Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

You’re sat down with your best friends, watching them go about their day, listening to their opinions and hot takes. But they’re not really sitting with you, they’re behind a screen, trapped in a magazine, or a podcast studio thousands of miles away. A parasocial relationship can feel real and provide comfort, but what does it mean to be friends with someone you’ve never met, and who will most likely never know you?

First coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956, the term ‘parasocial’ was used to describe the one-sided relationships of public figures, and those who watch them, building up a friendship based not on reciprocal or in-person interactions, but mediated through artificial social forms such as newsprint, television, or social media. Before, this was mostly attributed to movie stars, and politicians, as becoming a public figure required more capital and focused effort. Today, with social media platforms widely available, and niche groups forming within targeted algorithms, the barrier to entry is much lower, and the people on the other side of the screen can easily base their appeal not on glamour or status, but on relatability and closeness to their viewers.

However, even with this perceived closeness, there is still a separation between such figures and the image they have online. From social media stars to movie stars, public figures work to produce a curated version of themselves which can be sold to maintain their careers and build their social capital. This can be mobilized for good, with people using their platforms to raise money for charity, support international causes, and promote democratic involvement, but not all influence is positive – for example, the transphobia of J.K Rowling, or the misogyny of Andrew Tate. Both figures have built up relationships with their viewers and mobilized them in such a way that it is harmful. These are larger-scale examples, but they are representative of the possibilities at every part of the social media ladder. The digital imprints of these celebrities are shaped and constructed, giving them a sense of authority, but it is important to remember that the people behind them are real and fallible.

These figures often advertise through their platforms and the social capital they’ve acquired. You may have a friend recommend a cool bar to you and trust that they are telling you this for your benefit, but the interest of your ‘friend’ behind the screen is probably less transparent. Celebrity endorsements have been around long before the rise of social media, with celebrities tying themselves to brands to boost sales and improve brand legitimacy and trust, but today, these endorsements can be found even from micro-influencers, who are likely still getting a piece of the pie one way or another. When someone on social media tags the brands they’re wearing, or mentions a new video game they’re playing, it may be more of an advertisement than a suggestion from a friend.

But why, if this is the case, would any viewer engage in parasocial relationships? While it can certainly be a space for capital exploitation and manipulation, one can benefit from a sense of comradery and a respite from boredom. In a post-pandemic world, where shared spaces are not as widely available or affordable, having a space to feel as though you’re with friends is important. They can be easier to maintain than in-person relationships, allowing for a sense of friendship even when you are feeling burnt out, or anxious. But they also should not replace two-sided relationships with those in your real life.

So how do we maintain a healthy balance in a world where parasocial relationships can feel more real than ever? For one, take care to remind yourself that what you see is not always who they are. While it can be nice to find a safe space online to connect with others, maintain healthy mental boundaries and remember that you don’t actually know the person, as you only know as much as the person is willing to share. Additionally, look to strengthen your relationships off-screen. In University, make use of clubs and sports, for example, at Loughborough, check out the MyLifestyle events or Friday night clubbing to get out and interact with people FTF. You can also use your energy to reconnect with yourself, going on walks, or taking yourself out for a little coffee date. But even with all these options, it’s ok if, at the end of the day, you want to sit down and re-enter this imaginary world, just so long as you know what you’re getting into, and maintain sensible boundaries.

Edited By: Bola Johnson


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