Parasocial Relationships: Definition & Examples
How do you relate to the media you consume?
Since the rise of television in the 1950s through to the emergence of social media over the last ten to 15 years, many people around the world have formed connections with their favorite television personalities, celebrities, and social media figures.
These connections – as you can imagine – are one-sided. You might feel a close connection to a public persona as you would in platonic relationships, but that person (most likely) does not have any familiarity with you. A parasocial relationship is experienced by someone who feels a sort of friendship or familiarity with a public personality or even a fictional character.
While it’s perfectly normal to develop parasocial relationships, with some of them actually being very positive, there can also be downsides to the parasocial phenomena. There is a lot to learn about parasocial interactions and relationships that can help us better understand ourselves, society, and technology.
What is a parasocial relationship with a media figure?
A one-sided nature of parasocial relationships exists when a person spends time, energy, or emotion for another person who is unaware of them. Parasocial relationships most commonly involve media figures such as television personalities, politicians, comedians, musicians or even sports teams.
Parasocial relationships have been described as the “illusion of friendship” that can be experienced by a person who engages with the mediated portrayals of public personas. Someone experiencing a parasocial relationship is usually not delusional about the reality that their favorite media figures do not reciprocate their feelings. Instead a person in a parasocial relationship might express deep concern, emotion, or opinions about their parasocial interest that – if not kept in check – could become an unhealthy obsession.
With perpetual 24/7 access to the internet, profile pages of our favorite personalities, and the ability for social media users to interact with them, it can be possible for certain fans and media users to pay more interest in their parasocial relationships than to their real life relationships. In media psychology this is explained by the fact that parasocial interactions have much less perceived risk to participate in than a real life interaction.
For example, someone can admire a celebrity and even post comments of affection towards them without the potential risk of face-to-face rejection. But more importantly than the lesser risk is the greater expansion of the social network beyond the limit of a real life community. A public persona shares themself with the world and can reveal behaviors and ways of thinking that someone might not recognize in their own offline social network.
Origins of parasocial relationships
When the concept of “parasocial relationships” was first termed by psychologists in 1956, the rise of television had created a dynamic between celebrities and media consumers that is reminiscent of today’s rise of social media influencers and personalities.
The psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Whorl studied the relationship between audience members and television personalities. These personalities included news anchors, actors, and show hosts whose charisma and attention could feel like it was pointed directly to the viewer at home. At the time, interactivity with media personas was much more limited.
Parasocial relationships then vs. now
To form parasocial relationships is to be a part of a one-sided and mediated environment, where the frequency, subject, and content of the public persona’s interaction with the viewer is controlled. There is some nuance to these one-sided relationships due to the evolving nature of our communication technologies.
Over time, mass media has grown truly massive – extending beyond the TV in our living room and out into the phone in our hand. Interactivity has increased between media users and the media figures they parasocialize with.
Whereas many people could (for example) love Lucille Ball while “I Love Lucy” aired, then admire pictures and news about her life in magazines, then talk about her with other Lucy fans, the experience of a parasocial relationship isn’t limited anymore to air times, magazines, and real life gossip.
In the internet age, fans of a public persona can access content created by or about them at any time of day, and a media consumers knowledge is limited only by their online pop culture research skills. Even with perpetual access to the online content of many public personas, there is still controlled mediation by either the media figures themselves (i.e. posting photos or livestreams on their personal social media pages) or their producers / network / representation (i.e. acting in a film).
The increased frequency of expression and mass communication by all users of social media – including public personalities – has created a perpetual environment for parasocial relationships to exist. Before social media, public figures had exclusivity to the platforms their fans would interact with them on. Television and magazines are mediated and controlled and generally non-interactive, whereas on social media platforms media figures and their fans all have the same type of account and can interact with each other freely.
While the feeling of friendship and familiarity is only experienced by the viewer, a parasocial relationship or parasocial interaction isn’t entirely one-sided when the public persona on the other side benefits from and might even encourage their fans and viewers to feel engaged.
An example of this could be a social media influencer on Instagram who relies on their audience members to interact with their content in order to make money from sponsored posts. Another example of a persona benefiting from their audience’s parasocial relationships could be a television show host whose familial and direct communication to their audience is essential to their success.
Think of Oprah, Ellen, and Conan, whose personalities are so familiar that – like a real life friend – their last names aren’t necessary to their recognition. It could even be argued that their anonymity was earned by building an entire community of parasocial relationships.
Parasocial relationship vs. parasocial interaction
A parasocial relationship is experienced by an individual who engages with a media figure. The relationship is one-sided and can last for any amount of time, but like any relationship, it’s more than just a simple interaction but a repetition of interactions.
A parasocial interaction is any engagement that an individual has with a media figure even if they do not have lasting interest in that public persona.
Commenting once on a celebrity’s social media post is an interaction while a relationship would be more extended and emotionally involved.
Beneficial parasocial relationships
Human beings are social creatures. It’s in our inherent nature to form social connections with others because, from an evolutionary standpoint, our chances of survival are higher together. Community is what helps us learn, grow, and build what we couldn’t alone. These relationships exist along a spectrum, with a casual acquaintanceship on one end and the discovery of your twin flame on the other.
In isolated conditions, our health has been proven to take a toll. Parasocial relationships have been found to relieve the strain of isolation by enabling a one-sided relationship between a media user and media figure.
For individuals with social anxiety disorders, health issues that prevent socialization – or for people under circumstances like stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 global pandemic – real life interpersonal relationships can be limited. With access to television and/or social media, many can experience feelings of support and friendship even in isolation.
Understanding your own relationships with media is crucially important in this day and age, and you have the means to make that self-awareness a reality. It’s hard work, but you can definitely do it!