Who owns an author's work? with Meg Elison
A conversation about parasocial relationships, convention culture, and who owns an author's work with Meg Elison, author of the new book Number One Fan.
Have you ever heard of a parasocial relationship? The term was created in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl to describe a unique one-sided relationship in which a member of an audience believes a person they see on tv or social media is their close personal friend. That they’re in a relationship with that person. I’m not talking about imagining meeting a celebrity in real life and then striking up a genuine friendship like in my initial examples, but believing that right now - without ever having met - you are in an intimate relationship of some kind.
These days social media has made all of these lines even more blurred. A celebrity liking a tweet or a famous author answering your question. Television, social media, these have given us ways to carry celebrities around in our pockets, to give us a false sense of intimacy with people we’ve never met. When parasocial relationships stay in the realm of hypothetical, or perhaps even in something like passionate adoration, that’s fine. That’s not a crime. But some people take it too far. They believe celebrities, influencers, authors, actors owe them something. Parasocial relationships have a proven link to negative body image issues, increased aggression, and a whole host of problematic behaviors all stemming from this one-sided false intimacy.
If you’re a creative person who puts their work out for public consumption, there’s one additional layer to consider. Ownership. Creative people - writers, actors, painters, etc - aren’t just known as themselves, but as their work, too. And, as a result of parasocial interactions and the general toxic discourse existing in various corners of the internet, there are those folks out in the world who feel a sense of ownership over that creative person’s work and career. They feel personally invested in its trajectory, taking losses as personal, and oftentimes expressing that they are owed something for wins and successes.
Meg Elison is an author who knows this terrain all too well, and she wrote about it in her new book Number One Fan. It’s a breakdown of how social media blurs barriers between creator and audience, emboldens parasocial interactions, and acts as a cautionary tale for anyone who has ever summoned up a stranger by pressing a few buttons on their phone and then gotten into their car. While the story itself is fiction, the events inside it can be seen paralleled in news headlines on a weekly basis. Since recording this interview I can think of at least 3 times when I read or heard a story that shared shocking similarity to the plot being relayed by young women simply existing out in the world. This is a conversation about one-sided relationships, the specter of Stephen King, book consumption culture, niche internet communities, and who owns a creator’s work once it is out in the world.
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