If you spend any time on Twitter or other social media platforms, you’re bound to encounter words that you usually learn in therapy. “Gaslighting” is one. “Toxic” is another that is thrown around so often it has started to lose its meaning. And lately, a new contender has entered the ring: “Parasocial relationship.”
What the hell is a parasocial relationship?
A parasocial interaction, as coined by sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton in 1956, is a type of psychological relationship. The two sociologists observed that members of an audience experienced one with certain performers, like those on television.
Essentially, parasocial relationships are like face-to-face ones—except that one of the people in the “relationship” isn’t actually in it at all. They’re the relationship a viewer or consumer has to a star, actor, model, creator, influencer, or anybody else who is public-facing but not actually interacting back in a traditional way. There’s an illusion of intimacy involved.
When Wohl and Horton first clocked this behavior in the 1950s, their observations were mostly about how viewers related to stars on television. These days, there are a bunch of other platforms on which we can see people with whom it’s easy to create a parasocial relationship. You might feel like a super-relatable influencer really understands you. You might see their daily posts, know about their favorite hobbies and recipes, notice when they repeat outfits, and be able to recite the names of their kids—but they don’t know that information about you. Any perceived intimacy is a one-way thing. Sure, they can respond to comments on their posts (as all good influencers should) but they’re not really talking to you every day like a regular friend would.
When does this phrase crop up?
The use of the term “parasocial relationship” on social media hit a kind of fever pitch after comedian John Mulaney was criticized for leaving his wife for Olivia Munn. In past comedy bits, he said he didn’t want kids, so fans were shocked and even angered when news broke that Munn is expecting the new couple’s first child. After the first wave of outrage hit Twitter and Instagram, a second wave of criticism landed—but this was aimed at fans who have a parasocial relationship with Mulaney and expect him to be the person they want him to be based only on their consumption of a few stand-up specials and his public output.
On Twitter, you’ll find any number of posts warning people that they “need help with unhealthy parasocial relationships” after they, say, get too invested in a TikTok creator’s relationship drama. Others caution that being too vocal about an influencer or star’s personal choices is “a bit too parasocial and telling how much [real-life] friends you have.”
So, are parasocial relationships bad or what?
You can probably guess that parasocial relationships can quickly get out of hand. Consider the people who were genuinely hurt that John Mulaney (a man they don’t know) left his wife (a woman they don’t know) for Olivia Munn (another woman they don’t know). It’s not ideal to let the actions of a person you will probably never meet impact your mood, but in this hyper-connected age, it’s easier and easier for that to happen.
There are darker sides to parasocial relationships, too. It’s not just that a few Mulaney fans are walking around with hurt feelings because he manages his real-life relationships in a way they don’t like. Celebrities have stalkers all the time. The New York Post has an entire section of its digital site dedicated to celebrity stalkers. On the page, you can read stories about Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, and Oliva Wilde—and those are just from recent months. These stars face break-ins and, in many cases, have to take out restraining orders against fans who, for whatever reason, believe they know the celebrities and want to make that relationship real somehow.
Grande, Swift, Jenner, and the lot of them don’t know the millions of people who track their moves to varying degrees on social media. Stalkers—or people who harbor less-alarming parasocial relationships—only think they know these people, who, more often than not, are women.
There have even been cases of stalkers killing high-profile influencers. So, no, parasocial relationships aren’t great.
What can you do if you’re in one?
Remind yourself that it’s an entertainer’s job to be engaging and relatable—but that’s it. It’s their job. You can enjoy their content, engage with their posts, and still feel a thrill if they respond, but it’s important to know that they’re just someone who makes money by appealing to the masses. Don’t be afraid to log off, take a step back, and remind yourself that you don’t really know them.
Invest some of that energy into your real-life relationships and reap the rewards of genuine friendships instead.