Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships between social media consumers and online influencers or celebrities in which the media consumer interacts with the celebrity through means of social media while the other party or celebrity is entirely unaware of the consumer's existence. Common examples include a student and a college athlete, a young child and a teenage heartthrob, or a preteen and a Youtube star. The media consumer invests emotional energy, interest, and time into interacting with the other party by engaging with them through their social media by their following and commenting on their posts, or actions over time. The influencer or celebrity partakes in the relationship by engaging with the entire audience of viewers through talking informally, posting engaging content, and asking viewers questions. Through these actions, the celebrity can create an illusion of intimacy that the consumer believes to be an interpersonal relationship.
- 1 History
- 2 How do parasocial relationships form?
- 3 Stages of Parasocial Relationships
- 4 Platforms and Use Cases
- 5 Ethics
- 6 Effective Influencers
- 7 Ineffective Influencers
- 8 See Also
- 9 References
The formation of parasocial relationships can be dated back to the existence of humanity, in which individuals formed bonds with popular figures such as politicians, gods, and spirits. Entertainment also provided a source of parasocial relationships as audiences bonded with their favorite characters in plays, films, and television. The extent of parasocial relationships has developed as time has gone on and social media sites have offered put a new area for parasocial relationships to exist and flourish.
Despite its existence throughout history, the term parasocial relationship was only coined by sociologists in 1956. They noted that audiences would act as though they were involved in a social relationship with their idols, despite never having met them. They initially speculated that this was due to a lack of social interaction, but this was later refuted. Today, the standard view on parasocial relationship formation is that they are closely related to friendship formation.
Forming a parasocial relationship is similar to forming a real friendship. At the start of a new two-sided friendship, frequent, regular communication reduces uncertainty between two parties. This reduction then increases the frequency and regularity of communication and leads to interpersonal attraction. Finally, the positive correlation between interpersonal attraction and intimacy causes the two people to become closer.
In the information age, parasocial relationships are propagated by the changing nature of friendship itself. Rather than engaging with friends solely through face-to-face interactions, friends also have a persona online often through a profile of sorts, interact digitally with their friend's online personas by liking and commenting on each other’s’ posts, responding to messages and posting videos. Many friends even limit their interactions to exclusively digital ones. This blur between digital and real-life interaction has made it easier than ever for celebrities and influencers to perform friend-like interactions. With this online friendship culture, it is easy to mask a parasocial relationship with a real one. Creating posts, pictures, liking fan activity, and sending fan messages is far less labor-intensive than real-life relationship cultivation, and personalities can use bots, social media assistants, and other services to perform engagement with audiences to further propagate the parasocial relationship.
Most people engage in parasocial relationships at some point in their lives, but most stay at the first level. This is when the parasocial relationship is beneficial, as celebrities are seen as a source of entertainment and fans admire the content that is produced by celebrities.
Stage 2: Intense-personal
At this level, a fan has intensive and compulsive feelings toward the celebrity. The fan becomes overly dependent on their idol for emotional support and may see them as a soulmate. Parasocial relationships of this stage is typical for teenagers who seem to be obsessed with every little detail of their favorite celebrity’s lifestyle. This stage is typically seen in teenagers who seem to be obsessed with every little detail of their favorite celebrities life.
Stage 3: Borderline-pathological
At the most intense stage of parasocial relationships, a person takes celebrity worship to an extreme. They have obsessive fantasies about the celebrity, spend huge amounts of money to obtain memorabilia and may even engage in illegal activities such as stalking. It is typical for people who are in this stage to believe that if they were given a chance to meet their favorite celebrity in person, their feelings would be reciprocated.
Platforms and Use Cases
Today's social media platforms enable the formation of these strong relationships. Influencers and other social media personalities who have the strongest parasocial relationships with their followers are often YouTubers. This is because creating videos really allows viewers to get a sense of the world their favorite influencer is living in, and feel like they are living in it. These relationships deepen as influencers can be followed on many social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter giving the viewer more avenues than ever before to engage with the content creator. All of these platforms allow viewers to feel involved in an influencer's life on multiple levels, and this strengthens the parasocial relationship.
Kylie Jenner's Public Snapchat
Kylie Jenner was one of the first influencers to make a public Snapchat. Snapchat had previously been a fairly private form of communication between close friends and acquaintances. However, Jenner's publicly available Snapchat opened the door for anyone who wanted to become her "friend." These followers were taken along for the ride of her everyday life, which allowed people to feel personally connected to her simply based on the nature of the platform, since it only allows for real-time posting. This continual update of everyday activity gives the viewer the illusion of intimacy and reduced uncertainty of the "relationship" in question. Now, many influencers and other famous people have public Snapchats. This new platform for celebrity interaction can provide the perfect setup for interactions to turn into parasocial attachments.
YouTube and Instagram have both introduced live video streaming. This is a feature where someone begins recording themselves, and viewers can tune in live to chat with/ask questions of the person streaming in real time. Again, the real-time feature of this platform increases the feeling of spending time and therefore growing closer to an influencer or celebrity. This is another popular way in which famous people and influencers connect to their users and make them feel like they are actually interacting on a personal level as friends.
Polls and Question and Answer Videos
Instagram allows users to add polls to their stories, allowing viewers to respond to the question posed. Often, social media influences ask their viewers for opinions on what to wear, what color to change their hair, or what idea they like for a video better - questions someone in a two-sided relationship might ask of their friend. This engagement makes viewers feel even more involved in an influencer's life, making the relationship more real because it mimics a friend asking you for advice.
Influencers frequently create question and answer videos, where they compile a list of questions their users have left as comments or sent in DMs (direct messages). These personal shoutouts and responses contribute to the relationship between the influencer and the viewer because the viewer feels personally recognized by the influence.
The ethics of parasocial relationships exist at the boundary of performance and truth.
In Stanislavsky's view of performance, truth is a relationship between an actor and the audience. Youtube content creators must perform in ways that parallel ancient acting. In Hamlet, though everyone knows that there are no such things as ghosts, audiences and actors both suspend their belief, acting and reacting as if the ghost of Hamlet's father were real in order to enhance their enjoyment of the play. The suspension of disbelief is dependent on the audience's willingness to do so, as well as the actor's ability to convey the emotional truth required in the situation. Forging a legitimate emotional connection is dependent on a good performance.
In the context of parasocial relationships, personalities do not have to be authentic. They must be skilled at encouraging audiences to suspend their disbelief and instead believe that their media interactions are genuine. For example, a YouTuber might be paid $70,000 to perform a product review. The success of the performance is dependent on maintaining secrecy as well as giving a sense of authenticity to what they are saying, for example, giving a positive product review they had been paid to say. In one case, makeup influencer MannyMUA was able to create a semi-authentic video performing his hatred of makeup product Lashify, but news leaked that he had been paid handsomely by a competing company (Lilly Lashes) to do so. This nullified the audience's ability to believe his hatred of the product.
A bad theatrical performance garners a bad review, and potentially causes the actor to lose some work. A bad social-media performance garners mass-scale online public shaming. MannyMUA received extreme backlash when news of Lilly Lashes' $70,000 "sponsorship" leaked. This in combination with other scandals ultimately led him to lose half a million subscribers.
"Effective" and "Ineffective" Performances
From this examination of parasocial relationships from a performance-ethics standpoint, it can be concluded that an effective performance is dependent on (1) the influencer's ability to generate a suspension of audience disbelief and (2) that no conflicting outside information emerge otherwise. This is highly related to the influencer's ability to encourage both primary and secondary trust in a virtual environment. Primary trust is the trustworthiness of an individual from a factual point of view: are they being honest? Secondary trust is the belief that hat the other cherishes one’s esteem. Thus, primary trust is generated by Factor 2, while secondary trust is generated by Factor 1. Effective performances create both primary and secondary trust. Ineffective performances broach primary trust as directly conflicting information emerges. This then leads audiences to doubt their secondary trust in the influencer and perceive them as fake.
It should be noted that parasocial relationships are just one of the many ways that audiences interact with their media personalities. Thus, influencers with effective parasocial performances might not necessarily have more fans or financial success than influencers with ineffective parasocial performances. In other words, one can have an ineffective parasocial performance and still be successful, as evidenced by many real-life figures.
Influencers and Bullshit
Influencers in a parasocial relationship hold a large amount of power in, as it is aptly named, influencing their followers. When examining the motives of these influencers in these relationships, one can see that their actions would fall under Harry Frankfurt’s definition of a “bullshitter”, which he describes as “[the bullshitter’s] eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says”. While influencers tend to preach their values and commitment to posting content that they truly support, many influencers are also driven by monetary incentives and the desire to be famous. According to Frankfurt, these influencers maintain an interest in promoting their overall influence and status through means of posting and performances, which therefore makes their content bullshit and themselves bullshitters.
This power of influencer’s bullshit has seen large scale consequences in recent years. The recent Fyre Festival scandal, where people were deceived into buying into what was supposed to be a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, only to find that everything they signed up for such as musical artists, large villas, and gourmet food was not there. A large takeaway from this scandal was analyzing the role Instagram influencers played in advertising the event. Celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, whose profiles boasted millions of followers, posted advertising posts depicting the luxury festival promo videos. The celebrities themselves were coned or at least claimed to be coned into believing and promoting in a festival that never happened. These posts describing the event turned out to be bullshit, and their followers were manipulated by these posts left to deal with the financial and emotional fallout of the disastrous event. Due to incidents this, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires creators to disclose when something is an ad for the sake of transparency. When posting content online through social media including Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook the creator must state that the content is an ad using, for example, the label #ad on their .
False Role Models
Many people follow celebrities for entertainment purposes, but some attach themselves to famous people out of admiration. Young people especially as they are looking for role models to mimic their ideal life after, they often fall into the trap of upholding celebrities to a higher standard than anyone could fill in reality. Celebrities get paid to portray their lives as unrealistically perfect, and if an everyday person believes this is attainable, they are let down and let feeling hopeless if their dreams don't come true. This becomes a serious problem when dealing with mentally unstable followers that could experience psychological harm by holding high aspirations for themselves modeled after celebrities in their parasocial relationship. For example, teenage girls that follow models with the perfect, "ideal" body on social media.
Although the models have fit bodies, they also benefit from photoshop editing and perfect lighting from paid photoshoots that their followers may not keep in mind when admiring their perfectly sculpted features. This can lead to low self-esteem and in extreme cases even anorexia and other unhealthy behavior in an attempt to achieve the perfect image their online role models portray. A 2018 study concluded that "exposure to manipulated Instagram photos indeed leads to lower body satisfaction in comparison to exposure to non-manipulated selfies from online peers" and noted the concerning result that even short-term exposure to manipulated Instagram photos can lead to direct changes in body image. An eating disorder treatment center in Chicago revealed that 30–50% of its teen patients used social media as a means of supporting their eating disorders . Whether it is altering their bodies, or portraying themselves as always happy and enjoying life, by not giving followers the full behind-the-scenes story of their lives, celebrities give false hope and unrealistic dreams to their admirers leading to negative effects on the viewers mental health.
These influencers tend to be intentional and authentic in the content they create. They are aware of their parasocial relationships with their audiences and ensure that no conflicting outside information can be used to sabotage their credibility.
Oliver Thorn / PhilosopyTube
Oliver "Ollie" Thorn is a British Actor and YouTuber of the channel PhilosophyTube, which explores everyday phenomena and social issues through a philosophical lens. Viewers have cultivated a parasocial relationship with Thorn by viewing him as an internet-friendly, humorous philosophy professor. Their parasocial relationship deepened when Thorn opened up in his video titled "Suic!de and Ment@l He@lth," in which Thorn explored the philosophy of mental illness and patient rights while revealing that he too struggled with depression. Following this video, Thorn's YouTube viewership and Patreon donations increased substantially.
Thorn later analyzed the parasocial relationship between him and his fans in a second video, concluding that YouTube is a performance. Through his videos, Thorn convinced his audience to suspend their disbelief that they were merely staring at a computer screen and to instead believe that Thorn was a cosmonaut having a life-threatening suicidal breakdown or a YouTuber being interrogated by Scotland Yard for the crime of "deceiving" his audiences. The authenticity of these situations cannot be threatened by outside information because they were exaggerated, to begin with - everyone knows that Thorn is neither cosmonaut nor criminal. Audiences instead connect with the emotional truths in those situations - feeling hopeless and overcome with depression or feeling conflicted and unsure of what truth means when one is a public persona - while learning philosophy.
Natalie Wynn / Contrapoints
Natalie Wynn is a self-titled "ex-philosopher" and a transgender YouTuber whose channel, ContraPoints, similarly examines social issues. Viewers have cultivated a parasocial relationship with Wynn through her penchant to perform as highly exaggerated personas, as well as her highly-public gender transition. Similar to Thorn, Wynn uses the exaggerated approach, birthing characters with colorful hair, long nails, and outrageous attitudes to ensure that her authenticity cannot be questioned in the midst of all of the exaggeration.
Marlena Stell is a makeup influencer and founder of cosmetics company Makeup Geek. As an influencer, Stell cultivates a parasocial relationship with her audience by presenting herself as a relatable, confident woman trying to navigate the complexities of makeup, fashion, and life. She is one of the early influencers of the YouTube Beauty Community with her channel Marlena Stell formal know as Makeup Geek .
She increased her authenticity by creating a video titled "My truth regarding the beauty community," detailing all of the dishonest, manipulative, and greedy tactics that influencers do behind their fans' backs with a logical, mature approach. Though Stell was attacked by fellow influencers, she stood behind her arguments, thereby performing consistency and integrity in her beliefs. Following this video, Stell gained about 25 thousand subscribers, indicating that fans resonated with her message and positively responded to their enhanced parasocial relationship.
These influencers tend to not be as aware of the parasocial relationship they have with their audiences or uses their position of power in these relationships to manipulate and influence their followers. They thus say, do, or create content that spurs controversy and undermines their authenticity.
Olivia Jade Gianulli is a 19-year-old influencer. Her young, mostly-female viewers cultivated a parasocial relationship with Gianulli due to a combination of her down-to-earth personality and her luxurious lifestyle, which made audiences feel like they could be her best friend despite their differences. Comments on Gianulli's Instagram showcase this attitude, with young women commenting "Beautiful!" and "You are amazing and gorgeous!" while others asked her where to get her dress and other clothing items she wore.
Gianulli's parasocial personality as a relatable, rich friend fell apart in light of the college-cheating scandal. Fans felt slapped in the face by her involvement in such a large scandal, the fact that she was so privileged and that her family was able to buy her way into USC. She was no longer the relatable friend they had come to know. As a result, the number of views and of subscribers for her channel has stalled and has even begun to fall
As a result of this backlash, Gianulli has disabled comments on her YouTube channel further severing the parasocial relationship between her and her follows. Furthermore, she has also lost many valuable brand deals and is possibly facing expulsion from USC.
Logan Paul is a 22-year-old American YouTuber and vlogger known for his comedic antics and pranks. Though his antics have always been brash and abrasive, they resonated with his audiences, who found them humorous. He thus cultivates a parasocial relationship by appealing to a younger demographic.
In January of 2018, Paul uploaded a video titled "We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest…", in which he filmed a dead body, "holds back a laugh and says, 'this was all going to be a joke; why did it become so real?'" This video negatively affected his parasocial relationship with his audience, who felt that despite Paul's brash antics, laughing at a dead body proved to be too much. After receiving backlash on the video, Logan Paul issued a public apology on his Youtube channel along with removing the video from youtube, however, the apology video incident even more backlash from views due to the video being monetized. Views of the apology video thought that it was insincere because it was monetized further fracturing this parasocial relationship between him and his viewers. Paul claims he lost approximately $5 million in revenue following the controversy and changed the nature of his content to be less abrasive.
Shane Dawson is a YouTuber who rose to fame in 2008 and has racked up over 21 million subscribers. Dawson is known for creating comedic content that features dark humor in relation to his past. In his early days on YouTube, his content tended to be controversial, including videos in blackface and using African American Vernacular (AAVE). Although Dawson rebranded his channel to focus more on documentary-style content, viewers took to the internet to warn others about his history of controversial content. Dawson apologized for this behavior but continued to be involved in scandals throughout the years.
In 2018, a scandal occurred involving Dawson using jokes that involved pedophilia towards a six-year-old Instagram model. Dawson used inappropriate language to describe this child's content in his podcast, leading to an uproar on the internet spreading awareness of the situation and reaching audiences worldwide. Dawson created a video addressing the situation and apologizing, allowing him to gain back some loyalty from his viewers. In March of 2019, footage resurfaced from a video Dawson filmed in 2015 where Dawson mentions having sex with his cat. The video quickly spread and the situation became a trend on Twitter leading to Dawson apologizing through a thread of tweets.
Tana Mongeau is an Internet personality and rapper who has over 3.9 million subscribers on Youtube. Tana is most famous for her failed event, TanaCon, and her controversial videos. Her rise to fame began on Youtube with her "Story Time" videos in which she maintained a parasocial relationship with her fans and retold interesting stories of hers, such as someone hacking into her email, allowing her viewers to feel like she is talking to them as a close friend. Her controversial videos include those about her relationship with ex Disney star Bella Thorne and a video in which she speaks about the use of the N-word.
On May 26, 2018, Tana announced she would be hosting her own convention, named TanaCon. Her convention was set at the same time and only a few blocks away from VidCon and annual Youtube centered: community festival, creator conference, and industry summit. She intended for TanaCon to be an alternative to VidCon in response to her own negative experiences with the convention. The event lasted less than 6 hours before being shut down for overcrowding. Tana promised free tickets that would allow access to performances by famous YouTubers, with VIP tickets promising a fast pass for influencer meet & greets and a goodie bag When TanaCon fell well short of promises, the backlash quickly spread throughout social media.. Through a series of videos, released by Shane Dawson, TanaCon was explained to the fans. Tana knew she had oversold tickets, booked a venue incapable of holding such an event, and continued to promise a convention that she knew would fail. She bullshitted her fans and deceived her fellow Youtuber friends. She has since made an apology video and did not refund customers as requested.
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