People have had a fascination with famous people for eons — and in the age of the internet, it’s only increased. Influencers, often online content creators, have made both the definition of “celebrity” and our relationships with them fuzzy.
While it may seem like influencers are followers’ friends due to how they interact with them online, this more than likely isn’t the case. Instead, these relationships are parasocial — one-sided. But what are parasocial relationships exactly, and are they healthy?
What are parasocial relationships?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, typically with an everyday individual and a celebrity or fictional character, said assistant professor of communication at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Natalie Pennington.
According to chief strategy officer at media tech company IMGN Media Noah Mallin, parasocial relationships are an assumed intimacy audience members feel even though they don’t have an actual relationship with that person.
These relationships existed long before the internet — thousands of years ago. Researchers say ancient people had parasocial relationships with pharaohs and deities, for example.
In the 20th century, early research on parasocial relationships dissected those of people and soap opera characters and other fictional TV characters. “People would watch TV shows and become really invested in, and feel like they had a relationship with…some of the leads on the shows,” said Pennington. “So even though they may never meet, they were like, ‘This person is my friend. I know them.'”
“Even though they may never meet, they were like, ‘This person is my friend. I know them.'”
As media and technology has evolved, so have parasocial relationships. With the rise of the internet and social media in the past few decades, celebrities have disclosed more information about themselves online, allowing fans more insight. This previously-impossible-to-know knowledge has made these relationships seem real, as fans are learning more about the celebrity. It’s still one-sided, however, as the celebrity may have no idea who the fan is.
Examples of parasocial relationships
In a study on fan-celebrity interaction on Twitter Pennington published in 2016 with professor Jeffrey A. Hall and researcher Alex Hutchinson, the authors discussed the “illusion of closeness” social media interaction gives to fans when it comes to celebrity interaction. A celebrity “like” or retweet can not only boost one’s own social status, but it’s a perceived level of intimacy with the celeb.
Even the definition of “celebrity” is fuzzy these days due to the rise of social media and particularly influencers, who’ve blurred the parasocial lines even more because of increased interaction and the perception that an influencer is just a “normal person” like yourself.
Because of engagement, social media blurs the line of parasocial relationships. Since that study, it’s only increased — especially with TikTok, Pennington noted. Referring to the stitch feature of combining videos, she said, “TikTok with stitching, for example…it blurs the line on parasocial because someone may actually respond to you and then you can feel even more connected.”
The rise of YouTube vlogging had a hand in modern parasocial relationships, said Mallin. Vloggers speak directly to camera (something not often done in previous forms of media) about specific personal issues they’re dealing with, as if they’re speaking to a friend. Now it’s typical for an influencer to look directly at you during a video. There’s a perceived level of authenticity there, even if a lot of work went into a video behind the scenes.
Not only are influencers looking at you, but they’re also interacting — sometimes in real time. “It feels like you’ve got more ability to access and interact,” said Mallin. “A good creator will read the comments, and comment back.”
Commenting back and forth can feel like you’re having a conversation with an influencer (even if it’s their team and not them responding). This helps foster the sense of “this is a real person,” said Mallin, “but that can also foster the sense of, ‘not only is this a real person, but we actually have a relationship with each other,'” even though you don’t.
“Again, [this is] still not a two sided relationship in most cases,” Pennington said. “But because there’s that extra level of interaction or potential for [interaction], it can strengthen that tie for someone.”
How do parasocial relationships form and end?
Parasocial relationships are born out of parasocial interaction, or PSI. PSI is the process of engaging with a celebrity or influencer. You watch their content, perhaps even reach out to them. It’s likely you relate to them in some way; maybe their identity aligns with yours, or maybe you share similar attitudes.
Just as possible as it is for parasocial relationships to form, it’s also possible for them to end. The most morbid of cases is when the public figure dies, but that’s not the only way.
One way is, as Mallin said, “the bubble has burst.” This is especially the case of influencers when they reach a certain level of notoriety where they don’t “feel real” anymore. Perhaps their follow count is in the millions, and they’ve entered the mainstream. “Once you get the sense that they’re not really talking to just you anymore…it can start to feel like less of a relationship,” said Mallin.
This can also be the case if an influencer starts doing too many sponsorships that feel misaligned with who they are (or, at least, who the fan believe them to be). “It starts to feel less authentic,” said Mallin.
Or, maybe the influencer started in one niche that resonated with you and then they evolved and moved on. In that way, the end of a parasocial relationship can feel like a friendship that drifted apart.
This doesn’t happen with all fans, but parasocial relationships can fizzle when the illusion of intimacy is somehow broken.
Are parasocial relationships healthy?
The simple answer is yes — but like most things, it’s best in moderation.
In the United States, people are pretty lonely, and the pandemic worsened the “loneliness epidemic.” People have fewer close friends now than they did decades ago. At the same time, Pennington said, there’s an innate human need to belong and thus a need for connection, and when we don’t have that we’ll seek it out. Humans evolved these needs over millions of years, because we needed to be part of groups in order to survive. While this isn’t necessarily the case anymore, we’re still social creatures who thrive with others.
So, it makes sense that people seek connection online and through celebrities and influencers. As long as they’re not the only relationships in your life, parasocial relationships can be totally fine. You may get a “boost” of good-connection feelings — a hit of the feel-good chemical dopamine — when you engage with your favorite online personality, and that’s a positive.
But if that’s the only way you’re connecting — or if you think your parasocial relationship is actually two-sided — that’s when they can get problematic.
“We need people in our life that we actively talk to,” Pennington said, “to help our wellbeing, whether that be loneliness, self esteem, belonging, connection, all that stuff.”
Pennington continued, “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the content of a creator in any capacity and appreciating the work they do with the in-the-moment joy that that brings you.” It’s not a good idea to set expectations with the celebrity, however. “It’s okay to reach out to tweet at and say ‘hi,’ but not anticipate or expect a response,” Pennington said.
Further, Mallin said, parasocial relationships can cross the line into being toxic, especially if the influencer/celebrity is of a marginalized identity. “Parasocial relationships can feel fairly benign,” he said, “but for some groups that sometimes can be a little bit more sinister.”
During the worst of the pandemic, for example, influencers spoke out about increased harassment. Abuse can escalate from online to offline, such as Twitch “fans” stalking streamers. In these ways, the blurred line of interaction can be detrimental.
When interacting with an influencer/celebrity, it’s important to remember the relationship is indeed one-sided. It’s okay to love a famous person — but keep your emotional and physical distance.
This article was first published in 2022 and republished in 2023.