The only place to start in understanding the term para-social is Horton and Wohl’s 1956 “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” They use and define para-social relationship (PSR) as for the first time, proposing the term to be used to describe the “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer.” While Horton and Wohl use para-social exclusively, the spelling parasocial is much more commonly used, and that is the spelling I will be using. They describe the interaction between “spectator and performer” here as a “simulacrum of conversational” and term it a parasocial interaction (PSI). These are the two main ways in which parasocial is used: to describe one specific interaction, or to describe a longer relationship. Parasocial is an adjective describing either relationships or interactions, and I will be using PSR and PSI to refer to those concepts in shorthand.
In 1956, the main modes of mass communication that Horton and Wohl could address were television and radio. In their time, they spoke of performers like Frank Sinatra. They began their essay with an account of how television could, for the first time, transmit the nuances of gesture and expression to audiences from a distance, and that the performer can talk “as if he were conversing personally and privately.” The illusion of intimacy and privacy through screen or speaker is central to the understanding; Horton and Wohl’s title directly describes the parasocial as “Intimacy at a Distance.” Through these new forms of mass communication, that new type of intimate communication became possible.
Horton and Wohl do an incredible job explaining the PSIs and PSRs, and I have yet to find an article or essay on the parasocial phenomenon that doesn’t enter into discussion with them. While Horton and Wohl speak of the PSR as generally positive, a fascinating counterproduct of mass media, the following studies don’t always view it in such a nice light. Brown argues that they describe “the illusion of intimacy that is created between television viewers and television personalities.” He sees it as the “illusion” of a relationship, as something illogical. Even Goszman, who views PSRs as fairly healthy, useful, and happily details her own PSRs, describes it as a phenomenon that exists “despite these experiences being very obviously one-sided.” They are, at their heart, illogical, illusional. For some, like Horton, Wohl, and Gorszman, that is okay, and can be healthy.
For John Durham Peters, the parasocial relationship can even be schizophrenic. He argues that “Things went awry only when people failed to distinguish the two parallel circuits,” unable to differentiate between PSIs and what Horton and Wohl call “normal social life.” Durham Peters goes so far as to ascribe an etymological root in parasocial to the influential psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan’s “notion of ‘parataxic distortion’, in which actual and fantasy people exist side by side in the minds of schizophrenics.” In connecting the origins of parasocial to schizophrenia and neurodivergency, Durham Peters forces parasocial to carry connotations of insanity, no matter what context it’s used in.
Even in modern use, there is a bit of insanity in PSIs and PSRs. With the rise of the internet, it has become so easy to access the intimacies of today’s performers. Every actor and musician and celebrity and fictional character has some sort of social media presence. Horton and Wohl were concerned with PSRs between lonely men and “The Lonesome Gal,” the fictionalized host of a radio show about “a lonesome girl, but without a name or a history.” The listeners then had no access to that character or the actress playing her outside of the radio show itself. Her voice was the only thing they could interact with. In the age of the internet, partners in our PSRs are everywhere. They’re posting pictures of their daily outfits on Instagram, just as our real-life friends and partners are. In the case of some online streamers and YouTubers, they are directly giving the spectator access to all the intimacies of daily life. Through social media, too, spectators are given access to the performer’s inbox; for some, it is no longer a one-sided relationship.
The term parasocial has exploded as spectators and performers buck up against the pitfalls of PSRs with social media. A smaller streamer, with just over 1,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted on March 10, 2021, with the content warning: “CW: suicidal/parasocial themes.” She begged her viewers to stop “DMing [her] their suicidal thoughts” and reminded them “I am not a therapist. I am a streamer.” She ends the tweet with “This is my boundary,” but who knows how effective setting boundaries like this is. PSRs have increasingly become a focus of discussion in online communities, specifically in the fandoms of living people. A tweet from March 4, 2021, says “parasocial relationships on twitch are so frightening” and reminds readers that “just because a streamer is accessible or friendly to you doesn’t mean they’re your friend.” This tweet has over 1,400 likes. A PSR is not a friendship, but as performers give their spectators more and more access to themselves, the lines can blur.
Spectators are becoming more and more aware of their roles in PSRs. In a cheeky tweet, one user says “There’s nothing wrong with parasocial relationships. Some of my best friends don’t even know who I am.” It is unclear whether he refers to his traditional, real-life best friends, or the best friends that he has constructed through parasocial relationships. The K-pop fandom in particular has become hyper aware of their role in connection with their idols. In 2018, a thread from user NPCHanzo “the place I think [the fandom of K-pop group BTS] should take in their own relationship with BTS in order to prevent any extreme negative reactions in the future.” This tweet has over 6,000 likes and 4,000 retweets, and in my time in K-pop fandom, I have seen many threads like this.
Within K-pop fandoms, there is a constant discussion about how to not only interact with performers and their personas, but how that PSR can be wielded by the performer. A fan-published online K-pop magazine published an article in February 2021 was titled “Parasocial Relationships in K-pop: Emotional Support Capitalism,” referring to the common K-pop term “emotional support K-pop boy/girl.” This article addresses the power that PSRs hold over the spectator’s wallet, and reminds them to be aware of the danger of the spectator side of PSRs. “Parasocial Relationships in K-pop,” along with many of the tweets and discussions about PSRs, argue that they are healthy so long as the spectator and perfomer both remember one thing: boundaries.
Awareness of the role PSRs have between the fan/spectator and the idol/performer continue to increase, with a spike in 2020 as more and more relationships move online. They can be scary, obsessive, and controlling. They can also be life-saving for the lonely. Arguably, many real-life relationships in the Covid-19 era have become parasocial. Without physical access to person-to-person interactions and relationships, some friendships have become nothing more than liking an Instagram picture every once in a while. That’s okay. Parasocial relationships have been present in social life since mass communication was invented, allowing access to friendship and sociality when one might not have that access otherwise. As long as both spectators and performers remember their roles and boundaries, they can serve an important and healthy role in modern social life.
@briannakane. “CW: suicidal/parasocial themes I am really fucking sick and tired of people DMing me their suicidal thoughts or situations regarding suicide. It crosses a huge boundary that makes me uncomfortable. I am not a therapist. I am a streamer. This is my boundary.” Twitter. March 10, 2021. https://twitter.com/briannakane/status/1369582145044414466.
Brown, William J. “Examining Four Processes of Audience Involvement with Media Personae: Transportation, Parasocial Interaction, Identification, and Worship.” Communication Theory 25, no. 3 (August 1, 2015): 259–83. https://doi.org/10.1111/comt.12053.
Espinal, Veronica. “Parasocial Relationships in K-Pop: Emotional Support Capitalism.” EnVi Magazine (blog), February 21, 2021. https://www.ncitymag.com/2021/02/21/parasocial-relationships-k-pop/.
Google Ngrams, “para-social,parasocial; 1900-2019.” Accessed March 12, 2021.https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=para-social%2Cparasocial&year_start=1920&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3.
Google Trends, “para-social,parasocial; 2004-present.” Accessed March 12, 2021. “https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US&q=parasocial,para-social.
Groszman, Rivkah. “Revisiting Parasocial Theory in Fan Studies: Pathological or (Path)Illogical?” Transformative Works and Cultures 34 (September 15, 2020). https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1989.
Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” Psychiatry 19, no. 3 (August 1, 1956): 215–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1956.11023049.
@NPCHanzo. “In light of the recent dating scandals and people’s mixed reactions to them, I decided to make a thread on parasocial relationships, and the place I think ARMY should take in their own relationship with BTS in order to prevent any extreme negative reactions in the future.” Twitter, August 3, 2018. https://twitter.com/NPCHanzo/status/1025377994993364999.
Rosenberg, Jon (@jonrosenberg). “There’s nothing wrong with parasocial relationships. Some of my best friends don’t even know who I am.” Tweet. @jonrosenberg (blog), March 9, 2021. https://twitter.com/jonrosenberg/status/1369398995894861826.
@sairaspooks. “parasocial relationships on twitch are so frightening, please be careful. just because a streamer is accessible or friendly to you doesn’t mean they’re your friend.” Twitter. March 4, 2021. https://twitter.com/sairaspooks/status/1367507697273352204.
One thought on “Keyword: Parasocial”
Wow! This is so fascinating! Thanks for sharing 😀
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