In the era of the Internet celebrity, fans are just another hazard of the job
John “TotalBiscuit” Bain is a YouTube star with the type of ratings CNN might envy: He has more than 1.5 million subscribers, and his videos regularly see hundreds of thousands or millions of views. But as with so many traditional celebrities before him, his fame has taken a serious toll.
“I'm pretty sure I have chronic health problems that have been made far worse by stress,” Bain, 29, a native of the U.K. now living in North Carolina, recently wrote on Reddit. “I'm even worried one of them might be life-threatening and I'm getting really paranoid about it.”
“I'm not sure you actually understand just how fucked up I am. My hair is going grey, not to mention it's falling out. Yeah, my hair is grey at 29. Great right?”
The famously prolific and talented video game critic is known for his very public shows of emotion. But on Wednesday, Bain truly laid his cards on the table, calling himself a “mentally broken person that cannot be fixed” as he made a public display of deleting his Reddit account on a subreddit devoted solely to him. What happened to TotalBiscuit?
Celebrity often lives on the opposite end of the Earth from sanity, and twice as far for Internet celebrities who can too easily find themselves drowning in an infinite stream of barbed criticisms, flames, and trolls. For the Internet celebrity, enmeshing yourself into the community is a part of the job—and also a hazard.
League of Legends star Mike "Wickd" Petersen recently wrote that the constant scrutiny—he used the words “brutal” and “insulting”—of hundreds of thousands of fans in communities like Reddit “makes me want to avoid reddit, and even stop streaming.”
This is nothing new. The now-retired StarCraft 2 player Jonathan "Jinro" Walsh once said the first rule of being a professional gamer is to avoid reading anything like Reddit or Twitter whenever you make a mistake or, god forbid, lose. An avalanche of negative social media posts can crush the poor fool who doesn’t get out of the way.
Bain’s entire job is social media. He doesn’t know how to get out of the way.
Bain posts multiple new videos every day. Through social media like his Twitter account (250,000 followers), Twitch channel (160,000 subscribers), and his own 20,000-subscriber subreddit, Bain’s reach on the gaming scene is vast. But while that guarantees everything Bain produces gets seen by many thousands of people, it also means he's subject to a never-ending stream of feedback from viewers.
And often the comments from his audience seem to cast judgement on his job performance. That job might seem trivial—he's just offering an opinion on video games. But it's a six-day-a-week commitment, one in which he's invested financially, of course, but also mentally and emotionally. In many ways, the job defines him.
Not all the judgment is positive. And when even a small percentage of millions of viewers level criticism, the volume gets loud and the numbers add up. Worse, Bain says he can't stop himself from reading and reacting to everything written about him.
I had to unfollow Bain on Twitter years ago because, even though I’m a fan of his work, I quickly tired of his willingness—or need, it sometimes felt—to fight with every asshole on the Internet. I re-followed him recently, unaware that he had handed his Twitter account off to his staff for the sake of his own sanity. That worked wonders, he said, but he obviously hasn’t disconnected elsewhere.
Bain has regularly engaged in flame wars with individual commenters. It's a perplexing display of stamina. He’s fired off public insults against popular figures when behind-the-scenes industry issues spilled over in the public. When Bain and his wife ran into a communications issue with popular tournament organizer Dennis “Take” Gehlen, which caused Bain’s esports team, Axiom, to withdraw from the tournament, the argument reached a very public climax: Bain cursed Gehlen out in full view of his 200,000 Twitter followers.
Oh and Fuck Take by the way— TotalBiscuit (@Totalbiscuit) August 16, 2013
He's also been known to wade into the nasty sewers that are YouTube comments.
Bain's Reddit confessional on Wednesday came as a response to what seemed an otherwise innocuous comment. A fan had recently sent a short, 77-word email complaining the cost of a new video Bain series was producing. Most of Bain's video's are free to watch, but streaming service Twitch gives hosts the option to create content exclusively for paid subscribers. The fan accused Bain of being "greedy" for charging $5 a month for the show called “WTF Research," and which even Bain admitted wasn't up to the standards of his other videos.
In response, Bain posted the email to his popular subreddit under the heading “How not to get your way," followed by a 600-word essay explaining how the commenter, who Bain called “petulant," was wrong.
The thread ballooned to hundreds of comments. Most of his fans were supportive, but, as always, Bain couldn't help but notice the negative comments, too. In a rage, he deleted his Reddit account, only to make a new one the next day to explain to the subreddit why he was upset about the whole thing.
“I'm pretty sure I have chronic health problems that have been made far worse by stress,” Bain wrote.
“I'm even worried one of them might be life-threatening and I'm getting really paranoid about it. I fucking eat because I'm sad or angry or whatever, I have days where what should be a dream job is something I don't even want to think about doing. I'm seriously fucked in the head and I have been for a very long time. I CANNOT stop reading feedback.”
From the outside, it might sound silly. Bain makes a good living playing games. He travels the world and has an audience bigger than a lot of national television shows all while doing what he loves. How can he feel so awful?
“People have one great blessing - obscurity - and not really too many people are thankful for it,” Bob Dylan said. By some combination of choice and luck, Bain traded away his obscurity on his way to gaining massive success. People who make that trade are only rarely aware of what it really entails. And there's no delicate way to put it: The spotlight is a fucked up place to be. It’s not a coincidence that the public eye can make even the toughest person crumble under its gaze.
In that same Reddit thread, Bain said he loses sleep over all the negative comments his videos on the new game Hearthstone received. That, he said, was “the reason I dread talking to my audience on a daily basis.”
“I live for my audience,” he wrote.
“I give everything I've got on a daily basis to try and make my audience happy. So imagine how I feel when they lash out at me. Yeah, you're right, I should handle it better, but I can't. I mentally cannot, I'm a mentally broken person who likely can never be fixed. I hate myself every time for that, way more than you could ever hate me for the things I say here.”
Anyone who has experienced a modicum of Internet fame knows the surprising hurt that a nasty comment section can produce even surrounded by positivity. There is some haywire malfunction of the human brain that latches on to criticsm.
The trick is to be able to disconnect before the feedback becomes too much. A big part of Bain’s brand, however, is that he is embedded within various gamer communities. He’s “one of us,” after all, so what kind of move would it be to stop speaking to the community?
The other only option is to continue waging a war with no end, in which Bain is the only casualty.
Screengrab via flamingcowtv/YouTube