The term “parasocial relationship” has recently gained popularity on Twitter.
When it was revealed that comedian John Mulaney and actress Olivia Munn are expecting a child together, fans accused those who criticized the news of having a “parasocial” relationship with the stars. Many people were intrigued by the social media discussion and wondered, “What is a parasocial relationship, and is it unhealthy?”
The term was coined in 1956 by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Whorl while researching the relationship between viewers and television personalities such as news anchors and soap opera stars. According to Elizabeth Perse, emeritus professor of communication at the University of Delaware, a parasocial relationship is “the illusion of friendship” with a public persona.
Today, the term can be found in critical contexts on social media.
However, experts believe that parasocial relationships can be beneficial.
“There is so much about parasocial relationships that have really helped us and been good for us in this time period because of the isolation,” addiction therapist Audrey Hope says.
In the 1980s, Perse began researching parasocial relationships. She claims that since then, social media has greatly increased fans’ access to celebrities, creating a sense of closeness.
“I believe what has happened is that the media has changed,” Perse says. “I can certainly see it, especially with Instagram, with the carefully crafted messages that lead people to interact and form this sense of friendship.”
Previously, parasocial attachments were studied in the context of examining the feelings fans developed for a character portrayed by a celebrity. According to experts, the term as it is currently used is “blurrier” — when fans are attached to the celebrity’s real-life persona.
“(They are) human beings who could theoretically have a relationship with you and possibly even engage with you on social media,” explains Wendi Gardner, a social psychology professor at Northwestern University. “If they are a friend and have no idea who you are, I will say it meets the criteria for a parasocial relationship.”
Perse regards social media parasocial relationships with celebrities as an illusion.
“You get the impression that you’re conversing. You might not even be conversing with a celebrity. “You could be speaking with their social media manager,” she speculates. Consuming everything your favorite artist, author, or actor creates can feel natural. Gardner, on the other hand, emphasizes that being a fan and having a parasocial attachment are not the same thing.
“It’s not how much time you spend thinking about the person that makes it a parasocial relationship,” Garnder explains. “It’s just how you’re feeling.”
The key distinction between the two, she claims, is the bond.
Many of our social patterns have shifted as a result of the pandemic. Some people report a lack of social interaction.
“Sometimes people form parasocial attachments because their needs aren’t being met in other ways,” Gardner says. Perse continues, “It’s a natural thing for us to do; we’re social creatures.””
Gardner observes that having a parasocial relationship is preferable to having no social relationships at all: “They’re not as good as a real relationship, but they’re better than nothing.”
Hope agrees that parasocial relationships are beneficial — as long as they are not used as a substitute for real relationships.