In my short nineteen years, I have been in love way too many times. I have also had the greatest friends one could ever ask for, and have gone through the most adventurous experiences with them. The one tiny problem is… most of those people are not real. And the living rest? Well, I can declare with confidence (and deep sorrow) that they have no idea about my existence, nor would they care about it. When being put like this, the whole situation sounds extremely sad and pathetic, right? However, this holds true for most people who simply have a favorite type of entertainment, be it a TV show, a movie, a book, or a music album. Often times, we find this one intriguing character or a famous person who captures our interest and that is when everything starts going downhill.
The year 2020 has brought about significant changes in social media consumption habits. With the pandemic and numerous lockdowns, people greatly relied on technology, especially social media, to keep in contact with loved ones. Various old-time favorite cinematic pictures and books were revisited. Moreover, due to the lack of alternative sources of entertainment, the success of many newly launching TV series, like The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton, was practically guaranteed. With this, it can be argued that people were more often subjected to the company of fictional characters, traditional and social media celebrities rather than real-life acquaintances. Given the stressful circumstances, it is no surprise that some may have formed strong attachments to unrealistic figures, wherein their companionship is as comforting and gratifying as existing relationships with panthers, friends, and family. This notion is not novel to modern times and is known in the scientific world as ‘parasocial relationships’.
Para What Now?
Simply put, a parasocial relationship is a psychological one-sided relationship between a celebrity and a non-celebrity in mediated communication. In contrast to basic social relationships where all parties are aware of the connection, parasocial relationships are not reciprocal, in that only one point of a parasocial relationship is putting emotional effort into sustaining the relationship.
Although the terms “parasocial interaction” and “parasocial relationship” are used interchangeably, however, this should not be the case as the two have different implications. Parasocial interaction is a first-time exposure to a certain media persona whose appearance and/or personality captures a person’s attention and interest. A parasocial relationship, in turn, is developed after that initial interaction as the person starts to form illusions of familiarity, closeness, and identification due to continuous exposure to the character of interest. As new positive knowledge about the media persona is acquired, the strength of the parasocial relationship is further enhanced and a person feels increasingly connected to that character on a deeper emotional level.
What is particularly interesting is that, from the perspective of the non-celebrity part of the relationship, the connection with a celebrity is pretty similar to relationships one has with friends and family. They tend to adopt the habits, body language, worldview, and fashion style that the media character of interest displays. People involved in parasocial relationships also feel loyal to a celebrity party of the relationship. The reason why it is important to learn about the notion of parasocial relationships is its considerable influence on people as media identities have a large amount of positive and negative impact on media consumers. This further influences how they view some subjects and also their purchasing patterns.
Today, with the constant development of social media and the creation of new innovative features, like Instagram stories, the concept of parasocial relationships should be revisited as these new advancements allow for an instantaneous connection between celebrities and their supporters which has significant implications for people in parasocial relationships. However, the main question is still this: are parasocial relationships damaging or beneficial?
The Seed of Self-consciousness
And it was great, I was on top of the world, but what came after was not as great.
When immersing in a certain form of entertainment, we tend to associate with characters who are a more vibrant version of ourselves or who represent someone that we strive to be. In my childhood years, I was a Disney princess, a Winx fairy, and the fourth spy in the Totally Spies! cartoon series (yes, all three simultaneously, you can’t tell me I wasn’t cool). Later, I was fangirling over Natasha Romanoff from the Marvel universe because… well, let’s face it, she is a badass. What is interesting, though, I was not imagining that I was a certain princess or a superhero. Instead, I was picturing that I was one of them – still me, but braver, stronger, thinner, just better. And it was great, I was on top of the world, but what came after was not as great.
I think this is one of the downsides of parasocial relationships — the damaging effects on the image of yourself. We see these fantastic media characters who were intended to be fantastic when they were created, but then we think that we are supposed to be fantastic too.
Eventually, I remembered that I was not that brave, strong, or thin. I think this is one of the downsides of parasocial relationships — the damaging effects on the image of yourself. We see these fantastic media characters who were intended to be fantastic when they were created, but then we think that we are supposed to be fantastic too. This can certainly sow the seed of self-consciousness in one’s mind.
Conservation of Energy
Parasocial relationships, however, do not only affect the non-celebrity party in the relationship. The notion has also significant implications for media personas in that when forming a connection with a media character, people tend to put them on a pedestal and idealize them. On the one hand, this makes sense: we engage in parasocial relationships because celebrities are almost unreal, as close to perfection as humanly possible so we expect them to be that way. However, despite consciously entering a parasocial relationship, what we fail to understand is that the person on the other end is a human with their own feelings and the right to make mistakes. And, just like in the law of conservation of energy, wherein energy does not simply vanish but it merely transforms from one form to another, similarly, in terms of parasocial relationships, when a mistake happens, the strong affection towards a celebrity does not just disappear — it can turn into hate, which can have devastating consequences for the career and mental health of a celebrity.
So, don’t enter one-sided relationships, kids!
Here is your answer: parasocial relationships, where only one person develops a strong connection, are not healthy for both parties involved as the type of relationships can negatively affect a non-celebrity’s image of self and put immense pressure on a celebrity. So, don’t enter one-sided relationships, kids! (And I don’t just mean parasocial ones.)
Cover: Engin Akyurt