Parasociality! At the Vibe Camp
A tempest in a tpot
We’re afflicted by a disease of entertainment. We need intellectual and social and sexual stimulation, because we’re chimpanzees with extra bits added, but many of us meet these needs through anonymous consumption of content instead of through one another. It’s everywhere, it’s eating us, it’s talked out, it’s boring.
But I recently got to watch an immune reaction to this disease play out live and up close, at a festival where a crowd of smart and mostly male Twitter users - people largely accustomed to experiencing each other as entertainment content - were brought together on a campground for a few days.
I thoroughly enjoyed the festival, but I’m not trying to provide a complete picture of it. Instead, here are a few stories about the shape of the parasociality problem, and what some solutions felt like, at the vibe camp.
Plato in the pool
I pop up on the far side of the pool and gasp, completing my attempt to swim across it without coming up for air, and I find myself next to another minor celebrity. It’s Agnes Callard, the philosophy professor and writer with the recently and contentiously public love life, doing the breaststroke pushing a big inflatable swan.
So far I’ve been avoiding microcelebrities here. The vibe camp could be described as a DIY music festival/TED talk on a campground for a community of people who like to joke about science and philosophy and spirituality on Twitter. It’s a participatory event, like Burning Man. Attendees bring their own entertainment. It’s a music festival to the extent participants want to mix DJ sets on a few provided stages; it’s a conference insofar as its ridiculously smart and successful attendees want to give lectures; it’s a summer camp and a field day and a reunion and a support group1. This is the second time the event has been held, and it seems several times bigger than last year’s.
I’m not part of this community myself. I don’t know anybody here, except for vaguely recognizing the Twitter handles behind the self-effacing nerdy jokes I occasionally snort at from the comfort of my toilet. I’ll host my own event tomorrow (it’s a nuclear war simulation game called Eschaton, played with tennis racquets and stolen wholesale from a famous novel) and I’ll meet some other singletons and friend groups here, and I’ll kick back and enjoy some music and talks. I’m averse to approaching my favorite internet comedians to tell them that, what, I liked their tweet? But Agnes, at least, I’ve got something specific to ask.
I catch my breath and wade over. “Hey, Agnes? Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure!” she says. I’m relieved at how friendly she seems, and introduce myself. Agnes is in her thirties or forties, wears wildly colorful jumpsuits and a rainbow “SOCRATES” bracelet, and gives off a professorial Ms. Frizzle air. She’s a serious academic on the topic of classical philosophy and a public intellectual type of writer, but I only know about her because my girlfriend and I filled time on a road trip listening to a viral New Yorker article about her scandalous divorce from her husband to marry her grad student, then the first husband reentering the fold, with the group of them constituting their own sort of family collaboratively raising a child, and the ethical implications of all this marital shuffling plus her own total and unapologetic lack of shame about what she apparently saw as firm and honest commitment to her own integrity and that of her relationships.
Agnes had managed to slip some real posers on the practical application of philosophy into that gossipy magazine article. And meanwhile I’ve been hitting dead ends in my own meandering, independent study of philosophy. So I ask for advice on a few topics. She gives it. Agnes is thorough, taking my amateur, likely Googleable questions seriously and answering them with rigor and at length.
Shivering there in the pool as the breeze picks up, I learn that Rawls and Singer and many other modern philosophers don’t actually require a knowledge of classics as a prerequisite for understanding (though Kant is a big help). I learn that Agnes’ friend’s Catherine Project2 is a high-quality cohort-based course. And that she thinks Aristotle’s Metaphysics (or was it Physics?) is underrated, compared to intro-philosophy classics like his Nichomachean Ethics.
Throughout our brief conversation I’m aware of the encroaching presence of my knowledge about her from outside the context of this pool. Now, I do not care about Agnes’ love life. But when I was consuming its gory details as content during a long boring drive, I’ll admit to having felt indignant. Even outraged! And now my relationship with her as the object of a story is conflicting with my relationship with her as a fellow subject, waist-deep here at camp.
This is what it is to be “parasocial”. If Agnes were to speak to me here about her own personal relationship decisions as an example of, say, Aristotle’s definition of love, it’d be natural for me to discuss them with her. But - absent that invitation - it’d be gross for me to jump in with some reference to it, like “both of your husbands would probably agree!”, or even an indirect “and you’d know about intense public scrutiny”. Because these would pop the bubble of the tiny, brief, personal context in which we’re conversing, and instead immerse us in the huge, public context of Agnes’ public life. Which maybe would be fine, if we each wanted to comment on each other’s public lives.
But I haven’t got a public life! To invoke hers is to tip our relationship into a kind of theatrical adversity: Agnes is on stage, illuminated in the loose details of her minor celebrity, whereas I’m off in the audience, a silhouette past the stage light’s penumbra where she lacks any equalizing knowledge about who I am or how I feel about the things I think I know about her. Any familiarity I assume here in how I address her might appear true to me, but it’d feel false to her. I might personally feel warranted in chucking tomatoes or even roses onstage at her. I might feel like because I know things about her we have a relationship. But how is Agnes expected to aim any roses or tomatoes back in my direction, when I’m hidden in the dark? I’m not granting any commensurate vulnerability, here. I’m taking advantage of my anonymity. And the natural thing for anyone to do, when put under a microscope by people you don’t know or trust, is to clam up and protect yourself.
So why would I want to trade the tiny but real two-way relationship we’ve embarked on in this pool for the one-way parasocial relationship I’ve accrued online?
As I thank her for the advice and submerge for another wall-to-wall pool crossing, I reflect that I’ve been witnessing versions of my tiny dilemma being played out all across the vibe camp. I’ve successfully resisted the feeling that I know Agnes, just because I know something about her. I would pat myself heartily on the back if I weren’t underwater. Many people at the vibe camp, though, are just now discovering their discomfort with being conversationally mugged by a stranger.
I’ve already seen Robin Hanson the economist accosted by a rabid enthusiast of the game theory of extraterrestrial life, a guy who seems to have consumed every word Robin ever wrote, who has now taken it upon himself to debate this gentle older essayist over his breakfast cereal. I’ve watched Aella the pornstar and unorthodox social researcher deftly entertaining the shy, oblique interest of a neverending queue of starstruck strangers who’ve seen her naked3.
And these little parasocial feeding frenzies aren’t the worst of it by far - Agnes and Robin and Aella are public figures, people who regularly give talks and receive questions from audience members. Many microcelebrities in attendance are merely private people who enjoy publicly cutting loose and exorcising their demons on the Twitter timeline and blithely refusing to explain, people who receive popular acclaim for their most private and inappropriate thoughts, who have never faced and are often not really socially equipped for public scrutiny, now confronted with the expectant attention of fans who saw their Tweet about e.g. soiling themselves while tripping on acid at their girlfriend’s sister’s wedding, and want to talk about it because, after all, they’re old friends - from the fan’s point of view.
Now as I finally climb out of the water, thinking maybe I’ll write down a wonderful insight I’ve just had about parasociality, I see an even more difficult form of this phenomenon. Because sometimes, these audience members don’t even want to talk about the acid poop Tweet. They just want to watch a live production of the funny Twitter personalities show. They want to enact their online habit in person, listening in on a conversation and psychically tapping the like button from the periphery of the group. And indeed, around the poolside I can see small groups of friends chatting on deck chairs, microcelebrities with audiences maybe in the thousands, people who talk to each other online every day, only now each little conversation is surrounded by a loose nimbus of audience members who’ve been enjoying their banter for months or years, standing right there, three feet away. Perhaps they’re not comfortable or socially adventurous enough to participate. They’re content simply to listen.
An unusually strident debate erupted among community participants shortly after the vibe camp: what to do with these inept nerds showing up and staring at you like a bug-eyed lemur? Popular participants pride themselves on being oddballs, neurodivergents, and mystics. Radical tolerance is practically the only defining characteristic of the community, along with a self-consciously independent intelligence and a wry sense of humor. There was a vibe camp last year, and it was small enough that it didn’t have a problem with parasociality. But now that the community is growing, is its tolerance just enabling this kind of vibe-dampening behavior? Now that the miasma is flooded with thinkpieces about the vibe camp and Elon Musk is regularly signal boosting community members, what will next year’s camp look like? Will the celebrity-audience divide be even deeper?
I’m sweating in the cool night air outside the red barn dance hall when I hear shouts. Somewhere nearby, a roar of surprise erupts from many male throats. I jog across the dark fields towards the excitement and see a ring of silhouettes surrounding a brilliantly illuminated patch of grass with two guys in it, sweat glistening on their bare backs in the encircling flashlights and headlamps, hugging fiercely before parting ways. A bald guy with a beer steps out and sings like an auctioneer: “Neeeeext fighters? Who’s next?”
I’m thrilled - these guys are doing a fight club. What a great idea.
A guy across the ring has stepped out and is talking to the organizer, who goes by the name “Feral Pawg Hunter”4. The Pawg Hunter announces his next fighter’s weight. “We got anybody to fight around there?”
I weigh about the same. I swallow with a suddenly dry throat. I haven’t fought in years, but I know I’m about to.
It’s the first night of the vibe camp and we’re all figuring things out. If I were to pick an attendee from one of the dance floors or cabins at random and ask them what the festival was about, they wouldn’t be able to tell me. Partly this is by design: the vibe camp, like a burn or unconference, is produced by attendees for other attendees. So if you want to DJ a dance party or host a campfire singalong, to give a lecture about poop science or teach people lockpicking, then great, now that’s part of the vibe camp experience. (Which means that, whatever you do, you can’t put yourself outside the festival: for instance, if you merely wanted to observe other attendees, stroking your chin and writing penetrating critical analyses of their social scene through your favorite political lens, well, now chin-stroking and analyzing are a part of the festival. Which, given its audience, you bet they are.)
The lack of definition is also cultural. Participants in the part of Twitter where the vibe camp community congregates cherish their illegibility and resist being defined, because definition is the first step to boundary-setting and factionalization and the culture war politics endemic pretty much everywhere else on the internet. Many of them are refugees from previous internet communities, or real physical communities like communes or group houses, that were infected by the competitive group identities they refer to as egregores.
Mostly, though, the reason an attendee won’t be able to tell you what the damn thing is about is because the vast majority of them simply don’t know. They don’t feel like they can speak on it; they’re just observers to the scene, not participants in it; they don’t know many people in attendance. They don’t poast (like posting, but deliberately bad, skewed, filtered through a smudgy lens of artistic madness to point at truths it’d be trite to speak directly). These are the audience, the lurkers, and remember, I’m one of them.
Like the technical fields they mostly hail from, the audience of lurkers is overwhelmingly male and white or Asian or Indian. For months, the vibe camp’s tiny organizing team and the community cackled with jokes about how all these oddball singletons were going to find a spouse at camp, or at least get laid; about the strenuous efforts attendees were making to get jacked in time for camp, where all the most talented and funny and popular nerds would be. The festival featured not one or two but three matchmaking events, a hundred-question pre-camp matchmaking survey, and two kissing booths (one wholesome, one naughty).
But on arriving at the vibe camp this community was somehow surprised to discover that it is almost entirely male. Attendees found themselves at a festival with the most profoundly haunted gender ratio in the history of multi-day events outside of the Bohemian Grove, Defcon, and, possibly, military boot camps. They wandered onto a campground with five or ten men to every one woman. Both kissing booths were staffed by men. One woman found that the matchmaking survey had set her up with forty or fifty guys. Coachella, it should have surprised no one, the vibe camp was not.
As a result the dance floors, like the one in the barn still thumping away behind me with the insistent four-on-the-floor “unce unce unce unce” of electronic dance music, have been interesting. Well, “cursed”, maybe, would be a cynic’s assessment. “Do you like dancing on an empty floor with eight sweaty shirtless dudes?” a popular community participant asked pointedly after the camp. This is exactly what I’ve spent most of the last few hours doing, in support of a new friend who’d confessed to me that he was playing his first-ever DJ set, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The set was long and unique and swung through an odyssey of emotional highs and lows in many genres and languages. I had never heard anything like it. No club in the world would have allowed a DJ to play anything like it. It was fun in the way of trying a new food.
But even determinedly enjoying myself, by myself, I was sensitive to the mood on the couple of simultaneous dance floors going at camp, and the mood was politely aggressive. Have you ever been in a dance club around closing time when it’s started to empty out and the remaining men are paying attention a bit too closely to the remaining women? Another popular community participant described the initial vibe at the vibe camp as “teenagery”, recalling both the awkwardness and the sexual desperation of a high school homecoming.
Except these attendees were no longer timid high school nerds, content to stand by the bleachers. They’d evolved like Pokemon, many of them, into alpha nerds: guys who had overcome inauspicious social beginnings by leveraging their accumulating professional success and wealth and the diligent cultivation of hobbies and physique into the kind of self-image that might be mistaken in the dim light of a barn-cum-dance-hall for confidence. And they were here to have fun, damn it. And they found there were no women in their community to have fun with. So I didn’t envy the few women trying to enjoy themselves on these dance floors tonight amidst crowds of sweaty, pointy-elbowed, silently attentive men.
Now a lot of these guys are out here on a field between dance floors in the middle of the night, some panting heavily but most drying their clammy palms on their cargo shorts and technical-fabric REI hiking pants as they summon the nerve to answer “me, I’m next!”
“Me!” I raise a hand, trying to force a resonant chest voice through a windpipe that feels like it’s contracted to about the size of a drinking straw. “I’ll fight.”
“Come on out heeeere!” The Pawg Hunter, it turns out, is a phenomenal fight announcer. “Where you from?”
“New York!” - a big cheer from the crowd - “versus Neeew Jerseeeey!” I don’t hear any love for my home state, and mug an outraged reaction to the guys encircling us. I’m relieved to discover that, drunk as he seems, the Pawg Hunter is running a tight ship here: he’s sticking to weight classes, he’s refraining from quoting Chuck Palahniuk, and he’s limiting the bouts to wrestling.
“Shake hands!” he demands. “And, fight!”
When it’s over, eighty or twelve hundred heartbeats later, I’m sheeted in sweat and I feel like I could jump over the barn. I exchange a tight, slick hug with my shirtless opponent in the blueish headlamp light. I’ve got a hollow pounding in my ears, grass plastered to my chest and back, and a deep appreciation for the guy across from me and the crowd of men around us. Recent memories are trickling back into my head of the fight itself, our lunges and throws, the Pawg Hunter’s running commentary, the reflexive vocal reactions of the crowd. For a few minutes, my partner and I have left the audience and become part of the show. Now I recede back into the darkness to put my shirt back on with shaking hands.
The fight club goes on for at least an hour. Some bouts take a long time, inexperienced guys unable to find a way to pin each other, while others are over in seconds, mismatches or slips. Guys come and go, but mostly come. The Pawg Hunter cycles in and out as referee/announcer. A few women are in the circle with us, but I can’t detect a whiff of check-out-what-I-can-do-ladies bravado off the guys fighting. We simply no longer care. We’ve left the dance floors, and we’re focused on the fights and the building camaraderie as we each undergo a combat trial few of us nerds are accustomed to.
The circle drifts apart eventually in the early hours of the morning, and I find myself hanging with the Pawg Hunter and his friends. They had not been thinking about gender ratios and pointy-elbowed alpha nerds when they started the fight club; they simply got a little drunk, felt some latent hostility brewing in their stuffy little cabin full of men, and started some horseplay. Other people just saw them fighting and joined in. This pleases me in a way an organized “men’s therapeutic sparring session” wouldn’t.
But it turns out to have been therapeutic anyway. I see a lot more hugging around the campground the rest of the night. Over the next few days there’s more gentleness and unusually supportive contact between guys, and tight clasps, and men who are strangers to each other telling each other “nice one, man”, after a frisbee point or at the many sparring matches and Brazilian jiu-jitsu training sessions that follow each morning. The kind of contact that your average American male is going to feel compelled to parody as a bit gay - ironically, of course, since they’re enlightened and not at all homophobic… just uncomfortable. I myself at one point end up holding a guy’s hand for at least fifteen seconds as a sort of punctuation to a conversation we’re having, a debrief after he’s spent the morning hosting a “One Dollar Life Coach” booth and I’ve taken the opportunity to set up a mock-competitive “Ten Dollar Deluxe Life Coach” booth next to his, and the unusual level of contact doesn’t feel the least bit off.
The “West Coast Druidic Men’s Circle” hosted by the experienced festival sage “Touch Moonflower” is hugely attended despite a scheduling conflict with the only quasi-official event, the end-of-camp “Dating Show to Save the World”. A separate men’s support group not listed on the official calendar gathers in the woods outside my tent one afternoon. Plus not to mention the guys perpetually clustered around the lockpicking station, manned at all hours by an elder wizard type who seems like he’d know his way around a server farm; the rotating group of mostly men supervising the all-day pig roast; clusters of male strangers poolside and fireside; all slowly relaxing, unclenching, chatting, just hashing it out.
The vibe camp is still six hundred or so dudes in a freewheeling music festival environment with maybe a hundred women, and that odd dynamic will persist throughout camp. But for a chunk of male attendees large enough to exert an influence on the rest, the fight club has transmuted our outside-world zero-sum competitiveness into a kind of dudes-rock bonhomie that we haven’t felt since we were teenagers.
Which in addition to the rare and tentative male bonding, you can’t fail to notice some relaxation of the parasociality thing: because recall that we of the lurker majority arrived as an audience to a hundred or so microcelebrities, and at an ordinary festival, these prominent people would be the ones giving performances and panel talks. The audience would remain the audience. And indeed many popular community members are hosting events and sharing their talents. But here at the vibe camp, many audience members are finding it impossible to remain in the audience. In addition to having taken center stage in the fights they’re being applauded learning improv, or firespinning, or how to be a clown (in a surreal sequence where one experienced clown’s volunteer minders became so wrapped up in his guileless play that they became fellow clowns themselves, and the crowd of participants roved around the camp baffling further attendees into joining the play, to the point where everyone present was left unsure whether they’d created a cult and if so whether that was such a bad thing).
I’m watching the live crowdsourced immune reaction of a community determined to be healthy, like: “OK, so this is an awkward situation. What can we do with it?”. They came expecting that, like everywhere else, they’d compete for status, and instead found fellowship. I’m sold.
Ladies and Gentlemen
I’m late for the morning BJJ training session, so it’s at a quick barefoot run that I’m skirting the pool en route to the bathroom. I don’t know the first thing about jiu-jitsu, but the fight club the other night has me interested in combat sports, and some of the guys here here are pretty advanced.
Many festival attendees are sleeping off a big night of music and dance and mingling and moderate use of their psychedelic, empathenogenic, dissociative, party-enhancing but non-addictive drug of choice. But there’s a girl out stretching in the early Chesapeake sun on the pool deck. As I jog back out towards the field where training is already underway, she calls out.
“Hey!” she waves a hand to stop me, and I stop. She languorously pulls an ankle over her head, and says, “what’s your name?”
I introduce myself, take a knee, and offer a hand. She holds her stretch for a while, staring me in the eye with a look that feels like it’s supposed to convey something, then gives me her hand and tells me her name.
I thought I’d vaguely recognized her, and her festival badge confirms it: she’s a prolific poster on the innate power of women’s sexuality and a professional sex worker. We exchange pleasantries - how she’s been enjoying the festival, what she’s been up to, where she’s from. But I’m in a rush, so I excuse myself and head off to BJJ training, writing the brief interaction off as the kind of anomaly you expect and welcome in a crowd of wonderful oddballs.
But later I read her commentary on the festival. She’s got a lot to say about the heady dose of power she feels she experienced as one of the only women in a libidinous festival environment. She encourages other women parsing through the uneasy feelings they have about every head turning towards them, about every word they utter receiving attention, to celebrate and lean into this irrefutable proof of their divine feminine power.
And I think, oh, boy. I think I understand why she wanted to stop me while I was running. Because there is a reason very few women attended the vibe camp. It’s the same reason weirdo sex trafficker Andrew Tate is one of the most popular people in the world among young men. It’s the reason Onlyfans makes more money than Twitter, and some staggeringly large fraction of young men subscribe to it. And I suspect it’s the reason that this girl, flagging down a guy in a hurry for the sheer pleasure of seeing him stop, mistakes my politeness for holding power over me.
Because many of us boys’ sexual lives, like our other human needs, have been largely reduced to the consumption of content. And this puts us in a market environment. And while dating has always been a market, the invention of the thousand-swipe dating app dynamic supplemented by widespread paid sexuality on demand has catapulted the adversarial nature of market relationships into the heart of many boys’ relationships with women.
Sure, porn has existed forever as a kind of hollow plastic simulacrum of sexuality. What’s new is our participation in it at such scale, and it’s new for formerly impersonal commercial sexuality to be packaged with the kind of faux-intimacy that Onlyfans-like services provide: sexual parasociality.
This isn’t a vibe camp community problem; it’s a capital-S Societal malaise. But community participants often like to think that just because they’re smart it means they’re above broader societal problems, and the vibe camp attendance plainly shows that they are not.
This girl, excited and extroverted in her journey, is not the cause - or even a cause - of the problem. She seems very young, and it’s not unusual for new participants in the scene to get BDSM-brained and begin to see all human interaction as a power exchange dynamic. If anything, she’s another victim of the problem: if there weren’t a vast audience of men eager to pay for digital access to her sexuality or even for her to withdraw money directly from their bank accounts as a sexual fetish, it wouldn’t seem so self-evident to her that female sexuality is about the power of attention and audience.
And she’s not alone in this commodifying experience. As the vibe camp progresses I get to witness a live vivisection of the male sex drive in all its wet, fumbling embarrassment by multiple sex workers in attendance. These women each make small fortunes selling sexy pictures or sexual services to the very same loners whose conversational gambits they adroitly turn aside in their dozens each day5. It’s not like their rejection of their audience members is some sort of false advertising on their part; it’s not their responsibility to reciprocate their customers’ relationship with them. Sex workers are community members like everybody else, and some of them are great contributors.
But at the vibe camp, some other women who aren’t as seasoned as a sex worker in being the object of so much attention struggle to process their experience in the rigorously thoughtful manner characteristic of the community. The attendee who was matched with dozens of men described the social exhaustion of being sought out by all of these strangers thinking they were her one and only magical shonen Prince Charming. Others did their best to avoid the scrum, hanging out mostly with friends and partners, hosting events or tending campfires or conducting singalongs. One was horrified to realize how she was semi-deliberately maneuvering to receive more of this “power” in the form of attention, then further horrified at how she began diminishing herself to receive less of it, eventually declaring social bankruptcy entirely until she could figure things out. And one couple fell head over heels in love at the vibe camp and were just overwhelmingly cute together for a few days in the Maryland sunshine, which was pleasant for everyone.
None of these women would describe the vibe camp as an Animal House frat bro bacchanalia. Community members are too self-aware and conscientious for that kind of obvious boorishness, to the point where Aella later expressed annoyance that she didn’t get catcalled even once, like, come on you guys. But throughout the camp the gender discourse remains a topic of conversation to the point of tedium. Partly this is just habit: men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-the-seventh-circle dialogue is always popular online. Partly it’s just guys trying to reason their way out of somehow feeling they’ve been made fools of.
Which isn’t the festival producers’ fault. Maybe selling tickets to a population this heavily gender skewed while posting jokes about finding all these nerds a spouse can be laid at the organizing team’s feet, but ultimately, the team is serving a community. The fact that the community is overwhelmingly male can’t possibly be their fault. That one’s on you, boys.
Expanding the Game
So why is the vibe camp crowd so overwhelmingly male? Yes, obviously the technical fields community members mostly hail from are overwhelmingly male, and the reasons for this discrepancy have been studied to death. But this isn’t a professional AI conference (though if you throw a rock over your shoulder at the vibe camp there’s a good chance you’ll concuss a programmer). It’s a festival, so where are all these guys’ girlfriends and wives and children and the female members of their friend groups? For that matter, where are their friend groups? Why is this community of mostly men also a community of mostly loners?
Parasociality. Sure, there’s selection bias at work in the kind of introvert who makes a career out of engineering, in the kind of neurodivergent-skewed population that makes a hobby out of subjecting feelings to rigorous rational analysis online, but it also seems that while we’re working hard at our demanding technical jobs we’re satisfying our human appetites on the potato chips of parasociality. And if we weren’t sating ourselves with these crispy, salty, fatty, supernormally delicious tweets and banter between close friends we don’t know, and subjecting our libidos to distant egirls and sex workers, our built-in human drives would propel us from the caves of our condos and many-monitored desks and out into the world of social hobbies to find the community we crave. So we showed up at the vibe camp expecting to find that whole intact community, but instead mostly found, well, other guys like us.
Not that this was such a bad thing. I had a blast at the vibe camp! I met fascinating people every half hour. And I got to watch them react to their disappointment and isolation with camaraderie and humor. The community may not be immune to the parasociality problem, but I’d wager its participants (and lurkers) have a better chance at solving it than any other group on the internet. One solution is the simple awareness, disseminated through jokes about lemurs and mops and whatnot, that the problem exists. Another solution is in the solidarity the vibe camp boys developed with each other in the absence of opportunities to meet girls and befriend microcelebrities. But while I found these solutions interesting enough to write about them - and thank you, by the way, for wading this deep with me - I doubt they’re sufficient.
Because next year’s vibe camp will be bigger, with more new people, who will re-encounter the same problems. So what’s going to be different? Community participants debated hotly, after camp, about what to do with lurkers like you and me diluting the vibe. Are we just mops in the old geeks-mops-sociopaths scene framework, here to soak up the geeks’ good time? Should they be more insular? Should they be more welcoming? Should they hold “how to vibe” classes for all these lonely, nerdy guys coming out of the woodwork?
Regardless of what the organizing team decides to do at the festival, they can’t change the makeup of the community. They’re not gonna kidnap a few buses en route to a Taylor Swift concert. You can’t force people to join your game anyway, you have to make them want to play. So the only solution is for all these lurkers to level up, invest in ourselves, be passionate enough about our oddities and hobbies and love for internet schizo intellectual shenanigans and have such fun together that it becomes attractive to people around us.
You want to lurk on Twitter? Fine. But stop being a lurker in your own fucking life. The only way the community is going to feel healthy, next year, is if men in the community - that’s us, the lurker majority - set out to attract the people that are missing into our own lives, and then bring them to the vibe camp with us.
Do you feel alone? Rejoice, for you are alone. You’re as alone as the rest of us, trapped incarnate in a meat husk whose bandwidth for interfacing with others will never exceed a trickle. This is your burden and your gift: the opportunity to enact something in the world that serves others, that may invoke in them the things you feel yourself, that allows them to commune with you. The genius that resides in you is new in nature, and no one but you can discover what it will do. So stop feeding your soul with junk food and go plant yourself some corn: for though the vibe camp is full of good, no nourishing kernel can come to you but through your own toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to you to till. And the point of the vibe camp is to give you that ground.
Which doesn’t even scratch the surface. This year at the vibe camp attendees can learn improv or lockpicking or folk dancing or firespinning, hear lectures on philosophy and psychology and economics and cutting-edge gut microbiome research, compete in jiu jitsu or karate or chess or impromptu midnight flashlight-illuminated wrestling, enjoy DJ sets and acoustic performances and campfire singalongs. They can receive instruction in tactile anatomy or rock stacking or banter or voice training, and also get poems typewritten live in front of them about a topic of their choice, or free drinks from professional bartenders, themselves attendees; they can receive the full attention and curiosity of several strangers totally committed to the attendee for a few minutes for no other reason than making them feel good, or a slab of freshly smoked pork (typically accompanied by a cheery “thank you hog!”, and remember all of this is provided by attendees for free, and I get the impression that the guy behind the hog operation runs a company that puts equipment into space); and then kick back and lay in a “cuddle puddle” (exactly what it sounds like, a kind of tactile sexless Brave New World orgy-porgy) with friends and strangers or step things up with high-intensity interval training, filling in the gaps between this cornucopia of nerdy and “woo-woo” delights with plain old socializing by the pool and bookending it with, of course, massive dance parties running to the early hours each night.
Aella contributes an extraordinary amount to the vibe camp, and also seems to be a kind of lightning rod situated at the intersection of several identities people delight in attacking: weird people, outspoken political independents, young women and especially prostitutes, askers of difficult questions. She is the Captain Planet of attracting hate, and at the festival she breaks the ice with a hilarious live survey and hosts a DJ set and performs in a classic end-of-camp stage play by production company The Classics Department in the form of a silly dating show that transforms, without warning, into probably the most surreal and genuinely disturbing depiction of being trapped and stuck in a rut and selling out ever performed at a summer camp; a performance whose dramatic power is as out-of-scale with its shoestring aw-shucks kids-play environment as an anti-personnel landmine at a bar fight; with Aella’s contribution as the bachelorette culminating in a nonverbal mime performance wherein she fastidiously replaces her wretched, agonized face with a manically grinning masklike expression that she subsequently seems unable to rip off her head no matter how she tugs and contorts and grips and arches and suffers, gloves soaked red, that at least one attendee will likely continue to see when he closes his eyes for some time, that’s the type of questions it raised about performance and identity and pain and maybe even how Aella might occasionally regard her own small but intense celebrity.
The Feral Pawg Hunter’s name is a) a standard example of the kind of deliberately silly handle people use at the vibe camp, the way hikers on the Appalachian Trail leave behind their real names and use trail aliases like “Smoky Hemlock” and b) a multi-layered reference both to girls with big booties and a fellow on Twitter who famously explained his need for automatic weapons to defend his family against incursions from “30-50 feral hogs”, and who spent around a week as the object of global ridicule and the years since quietly triumphant, smugly posting news articles about these hogs mauling children in the American south; the hogs are, apparently, a real problem.
For the purpose of examining the effect of parasociality on the community, it doesn’t really matter why someone chooses to have a parasocial sex life. But still, I’m curious about the mentality of a guy paying one of these girls for access to her sexuality. Is it because they’re not having sex at the frequency their bodies seem to demand, and the artificial analog is helpful in that way? If so, why not just consume some of the amateur or professional pornography distributed for free by passionate individuals and couples to suit every taste? Or written erotica that doesn’t even pretend to present the image of a partner with which to fool yourself? If these solutions to satisfying one’s sexual deficit seem unappealing, why? Is it because they lack the sense of personal connection to the object of sexual desire? That’s not a shameful or uncommon need - any reasonably high end prostitute will tell you that many of their clients mostly just desire to be seen and heard, and that their sexual services are basically a garnish on the emotional labor they’re actually being hired to perform. I ask not out of prudism but out of genuine curiosity. Nobody’s found the answers to some of these hard questions about our substitutions for certain basic human needs, and when these substitutes are healthy, and when they’re diseased. The community’s roots are in rationality, and if the popularity of Aella’s survey event is any indication, its values still seem to include a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. If you use these sorts of parasocial sexual services, and you view your consumption of these women’s sexuality as a mere bodily function like emptying your bladder in the morning, how would you feel about the provocative titles and descriptions of the videos and pictures you’re viewing being written by a man? (You’ll forgive the heteronormativity here and elsewhere - this dialogue is between me and my fellow straight male lurkers.) And if you’re paying to exchange messages with the object of your desire directly, sidestepping my implicit accusation of a one-way relationship with a product that cannot love you back, would it change your enjoyment of the experience to know, know for sure, that the textual intercourse you’re conducting is not with a beautiful American or British woman but instead with a bored Filipino man, working remotely rating an image of your phallus eight out of ten over a plate of fried eggs and rice? Maybe this is the kind of possibility you just avoid thinking about. That would be understandable in that most of us keep our sexual parts pretty strictly isolated from our thinking parts. But so, if the attraction of a human connection is the kind of thing you prefer not to think about, then why bother to pay an individual woman for access to her sexuality in the first place? And what toll does it take on you when your only interactions with women are familial, professional, or pornographic?