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Photo by Rodrigo Carvalho via Flickr

What are parasocial relationships?

Let’s talk about parasocial relationships. Relationships formed online with strangers, relationships formed through one-sided interactions and twitter binges. As consumers of mass media, we are painfully unaware of what parasocial relationships involve.

“Parasocial” describes the relationship between the audience and the performer in mass media. Formed through one-sided interactions and media-consumption. It was first coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in their essay “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction”. Where they analysed how we see celebrities and radio hosts as our friends.

How are parasocial relationships manifested?

According to Horton and Wohl, a celebrity “…offers…a continuing relationship…[their] appearance is a dependable event, to be counted on, planned for, and integrated into the routines of [the audience’s] daily life”. Which makes the audience feel that they share their life together.

Dave Garroway, the founding host and anchor of NBC’s Today spoke about how he addressed his audience listening to the radio, “…I just rambled along… tried to pretend that I was chatting with a friend…Then…I consciously tried to talk to the listener as an individual, to make each listener feel that he knew me and I knew him.”

What does it mean for the audience?

When we see or hear from someone on a regular basis and listen to them talk about their personal issues on social media platforms and scroll through our Twitter feed to read about their pets and family. It often feels like we live a shared life.

Dave Garroway added, “strangers often stop [him] on the street…call [him] Dave and seem to feel that [they] are old friends who know all about each other.”

The line between performer and friend becomes blurred. As the audience, despite us having the fundamental understanding that celebrities do not know us, we still feel a deep bond with them. And in turn forget that although we “know” them very well, to them, we are no more than supportive strangers.

Are parasocial relationships unhealthy?

Parasocial relationships can certainly be exploited and have negative effects on both the performer and the audience. From YouTubers convincing their audience to respond to their sponsorship advertisements to Twitch streamers asking for bits and donations. Media platforms have even encouraged their content creators to use parasocial relationships to boost viewer engagement and increase income.

Some viewers can become obsessed with the performer’s personal life to the point it becomes toxic for the performer. Some revel in the attention given by hearted comments, pinned messages and donation shoutouts. A teenager has given away $19,780 USD to several live streamers over the span of two weeks using their mother’s debit card.

Yet, this type of relationship also has benefits. A study by Derrick et. al in 2008 showed that parasocial relationships can act as a buffer against losses of self-esteem and social rejection. Which can be helpful for individuals with lower self-esteem. It can create a strong sense of belonging.

A final word

We are undergoing major changes in the ways we communicate and connect with each other. That’s why it’s more important than ever to talk about parasocial relationships. So what do you think of this parasocial phenomenon?

Additional reading:

  1. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/parasocial-relationships/
  2. http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/short/horton_and_wohl_1956.html
  3. https://hypebeast.com/2020/8/teenager-spends-20000-twitch-donations-debit-card

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