How Parasocial Relationships Have Defined The Tech Industry

Ed Zitron 6 min read

In my mind, the parasocial relationship - where someone develops a totally one-sided relationship with someone who has little or no idea they exist - may be the most important psychological effect of the modern tech era. Felix Biederman put it well:

The thing he’s referring to is Bill Maher saying that watching other people on Twitch is a “waste of fucking time,” in his usual insufferable manner, and I think Felix’s point is that yes, theoretically it’s a waste of time because it creates a fake relationship, but at the same time many TV shows and forms of mass media do the same thing, and that there’s not really anything wrong with that.

The imprinting of a relationship onto a form of mass media is something that’s been obvious for a long time - talk shows are inherently conversational, talk radio basically exists for people to feel like they’re “in the room” or being talked to directly by the host, and so on. TV shows are intentionally or otherwise made with characters that either exhibit qualities to make them likeable (or unlikeable) and attract people to feel a certain way about them - creating, consciously or not, a relationship with a totally fictional character. Hell, I think we all know someone that’s said (or have said it ourselves) that a particular song “feels like it speaks to them.”

The reason that I think that these relationships have become so important is that they define a great deal of interactions on social media. The popularity of influencers is something that’s grown because of how they expose themselves via social media, even if said social media is extremely mediated or contrived. Celebrities and influencers can post whatever they want and respond to anyone they want (theoretically), and as a result there are many fans that believe that there is an actual relationship taking place when they interact on social media, despite the very high likelihood that the celebrity or influencer has never nor will never see the interaction.

What’s important to recognize here is that this isn’t something that requires someone to be a huge celebrity, just someone that’s popular in their own particular sect. And I believe that social media layers on cues that strengthen these quasi-parasocial (IE: very light communication, through likes or retweets or the occasional reply) or parasocial relationships. Someone following you on Twitter creates a certain level of attachment - we believe that we are connected somehow, even if said follow never actually results in any kind of other reaction.

The weight of certain social media-based reactions is such that we can, in our minds, say that we “know” someone that we don’t. I’ve definitely said I know people because they follow me on Twitter and I follow them, and we’ve had at best the lightest possible interaction in the world. And this strengthens the network - Twitter is considered more intimate, with the flimsiest communiques resulting in people believing they are far more connected than they actually are. People boast about who’s following them as if they’re their friend, and people react with jealousy - they have assumed a relationship (parasocial-by-proxy? I ain’t a psychologist!) based on who does or does not follow someone. When someone stopped following me a few months that I admire, I felt bad - partly because I assumed I annoyed them (most likely they were just like “eh I don’t wanna see these posts”) and partly because I had, consciously or otherwise, assumed we had some sort of vague friendship despite talking once.

This is also a phenomena that fuels my work - reporters follow my tweets, they thus have an idea of the person I am and have formed some view of me in their head, and thus when I approach there are the beginnings of a relationship in one or both of our heads. This is not something I do deliberately, and I believe it’s the effect of anyone’s consumption of any social feed. You get a feel for the person, you build a relationship in your head with them, and thus when an actual relationship builds, there are the building blocks of something. The same happens on online dating - we read a profile, we see a picture, and we make a conscious decision to communicate with them, likely writing a message that is entirely based off of our interpretation of their descriptions.

I feel that these parasocial relationships also are a huge fuel for podcasts that are groups of people talking. We are willing bystanders to an intimate (contrived or otherwise) conversation between friends who banter and debate in front of us, and we feel ourselves grow closer to them, feeling that we want to be part of the conversation. We hear relationships grow in front of us in vast detail, and we are part of the continuum of events that strengthen and grow relationships, so, naturally, we see ourselves as part of the relationship ourselves despite the podcasters not specifically knowing we are listening. This is intentional to the medium - podcasts are parasocial by nature, inviting us into an intimate setting (a private conversation) - which is compounded by any aspect in which the speakers are vulnerable or, indeed, when things go wrong or are seemingly spontaneous.

This is also what’s grown Peloton - people create relationships with the instructors they watch, and the intentionally spiritual and emotional language of said instructors makes them feel wanted, represented and cared for. The “live” nature of classes adds another layer of intimacy - the assumption of imperfection (despite this being a highly mediated and professionally-organized set) - that anything can happen - creates an air of vulnerability at the same time that the viewer is vulnerable (intentional physical distress), combined with extremely strong, loud personalities. People consume Peloton content as if they have a workout buddy, and thus they build their own relationship with the instructor.

I think that a lot of social media is empowered by the creation of these relationships, and the way in which a parasocial relationship can seem two-sided by the breadcrumbs that someone can leave to create them. People feel as if they’re part of someone’s life when they watch them for hours on Twitch, and may feel as if there’s an actual relationship that’s been built because the streamer sees and responds to what they say in chat. Social media and its growth is somewhat built on this subtle emotional manipulation - the imagined proximity to famous people, or people that we feel similar to who are above our station, which makes us feel that everything is “for us” when it’s really for a thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million people.

I don’t think this is a conscious manipulation in many cases. People just respond to people because it’s nice, or they think they have something to say, and the platforms make it easy to do so. And there’s nothing wrong with that - in fact, I’ve had a few celebrities that I’ve actually met in real life and had dinner/drinks with entirely due to social media, which is bonkers on its own level, and this likely makes me act in a different way and assume that other celebrities that may follow me in the future were closer in proximity to an actual relationship with me than they actually are. I am fully conscious of how ridiculous this is, but the platforms are engineered to create this effect. Perhaps I am also assuming a lot about how relationships would be made in real life otherwise - real-life relationships are oftentimes made of similarly tangential events and serendipitous events, but I don’t think the interactions that build them are so fleeting.

I imagine that any service that involves actually giving money to the person in question likely compounds these scenarios. Patreon and Twitch create a sense of ownership in a relationship - you, as a person, have “given” something to the other person, and thus may think you have created a relationship or are “owed” something as a result, despite you very clearly paying for a service. Patreon’s ability to let people have more access creates more intimacy, which creates a stronger parasocial or quasi-parasocial relationship with the subscriber. This creates users that feel attached to the person or group in question, which raises expectations of them, even if it doesn’t create the expectation of a relationship.

Social media’s immediacy and access to those that we admire is part of what makes it so attractive and engrossing. Even a solitary like or response from someone we admire creates a relationship in our mind - we’ve talked to them after all - that may or may not really exist, and layering that on top of the actual conversations with people we know makes it all the more engrossing. It’s why Clubhouse was so attractive at first to startup people - they felt like they were part of an intimate fireside chat with Marc Andreessen, or Elon Musk, or whatever celebrity they wheeled out because it was coming right into their ears, and it felt exclusive.

The reality of our digital relationships can be questionable at times, but I believe that the relationships that we project onto other people are the things that make these platforms so utterly inescapable to some. Influencers that grow that seem like “normal people” likely get famous because that’s exactly the point - what they say and do, and the faux-intimacy they grow with their viewers creates a human connection that these people want from their lives, with someone they find approachable who also happens to be famous. They see fame and fortune as attainable, they see “coolness” as attainable through these parasocial relationships, and it makes them feel happy. The chasm between the fortunate and famous becomes much smaller thanks to social media - we see ourselves in others, and perhaps we see ourselves with others that don’t know we exist.

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