the next generation of technologists will have a more mindful approach to shaping online experiences for all. Most people act with good intent –– I think it’s true for most founders building tech companies and most people interacting with others online. Of course, there are bad actors. But I don't think that is the majority.

I live in the grey. This probably reflects in my writings. When I wrote about Clubhouse, it was a time when people were quite critical of the platform and describing it as a failed experiment. While I thought there were some changes that made the app less spontaneous and interesting, I really enjoyed my time on Clubhouse. Bringing people together through the medium of voice is definitely an interesting and intimate experience. I didn’t want to write another take just for the sake of bashing the app –– even though it would have probably garnered more attention and engagement.

Traditional media are often merciless regarding Big Tech. Today, it just seems inconceivable to read a single positive article about companies like Facebook or Google in the press. Do you think that all the negative coverage on these platforms is always justified?

It's interesting that you ask that on the day after Facebook went down. People around the world lost connectivity to their friends and family because WhatsApp was unavailable. It’s a massive medium of communication, especially in developing countries where it is a pillar for both individuals and small businesses.

In many ways, Facebook has had a positive impact on the world. But that doesn’t make them above scrutiny or criticism. Recently, the company made headlines regarding their own findings regarding how Instagram may impact the mental health of young users. It’s worthwhile for the press to dig into things like that.

On the other hand, the tech press is not above criticism either. There are many instances where outlets are not discerning as they could (and should) be. It’s more important than ever to have real debates that address nuance and complexity rather than simply pointing fingers.

Speaking of this, what are some of the issues on the Internet that strike you most?

I’m interested in how algorithms can drive human behaviour. For instance, their capacity to magnify and amplify highly engaging content – sometimes for the better and very often for the worse – is something I think about a lot. On Twitter, it’s always concerning to see someone’s name trending, often for some minor non-offense, that leads to pile-ons and harassment that in many ways feel sanctioned by the platform and become a common behaviour.

It’s also interesting how people “hack” algorithms. There is this meme called Soylent Grin referring to a particular facial expression where people have their mouth wide open, looking shocked. You might have noticed that in many YouTube thumbnails –– it’s “thumbnail face”.

There’s a great video on the Veritasium YouTube channel on the effectiveness of clickbait, that discusses how important thumbnails are to creators garnering clicks. The algorithm learns a behaviour that generates more clicks and boosts videos with that attribute. As a result, creators took notice and suddenly everyone was doing the Soylent Grin. I think that's an interesting example to illustrate how algorithms can drive behaviour.

This phenomenon is even more evident on TikTok. Fashion trends proliferate overnight because of viral TikTok videos. That's what I mean when I say that the frontier between internet culture and IRL culture has been shrinking.

Among the different internet cultures that you have observed so far, which one do you think was the most fascinating?

I've been thinking a lot about parasocial relationships after my series of articles on the subject in Cybernaut. It’s a term that was coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. They initially described the bonds that TV viewers developed with movie screen actors. But since the rise of the internet, and especially social media, we've just seen these relationships proliferate and soar online.

Today, internet creators are very intimately tied with their audiences. After all, they often speak directly to them through the camera. Influencers show who they are by streaming their private life. They are showing their morning routine, going grocery shopping, spending the weekends with their family members at barbecues. So they give true insight into their lives. This level of access to someone’s life is much deeper than with an actor simply doing their job. Going forward, I think it’s a very important phenomenon to keep an eye on.

But I’m wondering, aren’t we all doing that on TikTok or Instagram? It’s probably a chicken and egg dilemma, but do you explain parasocial relationships by the fact that we all behave like influencers online or by the fact that influencers just act like everyone?

That's an interesting question. We live in an era where everyone has a personal brand, whether it’s on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or TikTok. We have a certain image online that can be very different from that of our personal life. On the one hand, a lot of people tend to polish their online presence to gain views, likes and influence. But on the other hand, online creators cultivate this deep intimacy with their audiences.

In the first piece that I wrote about parasocial relationships, I gave an anecdote about the two creators of my favourite podcast: Hila and Ethan Klein. During a livestream, they told their audience that Hila was pregnant right after they found it –– bypassing the customary three-month waiting period. Announcements like that are extremely intimate and many of us don't even share those details with their own friends and family. But some online creators share some of the most intimate aspects of their lives, including death, divorce, depression or miscarriage. Such close connections between people and their audience is what drives parasocial relationships today.

The funny thing is that this trend actually has an opposite with the rise of anonymity online. We can see that with “anon” accounts on Twitter or with most teenagers having a “Finsta”. According to you, what are the main consequences of having such fluid identities online?

This is such a fascinating topic. People are complex and have some facets of their identity that they want to hide –– or not have associated with their real name or professional identity. Being able to obscure your identity online allows some people to feel more comfortable in self-expression.

There is also this whole thesis about the pseudonymous economy developed by Balaji Srinivasan. It's an interesting idea about potentially earning money, starting a company, and making a living online detached from your real identity using blockchain technology. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of that in the future.

There is this traditional cliche that when people behave anonymously, they will take advantage of the situation to scam or harass without consequence. But for others, concealing personal traits like your name, face or gender is precisely what prevents them from being harassed.

Yes, pseudonymity can be a way for people to feel free to be themselves and speak plainly without fear of backlash — including speaking up about social issues they care about. While it can be valuable for avoiding discrimination related to your gender, race, or sexual orientation, it’s a bandaid solution.

Protecting people from being discriminated against at work remains a solid argument in favour of Balaji Srinivasan’s thesis. This reminds me of the interview I had with Jackson Dame two months ago, when we discussed the opportunities offered by crypto to help marginalized people build a better future for themselves. Anonymity is one of the features of Web3 that can be life-changing for underprivileged people. Another implication of Finstas and anon accounts is that still more people do have multiple social accounts – which is a big cultural shift.

Exactly. And that’s a pretty big deal. Having multiple identities also means having multiple modes of expression. People get to decide which extensions of themselves they want to cultivate privately. You might have a Twitter account with your real name in which you keep things professional and tailored for your audience. And then you can run a pseudonymous account for activism, political debate, or something else entirely on the side.

Still, I think it's kind of sad that some people tend to “specialize” in social media. I tend to value online creators who act like whole persons and don’t perform a certain role to please a certain audience.

People often can’t deal with complexity online, there’s a desire to categorize or put things into neat boxes. It’s more challenging than ever to find nuanced discussions online or people who can hold onto more than one idea at a time. Alt accounts can help navigate this by letting people explore different ideas separately from their primary identities.

But can we truly consider that removing information by going anonymous as a viable way to fix the polarization of debates online? As a writer, I tend to consider that context is key to understand and relate to a story.

I don’t think pseudonymity or anonymity are solutions to polarization, no. The desire for pseudonymity may never reach a critical mass. Many people will still want to have their real identities out in the world. But it doesn’t need to be binary. Just like what we see with Finsta these days, many people are likely to keep their true identity online while going pseudonymous for specific facets of their life.

Time will tell! Also, this conversation went even deeper than what I initially thought. So thanks a lot Fadeke, it was a pleasure to learn more about your approach behind your fantastic articles. I can’t wait to see which new cultures you’ll explore next with Cybernaut. Take care!

4 interesting corners of the internet, curated by Fadeke:

  • #PrisonTok : “TikTok is one of my favorite platforms because we often see and hear from “unlikely creators” –– from blue collar workers cleaning pools for a living or people residing (mostly) off-grid in remote parts of Hawaii or The Yukon. #PrisonTok (or #JailTok) lets users hear from people we rarely get to: the incarcerated population. Getting an unvarnished look into life inside, outside television or a documentary, is one of the more interesting sections of TikTok.”

  • KnowYourMeme : “KnowYourMeme is one of the most impressive encyclopedias of popular internet culture that exists today. If you’re online and feel you’re outside the sphere of understanding the inside joke of the week, there’s a great chance it’s been documented on the site. Some recent favorites include “Spent All Last Night Crying About The Wage Gap (I'm 6'3" BTW)” and “Violation Of My HIPAA Rights.”

  • Internet Archive : “The Internet Archive is a super impressive digital library that often lets you take a peek into early internet culture if you know where to look. The tag “computermagazines” often yields some interesting gems including early editions of publications like PC Magazine and MacWorld.”

  • NoSurf : “The ubiquity of the internet inevitably means some people want to escape it. NoSurf is an interesting movement, which includes online communities across Discord and a Subreddit, where people seek support on disconnecting from the web and living fuller lives offline. It’s fascinating to see how people discuss the internet and its grip on them.”

Read my other interviews:

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