You know that feeling you get when you're watching a TV show or someone's Instagram story and you just know that you and the person you're watching would get on really, really well? Then, the more you watch and the more you learn about them, the stronger that feeling becomes? "We would probably be great friends," you might think absent-mindedly, despite never having met them IRL. It's one-sided relationship and you know that but also, you kind of can't help it.
The concept of a parasocial relationship was coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe the way mass media users acted like they were in a typical social relationship with a media figure, such as feeling as though they are friends with a radio personality or a TV character. While this type of one-sided relationship existed long before the invention of TV and radio (in the form of political figures, gods and spirits), the growing role of mass media in people’s lives had brought these relationships into prominence. So much so, it's become overwhelmingly common for people to describe any relationship on Twitter as 'parasocial'.
The definition of a parasocial relationship is where a viewer or audience member becomes attached to and invested in a media character (be they real or fictional) who doesn't return the emotion. A sense of intimacy and closeness develops on one side but the other party in all likelihood does not know the former exists. Over the years, as the media industry has grown, parasocial relationships have become more common, especially in pop culture, from Beatlemania to the fans of 90s boybands to the exceedingly evolved Stan culture of today.
Parasocial relationships are actually perfectly normal and in fact psychologically healthy. As humans we are built to make social connections and so when we're presented with a person through audio or video, we seek to establish a bond with them. As Cynthia Vinney, a psychology writer and scholar specialising in media psychology, previously wrote for ThoughtCo: "This response does not mean that the individuals believe the interaction is real. Despite media consumers’ knowledge that the interaction is an illusion, however, their perception will cause them to react to the situation as if it were real."
Dr David Giles is a reader in media psychology at the University of Winchester, a field which he began developing in the early 2000s, looking with particular interest at the meaning that celebrity holds for audiences and for celebrities themselves. He agrees that parasocial relationships are not inherently problematic. "They are meaningful, sometimes as meaningful as actual social relationships, because even people we don't know can have profound significance in our lives, as inspiration or reassurance," he told R29. "Much of the time we don't really notice [parasocial relationships] because they're so natural, and then we find ourselves having a discussion with a stranger about someone neither of us has actually met but who we know intimately. Or feel that we know intimately. Which isn't really that different." In fact, he goes on to say that we can be just as deluded about our relationships with people we've actually known for years and are extremely close to.
No matter how often we repeat the message that social media is 'not real' and is 'only the highlights' we can't help but attach ourselves to the version of that person we see online.
However, for some people a parasocial relationship can become problematic. The one-sided nature of a relationship is more obvious when that relationship exists between a viewer and a character in a TV show but enters a grey area when it is between real people. Dr Giles noted this in the public reaction to the deaths of Princess Diana and Jill Dando in the 1990s. With the introduction of social media and its ability to give anyone with an account a public platform, the number of people who could unknowingly be on the receiving end of a parasocial relationship has exploded. Increased access through social media and the subsequent rise of influencers and creators has meant that these days, defining a 'person of note' is really, really hard.
Social media was built to encourage this. The potential to form parasocial relationships is in the DNA of sites like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. You become a ‘follower’ or a ‘subscriber’ of someone who then shares their thoughts and talks apparently directly to you as an individual ("hey guys!"). You can even reply, with the possibility of your reply being reciprocated (though it likely won’t be). You are given access to people like never before and the number of personalities you can look up to and engage with is endless. In fact, everyone who uses social media is somewhat encouraged to behave as a public figure. Unless you limit your followers, you present yourself and speak to an invisible audience, who you won’t always know or engage with directly. This is even more evident with services like Twitch and Instagram Live, where you speak directly to camera and respond in real time to messages from followers.
No matter how often we repeat the message that social media is ‘not real’ and is ‘only the highlights’ of someone's life, we can’t help but attach ourselves to the version of that person we see online. And the more that person shares, the more detailed a picture we get. Unless you have context from knowing that person in real life and can get IRL confirmation that their online self is just one facet of a much more rounded personality, it’s hard to see someone with whom we're in a parasocial relationship as a complicated individual with a life beyond what they share.
With parasocial relationships so rife, it’s inevitable that occasionally, someone will overstep the mark. Stylist and influencer Stephanie Yeboah has experienced this firsthand: "I've had people I've never spoken to send me voice messages out of the blue asking me why I haven't responded to their latest messages... I've also had people ask for details on people I've shown on my platform, such as friends or family."
She goes on: "There is a degree of entitlement that I think people think they have. They forget that we are individuals who can show as much or as little as we want." Stephanie acknowledges that the more you share, the more likely it is that people will develop a parasocial relationship with you. For the most part it is innocent but when people feel they are entitled to someone else’s time or space because of the one-sided relationship they have forged, it can push into uncomfortable spaces.
Hannah Louise, a self-described veteran blogger, agrees with Stephanie. "A few years ago I had a man DM me about mental health in response to something I had posted, so I replied wishing him well and thanking him for reading etc. He then proceeded to message me every time he saw I was in his area of London or near the shop he worked in, suggesting getting a drink, and once I got a message from him saying he'd just seen me in a pub. His profile was private and you couldn't see his face in his profile picture so I had no idea what this man even looked like – I had to block him after that."
When you're so used to seeing an influencer's bedroom on Instagram and reading about their mental health on Twitter, it is easy to see how, left unchecked, a parasocial relationship might make you feel as though you 'know' someone. This entitled dynamic gets more complicated when revelations emerge that contradict who you thought you were following. When we’re attached to a person (or their public persona), the shattering of that image can be hard to reconcile. This could be anything from old clips of them taken out of context, indications that they previously associated with some unsavoury characters or serious evidence of outright abhorrent behaviour. It can feel like a betrayal. In some cases it can even lead the 'parasocialler' to loudly, and publicly, sever their relationship with the 'parasocialee' if they don't get the kind of accountability and apology they believe they need from the person that they 'know'.
Cancel culture is the buzzword of the moment. Whether you can actually 'cancel' an incredibly famous figure who just can't stop airing her transphobic views is an argument for another time. But in the world of parasocial relationships, finding out that your favourite medium-sized influencer sent a rotten tweet back in 2012 feels like a betrayal, one that demands retribution. This is not the behaviour that you've come to expect from them. But of course, you've only been in a parasocial relationship with just one part of that person. That influencer is, in full, a problematic and flawed person, just like everyone else.
Parasocial relationships are not inherently detrimental – they can be engaging, rewarding and even inspiring. But when it comes to parasocial relationships with real people, no amount of projection is going to elevate them beyond the messiness of human existence. Maybe if we become better at recognising as much, we can find a way to accept that person as just another individual who is often doing their best and realise that we are not entitled to every intricacy of their life. In doing so, it will encourage people to actually do the work to make changes in the way they act in the world, and not just post about changing online. In turn, spending less time trying to make our favourites behave exactly as we want them to gives us more time to make the kind of real, concrete change we want to see in our own lives.