Moving beyond the Parasocial
For many, our goal online is to appear relatable, approachable even. It’s the reason celebrities like Chrissy Tiegen, John Mulaney and even Ben Affleck at times have all been called relatable. The early 2000’s were filled with gossip columns highlighting the fact that Celebrities are in fact just like us.
With the rise of social platforms, we lost some of the need for paparazzi + gossip columns, we only had to login and scroll away, taking in a peek of the perfectly curated aspects of celebrity lives in a very human way. The more realistic, and relatable their lifestyle — the more we bought into it.
Welcome to the explosion of the parasocial relationship.
Our online platforms have only drove an increase of access to those who we adore and put up on pedestals, came the rise of the parasocial relationship. A parasocial relationship is a one-sided friendship that we often perceive to have with someone we follow or subscribe to — which has hit this sort of mass popularity with the explosion of the creator economy.
We “know” someone from a social platform — but we likely have never met them in-person or have had any sort of conversation with them (other than one in the comment section of a public forum, maybe a DM or two), nor could we tell you what their favorite food is or what they like to do off-camera. And if you’re lucky enough to be DMing the actual creator — oftentimes you’re actually talking to an assistant or strategist for them.
Parasocial relationships drive you to buy that thing, influence you on the vacation of your dreams and even dictate trends, and evolve into businesses of their own. But what happens to these parasocial relationships in a world where platforms are starting to prove themselves unstable? How can we dive past this in order to foster true connection — and friendship — deeming algorithms unnecessary?
The perception of friendship derived from parasocial relationships and the algorithmically-fostered connections that we have, allow those who actually take the time to foster relationships to rise to the next level — something that will become even more important given social platforms increasing instability.
How parasocial relationships develop fan networks + drive the creator economy. Everyone wants to feel heard, loved and supported in the world these days, and only more so during a pandemic which drove many of us to be only more online, or even log online for the first time.
Artists, creators, musicians, and actors have all leveraged this desire for connection that arose during this time for their own benefit. No longer relying on previous models, there is a pipeline created directly not only into someone’s home, but directly to someone’s cell phone.
We get a peek into Britney’s dance moves, family drama + partial nudes, connected on a Friday Wine Hour with a Sister Wife, and in a fandom I participated heavily in as a teen — we saw Lily Allen become ubiquitous on Myspace (and yes, my profile song was definitely from Alright, Still).
This perception of closeness isn’t driven by an authentic desire for connection — but rather out of a desire to provide the perception of connection. We know that if fans feel strongly connected with the object of their fandom — they’ll likely spend more money, time and effort towards the fandom. Additionally, since fandom is an inherently social activity, offering more ways to participate and fueling the fandom will only further drive more fans to join in.
As The Future of the Sports Fan tells us — offering new models of connection is a massive revenue generator.
“If you're a sports team or an athlete, you want fans to identify with you because that's where the money is.”
— Dr. Daniel Wann, Sports Fan Psychologist in Future of the Sports Fan
This isn’t anything new — PT Barnum set the origins for how we connect with our fans today.While now dramatized in the movie, The Greatest Showman, PT Barnum (and Jenny Lind for that matter), are real people, with real lives who actually wrote the playbook for many celebrities and promoters today.
The public enthusiasm and desire for Jenny Lind was very much manufactured — as historian Bluford Adams writes in E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and Making of US Popular Culture, Barnum crafted a public persona for her as well as many of his other “living curiosity” exhibitions.
In comparison to the average individual, Barnum and his acts lived life in the public — the very public — continuously writing press releases and encouraging patrons to follow along his journey. Barnum wasn’t always known for telling the truth, but he was definitely known for putting on a show. Through mindfully crafted talking points and appealing to the curiosities of both the everyday man and the scientific, he crafted gatherings that appealed to a wide range of people.
If we consider the case of Jenny Lind’s promotion, specifically: she was never described as quite the exceptional musician, but rather, described for her feminine virtues such as generosity and charitability. This created fervor — she was the everyday celebrity of the time period, accessible, and ever so slightly aspirational — much like the celebrities of today.
PT Barnum also birthed the roots for another popular marketing tactic: merchandise. Selling Jenny Lind hats, photographs, and signatures alongside her tour. (Fun fact — you can view some of this merch on the Lindomania site supported by UVA’s American Studies).
Through crafting celebrity — and making it accessible to the masses — PT Barnum birthed the roots to the parasocial relationships that we have today.
Moving beyond the parasocial.In order to build a better, less manufactured future — I’m conscious that we must move beyond the parasocial — and into actual social relationships. For those who have been manufacturing parasocial relationships, this is going to require a mindset shift.
I educate on the topic of community in my day job, and find myself using the phrase “are they a Twitter friend, or a real friend” a lot. This phrase is a challenge to community folks and anyone who works in the world of audience engagement — how are we building relationships for the sake of relationships, not just so we can grasp a better understanding of what we’re doing?
Moving beyond the parasocial relationship requires 1:1 conversations; it means less automations and processes and “fan activations”; it means a larger investment in authentic events and community-driven solutions, not crafted press launches and media days. It means building and creating in a way that puts people at the forefront of these movements.
While this seems difficult at first, approaching the world of fandom through a more authentic lens also acts as an act of resistance against the inherently capitalist desires that many folks working in fields of media, audience, and community often succumb to. Let’s stop trying to sell, influence, or curate people into boxes, and rather build a more sustainable future.
Authentically building relationships future-proofs you against platform changes, the influence of algorithms, and any other unprecedented events.
Most importantly — finding ways to facilitate and foster friendship not only in your own life, but in your day of work will always be a good thing to do. ✌🏻