IMAGE: ARCHI BANAL
IMAGE: ARCHI BANAL

IRLJanuary 9, 2022

Parasocial relationships are here to stay. Should we be worried? 

IMAGE: ARCHI BANAL
IMAGE: ARCHI BANAL

Summer read: Parasocial relationships – those illusory, one-sided relationships we strike up with public figures – have become a talking point recently. But are they good or bad? And how do you even know if you’re in one? Madeleine Holden explores for IRL.

First published November 4, 2021

Maeve Mullens is a blunt, outspoken nurse practitioner and a lesbian icon in Aotearoa. She’s also not a real person. The Shortland Street character is played by actor and playwright Jess Sayer, who has appeared on the long-running soap opera for less than two years. Still, her role has garnered a dedicated and vocal fanbase, around 7,500 of whom follow her personal Instagram account. It’s the only form of social media Sayer uses, and even though she tells me she’s an “introverted person” who likes to “fly under the radar”, she’s made the decision to keep her DMs open to the public. 

Among the gushing praise and rude criticism you’d expect to find in any TV star’s DMs, there’s another flavour of message: young LGBTQ+ fans pouring out their personal struggles, hoping to find a sympathetic ear in Sayer. 

“A lot of what they disclose is really tough stuff that they’re going through in terms of their sexuality or their gender identity,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s quite clear from the message that they need support.” 

Fans are right to assume Sayer will take their concerns seriously: while she acknowledges she’s not a professional and there are limits to how much she can help, she often takes the time to chat to her struggling fans and point them in the direction of an organisation that can. 

But why are these fans reaching out to a TV star they don’t know, as opposed to family, friends or a school counsellor? Sayer isn’t sure, but she’s fascinated by the idea that “it’s somehow easier to talk to a stranger about stuff that is so deeply sensitive”. On Shortland Street she plays a queer character, “but I’m also openly queer in my real life as well”, she says. “Maybe I feel like a safe person to talk to.”

JESS SAYER, WHO PLAYS MAEVE ON SHORTLAND STREET, INTERACTS WITH HER YOUNG LGBTQ+ FANS ON INSTAGRAM (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Armchair social psychologists would be quick to diagnose these interactions as “parasocial”, a decades-old academic concept that’s become a buzzword in recent years. Defined by Richard Wohl and Donald Horton, the sociologists who coined the term in 1956, as “the illusion of [a] face-to-face relationship” between “spectator and performer”, there’s been exploding Google search interest in the term “parasocial” recently, probably because the concept has become so apposite in our heavily mediated age. 

Parasocial relationships existed before the internet, of course. In the 80s and 90s, fans felt close enough to pop stars to write them intimate letters and join fan clubs, and in the 50s and 60s, film actors, quiz show presenters and radio hosts could elicit a sense of intimacy, as Wohl and Horton noted. These days, though, it’s possible to have illusory, one-sided relationships not just with bona fide celebrities but with reality TV stars, YouTubers, Twitch streamers, “big accounts” on Twitter, Instagram influencers and ASMR artists. The ever-expanding class of people who count as “performers”, and the increasing amounts of time we’re all spending online, create a sense that podcasters are your friends, the local OnlyFans creator is your girlfriend, and Adriene from Yoga With Adriene is personally invested in soothing your stiff neck

At the same time, the line between spectator and performer grows blurrier. If your local OnlyFans creator actually responds to your messages to her, is your relationship still parasocial? What if the Big Account on Twitter follows you back and “likes” your replies? How do you know, in 2021, if your interactions are parasocial? And what’s the harm if they are?

Ross is a chatty, spiky-haired millennial counsellor who works remotely with young people aged 12-19 (his surname has been withheld to protect his clients’ privacy). He says there are clear generational differences in how young people form relationships on the internet, and researchers have barely begun to grapple with the new online dynamics.

“As adults working with young people, it sits completely in our blind spot,” he says. “I was talking about parasocial relationships with a colleague of mine and she had no idea what they were. And I thought, well, almost all of the people I work with have these relationships in some form.” 

Ross’s young clients often spend hours per day watching Twitch streamers and YouTubers, and he stresses that the dynamic is very different to the traditional celebrity-fan relationship. “Certainly people of my generation, most of us were under no real illusions that, Christ, I don’t know, Robbie Williams was not actually going to become our friend,” he laughs. “But if you’re a 15-year-old in their bedroom and your Twitch streamer responds to you when you drop an F in the chat or whatever, that really drops that boundary.”

This semblance of interaction creates the impression that relationships with content creators are more reciprocal than they really are, and because so many creators voluntarily divulge deeply personal information and stream directly from their bedrooms, there’s a strong illusion of intimacy, too. 

Most of Ross’s clients are socially isolated, for various reasons: some have been excluded from school, and many are neurodivergent and/or LGBTQ+ and struggle to fit in with their peers. “For a lot of them, interpersonal relationships are very hard,” he says, adding that he’s starting to see the Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori arise in New Zealand. “I talk to young people and they live in the same house as their family, but they haven’t actually held a conversation, face-to-face, for months; they haven’t left the house. They don’t go anywhere, they don’t do anything.” 

For these teens, most of whom barely engage with traditional media, content creators are an important source of social interaction – sometimes the only source. Ross gives the example of a Twitch streamer who’s a couple of years older than his young LGBTQ+ clients and further along a gender transition and/or openly out as gay, lesbian or bisexual. 

“That’s quite aspirational,” he continues. “For a lot of young people, especially in small town New Zealand, they might not know another person like them in real life, so this [content creator] is their link to a community.”

Knowing they can tune into a creator’s live stream for two hours every other day – often finding several other young people in the chat or comment sections in similar positions to them – provides a sense of security for Ross’s clients. “That’s quite safe, it sets up a routine, you’re intimate with [people] without that interpersonal risk,” Ross explains. “It’s a safer way to have a relationship with someone, especially if you’ve been rejected, if you struggle to make friends”. 

But insecurity and anxiety still creep into these online relationships. Ross says the internet communities his clients inhabit are often characterised by exacting standards of language and conduct; heavily influenced by American social justice movements. His clients “take it very, very personally” if their favourite Twitch streamer or Instagram influencer expresses “problematic” political or personal opinions, or even if there’s an indication they might do so one day.

“In some cases, there is real anxiety around that before the fact,” Ross says. “I’ve had clients who are like, ‘What if so-and-so says something and I can no longer forgive them or be part of their lives?’ As a counsellor, it’s fascinating.” 

Part of the source of this anxiety, Ross suspects, is that his clients pin their hopes of an ideal relationship onto these creators, especially if they’ve been let down by people in their offline worlds. “There’s a lot of transference there,” he continues. “I think there’s a lot of that reflection of, ‘What if [the content creator] turns around and says something that feels like a rejection, like I might have had from people in real life? What if they are not this construct that I have made them out to be?’” 

Kyle Church, an affable politics podcaster and Twitch streamer who Zooms me from his Auckland home, knows what it feels like to be built up in this way. He has an audience in the tens of thousands, and says he’s “very, very open on the show” and that “there’s not much filter” in terms of personal information he’ll withhold from his audience. Perhaps as a result, he’s noticed a creeping parasocial element to his interactions with listeners, who regularly contact him via his open Twitter DMs.

These interactions with listeners are often positive, but there’s a contingent who get in touch with Church to chide him, in highly personal terms, for expressing a political opinion they didn’t expect of him. “They’ll have built up an idea of who I am and how I relate to things,” Church says, “and [a sense] that I agree with them.” When he unknowingly crosses his listeners by saying something unexpected, it “causes a bit of dissonance”, he adds, and they don’t hesitate to let him know how disappointed and betrayed they feel. 

As we’re speaking, someone DMs him a disappointed screed that includes the line, “I thought you were one of the good ones”. Church says this is fairly typical language, as are lines like, “I didn’t expect you to say this and I think you’re bad or wrong”, “You have to delete this at once”, “Why have you done this?”, and “I thought you were better than this”. 

Church welcomes measured criticism or feedback about his show, but feels uneasy when his audience “really personalise it” in this way. He’s quick to note, though, that his negative experiences pale in comparison to those of other content creators he knows, especially women. Time and again, he’s witnessed creators being subject to hysterical pile-ons and coordinated doxxing efforts for saying the wrong thing. “The audience feels just unbearably betrayed and a significant proportion will turn rabidly on the creator,” Church says. “It gets really nasty.”

KYLE CHURCH, A POLITICS PODCASTER AND TWITCH STREAMER, SAYS AUDIENCES CAN FEEL ‘UNBEARABLY BETRAYED’ WHEN THEIR FAVOURITE CONTENT CREATOR DOES SOMETHING WRONG (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

These exacting standards and emotive pleas to “do better” are obviously difficult for content creators to deal with, many of whom aren’t insulated by anywhere near the same degree of wealth and status as, say, the famous heiresses and pop stars of the 00s. Church says the pile-ons he describes can be “a significant drain or threat to [content creators’] mental health”, and Ross, the counsellor, says the online environment can be unforgiving no matter who you are. In the age of social media, everyone’s somewhat of a public figure, which opens young people up to sustained criticism, and even abuse. 

“Fifteen, 16, 17-year-olds on Twitter will absolutely rip each other to shreds very publicly for very minor infractions,” he says. “It’s a different playing field now.” 

Sayer, the Shortland Street actor, says being thrust into the public eye was “quite a shock”, and she “didn’t cope with it well at the start”. An admitted “people pleaser”, she’s had to establish “really good boundaries” around who she’ll interact with online, so she ignores messages from viewers who get in touch to criticise her character’s scripted behaviour.

“I’ve had [messages] like, “You need to be nicer to Drew [a Shortland Street character],” she says. “They’ll be commenting about my behaviour towards him as if I am actually Maeve… and as if they can have an input into fixing our relationship. Which is fascinating.”

If she has the capacity, though, Sayer will help the struggling LGBTQ+ fans mentioned earlier, and she stresses several times that these interactions are “really beautiful … really positive”. 

“I know what it’s like to feel alone and to be going through huge changes in your life,” she says. “I’m really happy that they feel they can reach out to me.”

Still, the experience can be strange. “I have always found that really interesting, the idea that somebody can be really open with someone they don’t know,” Sayer says. “The version of me that they think they know is not me. You know? They know Maeve. They don’t know me.” 

On the other side of the screen, these relationships aren’t always rosy for spectators, either. Both Ross and Church say audience members can be vulnerable to exploitation by content creators. Creators have been known to groom, manipulate and financially drain their audience members. 

“There was a controversy a few years ago where pretty well-known gaming streamers were driving kids towards gambling sites, for example, and it turned out that they had part ownership in those sites,” Church says. “It’s clearly an element of parasocialism there getting these kids to trust them and to do these things … and it’s clearly harmful for the audience.”

Some vulnerable spectators may not even be aware they are consumers, not mates. The way some content creators carefully portray themselves as close, trusted friends “does have that level of psychological cut through to a percentage of the audience”, Church says, “where they begin to believe that they have not only a special relationship, but a really close relationship with the content creator”. 

Feeling very close to a podcaster, YouTuber or Instagram influencer may be relatively benign if your offline world is full of meaningful connection, but if it isn’t, these relationships can be a poor substitute. Ross worries people in this position will miss out on the chance to develop important relationship skills that can only be forged face-to-face, and become increasingly disconnected from the complex, dynamic and often challenging nature of offline interaction. 

“In-person relationships are messier than online,” Ross says. “And it does seem to me that parasocial relationships might create unrealistic expectations for what in-person relationships might look like.” 

In fact, Wohl and Horton, the sociologists who coined the term “parasocial”, recognised this potential downside way back in 1956. They said the performer enacts an “idealised version” of everyday roles played by friends, partners and family members, “not often, perhaps never, achieved in real life”. They pointed to actress Nancy Berg as the model of “the ordinary wife in amorous complaisance” and said Liberace “outdoes the ordinary husband in gentle understanding”; today, any number of Twitch streamers, YouTubers, OnlyFans creators and Instagram influencers might fill the same role. 

“I think online relationships can be very valuable,” Ross concludes. “But there’s some context and nuance missing if that’s the only kind of relationship you have access to.”

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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