Parasocial Relationships: The Nature of Celebrity Fascinations

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Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities, organizations (such as sports teams) or television stars.

Parasocial relationships expand the social network in a way that negates the chance of rejection and empowers individuals to model and identify with individuals of their choosing who naturally elicit an empathic response. For some, the one sided nature of the relationship is a relief from strained complementary relationships in their real life.  Parasocial relationships are cultivated by the media to resemble face-to-face relationships. Over time, so many experiences are shared with John Daily or Justin Beiber or Jay-Z that we develop an intimacy and friendship with the ‘media user’ and feel that they know and understand us.

In the past, parasocial relationships occurred predominantly with television personas. Now, these relationships also occur between individuals and their favorite bloggers, social media users, and gamers. The nature and intimacy of parasocial relationships has also matured. Reality television allows viewers to share the most intimate and personal lives of television personas, and celebrities openly share their opinions and activities through various social media outlets such as twitter and Facebook.

Additionally, the Internet allows for 24-hour access to media users, and increased internet dependency may lead to increased parasocial interactions. While parasocial relationships still remain one-sided, they have transformed into more interactive environments, allowing individuals to communicate with their media personas, and increasing the intimacy and strength of the parasocial relationship.

Despite the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships, there are numerous similarities between these relationships and more traditional social relationships. Studies show parasocial relationships are voluntary, provide companionship, and are influenced by social attraction. Furthermore, viewers experience a connection with the media user and express feelings of affection, gratitude, longing, encouragement, and loyalty towards them.

Just as relational maintenance is important in sustaining a relationship with our real life friends and family, relational maintenance also occurs in parasocial relationships through events such as weekly viewings of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Blogs and social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, increase the ease with which viewers can express their feelings. Parasocial relationships are popular within these online communities, and this may be due to the increased sense of “knowing” the personas, or the perception of parasocial interactions as having a high reward and no chance of rejection.

Historically, parasocial relationships were viewed as pathological and a symptom of loneliness, isolation and social anxieties. However, one study found there was no correlation between loneliness and the intensity of viewers’ parasocial relationship with onscreen characters. Other research has decreased the stigma of such relationships and led clinicians to believe that such relationships can broaden one’s social network rather than restrict it.

Parasocial relationships are important to viewers, and in many ways advantageous because of the support that the viewer gains from the relationship. Many seriously ill people find afternoons with Oprah or Ellen the one chance in the day to see a friend without stress and gain strength from their relationship with the hostess.

Individuals with parasocial relationships often express appreciation towards their favorite personas for helping them to get through tough times. Additionally, some viewers perceive the personas as helping to significantly shape their own identity.  The support that parasocial relationships provide is of substantial value to the viewers that engage in them, and with new social media techniques, these relationships are a viable way to expand individuals’ social networks.

Howard U

Howard University Doctoral Students

From Left to Right: Nomi-Kaie Bennett, Amy Rossmeisl, Karisma Turner, Billy D. Holcombe, Robin Young, Tiffany Brown, and Heather Key.  The authors are doctoral students at Howard University