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Consumerism, MTV, and Alpha: Signal Boost!’s Identity Affirming Practices

Signal Boost!, one of Alpha and Geek & Sundry‘s shows, showcases a different celebrity each week to tell the audience about some of their favorite franchises and activities. As a show, it’s quite effective. The host is always charming and funny, and the sketch-style cut-aways add a unique flair to the format.

This show is essential to showing off Alpha‘s fanishness. In this case, being a geek or a nerd is a consumerist identity. In consuming content, the viewer becomes a consumer. Fanishness and frenzy over shows, movies, and games leads to more and more consumption. Though many experience an innate repulsion to capitalism and the idea of the gluttonous consumer, geekdom encourages consumption as an expression of identity. This is neither a positive nor a negative aspect of being a geek. It simply exists.

Many of Alpha‘s shows encourage this sort of consumption. In the pre-show talk on Critical Role, the cast members will discuss various cool products that can be bought in the Geek & Sundry store as well as the products of their sponsors. A frequent sponsor, Loot Crate, simply increases the customer’s accumulation of stuff. Often, this stuff is super rad, but, nonetheless, it is a product of a capitalist system that allows this sort of consumerist identity to emerge.

Signal Boost! cuts out the middle man and is simply a show about stuff and things. I do not doubt that the stuff and things advertised by the host genuinely brings them joy, but it still is targeted towards consumers. A core component of the geek identity is liking stuff and things, so by increasing the consumption of stuff and things, the more the identity will be affirmed. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but like the core of the show, this is the core of the concept.

Signal Boost! follows a long line of content targeting fans and consumers. Before Signal Boost, there was Buzzfeed. Going back even further, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti saw these same trends in MTV. Peretti, in his essay “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution,” writes “Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.” Interestingly, Peretti wrote this in 1996; well before Buzzfeed or Signal Boost!.

The potential for identity formation through consumption was clear, even at the beginning stages of the internet. Peretti also noticed that this was present in MTV. In many ways, Signal Boost! is a combination of the two. It uses its medium to provide access to a rabbit hole of links and online shopping. Additionally, it uses rapid visual imagery (according to Peretti, similar to that seen on MTV), to affirm the identity of its viewers via media saturation. Peretti explains “Barthes implies that understanding the image-repertoire of a society will elucidate the types of (ideologically laden) subject formations possible within that society. What, then, is the image-repertoire of late capitalist society?. . . Newspapers, movies, billboards, and video games also offer a stunning array of images. Not only does each of these mediums contain a surprisingly varied image-repertoire, but a late capitalist subject may encounter all of these mediums in a single day.” Or, even a single episode of Signal Boost!.

Signal Boost! uses this tactic on two levels. By having a revolving door of products and short, easily-processed episodes, the consumer is satiated. Furthermore, the constantly changing hosts and frequent guest appearances increases the likelihood that viewers will identify with the figures in the show. According to Peretti, “What is noticeable is not the content of the images but the efficiency and rapidity with which they are circulated and consumed. Nevertheless, to promote consumer capitalism the images must have some content to create the possibility for a mirror stage identification. It is this identification ­­with a model, athlete, or actor­­ that encourages the purchase of the product being pitched.”

Moreover, Alpha‘s set up encourages a cycle of identification with each of these hosts. Most of the hosts can be found in other popular Alpha properties, and each boasts a fair amount of nerd cred. When a viewer becomes a fan of a host, fanishness dictates that they will seek out the other properties in which they appear. If a fan first sees a host with whom they identify in an RPG show, they will seek out the Signal Boost! episode. Likewise, if the viewer first identifies with the host in an episode of Signal Boost!, they will later seek out the host on the RPG show. Either way, it leads to more views for Alpha properties.

As Alpha and Geek & Sundry expand their video content, they must rely on identification and rapid consumption. Before Geek & Sundry or Alpha existed, Felicia Day, founder of Geek & Sundry, utilized this to kick-start the market of web shows. Day, recognizable from properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, used the gamer consumerist identity to create a relatable, funny, and easily-consumable show (The Guild). The Guild‘s legacy has influenced the subsequent shows on the network, but with more of a focus on consumerism. By allowing the hosts to be themselves rather than a character from a script, there are more references and spontaneous product placements. Signal Boost! has the best of both worlds in this aspect: the show is scripted, but the hosts are playing themselves, which allows them to be genuine while also carefully controlling the release of stuff and things advertised to the viewer.

Did you know Project Derailed teamed up with Geek & Sundry and Alpha for their Gen Con after party? Well, we did! Alpha subscribers, check your emails for invitation details in the Alpha Newsletter!

See you in Indy!

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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