Marginalized people with platforms face harsher expectations and worse criticism when it comes to parasocial dynamics online.
CW/TW: Discussion of white supremacy, queerphobia, social exploitation of marginalized people
By Shaanth Nanguneri
In every Tiktok, Youtube video, and Tweet we consume, our parasocial relationships with content creators are evolving. The idea of a parasocial relationship in the mind of consumers is not far off from the traditional, daily social relationships we have with those in our closest circles. However, that is exactly the purpose of parasocial relationships, to create identity or familiarity and assign it to a figure in the media whom we consistently give our attention to.
Parasocial relationships are an accumulation of parasocial interactions, which are defined as a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media, particularly on television. It is important, now more than ever, that this definition expands to include these sort of mediated encounters that occur over social media platforms.
In fact, the key word defining these interactions that lead to parasocial relationships developing over time, is mediated. It implies a figure or creator is created, edited, moderated, and ultimately not really who they are in their day-to-day life. Even if they are, those who engage with the modern day Tiktok or Twitter creator make the subconscious decision to manufacture an image of who they view this figure to be. There’s a sense of knowing and proximity that develops through every piece of content any media figure may create. It’s shattered if one were ever to actually see them in person, only to realize they have no idea who they actually are. This ranges from the visual image users conjure up to the virtual personality they assign to these creators.
It’s clear that perception, in all of these interactions, plays a key role in defining parasocial relationships, for both creators and users who interact with them. Yet, perception is one of the most weaponizable tools of bigotry and discrimination. Our senses and ability to perceive do not exist in a vacuum separate from systems of oppression, and they certainly do not fail to appear in the media. This is why it is so critical to interrogate the formation of parasocial relationships in the age of influencer culture and content creation, but also social media in general.
With the rise of digital organizing, activism, and political education, those who are most marginalized (often queer or BIPOC) build platforms as a means to center their voices and are followed by white, cishet audiences. In reality, these audiences are centering their parasocial relationships with these creators, audiences that are still learning to deconstruct their biases. In this age of parasocial relationships augmented by social media, queer people and BIPOC with a platform may struggle to maintain validity in their spaces compared to their white counterparts because these relationships are inseparable from the society they exist in.
Systems of oppression will seep into the mediated identity in which a parasocial relationship exists. Black, Indigenous, and other creators of color are forced to account for this in their online identity. They’re less able to have a platform that does not address social justice issues, or when they do, they are met with criticism and lack of understanding for their multifaceted identities. Marginalized people do not owe us their activism. They should not be met with criticism for not addressing each traumatic violation of their people’s humanity. They are allowed the space to share their joy, their lip-syncing videos, and their takes on culture, entertainment, and life.
Marginalized people with platforms will face harsher expectations from those same systems their platform is opposing, like white supremacy or queerphobia. These are the platforms designed to build coalitions and organize against oppression, yet the parasocial dynamic has allowed for bigotry and discrimination to become amplified in the constricted identities created for marginalized voices. One must ask, does this happen to white creators who use their platforms for social justice? Do their audiences have images of them existing solely as a means for change or activism? Or, are they allowed the space to exist as fully-rounded people, even while maintaining the parasocial dynamic?
White supremacy and other forms of bigotry demand that marginalized creators constrict themselves to their social justice content. Focusing on platforms like TikTok or Twitter, where there is so much possible interaction between user and creator (ie. Comment responses by video, quote tweeting), the sense of entitlement to a response from marginalized creators is on clear display. That means responding and maintaining composure in the face of dog-whistles, bad faith arguments, and comments designed to test the boundaries of the identity marginalized creators are forced to uphold.
The onus remains on those most marginalized to watch their tone and responses, for fear of stepping out of the rigid lines set in place for them by their audiences. Those who choose not to feed into preconceived identities are labelled with terms far too familiar to marginalized people in real life spaces: angry, bitter, out-of-touch, resentful, even ungrateful. Is this not a system of oppression manifesting itself into the platforms of marginalized voices? Furthermore, is this not clear evidence that consumers’ parasocial relationships are inherently tied to the relationship they have with white supremacy and queerphobia?
Even more worrisome is that white creators gain social capital speaking with the same rhetoric and ideas marginalized voices originally create. These are not their lived experiences, and to many, it is another way to gain social capital. This blurs the lines between true digital allyship and chasing social capital. Amplifying the voices of marginalized groups has morphed into a tool for absolving white, cishet creators of their inherent prejudices. White, cishet creators, unintentionally or intentionally, will defang this rhetoric while co-opting it for their audience. Even platforms like Tiktok have track records of suppressing the content of Black activists and organizers. How can white, cishet creators gain a platform with social justice content, while the originators of this content are suppressed? Privileged creators presenting content designed for the advocacy of the most marginalized results in an intrinsic need to water down and spoon feed content for their audiences. Does this not ultimately create expectations for marginalized creators to do the same?
The least marginalized end up growing their platform by becoming the appealing social justice advocate, but not one that challenges the idea of what an activist should be. They are not daring to radically challenge systems of oppression while facing that oppression, and while having the ability to exist outside of that space. They are not the closest to the pain they are profiting off of. Yet, they continue to hold the social and economic capital generated from digital advocacy. This is clear inequity that is essentially exacerbated by the parasocial dynamic of social media.
The common denominator in these particular parasocial dynamics is clearly the audience, often younger, eager to be educated, but still unaware of how their eagerness can be weaponized by the systems from which they want to help liberate queer and BIPOC. Thus, the true onus should not be on the marginalized voice or creator to uphold their end of the parasocial relationship. Rather, these audiences must take the lead in challenging their ideas of what an activist is, and how an activist should make them feel. They should strive for discomfort. To be coddled and treated as though their engagement in the parasocial relationship is the priority, rather than the actual content they’re consuming, is to center the same oppression we are trying to fight.
Shaanth Nanguneri (they/them) is a queer, South Asian student attending UCLA. They plan on writing for Student Media at UCLA, and have a deep interest in the rise of young people’s digital advocacy. You can find them on twitter @Shaanth21 and their email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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