The Blurred Lines of Parasocial Relationships

By CreatorStack · 29 days ago

Hila Klein found out she was pregnant during a livestream with over 100K viewers. The live chat exploded:

Hila, and her husband, Ethan Klein, have amassed millions of followers on YouTube over the last decade as the duo behind h3h3 Productions and co-hosts of the H3 podcast. Initially building their audience through comedy sketches and reaction videos, in the past few years their channel has centered around discussions and interviews pertaining to pop culture, politics, and the internet. They’ve also become experts at living life online. Before the big announcement, they had shared their desire to conceive a second child, discussing their struggles with fertility and giving their viewers insight into doctor’s visits and specialist’s advice. In an earlier video, Hila mentioned that they would bypass the customary three-month waiting period before telling people about getting pregnant, intentionally eschewing the taboo of discussing a potential miscarriage—their audience would be the first to know.

For online creators and internet influencers, sharing intimate details about their lives is now part of the job description. The audience is brought into the inner fold on marriages, break-ups, divorces, deaths, births, adoptions, illnesses. Creators speak directly to the viewer’s eye line on video, spend hours with watchers on live streams, or croon into the listener’s ears through the podcast mic. The openness and candor with which many online creators speak is more than many average people would divulge to friends and family, and more than friends and family might divulge to them.

For some, these information bytes form the basis of a parasocial relationship: instead of discussing a recent video posted by “someone they follow,” a fan might speak about “someone they know,” going so far as to refer to their favorite creator as a friend.

In 1956, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined the term “para-social relationship,” defined as a “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” Described in “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction,” they discuss these non-mutual relationships formed with people who appear on “radio, television, and movies”:

In 2000, the same year that brought us Survivor and Big Brother, Eminem released the song “Stan,” about an obsessed fan who kills himself and his girlfriend when the rapper doesn’t respond to his litany of letters. The song is an acknowledgement of extreme fandom and its discontents in a time where Perez Hilton was beginning to blog about celebrities with a new rabidity, documenting their every move and demanding access to all parts of their lives. Today “stanning” creators is both explicit and ironic acknowledgement of extreme creator worship: writing fan fiction, creating fan pages, and tracking their movement across the web and irl. The word made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, eighteen years after the song was released.

But parasocial relationships have changed in one important way: more and more, the person on the pedestal reciprocates, and a perceived bond can become a “real” one—brief and impermanent, significant and long-lasting, or somewhere in between.

In a 2017 paper on the subject, researchers at Singapore Management University and National University of Singapore describe how the rise of social media has created online relationships between celebrities and fans that are more symbiotic than parasocial:

“Opportunities for interactions with celebrities in the past were rare and carefully controlled by celebrities for publicity and promotion purposes. However, social media have changed this one‐sided relationship to a more interactive and reciprocal one. Celebrities willingly share on social media seemingly personal information with their audiences. In response, audiences ‘follow’ their favorite celebrities 24/7, peeking into their private lives and getting to know them ‘up close and personal.’ These new media environments have narrowed the distance between audiences and celebrities and have altered the role of audiences from that of mere spectators or admirers to ‘friends’ of celebrities.”

Looking to monetize these parasocial interactions, creator platforms like YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, and OnlyFans are building features to allow creators to cash in on their parasocial relationships and help them cross the chasm between engaging with fans and initiating the valuable bonds that feel more like friendship. Increasingly, “supporting a creator” is paying for more intimacy and greater access. Though the result of this shift—for fans and creators alike—can be a connection that feels just as real as the truest friendship, the blurred lines of parasocial relationships can be dangerous. We’re not just living in the creator economy; we’re part of a parasocial economy that commoditizes closeness. Parasocial relationships can become parasitic.

For creators, forming parasocial relationships with fans, and subsequently reaching across the divide, can encourage eyeballs and engagement in a time of fleeting attention—securing subscribers, landing sponsorship, and guaranteeing income.

By building trust through parasocial interactions that divulge personal details, creators can convince their audiences to hit that like button, buy that merch, and subscribe. Take podcasts. The intimacy of another person’s voice accompanying you throughout your day, and the dependence this companionship can breed, are highly monetizable.

The “extreme para-sociability” that Horton and Wohl first described in 1956 appears easy to observe through fandoms and “stan culture.” The parasocial relationships that creators are compelled to continue to maintain their fandom is in part an algorithmic problem—platforms reward engaged creators with greater visibility, while this in turn perpetuates unrealistic expectations from fans.

Despite how blurred the parasocial lines may be and how hard platforms are working to erase them entirely, the reality is rather simple: the notion of a special bond with a creator is contrived, and what seems like unfettered access to their lives is curated. It’s the intimacy you’d get from any imaginary friend.