Getting Real With Parasocial Relationships
Authors: Christie Tan, Vedanshi Kapadia
Edited by: Emma Zhou
Parasocial relationships refer to a type of psychological relationship that is typically experienced by an audience when they encounter celebrities in the mass media. When in such a relationship, members of the audience feel as if they have built a personal and reciprocal relationship with these media personalities, even with little to no interaction with them (Wikipedia, 2021). Parasocial relationships are typically formed with celebrities such as actors, musicians or social media influencers.
These relationships are one-sided, where one person invests time, emotions, and possibly money into the other person, while the other party is unaware of their existence. People may enter into parasocial relationships as they expand their social network, but there is no chance of rejection by the celebrity. This allows them to freely choose who they can build a relationship with.
Levels of Parasocial Relationships
Fig.1: Levels of Parasocial Relationships (Giles & Maltby, 2006)
Not all parasocial relationships are equal, as there are 3 different levels of intensity in this type of relationship: entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological (Giles & Maltby, 2006). At each level, there is an increasing belief from the fan that they are in a personal relationship with the celebrity.
Entertainment-social relationships mean that fans are attracted to a certain celebrity because they are entertained, and the celebrity is a source of social interaction and gossip among their peers. At this level, the parasocial relationship can be considered rather impersonal, such as a casual fan of a celebrity. (I like the definition, can you give a specific example?)
The next level is an ‘intense-personal’ parasocial relationship, or celebrity worship. It reflects the intensive and compulsive feelings about the celebrity, even bordering on obsessive. For example, a fan in an intense-personal parasocial relationship might consider the celebrity as their soulmate.
The final and most intense level is a ‘borderline-pathological’ parasocial relationship. This level of intensity is evident in ‘stalker fans’. It is characterized by uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies about their celebrities, many times bordering on delusion. For example, a fan in such a relationship might say, “If I walked through the door of my favorite celebrity’s house, they would be happy to see me.”
Contrary to popular beliefs, parasocial relationships are fairly normal and healthy for the most part, and can even prove to be beneficial in some cases. For instance, those with social anxiety can eliminate the fear of rejection and negative consequences through said relationship and form a healthy bond with their idol. What is more is that these sentiments of being able to connect with someone can help relieve depression and loneliness, and although some might argue that this isolates people from the outside world, studies have shown that there is no relation between loneliness and parasocial relationships; they can actually lead to a broader social network. (Svoboda, 2020)
Having said that, there are a few downsides if things get out of hand and certain lines are crossed. Some can become a little too invested in these relationships and start to avoid spending time with the other people in their lives, such as friends and family. This extremity can also be negative for the celebrity as some fans turn to extreme measures such as stalking and invading their privacy (Svoboda, 2020). Circling back to disorders, although most idols support healthy relationships with oneself, some fans in parasocial relationships might develop eating disorders or other unhealthy lifestyles to
Gravitating towards the internet, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of parasocial relationships is social media. Undoubtedly, it has played a major role in the lives of both celebrities and fans. However, the question is, what has changed? Ever since celebrities started interacting with fans through blog posts, Youtube videos, and Twitter, parasocial relationships have immensely strengthened (Davey, 2016). Before the social media age, the portrayal of idols was more restricted to media such as radio shows, talk shows, and interviews. However, due to social media, they are now able to show their brands and personalities better while displaying a little more authenticity. As a result, companies start to spend more commendable time and money into maintaining an online brand, because it is where all celebrities eventually build their influence. (Wikipedia, 2019)
As a matter of fact, studies show that adolescents who had a chance to interact with media personas through social media, specifically Twitter, had stronger parasocial relationships compared to those who did not have the same opportunities (Wikipedia, 2019). Circling back to negative consequences, celebrities must be extremely cautious on social media as it serves as a hotspot for rumors spread by none other than fans themselves.
How parasocial relationships are used in real life
Parasocial relationships are widely utilized in the marketing industry. They create personalized and intimate advertisements targeted towards specific audiences. Doing so allows the audience to feel included in a community that is connected to the persona of the celebrity or product. (A study showed that parasocial relationships are strongly linked to brand love (Davey, 2021).) I’m a little confused by this sentence
To capitalize on parasocial relationships, marketers have to first create an illusion of face-to-face interaction. This can be achieved by speaking directly and personally to the audience. They use words such as “you” or “us” to create a sense of inclusion. Celebrities can also use real stories that occurred to them to relate themselves to their audience. For example, influencers regularly use real events that involve them to allow their followers to believe in the brand of the product they are promoting. Selena Gomez showing - and using - her makeup on Instagram stories, for example.
The most important way that parasocial relationships can be used is to ensure that the celebrity or the brand is involved in the everyday life of the fan. They have to be a reliable and unwavering aspect of the fan’s life to lend familiarity and trust in the celebrity or the brand.
Today, parasocial relationships are used widely in marketing, especially through social media. Celebrities can interact with fans, giving the illusion of a more realistic and intimate connection. There are positive consequences of parasocial relationships, such as being exemplary role models for adolescents to emulate. However, if the celebrity is a negative role model and perpetuates harmful beliefs such as unhealthy diets, impressionable adolescents are at risk of developing detrimental mindsets and habits. Additionally, if fans are unable to understand that this parasocial relationship is one-sided, this could lead to negative pathological behaviors, such as stalking or invasion of the celebrities’ privacy.
By examining parasocial relationships, we can truly see the benefits and drawbacks of being in one, as well as its assimilation into social media and marketing. Now, it is up to you to evaluate the parasocial relationships you have, and consider how it affects your lifestyle!
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