When I was very young, maybe four or five, I adored the Wiggles. A Wiggles bedspread, Wiggles band aids, a stuffed purple octopus that I dragged with me everywhere. One lucky day, my parents took me to see one of their live shows. They performed, and the crowd of children around me jumped and sang along, while I sat in my chair with what my mother recalls as a “look of concern” on my face.
Fast forward fifteen years or so, and I’m at the Brisbane convention center for a comics expo. Walking between the booths, I see two men standing behind a counter – two internet personalities that I had watched for hours on-end growing up. When I approached, they said hello, and asked if I wanted anything signed – I said no, and then… what? I paused, they looked uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable.
I asked if I could shake their hands. They obliged, and I thanked them for sharing their work for so many years. At the time, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was deeply strange about the encounter – that I had done something wrong. But wasn’t I just doing what a fan would do? Isn’t that normal?
Digital Friends, the New Normal
The phrase “parasocial relationship” has been written about for years in the world of academia, though it is only recently becoming a commonly-understood phenomena (StrucciMovies, 2017). Horton and Wohl coined the term way back in 1956, using it to describe the new kind of relationships they observed between audiences and the popular personalities of radio, television and cinema. They noted that the audience responded to performers in a way that was “analogous to those in a primary group” (Horton & Wohl, 1956).
I’m having the time of my life doing this stuff, and I never want anything to change too much. I want to still do it for fun, I want to still be… I want to still feel like a friend to all you guys.YouTuber Jacksepticeye, addressing his at-the-time 4-million-subscribers
Importantly, they also identified a significant distinction between “personality” and “personae” led programs. A “personality” program is a soap opera, a serial drama, a theatre performance. It is an “ambiguous meeting ground on which real people play out the roles of fictional characters” (ibid.). This interaction is described as temporary and magical, even the most engaged and invested viewer knows that Dr. House and Walter White aren’t real people.
This is in stark contrast to the “personae” program, one initially led by “quizmasters, announcers, ‘interviewers’ in a new ‘show-business’ world,” performer’s whose work and role in it is “a function of the media themselves” (ibid.). Here, the personae addresses the camera with “undisturbed intimacy”, speaking to each viewer individually, instead of to a crowd of thousands.
This second approach to audience-interaction began as a novelty, but in the years since has become a new kind of normal. Podcasts, vlogs, Let’s Plays, reaction videos, house tours, day-in-the-life-of videos – this kind of immediate, direct, ‘intimate’ content is everywhere. And it is powerful.
“[The audience] is expected to benefit by [the personae’s] wisdom, reflect on his advice, sympathize with him in his difficulties, forgive his mistakes, buy the products that he recommends, and keep his sponsor informed of the esteem in which he is held.”Horton & Wohl, 1956
Over the years, we have seen the danger that can come from parasocial relationships taken to the extreme. In 2018, a man broke into the apartment of Free and Turney, two internet personalities, armed with a gun and intending to kill Free (Spangler, 2018). Popular YouTubers Pewdiepie, Jacksepticeye, Markiplier and countless others have reported ‘fans’ finding their addresses and waiting outside, calling out to them, or even scaling fences just for a chance to meet their idols, or for a chance at becoming their friends (StrucciMovies, 2018).
Not everyone is Misery’s Anne Wilkes. The majority of people, myself included, cannot imagine ourselves going to such extremes, or being so deluded. However, that does not mean we are above this phenomenon. Psychologist Stanley Milgrim coined the term “Familiar Strangers” when studying people who routinely gathered in public spaces, like subways. He and his students found that people were able to recognize photos of others that regularly caught the same train, even though the pair had never spoken (Milgram, 1977). He also noted that it was not uncommon for people to “personalize their Familiar Strangers by “giving them names and/or concocting fictitious stories and backgrounds of their personal lives” (Paulos & Goodman, 2004).
This is what the vast majority of parasocial relationships look like; someone who feels a kinship with a stranger, but who can on some level acknowledge the absurdity of that. Heartfelt comments below the videos of massively-popular YouTubers often start with “I know you’ll never read this” or “Please upvote so X sees this!”
While fandom and obsessive behaviour is by no means a new phenomenon, it is clearly a behaviour that is being encouraged or sculpted by the hyper-intimacy of YouTube and similar platforms – “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us” (Culkin, 1967). Early scholars noted the power that radio and television had over audiences, the immediacy and intimacy; what would they have thought of the smartphone? Of the podcasts that accompany millions of people to work, or the YouTube videos that serve as entertainment over millions of people’s meals?
Just treat it like you would treat the TV show Madmen. You shouldn’t form a relationship with me, at the end of the day I’m entertainment – if I stop entertaining, you stop watching. That’s it. That’s what I want from you guys, because I’m not your friend. I will never ever hang out with you, and I don’t care about you – because I don’t know you, I can’t. There are 13 thousand people here, I can’t care about all of you because I don’t know any of you.Twitch streamer ‘Ludwig’ when asked by a fan how to avoid forming a parasocial relationship
If more people are willing to ask questions of themselves, to challenge their habits and stay conscious of the way they think and speak about their favourite personalities, perhaps there can be a comfortable medium between the obsessive and the recreational. The trouble, as is so often the case, is that there’s nothing profitable about a healthy mindset; obsessive fans are reliable, and valuable.
An algorithm will never ask you to disengage from it, and neither will a content creator.
Culkin, J. M. (1967). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan.
Horton, D., & Richard Wohl, R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. psychiatry, 19(3), 215-229.
Milgram, S. (1977). The familiar stranger: An aspect of urban anonymity. The individual in a social world, 51-53.
Paulos, E., & Goodman, E. (2004, April). The familiar stranger: anxiety, comfort, and play in public places. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 223-230).
Spangler, T. (2018, February 13) YouTube Star Couple Targeted by Gunman in Home-Invasion Attack. Variety. https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/youtube-couple-gavin-free-meg-turney-gunman-home-invasion-attack-1202697698/
StrucciMovies (2017, August 28) FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE ONE: intro to parasocial relationships [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3vD_CAYt4g
StrucciMovies (2018, August 12) FAKE FRIENDS EPISODE TWO: parasocial hell [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLA-uFKjQ-g