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Donald Glover, Damon Lindelof, and the Catch-22 of “Fan Engagement”

Most of Instagram user @childishness‘ photos are routine stuff. Since he joined this summer, he’s posted mostly overseens, gratuitous selfies, and the occasional grainy #tbt. And a few days ago, he uploaded the kind of vague yet vulnerable confession most of us have gotten used to in the Age of Oversharing. He’s “lost,” he’s “lonely,” he’s insecure: “afraid of the future” and “scared I’ll never reach my potential.” These feelings, and even the decision to share them with the public, aren’t unusual. But @childishness isn’t a typical social media user, unloading his thoughts for a few hundred (at most) semi-interested friends and acquaintances. He’s Donald Glover, the comedian, actor, and rapper, and he took pen to Marriott Residence Inn-issued paper as a direct response to fans’ concerns over his decision to call it quits on Community. 

Half the fun of social media is how it levels the playing field between celebrities like Glover and the kind of people who don’t star in network sitcoms. With just a click of a button, any Twitter user can get the same stream of banal updates, spur-of-the-moment opinions, and offhand observations from an Oscar-winning actor as they do from a college buddy they ceased meaningful contact with five years ago. That sense of “connection,” rhapsodized by early adopters and PR professionals alike, has added yet another layer to the already omnipresent entity that is celebrity culture. It’s no longer enough to simply see a performer or author or something-slash-something on TV shows or the front cover of his or her latest book; public figures are also expected to populate our Facebook feeds and Tumblr dashboards, giving fans an endless stream of sound, text, and image bites with which to “engage.” But occasionally the just-like-us appeal of celebrities on social media backfires, bringing the admired too close to the admirers — or vice versa.

Glover’s not the first celebrity to take to the Internet with his angst this year, or even this week. Just a couple days after Community fans learned that Troy Barnes left the show because Glover “wanted to be on [his] own,” Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof pulled essentially the opposite of a social media confessional by quitting Twitter cold turkey. The move came just a few days after a Hollywood Reporter essay in which Lindelof compared interacting with dissatisfied fans on Twitter to an alcoholic walking into a bar. “I jump at the opportunity to acknowledge how many people were dissatisfied with how [Lost] ended,” Lindelof wrote. “God, I hate myself. But isn’t that what’s expected of me? Don’t I have to do that? Is it possible for me to ever comment on anything I love without cheekily winking at the audience and saying, ‘But what do I know — after all, I ruined Lost?'”

Clearly, not every person with a public life chooses to enter the fray by even joining sites like Twitter and Instagram, much less using them with any kind of regularity. Authors like Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers famously can’t stand the idea of broadcasting bits of their lives in 140 characters or less. Even those who do opt in to social media don’t necessarily make use of it. For every Joyce Carol Oates, there’s an author whose feed is simply a collection of book signing announcements; for every Azealia Banks, there’s a musician whose profile is just a publicist posting tour dates. But Lindelof’s comment speaks to the pressure many celebrities feel to constantly hold themselves accountable to their fans — a pressure that may have existed before social media, but was nowhere near as intense.

That pressure is why creators like Lindelof feel the need to acknowledge such well-articulated critiques as “how do worthless fuckheads like you get hired when there are people with actual talent like Vince Gilligan around?” and “HEY @DamonLindelof MAYBE YOU SHOULD WATCH BREAKINGBAD SO YOU CAN LEARN HOW TO FINISH WHAT YOU BEGAN PROPERLY.” (The THR essay was originally intended as a paean to Breaking Bad, but Lindelof changed topics thanks to the fresh wave of Lost haters unfavorably comparing its finale to Breaking‘s.) It’s also why Glover chose to go public with his anxieties, according to yesterday’s follow-up interview with People: “I just wanted to write down my feelings… I was just tired of telling people I was tired. It felt like every day someone would ask, ‘What’s wrong. Are you OK?'”

Yet for those like Glover and Lindelof who choose to embrace the idea of responding to the public, there’s a bizarre tendency to criticize those responses for being too confessional. The immediate reaction to Glover’s Instagrams seen ’round the entertainment media sums up our contradictory expectations for celebrities pretty handily. On the one hand, various headlines described his initial posts as “troubling,” “worrisome,” and “disturbing,” with strong implications that we ought to be as concerned about Glover’s cogent, if decidedly dark, dispatch as we were about Amanda Bynes’s bong-tossing. On the other, news of Glover’s explanation was framed as the star breaking a “silence” that lasted all of a few days. Only in a culture that’s come to demand constant speech would Glover’s failure to start talking immediately be interpreted as keeping quiet.

Lindelof, Glover, and their peers face a strange set of options when they opt to take part in the fandom culture their work has inspired. The opportunity to share the bits and pieces of their off-screen (or stage, or script) lives that viewers (or listeners, or readers) have always craved has never been greater. Neither has the sense of obligation to take advantage of channels like Twitter and Instagram to address criticisms and concerns that come with said opportunity. Yet the vulnerability of stars like Glover and the availability of creators like Lindelof too often ends with vicious backlash (in Lindelof’s case) or, worse, condescending media coverage mistaking transparency for a breakdown (in Glover’s).

The reality, of course, is that Glover’s experiencing what sounds like a perfectly normal level of stress. He’s simply being more open about it than we’ve come to expect from those on the other side of the PR machine, a fact he’s clearly aware of: “I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.” And just as Lindelof doesn’t deserve to be torn to shreds for being unusually responsive to his fans’ opinions on Twitter, Glover doesn’t deserve to be treated like he’s unstable for giving an honest answer to his fans’ questions about why he left Community. But as Glover’s and Lindelof’s recent statements show, the “connection” social media creates between artists and the public creates a catch-22 that’s likely here to stay.

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