This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
Fan–creator relationships can be mutually empowering
Parasocial relationships are ~mediated~ relationships, usually between public figures and audiences who observe or form attachments to them.
For as long as I can remember, the term “parasocial relationships” has always carried an air of judgment and came with the implication that these are not “real” relationships. Because these relationships are not ones fostered IRL, and there is a clear power imbalance between the idol and fan, they have been narrativized as potentially dangerous or ones that we should discourage in favor of more conventional relationships, like friendships or romantic partnerships. These warnings definitely have merit: Idols and fans should be mindful of how these relationships are both beneficial and potentially harmful.
I’ll be addressing a bit of this because it all is inherently complicated, but I’d really like to use this space to reconsider how meaningful and “real” the bond is between someone and their favorite YouTuber or Instagrammer or even Bluecheck Twitter Journalist.
I reached out to Angèle Christin, an assistant professor at the department of communications at Stanford University, who in the last three years has done extensive research on influencers and social media behavior. Parasocial relationships are at the center of her work, and something she thinks about a great deal, she said. She also takes issue with how the public talks about them and who bears the brunt of the responsibility to navigate them appropriately.
“When we use the term ‘parasocial relationship,’ it seems to come with a negative outlook — that these are not real relationships, that people are living vicariously through celebrities and somehow this is a bad thing,” said Christin. “Something we see a lot when we think about social media is this moral panic.”
She noted that parasocial relationships have existed since at least the 18th century, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire cultivated intense fandoms for their work and were recognized and stopped in the streets. So not only is the moral panic unnecessary, but also these relationships have actually become more authentic in some ways.
“Things have changed due to social media platforms in a big way. A big difference compared to traditional celebrities is that influencers really see it as their job to manage communities,” she said. “Most of them say they spend hours replying to DMs, looking at what their audience wants, and trying to manage backlash. These relationships are very meaningful and take a lot of work.”
Direct messaging and comments on livestreams, where a fan can reach and get a response back from their favorite influencer, create a sense of real intimacy. Christin said the content that influencers share is highly engaging and is meant to bring other people into their lives. While traditional celebrities are more inclined to put up gates around their private lives, internet stars are intentionally sharing their “real” lives.
Whether or not a vlogger or lifestyle guru is actually sharing something truly authentic — and arguably everything is still curated — the effect it has on their followers’ lives is very real. And that’s what’s important.
“[Their content] plays on a lot of the doubts and questions a lot of us have. I’m a mom, I follow mom influencers, and that stuff is raw and real,” said Christin. “It’s very affirming to see them struggling and have questions that you have as a parent. It gives us a mirror to help work through our own issues.”
Of course, fans should be mindful that most influencers are sharing so much of themselves because they’re motivated by their own potential career advancements and earnings. But there is something infantilizing about these cautions as well — I see them constantly in articles about parasocial relationships, and I’m tempted to caveat them in this newsletter, too.
Most fans are self-aware and savvy. While they can skew young on platforms like TikTok and YouTube, and can form unhealthy obsessions, most of them are only looking to connect to someone who or something that makes them feel seen. Fans are not just there to pay influencers’ bills; they get something out of this relationship that is satisfying and helpful to them. Like Christin said, consuming content from influencers can be an effective way to work through complex and personal issues. When we’re invested in the latest drama between creators, we’re actually litigating our own value systems — challenging and reaffirming them with one another. It can be a really healthy practice, in fact.
Parasocial relationships can feel like a liminal space between the IRL relationships we value most and the fleeting encounters we have every day with strangers. But I hope we can continue to legitimize these connections — it doesn’t need to escalate to an IRL relationship for it to be meaningful. I understand the impulse for fans to want to meet their idols in person, but I’m not sure meeting them validates their relationship any further. Their relationship is already valid because both parties have agency and get something from the relationship. An influencer–follower dynamic will never be equal because an influencer will inevitably hold more power. But the more we talk about feeling close to or invested in a famous person with a sense of shame, the more we’re discounting how transformative it is to be a fan of something or someone.
I learn more and more about myself the more I reflect on my relationship to people I like and don’t like online (or, rather, the version of them I’m attached to). And I’m sure I have at least a handful of Twitter followers who both admire and snark at my work, and if that helps them affirm their own opinions, fine, great. Happy to play a part in both mediated experiences.
Until next time,