It is common for media figures, such as celebrities and influencers, to develop loyalty with their followers. By interacting online in a way that seems personal, they can evoke emotions and behaviour that emulates real-life relationships.
Specialised algorithms implemented by many social media platforms promises media figures very accurate reach to followers and potential followers compared with traditional forms of media (i.e., newspapers, TV, radio).
While using social media, infatuated fans will be immediately updated with Kim Kardashian’s latest Instagram story, or suggested new clips from The Joe Rogan Experience on YouTube.
Fans of any influencer, podcaster, singer, actor, comedian, TV character, novel character, comic book character (…the list goes on), are frequently being exposed to curated content, which empowers the media figure with the ability to connect and interact on a regular basis to build loyalty with their fanbase.
Despite the lack of feedback from their favourite media figures, followers accumulate so much of their content that they feel as if they know them and understand them. This is known as a parasocial relationship (PSR)1. And PSRs are shaping who we become.
Relationships are an innate quality of human beings and the contagiousness of behaviour and ideology within our social networks ultimately lays the foundation of who we become as individuals.
We inherit certain characteristics genetically from our parents and as we get older, social experiences with friends, colleagues, teammates – everybody we are connected to – contributes to the moulding of our persona.
Aside from genetics and speech, nonverbal communication is noted as being critical for two-way communication because it helps us identify emotions and moods when we interact with people.
With the advent of social media, a lot of these real-life social experiences have been transferred online which suppresses many of the nonverbal tools we have, and are replaced by functions such as likes, reactions, GIFs or comments. This makes it hard for a person to identify the true tone or mood or emotion of an online social interaction.
Further altering the online social experience is the lack of feedback that the media figure can offer. Despite this one-way communication that we experience with in a PSR, it can still have the same profound influence over our behaviour and ideology as a real-life relationship does.
The rapidly increasing use of social media around the world means that more PSRs are being developed more often. Research has shown that PSRs can have both positive and negative effects, which differs among every individual.
Parasocial identification, for instance, has been shown to have a greater impact on people when promoting healthy lifestyles2. A positive PSR could be that an overweight influencer who posts content about healthy eating and exercise can inspire change both behaviourally and mentally for their overweight followers.
Conversely, influencers with toned and muscular physiques can be motivating yet unattainable for some followers which may cause low self-esteem.
In some cases, PSRs can actually have a positive effect on people with low self-esteem who are in pursuit of their ‘ideal self’3. PSRs can act as a social shield and free people from the prospect of rejection which is a possibility in real-life social situations.
Paradoxically, it is also possible that PSRs can be the catalyst for low self-esteem in the first place, creating a loop of admiration and low self-esteem.
To ensure that only the positives are extracted from a parasocial relationship, it is worth remembering that it is an illusion of a real-life relationship. Although the feelings we experience with a PSR are very real, the connection to the media figure is not.
Our wellbeing is not always in the best interests of the media figures or companies associated. Marketing companies spend billions of dollars every year on influencer advertising4 because the loyalty we show to media figures is so strong, and we are often willing to spend cash to be more like them.
It is very important to be aware of PSRs because they shape our identity just like our relationships in real life. If you sense that a PSR is affecting our wellbeing in a negative way it might be best to separate yourself from that particular media figure.
This separation is known as a parasocial breakup, and unfortunately like real-life breakups, it can reflect the same feelings of longing and sadness and frustration5.
Fortunately, one of the best ways to cope with a parasocial breakup is to catch up with mates to hang out.
- Horton, D. & Richard Wohl, R., 1956. Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance. Psychiatry, 19(3), pp.215–229.
- Phua, J., 2016. The effects of similarity, parasocial identification, and source credibility in obesity public service announcements on diet and exercise self-efficacy. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(5), pp.699–708.
- Derrick, J.L., Gabriel, S. & Tippin, B., 2008. Parasocial relationships and self‐discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self‐esteem individuals. Personal Relationships, 15(2), pp.261–280.
- Cohen, J., 2003. Parasocial Breakups: Measuring Individual Differences in Responses to the Dissolution of Parasocial Relationships. Mass Communication and Society, 6(2), pp.191–202.