What Is a Parasocial Relationship (and How Do You Know If You Are in One)?
If you spend any time on Twitter or other social media, you are bound to come across words that you usually learn in therapy. Gaslighting is one of them. “Toxic” is another word that has been dropped so often that it has begun to lose its meaning. And recently a new contender entered the ring: “Parasocial Relations”.
What the hell is a parasocial relationship?
Parasocial interaction, proposed by sociologists Richard Wall and Donald Horton in 1956, is a type of psychological relationship. Two sociologists noted that viewers have experience of interacting with certain performers, for example, on television.
In essence, a parasocial relationship is similar to a face-to-face relationship, except that one of the participants in the “relationship” does not actually participate in it at all. It is the relationship of the viewer or consumer to a star, actor, model, creator, influencer, or any other person who communicates but does not actually interact in the traditional way. There is an illusion of intimacy here.
When Wohl and Horton first documented this behavior in the 1950s, their observations were mostly about how viewers relate to stars on television. There are many other platforms these days where we can see people with whom it is easy to establish parasocial relationships. You can feel like an influential person who really understands you. You can see their daily posts, know about their favorite hobbies and recipes, notice when they repeat outfits, and be able to pronounce their children’s names, but they don’t know this information about you . Any supposed intimacy is one-sided. Of course, they can respond to comments on your posts (and should do all the influential persons ), but in fact they do not talk to you every day, like normal friends.
When does this phrase appear?
The use of the term “parasocial relationship” on social media came to a climax of sorts after comedian John Mulani was criticized for leaving his wife for Olivia Munn. In past comedies, he said he didn’t want children, so fans were shocked and even angry when news broke that Mann was expecting their first child from a new couple. After the first wave of outrage sweeping Twitter and Instagram, a second wave of criticism followed, but it was aimed at fans who have a parasocial relationship with Mulani and expect him to be the person they want him to be based only on their consumption of a few special appearances and its public production.
On Twitter, you’ll find any number of messages warning people that they “need help with unhealthy parasocial relationships” after, say, getting too caught up in the relationship drama of the creator of TikTok. Others warn that talking too much about the personal choice of an influencer or star is “too parasocial and speaks volumes about how many [real] friends you have.”
So is parasocial relationships bad or what?
You’ve probably guessed that parasocial relationships can quickly spiral out of control. Think of the people who were really hurt when John Malani (the man they don’t know) left his wife (the woman they don’t know) for Olivia Munn (the other woman they don’t know). It’s not ideal to let the actions of someone you probably never meet affect your mood, but in this hyper-connected age, it’s all the easier and easier.
There are darker sides to parasocial relationships. It’s not just that a few of Mulani’s fans are walking around with resentful feelings because he manages his real relationship in a way they don’t like. Celebrities always have stalkers. The New York Post has an entire section of its digital site dedicated to celebrity stalkers. On the page, you can read stories about Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian and Oliva Wilde – and that’s just in recent months. These stars face hacks and in many cases are forced to lift restraining orders against fans who, for whatever reason, think they know the celebrities and want to make the relationship real in some way.
Grande, Swift, Jenner and many of them do not know the millions of people who, to one degree or another, track their actions on social networks. Stalkers – or people who maintain less disturbing parasocial relationships – only think they know these people, who are more often than not women.
There were even cases when stalkers killed influential people. So, no, parasocial relationships are not the best.
What if you’re in one?
Remind yourself that an artist’s job is to be interesting and interesting, but that’s about it. This is their job. You can enjoy their content, interact with their posts and still be thrilled if they respond, but it’s important to know that they are just the ones making money by reaching out to the masses. Don’t be afraid to log out, take a step back and remind yourself that you don’t really know them.
Invest some of that energy in your real-life relationships and reap the rewards of true friendship instead.