Are you in a parasocial relationship with an influencer or celebrity?
Are you in a parasocial relationship with an influencer or celebrity? Find out how parasocial relationships work, and the dangers you need to avoid.
Back in the 1980s, like many young girls, my bedroom walls were covered with posters torn from Smash Hits featuring my favourite pop stars. There was Wham, on the Great Wall of China, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Adam Ant.
I consumed everything I could about my idols. I devoured magazines and watched them on Top of the Pops. And that was about as close as it was possible to get; they remained distant, one dimensional stars.
Today, we can get far closer to celebrities. It started in the late 1980s, early 1990s with Hello shoots in their homes. Then we had paparazzi following them on holiday and hiding in bushes, creating content to feed tabloids, weekly gossip mags and then websites.
Now, we don’t need Hello or paparazzi photographers, because modern celebrities invite us into their most personal and intimate moments with their own smartphones. We witness them in their moments of triumph, and their darkest hours, even when they’re mourning the death of a baby.
This pseudo closeness has created the illusion of intimacy and authenticity, and led to a rise in parasocial relationships.
What is a parasocial relationship?
A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a someone engages in with a celebrity or influencer. In a parasocial relationship, one person invests emotional energy, interest and time, while the other person (usually) doesn’t know they exist, and doesn’t reciprocate any feelings.
Parasocial relationships occur when we consume media content about or created by a celebrity or influencer to such a degree that we cultivate an illusion of intimacy with them, feeling that we know them, and that they understand us.
A parasocial relationship is very similar to – and certainly feels the same as – a real-life relationship to the party invested in it. The seek to meet their emotional needs though it, feel like they know the other party, and desire to spend more time with them.
What’s the history of parasocial relationships?
Parasocial relationships aren’t a new phenomenon. The concept dates back to 1956 when Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl published the article “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance” in the journal Psychiatry.
The paper notes that “One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media – radio, television, and the movies – is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer.”
Historically, parasocial relationships occurred predominantly with celebrities. However, the rise of reality TV and social media has created a new world in which ordinary people can become influencers. We don’t need a movie set or TV crew today to reach people in their homes – we just need a smartphone and a social media profile.
The four characteristics that make up a parasocial relationship
So what constitutes a parasocial relationship? In total, there are four key characteristics of a parasocial relationship:
- The relationship is one-sided
- There is an illusion of intimacy and friendship
- Emotional attachment
- A sense of companionship and social support
Let’s briefly look at each of them.
1) The relationship is one-sided
In a parasocial relationship, one party (the fan or follower) is aware of and invested in the other (the celebrity or influencer), however this affection and attention is not reciprocated.
The celebrity or influencer is unaware of the existence, in most cases, of the fan or follower, and does not reciprocate their feelings of closeness, or desire to spend time together beyond any commercial benefit.
2) There is an illusion of intimacy and friendship
The fan or follower feels like they genuinely know or understand the celebrity or influencer, or even that there is some form of relationship between them. However, this is simply an illusion.
The celebrity or influencer may appear to reveal honest and intimate moments and insights into their lives, but these are cultivated for commercial or other purposes, to create an impression of intimacy.
An influencer may also engage with their fans through social media, but this is again a commercial transaction. They have no genuine interest in, or feelings for, their followers. Take away money and fame, and no relationship would exist.
3) Emotional attachment
The fan or follower is emotionally attached to and invested in the celebrity or influencer. They feel they have a connection and the celebrity becomes a source of comfort, security and safety.
And just like a real-life relationship, in a parasocial relationship the fan or follower desires to spend time with and get closer to the celebrity or influencer, usually through consuming their content (movies, music, videos and social media).
4) A sense of companionship and social support
While a parasocial relationship may not be real in all senses of a genuine, reciprocal relationship, it doesn’t feel that way to the fan or follower.
They get a feeling of companionship and social support from their perceived relationship with the celebrity or influencer. Or from becoming part of a community that shares their feelings for them, such as an online forum or fan club. They may even meet up with other fans in real life.
What are the dangers of a parasocial relationship?
There are several dangers of a parasocial relationship. Firstly there’s the lack of reciprocity. A fan of follower is emotionally invested in someone who will never return their feelings. This leads to an empty relationship that can never genuinely meet their needs, and ultimately is unsatisfying and hollow.
And then there is the power that the celebrity or influencer has over the fan or follower. Researchers have found that a parasocial relationship can influence someone’s opinions, purchasing behaviour, political views, and even voting decisions.
There is a dangerous amount of trust invested in, and power given to someone you don’t really know, and whose intentions do not take into account your best interest. This influence may be positive or negative depending on whether the parasocial relationship with the media figure is positive or negative.
At the very extreme end, parasocial relationships can lead to stalking, when the fans convinces themselves they are in a reciprocal relationship with the celebrity or influencer, and has a right to access to them.
What are the benefits of a parasocial relationship?
So why do people enter into, and continue to remain in, parasocial relationships? Because there are several benefits they gain from them. To start with, they feel a greater sense of belonging. Parasocial connections can help to boost self-confidence and give a sense of being part of something greater than yourself, which we know is important for good mental health.
Feeling close to a celebrity or influencer, even if that closeness is simply from consuming media and online content, can also reduce feelings of loneliness. There is a sense of interaction and connection that someone may not get elsewhere in their life.
And finally, a parasocial relationship can lead to stronger social connections with other fans of the celebrity or influencer. Fans will often create communities dedicated to the object of their attention, leading to the creation of real-life relationships with like-minded people.
Why does social media create a false sense of intimacy?
So why have we seen an increase in parasocial relationships today, and how much as social media contributed to this?
In the past, there was a clear line between the public and private persona of a celebrity. When we saw them (on TV and in magazines) they were professionally made up and styled, and a publicist would carefully curate the questions they were asked.
This helped remind us that we didn’t really know them. Yes, we may have admired the courage a sportsperson displayed on the field, or the character an actor played in a movie. We may even have found them funny and charming in red carpet interviews. And perhaps we admired their looks in magazines. But we largely accepted that this was their job – just a role they played for us.
Today, things are very different.
Celebrities are expected to be on social media. And many give us unprecedented access to their personal lives. We see the dinner they prepare at home for their partner. Are introduced to their cute children. And we are privy to their innermost thoughts – just like a friend or family member.
But are things really as they seem?
In reality, no. What you have to remember, is that at some point there has been conscious choice to take every photo and film every video. And another conscious choice to share it publicly. And behind that conscious choice, there is motive.
Every intimate snippet of a celebrity or influencer’s life is shared with you because they want to make you think, feel or do something. Even if it’s just to like the side of them they choose to show you.
Everything you see is curated – yes even the ‘raw’ moment they were crying, without makeup, in bed. And to consume it without that awareness leaves you open to manipulation, and vulnerable to falling into a parasocial relationship.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t consume content shared on social media if you enjoy it. But recognise that it’s exactly that: content. And that you don’t really know that person (nor them you). Certainly don’t allow that content to change how you feel about your own life or the decisions you make.
The ugly truth behind influencers
The danger of believing that a celebrity or influencer has all the answers can lead you to following the advice of someone unqualified or worse – pretending to have answers they don’t.
Just look at Rachel Hollis and her late husband, Dave. Rachel Hollis first went viral sharing a photo of her on a beach in a bikini, proudly showing off her “flabby tummy” and encouraging other mothers to “Flaunt that body with pride!” From this she built a career based around her relatability as a woman, wife and mother.
Rachel soon became the darling of the MLM world, earning a fortune as an inspirational speaker at their events. Dave, a former Disney executive, later joined her in her business, and they cultivated the impression of a perfect marriage on social media.
Off the back of this, they sold $1,800 tickets to a marriage retreat, and offered masterclasses on successful marriage and partnership. So it came as a shock to many of their fans when, just weeks after releasing a marriage advice video, Dave announced they were getting divorced.
This may have dented their reputation a little, but they both still had plenty of fans willing to believe the best of them. That is, until #toiletgate, when Rachel Hollis shared a video talking about the woman who cleaned her toilets, asking “What is it about me that made you think I want to be relatable?” and seemingly comparing herself to Harriet Tubman. This led to what Rachel herself describes as her ‘cancelation’.
(This wasn’t the first controversy surrounding Rachel Hollis. You can read a full timeline here.)
Dave Hollis went on to have his own mini-scandal, when he went on a live two hour rant on his patio, berating followers who didn’t buy his book for “18 stinking dollars” and telling his young daughter to ‘get a life’ when she asked him to make her pancakes for breakfast (leading the incident to be referred to as #pancakegate).
In the ultimate moment of truth, despite styling himself as a self-help influencer and healthy living expert, Dave Hollis sadly died on 11 February 2023, from what has since been revealed by autopsy as an accidental overdose of “lethal amounts of cocaine, fentanyl and alcohol”.
Behind the I’ve-got-it-together facade, it seems both Rachel and David Hollis were just as human and lacking in answers as the millions of people who followed them and bought their books and training.
And yet still, avid fans refuse to believe that either are in any way human, let alone accountable. They simply adapt their mindset to absorb the new truth and keep their heroes firmly on the pedestal they constructed for them. They even tell themselves and others that, “the ones who know the greatest pain are the greatest instructors.”
This is where I believe parasocial relationship relationships become damaging: When you are so blind to someone’s failings that you refuse to acknowledge them as the rounded (and flawed) people they are. And when you STILL follow the word and teachings of someone who doesn’t have any answers – and give them money and influence over your life.
And there are MANY self-help influencers who fall into this group.
How can you tell if you are in a parasocial relationship?
So how can you tell if you are in a parasocial relationship? And what should you do if you are?
It’s not unhealthy to follow an influencer or be a fan of a celebrity, and enjoy the content they put out into the world. But always be aware that the person you follow is human. Also be aware that everything you see is content. There’s always a motive or intention behind what they post.
Be wary about blindly taking the advice or recommendations of any celebrity or influencer. Do your own research and form your own opinions. Remember that just because an influencer recommends a product doesn’t mean you don’t need to investigate before buying. Influencers are paid to promote, and often don’t even use the products they recommend – or certainly wouldn’t pay money for them, as they are encouraging you to do.
Some of the signs you may be in a parasocial relationship include prioritising a virtual relationship with a celebrity or influencer over real life ones. For example, choosing to stay home and watch a celebrity or influencer rather than spend time with friends and family.
You may find that you stop engaging with the world, and start feeling lonely or isolated. Feelings which are increasingly (and unsatisfyingly) met by spending more time online consuming content.
Another red flag is when you adopt the opinions of the celebrity or influencer, and lose your own independent point of view. And not just political opinions. Maybe the celebrity or influencer has had a fight or falling out with someone and you feel compelled to back them up or worse, attack their ‘attacker’.
This is a strategy that less ethical (usually minor) celebrities and influencers – and many business coaches – actually use to increase the loyalty of their following, which to them is financially beneficial. They’ll sometimes even invent a fight or an opponent and encourage their fans to feel aggrieved on their behalf, and even take action to defend them. This sometimes takes the form of virtuous victim signalling.
Why it’s dangerous to trust someone you don’t know
When you were little, the chances are your parents warned you never to talk to strangers. And that is still sage advice as an adult online.
Remember that all celebrities and influencers are strangers to you. Despite the illusion of intimacy they may create, you don’t really know them. And it’s certainly not wise to trust them implicitly.
You have no idea what someone’s genuine motivations are, or what they are really like behind the image they create on social media (see the story of the Hollises, above). The chances are they have no more answers than you. They may not even be very nice.
And be wary of letting your guard down for someone who appears to show vulnerability or kindness. Just because someone is sick, was bullied, or has done a kind deed, doesn’t make them Mother Teresa (who herself has been accused of being less than saintly). It makes them a human being who is sick, was bullied, or did a kind deed.
Yes, they can have the capacity to do good things, just like we all do. But just like all of us, they’ll have times when they are grumpy, tired and less than their best.
It’s also important to remember that no one is beyond critique – that is an unhealthy place for anyone to be. Form your own opinions, take what you see online with a pinch of salt, and always do research before acting on anything you are recommended or encouraged to do or buy online.
It’s time to step away from social media and live your life!
If, after reading this, you suspect you may be in a parasocial relationship, don’t worry. It’s not you, it’s social media!
It may be a sign that you need to step away from social media and invest in your real life. See friends, meet new people, find a new interest. Yes, it’s fine to enjoy consuming content people share on social media, but don’t cross the line into feeling like you know a celebrity or influencer, or that they have all the answers.
The truth is that we are all rounded, complex human beings – yes even celebrities! We have good days and bad, and no one is perfect, or should be beyond critical opinions. On top of a pedestal is a dangerous place for anyone to be.
Photo by Madrona Rose