I was interviewed by Daric L. Cottingham for Essence about parasocial relationships. Here’s the article.
I loved the questions they asked so much that I was inspired to write a whole post.
What are parasocial relationships? Are they normal?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided, intimate-seeming relationships that admiring fans have with public figures (celebrities, politicians, royalty, social media personalities, etc).
They are normal in the sense that they have existed for as long as public figures have existed. Parasocial relationships are definitely NOT a modern invention.
How do parasocial relationships form and end?
Society encourages and normalizes parasocial relationships in pop culture, in the media, etc , especially with politicians and celebrities. Many of us form these parasocial relationships when we are young and are still learning how to navigate relationships and interpersonal interactions.
Stanning also becomes a way of coping through a hard life full of disappointments and struggle. It becomes easy to see yourself and your dreams in that public figure and find pleasure and comfort in the parts of their lives that they want to show you.
Parasocial relationships generally start with admiration from a distance and slowly (or not so slowly given social media) goes beyond admiration, to consuming all of their work, checking for every bit of news, consuming details about their lives, feeling the need to defend them in most, if not all, situations, and feeling intimately connected to them.
Parasocial relationships ideally can be relatively harmless. People can and have admired someone from afar without any negative effects to the fan or the public figure. That said, there’s definitely significant potential for unhealthy dynamics that is encouraged in today’s society.
What are parasocial interactions or PSI?
Parasocial interactions are the building blocks of parasocial relationships. They are the specific moments between fan and public figure where the fan feels more and more connected to them through the figure’s public content. The day in the life videos, the albums, the “down to earth” tweets from politicians, the Instagram lives, etc.
Why do people form these attachments to public figures such as musicians?
It fills a need. Humans generally naturally want to be in relationships with others. Social isolation literally feels like both danger and an emotional injury to our brains and bodies so it makes sense that humans would want to gravitate to parasocial relationships to fill any gaps.
Parasocial relationships are also encouraged and nurtured by politicians, celebrities, companies, etc in order to make money and acquire more influence. Particularly around influence, when the public figure’s wins become the fans’ wins, they celebrate and provide free publicity. But when the public figure falls short, people feel the need to defend them like they are defending themselves. And this defensiveness can be and is often exploited by public figures and the media in order to avoid accountability, to influence the public narrative, etc.
Additionally, people can find community in their mutual admiration of a public figure and that community can also fulfill social and intimacy needs for people.
What are the levels of parasocial relationships?
Not sure if there are specifically labeled levels. I think I envision parasocial relationships as existing along a spectrum. Especially since someone can have different kinds of parasocial relationships going on at once and these relationships can change and evolve over time and/or depending on where the fan is in their own personal life.
There are parasocial relationships where the fan enjoys a public figure’s work without it being 1 of major things that define their lives.
There are relationships where the fan regularly seeks updates about this person, thinking about them in their personal time, fantasizes regularly about hypotheticals, etc.
And there are relationships where the fan’s admiration is a major part of their life and they dedicate significant time and energy into “defending” or going on the offensive for the public figure online and/or offline.
When can parasocial relationships become concerning beyond liking or being a fan of someone?
When a fan forgets that the relationship is one-sided and that they are creating a relationship with a persona, not the actual real life individual.
When they start to lose sense of where the boundaries of the parasocial relationship actually are instead of where they’d want it to be in their ideal fantasy.
Also it would be concerning if the parasocial relationship began to cause distress in someone’s life (including other people’s lives via doxxing and harrassment) and/or if a fan was dedicating so much time to the parasocial relationship that it affected their other relationships and/or their ability to form other relationships including their relationship with themself.
Online spaces like Twitter have become a place for stans to find community, but through the years, it’s also become a place that harbors bullying and sometimes doxxing. What are your thoughts on those extreme outcomes of standom?
It’s 1 thing to be inspired by someone, but overly identifying can lead to dehumanization of the public figure. It can be easy to forget that the public figure is a human who is flawed, especially if they are using the public figure to represent their own personal values and ideals. This can encourage the fan to feel the need to defend them like they are defending themself. But what happens when the truth of someone contradicts what you need them to be? What happens when supporting a public figure means harming vulnerable people/communities? It is actually love if fans are constantly making excuses for harmful behavior and not expecting public figures to grow as people, like what would happen in a healthier relationship?
Stanning can also lead to a dehumanization of people perceived as enemies. As harassment and doxxing are encouraged and normalized, it becomes easy to align yourself with your in-group against a common enemy. And over time, especially if the “enemy” is someone that society already dehumanizes and marginalizes, it becomes easy to stop considering the consequences of one’s actions and feel like what they are doing is ok.
Social media has added another dynamic to parasocial relationships because prior to the social media age, a public figure’s every move was filtered more before it got to the public. Now, there is an extra illusion of intimacy because it feels like public figures are being realer with us and that we are closer to them than we really are. We are encouraged to develop these parasocial relationships as a distraction from the roughness of our own lives and generally, there is nothing wrong with that, but setting up and living inside the distraction is not healthy personally or communally. It can distract us from pushing through and attending to the systemic problems that need to be addressed in society. Instead of finding hope in ourselves, our communities, and the world, we are encouraged to find hope in these personas created for our entertainment.
What’s your professional opinion on the current state of online stan culture and the parasocial relationships being formed?
The current state of online stan culture is a continuation and a reflection of a larger society that stunts growth, squashes opportunities for self and community accountability, and props up systemic hierarchies of power.
The growth of artists personally and professionally is also stunted as both artists and fans enable toxic behaviors and even wholesale abuse.
Like I said before, parasocial relationships create this illusion of intimacy with little to no reciprocity (the natural give and take in healthy relationships) in the relationship. Reciprocity is necessary for connection and it is the part of what makes relationships feel safe and healing for us. Relationships need some level of symmetry for the dynamic to stay healthy and safe in the long term. However, due to the lack of true reciprocity, parasocial relationships just can’t fill those emotional gaps in the long term. So in this way, parasocial relationships, when taken too far, are a distraction from community building and true intimacy.
It would be amazing if many of us could get to a place where we learned how to appreciate someone’s work without dehumanizing and glorifying them above critique and critical thinking.
Thanks for reading! The next post will be the beginning of my somatic therapy series to help people connect with their bodies, build their intuition, and add a deeper level to their healing and reparenting journey. Starting with explaining the autonomic nervous system.