How Parasocial Relationships Help Us Learn About Others and Ourselves

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I forget the year, but Facebook was only starting to catch up to Myspace, YouTube was shiny new, and I had just started blogging. Sometime around here, my friends and I watched one of Ryan Leslie’s videos—probably this one, with him playing all the instruments he needed to make a song. He had produced the classic, and incredibly catchy, “Me & You” single with Cassie. He had a presence in the mainstream and social media. My friends and I loved hip-hop, so while we didn’t know the term parasocial relationship yet, we followed Ryan the same way we followed 50 Cent.

Years later, Ryan created a membership club to connect directly with his fans. I had applied for an internship with his company. I bought an early access pass to his documentary and found a comment in a product receipt I bought from him: “Got your email about the extended social engagement. As you can see – I’m already personally connected to my fanbase. Let’s rap about this sometime this week.” That was the beginning of my work with Ryan Leslie, but also when a parasocial relationship turned into an actual working relationship.

Ryan’s understanding of 1,000 and 100 true fans led him to turn his membership club into a platform that could facilitate this relationship for other artists and companies, called Superphone. Julian Mitchell writes at Forbes, “Leslie’s mobile product is built on relationship equity, turning contacts into currency by way of a direct-to-consumer approach that taps into the true value of forging genuine personal connections with your loyal supporters.” 

Enter the Parasocial Relationship

This came to mind when I saw Fadeke Adegbuyi’s recent piece in her Cybernaut column at Every, entitled, “The Blurred Lines of Parasocial Relationships.” In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the phrase parasocial interaction to describe the illusion of a one-sided relationship we have with people we see through mass media. For example, I’d written about parasocial relationships in my series covering the components of Kanye West’s brand.

Naturally, it can also be applied to people on social media. In fact, it’s probably even stronger, because we follow celebrities and friends in the same medium. With new platforms showing us people’s lives in greater detail, knowing more about them makes us feel like we actually know them. It’s easy to confuse the two, particularly in the isolation of a pandemic. 

The aforementioned Superphone is particularly emblematic of this; many of us keep our phone numbers for a large part of our lives, with text messages facilitating communications of a baseline intimacy—or at least excitement. When we text someone we don’t actually know, we may gradually feel like we do know them. It reminds me of a principle I overheard in a sales department: if you want to build a strong relationship fast, get to the text as soon as possible.

Parasocial Relationships and Podcasting

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The power of podcasting is simple: I found that I heard my favorite podcasters’ voices more than I heard my friends’—or even my family’s—voices. You may realize the same. 

I don’t have the science to prove it, but I’d wager that we develop parasocial relationships with podcasters and vloggers almost at a subconscious level. It’s the same way a spark shoots up in our nerves when we see the familiar face of a celebrity. It’s why Cameo is such a big deal: the celebrities don’t know us, they render a service. A celebrity says words that convey a wish for someone’s happy birthday. They may mean it, but that doesn’t change the fact they don’t know us. It matters little; perhaps whoever’s receiving the gift knows and appreciates the giver—not the celebrity—who paid for the experience. But also, the feeling feels real, and feelings are the only facts. 

This paper by Vincent M. Meserko in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media is interesting, in which he examines a specific podcast: the Mental Illness Happy Hour. He writes:

“The podcast listener relates to the podcast producer on a more intimate level because the listener may feel that the producer is ‘‘‘one of them,’ a member of their community, whether defined by geography, ethnicity, culture, or social group’’ (p. 148). I have argued that this intimate discourse constitutes an audience of mental illness sufferers that are invited to relate to performers in less artificial, less transparently performative ways. Moreover, I have suggested that these conversations have been instrumental in helping these artists on their own quests for authentic selfhood while also providing models from which others can chart their own paths and attend to their own distinct, yet related conditions.

Such podcasts have demonstrated to be fulfilling endeavors for creative artists, giving them a semblance of control over their public perceptions while forging more intimate connections with their audiences. Podcasts such as MIHH have made visible those parts of a performer’s identity that were not previously disclosed, and invite audiences to identify with those disruptions in selfhood that are fundamental to being human. They let us know we are not alone.”

While Adegbuyi covers the very real dangerous, scary, and even tragic, side of parasocial relationships, it’s important to remember that they actually make a very positive difference in a lot of people’s lives too. Think Dr. K on Twitch

Learning from Expert Conversations

The value of parasocial relationships might come not from a direct relationship with someone else, but by understanding the relationships people have with each other and a specific expertise, field, or topic. At the Tim Ferriss Show, Shopify founder and CEO Tobi Lütke says:

My favorite thing in the world – books definitely rank up there, but there’s one thing that is better, which is being a fly on the wall and two experts talk amongst each other, which is one of those situations where it was almost impossible to line up as an outsider. And now, suddenly, it’s completely democratized for a wonderful invention of podcasting. But back then, and before that, I sometimes managed to do it via finding a chat room or forum where experts talked amongst each other. It’s something I was always seeking, in this case. So when I was trying to learn about some technology like some esoteric 3D rendering algorithms that I found interesting, I used to try to find where people talked about optimizing these things.

And then I just don’t understand anything that they’re talking about. But then, I chip away at it, and I would come into the knowledge. And so I tried to replicate this. And talking to venture capitalists ended up being a way I figured out how to potentially do it because, again, I had no background in business. I had no idea how this all worked. And I had to do it fast because, in 2008, Shopify wasn’t doing well. It was very, very tough to keep the company alive.

I left the last fragment there because, as Lütke suggests, it’s a great way to learn fast: listen to two experts talk about a specific topic. Chip away at the knowledge. I think that speed in learning from, and developing a parasocial relationship with, someone is one of the driving forces. There is a huge body of work to draw from; we can practically “binge” on someone’s life. 

We can also binge on a topic. There’s this paper by Daniel S. Quintana and James A.J. Heathers covering how podcasts support scientific communities, not just in field knowledge transfer, but as well as unwritten rules and more tacit and subtle social “codes” that people can pick up.

Seeing Blurrier Relationships

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a greater blurring—as more capital flows in—and the definitions of friendship, relationships, and connection change with each cohort or generation of social media apps. It was easy for my parents to tell me not to trust the things I see in movies or TV, but we use the same screens for work, play, and relationships. It’s all becoming the same thing.  

There are a ton of great benefits that parasocial relationships can provide. Lütke mentioned podcasts and books in the same breath, and in a way, books were the original parasocial relationship—one that you can have with people who died thousands of years ago. 

It used to be that relationships required a joined presence; at least two people needed to be present to start and maintain a relationship. Long-distance relationships were the first shift in this; perhaps parasocial relationships are merely the next, an asynchronous relationship where people can learn, share, and challenge each other. 

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