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The illusion of intimacy: parasocial relationships

It’s no surprise that during lockdown our use of digital media has skyrocketed but alongside that so has our engagement in parasocial relationships. What are they and why are they potentially detrimental?

So, what exactly is a parasocial relationship? As Refinery 29 puts 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, despite never having met them at all. Essentially, it’s feeling as though we personally know the celebrity, influencer or stranger we’re watching on the other side of the screen. Although these relationships are nothing new, the public outpouring of grief for Princess Diana being a key example, the rise of real-time social media has heightened the phenomenon.

The way we use social media has altered dramatically since the start of the pandemic, with a significant increase of users on platforms like Youtube, Twitch and TikTok, the latter of which saw a 576% increase in average monthly visits between 2019 and 2020. These platforms, along with live-streaming features like Instagram Live, allow us to interact with others in a more intimate and personal way than ever before, satisfying our desire to see our own experiences and feelings reflected back to us.

While just a few years ago celebrities felt worlds away from us, social media has made them more accessible and provided a direct line of communication between them and their fans. Similarly, influencers can communicate with their followers in much that same way you’d communicate with a friend, through direct messages or even speaking to their audience and responding in real time on Live Stories or Twitch. This intimacy makes it easy for us to think the relationship is two-way, and we can become emotionally invested in the lives of people we’ve never met.

This goes some way to explaining why Couch Guy has taken over the internet in recent weeks. It all started with a seemingly innocuous video posted on Tik Tok by a woman named Lauren, which follows her as she surprises her boyfriend Robbie at college and he gets up to hug her. At first glance, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Almost immediately, however, millions of people started analysing the behaviour and dynamics of the people in the video with the kind of forensic detail usually spared for a murder mystery. The central debate was about whether her boyfriend (who was surrounded by three other women in the video) was actually excited to see her, with the video quickly amassing over 54 million views, spurring millions of comments, reactions and parody videos.

People claimed they could feel the awkward tension in the video, with comments on the video such as “he looked liked he hugged her like she was his aunt at Christmas dinner” and “Babe we ain't judging a relationship, just reading the room, I'd ignore it if it was a few people saying it but its literally 16k people, run bestie.”

Even brands jumped on the trend, jumping in the comments to offer Lauren free product if she dumped her boyfriend.

But how can we really ‘feel’ anything from a 20-second video? According to this article featuring relationship expert and author of Relatable: How to Connect with Anyone, Anywhere (Even if it Scares You), Rachel DeAlto, we’re invested because we project our own experiences onto the clip, and seeing others agree with us in the comments reaffirms our world view. "It’s not about the couch guy. The couch guy TikTok video is, therefore, more like a Rorschach test of the viewer’s self-esteem, perspective, experiences and fears."

While this level of scrutiny is something we used to apply only to major celebrities, Rachel says the rise of social media means we’re now becoming emotionally attached to strangers on social media.

"This behavior extended beyond public figures with the onset of social media, as it provided a window into the lives of everyday people who began to share details of themselves and their relationships. We've hit a completely different tier of it because of accessibility.”

With millions of strangers around the world feeling so personally affected by the video, to the point they feel they can judge the relationship and the ‘vibe’ in the room, is it a sign we’ve taken parasocial relationships too far? While some people criticize the nature of these relationships and label them as dangerous for our mental health, others have defended the phenomenon, saying it can be a harmless way for people to feel connected.

Recently, Britney Spears fans have provided an example of how parasocial relationships can play out in real life, and have a positive impact. The #FreeBritney movement, which started in 2009, has been in the news recently as the star fights to be released from her conservatorship of 13 years. Her fans have been publicly voicing their concerns about the star for years, and last week it was announced her father Jamie Spears would step down as her conservator, marking a huge step towards freedom for the singer. As outlined in The Conversation, this highlights the indisputable shift in structure between celebrities and public audiences:

These days the meaning and value of celebrity is being more shaped by collective actions of social media fan activists than by the legacy press and the entertainment industry

This shift in power, from media to the fans, suggests parasocial relationships can be a force for good, bringing people together in the same way a sports team might unite two men at a bar with nothing else to talk about. In a society where we’re constantly told about the loneliness epidemic, it could be argued there’s no harm in offering a source of social interaction for the millions of people who need it most right now.

So somewhere between our screens and the strangers on the other side of them, is there a middle ground to be found, where we can benefit from the connection without investing so much of ourselves emotionally?

Influencer Flex Mami thinks so, and has started communicating clearer boundaries with her followers to foster this new way forward. In a recent 9Honey article, she says "It's constantly having to remind myself or remind people that you don't have access to me because you consume my content. You have access to the content I create for your consumption."

It’s this distinction, between having access to someone versus someone appearing accessible, that we need to keep in mind when considering how we engage with the world online.

Tiffany Simon

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