Recently online, especially on YouTube, there have been discussions about parasocial relationships and interactions. Our relationship and interactions with celebrities and the new age influencer celebrities is different than what it used to be even ten years ago.
The term parasocial interaction was first coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. It defines a psychological relationship between a media figure and their audience. What happens is some of the audience forms what feels like a friendship between themselves and the media figure, even though they have never met said figure. With repeated, positive experiences in viewing this figure, the audience will form this parasocial relationship.
Social media has increased the chances of this type of interaction as well as the intensity of this interaction. Online communication with influencers feels much more intimate and real than merely viewing a media figure on tv.
The term ‘influencer’ to describe these new age celebrities is also very fitting as oftentimes those in these parasocial interactions are much more susceptible to influence from the person being followed, whether it be in beliefs or in consuming goods. Because there is a feeling of closeness between the influencer and the audience, the trust that comes with this relationship sways consumers into buying specific goods.
Parasocial relationships have existed though before the internet or even mass media, as people would sometimes form believed relationships with political figures or famous people of the time.
There is a good amount of research on this topic that has looked into ways that this type of interaction works on a cognitive level and who may be susceptible to it. Those that have a dismissive attachment style or find interacting within others difficult and/or anxiety inducing, may find parasocial interaction to be fulfilling.Parasocial interaction is regarded as a normal cognition and extension of healthy social cognition.
In children, girls are more likely than boys to develop parasocial relationships with television or media figures. Boys are more likely to form a PI with a male figure while girls equally choose either male or female figures. A child’s PI and PR with a media figure can have lasting effects on their self-perception later in life as well as relationships. These relationships can also enhance a child’s learning through personalization.
There are obviously negative effects as well. In young girls, some PI and PR can result in a negative body image. These interactions can increase self-comparison and comparison with the character. While with men, those who had experienced prior PI and PR with muscular superhero characters as young boys were less likely to have negative body image than those who had no experience with PI and PR with muscular superheroes.
There is some research in a sub-field regarding parasocial breakups. This is when the fixture of the PI/PR either disappears or something happens to dissolve the relationship. While more research needs to be done, some researchers have found that individuals can experience the same turmoil and trauma, though on a smaller scale, as to a social breakup when a parasocial breakup occurs.
Parasocial interactions and relationships are more prevalent and easier to fall into these days with social media platforms like Youtube, Instagram, and Twitch. We the consumer are afforded what appears to be vulnerable moments and glimpse into the lives of internet celebrities we enjoy, thus building trust with viewers. Over time there is a sense of friendship or closeness that is built between the content creator or influencer and their audience. Audiences these days are more than a fandom, in many cases these individuals feel like they are involved in the creator’s life.
Being aware of parasocial relationships and interactions can help you identify these views in yourself and others and help mitigate any negative effects these relationships might have. These relationships can provide a wealth of good, but also a destructive hobby. I encourage you to check out the research and articles out there as there is ample reading out there on the topic.