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As socialization increasingly shifts online, we are likely to form more (and more intense) parasocial bonds and see a blurring of the boundaries between the real and the parasocial. 

By Sohel Sarkar

In 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle shoved his fictional detective Sherlock Holmes off a cliff, fans went into public mourning, forcing the author to resuscitate their beloved sleuth. A century later, when Diana Spencer died in a car crash in 1997, the world mourned for a “people’s princess” very few had seen except on a television screen. A quarter-century since, fans of John Mulaney are venting on social media at what they see as the stand-up comedian’s fall from grace. In less than a year, Mulaney completed 60 days in rehab for drug addiction, divorced his wife of six years, started dating actress Olivia Munn, and announced they’re expecting a child together. It’s proved too much for fans of the once Wife-Guy-in-Chief Mulaney, who find themselves distraught, disappointed, and “weirdly offended.” 

What do Holmes readers, Diana’s mourners, and Mulaney fanatics have in common? They all feel invested in a person — or a fictional character — with whom they developed “intimacy at a distance”, a phenomenon that social scientists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl first described in 1956 as a parasocial relationship. 

What are parasocial relationships?

The defining feature of a parasocial relationship is that it is one-sided and mediated, meaning that it is experienced through the medium of a book, a television screen, the internet, etc. Horton and Wohl were specifically interested in understanding viewers’ relationship with TV personalities such as news presenters, game show hosts, and interviewers. They found that over repeated interactions — for instance, by regularly watching a television show — viewers begin to believe that they “know” the media personality “in somewhat the same way they know their chosen friends.”

Viewers are aware that this is an “illusion of a face-to-face relationship” and not a real relationship in the social world. However, the emotions generated by it are real enough. In her book Parasocial Romantic Relationships, Riva Tukachinsky Forster explains this phenomenon in evolutionary terms. Mass media such as books and movies have not existed long enough for the human brain to develop unique structures that process these media objects,  and so, the “brain processes involved in decoding information from one’s actual environment are also used to process whatever happens in the media environment.” When media users encounter a person via audio or video, they react in the same way as they would in a real-life social situation. Even though parasocial relations occur in the imagination, they resemble social relations in their psychological make-up. This means users also experience ‘parasocial breakups’, a sense of loss and distress following the end of a parasocial relationship. 

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Why do we form parasocial relationships?

Some researchers, including Horton and Wohl, believe that parasocial relations are a manifestation of lonely and isolated people seeking sociability and love wherever they think they can find it. A recent study, however, debunked the notion that the intensity of a viewer’s parasocial bond with an onscreen character is linked to loneliness. Others suggest that people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, those who want to form intimate and meaningful bonds but are also anxious about the rejection they may face in the real world, report the deepest parasocial bonds. Since parasocial bonds trigger the same responses in media users as real-life social relations, they can generate a sense of well-being by potentially satisfying the need to belong. Development psychologist Tracy Gleason explains that since rejection is unlikely to come from a media personality at the other end of a television screen, a parasocial bond “creates a safe space” to daydream and allows people to indulge in “low-stakes fantasies.” 

For those who have meaningful social relationships in real life, parasocial bonds can act as a tool for self-discovery. According to Gleason, “Parasocial relationships can give you the opportunity to try on a different identity…You can experience it vicariously or by incorporating things into your own life.” People with low self-esteem can move closer to their ideal self through parasocial relationships, something they may be unable to do in real relationships.

When do parasocial relations veer into unhealthy territory?

“It is only when the parasocial relationship becomes a substitute for autonomous social participation, [or] when it proceeds in absolute defiance of objective reality, that it can be regarded as pathological,” Horton and Wohl argued in the 1950s. This can happen, for instance, when parasocial relationships with celebrities take the form of celebrity worship. “While some degree of celebrity worship is normal, especially in adolescents,” explains researcher Carol Laurent Jarzyna, “the behavior frequently develops to an unhealthy degree, involving obsessions, compulsions, and elements of addiction.” 

A comparable phenomenon peculiar to the digital world is stan culture. As celebrities actively try to cultivate a loyal fan base, the internet cultivates “groups of fans into believing that they are close to the celebrity,” explains Daniel Faltesek, a New Media Communications professor at Oregon State University. Stans are “highly obsessive fans” whose identity is intertwined with the success of their idol, and who will defend the celebrity against all criticism, sometimes resorting to  harassment and bullying. Like celebrity worship, Falstek sees stan culture as a derivative of parasocial relationships. 

How does social media reconfigure parasocial relationships?

When Horton and Wohl wrote about the concept in the 1950s, they believed that the mediated and one-sided nature of parasocial relationships precluded the possibility of mutual give-and-take. Any reciprocal relationship with a television or radio personality could only be “suggested”. At best, viewers at home could attempt to reach the media personality through the occasional fan mail or by calling in to a TV/radio station. 

The internet, and particularly social media, has added another dimension to this dynamic by creating more than the mere possibility of reciprocity with the mediated other. A celebrity’s Instagram profile or an influencer’s YouTube channel often speak directly to those that follow or subscribe to them. The follower or subscriber can reply to their posts and expect a reciprocal reply, even if rarely. These reciprocal encounters erode the boundaries that separate the real and parasocial, ‘friend’ and ‘celebrity’ and perpetuate the illusion that audiences/fans are involved in a celebrity or media personality’s life.

The potential for reciprocity may lead audiences/fans to not just believe that the celebrity or media personality is a friend who they “know” in a personal capacity, but also to expect some semblance of accountability. Against this expectation, revelations that contradict the celebrity’s perceived image can produce shock, disappointment, or anger, and in extreme cases, end with fans and followers publicly and loudly denouncing their ‘parasocial friend’. In Mulaney’s case, a departure from the perceived super-relatable wife guy image prompted fans to wonder not just “how could he do this to her” but also “how could he do this to us?”

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Does the ‘parasocial friend’ remain passive in the parasocial relationship?

Not really. The movie star, the Instagram celebrity, the Tiktok influencer, the local newscaster, and the stand-up comedian are invested in actively constructing and presenting a version of themselves — their public persona — to their audience. Horton and Wohl described how TV producers use a deliberate “coaching of attitudes” to create in viewers “an illusion of intimacy” with a media personality. For instance, “when the television camera pans down on a performer, the illusion is strong that he [sic] is enhancing the presumed intimacy by literally coming closer,” they noted. The presenter’s onscreen persona is standardized so that they seem both predictable and dependable, and their interactions with the audience mimic the informality of a face-to-face meeting, making them relatable. In other words, the celebrity persona that triggers a one-sided intimacy in the audience is in fact consciously curated. “Parasocial relationships are precisely how and why some people get famous. […] They want you to get to know ‘them.’ It’s good for their art; it’s even better for their business,” writes Madison Malone Kircher. 

This act of self-construction acquires a new dimension when celebrities, influencers, and media personalities curate a social media presence that ostensibly lets the audience into their lives, with famous actors sometimes posting messages and replies to their followers as if they really knew them. The instagram pictures of Mulaney and his now ex-wife with their dog Petunia, the performative candid interviews, and the stand-up monologue peppered with references to ‘my wife’ produce the desired image of “sober, happily married, happily childless (unless you count his bulldog Petunia).” This image, which stands apart from the individual, is not a lie but rather, a role continually and consciously performed for the audience. As Aja Romano writes, Mulaney used this image “to promote his brand” and “performed this role so well, in fact, that it didn’t feel to the audience like a performance — and so they forgot that it was, and had been all along.”

The backlash against the stand-up comedian is the result of the individual departing from the public persona, and thus creating a dissonance in the parasocial bond that was formed by the audience with that persona.

Will the pandemic blur the boundaries between the ‘para’ and the ‘real’?

The socialization deficit imposed by the pandemic has changed the way we interact with each other, writes Jarzyna. But even before pandemic-induced lockdowns, relationships on social media acquired parasocial qualities. A “friend” on Instagram might be “a celebrity, a regular person who achieved celebrity through that community, or an actual friend or family member.” Yet, interaction with people in each of these categories is largely the same, she notes.

If we read the backlash against a ‘parasocial friend’ as failure of boundary-setting and the inability to differentiate between public persona and private individual, that gap is likely to become messier in the wake of the pandemic. As socialization increasingly shifts online, we are likely to form more (and more intense) parasocial bonds and see a blurring of the boundaries between the real and the parasocial. 

Sohel Sarkar is an independent writer and editor and a feminist researcher. Her cultural critiques, personal essays, and reviews have appeared in Bitch Magazine, Whetstone Magazine, Protean Magazine, and Color Bloq among others. She’s a freelance editor with Bot Populi, a publication that looks at data and technology from a social justice and global south perspective. Find her on Twitter @SohelS28.

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