Our celebrity significant others: The what, where, why, and how of parasocial relationships

On social media these days, the term fandom is thrown around a lot. I don’t know if we can say that the general public knows what the term means, but on Twitter, Tumblr, and many corners of Facebook, the word is used liberally and unashamedly, which warms my little fangirl heart. I’ve even heard some celebrities use it, giving further credibility to the term, which is also very exciting! However, there’s one term that I haven’t heard thrown around much, despite the fact that we all engage in it every day… and that is parasocial relationship.

The term is probably not used much because it’s a little daunting and not at all self-explanatory, despite its importance. So what is a parasocial relationship? It is essentially the relationship that an individual has with media or a celebrity. Such relationships tend to be one sided (I say “tend to” because social media is changing this somewhat, but I’ll get to that in a bit…), but are still immensely strong. When you think about pieces of popular culture that have affected your life — television, movies, music… maybe even games or comics – I think many if not most of us can look at our interactions or feelings about those things as a kind of relationship. Dictionary.com defines the word relationship as a “connection,” and I absolutely have a connection with many popular culture icons or entities. The difference between a parasocial relationship and fandom is that parasocial relationships are one on one between you and the media or celeb, whereas fandom is a community and is therefore many, many connections with other people who love what (or who) you love. The idea that parasocial relationships tend to be one sided, where as fandom is not, can make parasocial relationships both safer and more challenging all at the same time.

I will preface this now by saying that I’m not an expert in the field of parasocial relationships. I’ve run into the term multiple times while studying fandom, and thought it was super intriguing and wanted to write about it, but the more I look into it, the more I understand that the rabbit hole surrounding the term is a deep one. Research on the topic isn’t new by any means, and has been around since the 1960s. There’s studies looking at how these one sided relationships can help individuals form identity and self-esteem (especially in childhood), how they can lead to dangerous/stalkery type behaviors (yes, stalkery is totally a word), and how social media is changing things. Maybe someday when I’ve read all of that research I’ll get more in depth, but for now I’ll just keep it superficial and tell you the basics of what I’ve learned and what I think you may think is cool about it.

The primary reason I think parasocial relationships are interesting is because literally everyone has them. Whether you’re hard core into fandom activities, or you’re more of a recluse, everyone in this day and age has some kind of relationship with some kind of media. While it’s not really possible to be a part of a fandom without some kind of parasocial relationship, you can totally have a parasocial relationship without being part of a fandom. For example, my relationship with the New Kids on the Block is one of the longest and strongest relationships of my life, parasocial or otherwise. They were there for me during the Backstage to meet husbanddark and traumatic days of my adolescence, and I would imagine some researcher somewhere would love to know how that affected my identity development, self esteem, moral development, and overall attachment (spoiler alert: it did, a LOT). When they came back together in 2006, they were one of the first celebrities to use Twitter, and it brought the relationship that I had with them to a new level. However, despite my most valiant efforts to be a part of the fandom, I found most of the people in the fandom to be… well… less than welcoming, we’ll say. Not all of them – trust me, I have some AWESOME NKOTB fan friends — but most of my interactions were negative enough that I no longer felt comfortable in the fandom itself. So. My relationship with the New Kids (parasocial) continues to be massive and real, but my existence within the fandom not so much. I’m sure others can relate with their own parasocial/fandom experiences.

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David Tennant and I at Wizard World Philly.

What I also think is interesting is that people involved in media (celebrities, execs, who knows who else) are starting to recognize the strength and power in these relationships, and are looking to encourage them. The sci-fi/fantasy world has cons all over the place where people can go and meet their favorite celebrity (Wizard World, DragonCon, ComicCon, etc),  musicians are offering more and more meet and greets before shows for hardcore fans, and even authors are not only having book signings but massive book launch parties and conventions to celebrate the universes they’ve created, not to mention places like the Hogwarts SelfieWizarding World of Harry Potter which are now all over the world. Lots of celebrities are taking to social media to interact with fans, and sometimes it seems even developing some real relationships with them. Parasocial relationships are becoming somewhat less para, and somewhat more social. But that brings with it its own set of challenges.

Obviously I’m not a celebrity and I don’t really know any celebrities so I have no idea what it’s like from a celebrity’s point of view, and while I’d love to talk to some and understand, at this point I can only guess. What I can say is that from down here in the land of civilians, there are a lot of pros and cons about interacting with celebrities as much as we get to these days. The pros are obvious. When Jonathan Knight from the New Kids joined Twitter and I got to see the stupid, mundane stuff that he does on a regular basis, he went from being this ultra private man who I knew very little about (and yes, had put on a giant pedestal), to being a real guy with feelings and a job and 3rd grade boy humor (god I love it, even though I roll my eyes so much at his tweets…lol) who I felt closer to. Even though he rarely, rarely responds to me, just being able to have a platform to communicate with him in an immediate way which he MIGHT see is so extremely cool. And on those few occasions when he’s Jon DMtweeted me (twice to be exact), the squeeing has been REAL.;) Knowing that our worlds can possibly brush against each other’s so regularly makes the parasocial relationship feel less one-sided, which is exhilarating. The time that he spends sharing his life with us also makes me feel that he’s thinking of us even as he goes through his day to day life, which also makes me feel valued as a fan.

The downfalls are there though too. The more a celebrity puts themselves out there on social media, the more open they are to negativity, harassment, and even abuse and stalking. I know Jon has had people take clues from his tweets and show up at a job he was doing (working in real estate) that he was less than impressed with. David Tennant has called Twitter “stalking by committee,” I would imagine because he’s seen some things he can’t unsee there, and then of course there’s Stephen Amell and the recent Amellygate. I believe those things are likely frustrating for celebs, but they do have the opportunity to express their outrage pretty publicly and get some catharsis. But what about us?

I know countless people who have had strong, deep parasocial relationships with celebrities who have then met those celebrities and been disappointed. Never meet your heroes, right? Well, back in the day it was pretty rare to be able to engage with your heroes, but these days the chances are greater. But as many of these interactions are either under high-pressure in a few seconds at a con or backstage, or through text-based social media which is notorious for misunderstandings, all of this celebrity interaction can lead to high (or even impossible) expectations that aren’t met. But worse yet, despite the issues with these interactions being relatively small most of the time, it’s also hard to resolve them and move on since the relationships are still so primarily one-sided.

What do I mean? Well, here are a few examples I can share, as I seem to have a Felicity Smoak-esque level of social awkwardness when interacting with celebrities.

SentenceFragmentsExample 1: We all know how strong my relationship is with the New Kids. Well, when they reunited, I fully bought VIP passes which had backstage passes so I could FINALLY meet these men who I’d loved for so long. Backstage, when I went to say hi to Danny, he basically didn’t acknowledge me, as he was very, VERY clearly eyeballing some hot girl in our VIP group and literally following her around. As I had some real body image self-esteem issues at the time, it was hurtful. But obviously since I only had 3 minutes in their presence, and that included meeting all five and taking a picture, I didn’t exactly have time to mention it, talk about it, or process it with Danny himself (plus I was so star struck I wouldn’t have been able to talk anyway, even if I’d had an hour). So, even though I had a 20 year long relationship with this man that was life-changing for me, I had no way to work through this negative thing that had happened, as I have no access to the guy. Just enough access to be dangerous, apparently, which was tough. Logic states that it was their first reunion tour, he was single, and he had a momentary lapse in judgment and so obviously I’m not going to write off 20 years because of one interaction. But it did suck, and having no way to resolve it sucked too.

Example 2: Last year (2014) I went to Vancouver on a grand adventure to see David Tennant filming Gracepoint. Not because I’m a stalker (I swear), but because my life was epically boring, I needed some excitement in my world, and I’d never done anything like that before. So a Twitter friend and I lost our minds, and off we went! While we were there, we discovered we were staying at the same hotel as David. And though we tried to meet him on set (and leave him alone at the hotel, despite seeing him there several times), we weren’t able to. So on our last day we got desperate and approached him at the hotel for a picture. He was super nice and completely wonderful, but I’m also pretty sure he was fairly annoyed. So I felt awful. But then we ran into him again later that evening and he said a very animated “HIYA” to us. And feeling bad about earlier, we just smiled and left him alone, all standing around different parts of the lobby awkwardly doing nothing (we were waiting to be seated for dinner, he seemed to be waiting for a ride). But then later realized that THAT was probably rude too, since he likely wanted to try to talk like a normal person and instead we acted like star struck teenagers. *head desk* Now I get to live with this forever, because even if I *did* get the chance to explain it to him (highly unlikely), I’m quite sure he wouldn’t even remember. Which should somehow make me feel better about it, and yet doesn’t! Sigh…

Example 3: During a recent Facebook live chat, Stephen Amell stated that he wasn’t sure when Season 3 of Arrow was coming to Netflix but that he really wished he did know because people keep asking. Wanting to get that answer in quickly, I typed out “October 7, I believe.” Well, Stephen went on to chat about the premiere of Arrow Season 4 (also on Oct 7) and then looked at his feed, saw my statement, and I guess thought I was correcting his math, since he’d said it was a certain amount of days to the premiere? So.. he said my name (SQUEE), but was a bit snarky about it because he thought I was being snarky. This is the tiniest of tiny misunderstandings… seriously no big deal… but considering this is literally the only direct interaction I’ve ever had with him, and he thought I was being a jerkface, and so then he was a bit of a jerkface, it’s irritating. Lol. I tried to tell him what I meant, but with 20,000 people also typing, there was no chance he’d see my clarification. Sigh. Not a big deal, and I’m over it, but just another example of how social media can lead to interactions with celebrities that don’t go as planned, but with us having no chance to rectify these small issues, leaving these lingering little things unresolvable. Don’t worry Stephen, I still love you. But I wasn’t being a jerkface. Promise. 😉

As fans, we now ultimately live in a world that is radically changing the entire landscape of how one goes about being a fan. Whether you’re into sports, music, science fiction, superheroes, books, fantasy, or any other host of media productions, if there’s someone you really want to meet or interact with, chances are if you give it a solid try, you’ll get that opportunity. SocialDelete Tumblr internet history and gifs media has made the world smaller. I know for a fact that at the time I wrote the original draft of this blog, Jonathan Knight was sitting on a cruise ship in the Atlantic with several thousand fanboys and girls on the New Kids cruise, and I know much of what he did the day I originally wrote this because social media (from him, the other guys, and my friends on the ship) had let me know. I also know that if I had enough money, I could’ve been on that damn boat with him (and I will one day, if it kills me). As of the day I’m posting this, some current happenings are that Jon’s extra pissed off at Texas, Stephen Amell in coming to Louisville this weekend with damn near the entire Arrow cast (and also nearly froze his boy bits off last week filming in the ocean), and Emily Betts and Colton Haynes had the most epic Halloween costumes ever. I think this has a lot of implications for parasocial relationships as technology grows and changes.

This weekend I’ll be meeting Stephen Amell for the first time, which I am rather ridiculously stoked about. But meeting him is going to be a bit strange because of the ways technology has changed parasocial relationships. Stephen is on social media almost every day, and is ridiculously open in the things that he puts out there. I know more about what Stephen is doing day to day than I do about most of my extended family members, let alone the celebrities whose work I adore. I’ve met numerous people online over the years, and have shared those day to day things. You come to know people — or at least feel like you do — despite having never met in person. And then when you do meet in person, it’s like getting together with an old friend. It’s one of the things I love most about the Internet! But with Stephen, it’s that type of online relationship, but it’s one sided. So when I meet him, I’ll have this level of comfort or familiarity (like meeting an old friend) that he won’t have, because I’ll be a complete stranger to him. Just an odd dynamic that I haven’t run into or really thought about before. I’m sure that Stephen deals with that a lot — people that think they know him for real, when obviously none of us do — but it certainly must affect the way he interacts with fans, and how fans interact with him. The psychology of it all is just very interesting to contemplate.

Ultimately, I believe that we are always going to have those connections with media, because that is the very purpose of media. Reading or watching stories, listening to music, watching sports, etc, these are all ways in which we process and reflect on our own emotions, which is why we find things we so readily connect with. That’s been around for centuries if not millennia, and won’t change. What has changed, however, is our access to the creators of these things which are so important to us. While this can absolutely mean that we can become that much closer to these things that are so near and dear to our heart, it also means that our heroes are likely not going to be able to live up there on the pedestals we used to create for them. This can be inspirational in showing us that they really are just like us, and any one of us has the potential for greatness. It can make us feel a part of the process, and a part of their world (cue Little Mermaid singing), which I know is exciting for me. But I think that it means that we also have to be somewhat more forgiving of the humanness of the celebrities that we love so much, as if we have additional access to them, it means that they are going to make mistakes because they are human, just like us. But of course on the flip side of that, with so much media, so many celebrities, and so many ways to communicate with the rest of the world, it also means that celebrities will need to take much greater care with their interactions with their fans, as it will become harder for them to live in their ivory towers, being arrogant, aloof, and separate from the rest of us. I love David Tennant because he seems like a genuinely nice, caring, and good person on top of his incredible talent. If he was an ass, it absolutely would affect my feelings on supporting him and his career, no matter how epic is acting is. This means that the celebrities of today have to be not only talented, but decent people as well. I have to say, while that does seem like a tall order, I think being a decent human being should be part of the job description for basically everyone, so I don’t feel too bad about it. And so even though I’ve had some awkward interactions with the New Kids, David Tennant, and Stephen Amell, I still look forward to seeing them again at concerts and cons, because I’m confident that I’ve chosen to engage in parasocial relationships with the right people, and I guess as fans in this day and age, that’s the most important thing we can ask for.

3 thoughts on “Our celebrity significant others: The what, where, why, and how of parasocial relationships

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  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the relationship between fans and the people or groups they admire. I don’t want to use the word “idolize” because I really don’t want to think I’ve put my favorites ahead of what’s really important in my life — my faith, my family — but it’s darned close. I wasn’t even sure what Twitter was until about 2 years ago when I fell in love with the stars of “Supernatural.” And Tumblr? What the heck was that? But I jumped in cannon-ball style and I’ve not looked back. 🙂 It’s interesting to me to see folks like you studying fandoms and the dynamics therein. There’s a lot to be said for how the ‘net has brought us closer, both good and bad. I prefer to look at the good….and enjoy being part of something fun and wonderful: a fandom, a group I can call “SPN Family.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi WFreels! Thanks for commenting! I think you raised a great point… I think some people do “idolize” celebrities and even fictional characters, which is… maybe not the healthiest way to approach media figures, because they’re just people just like us… or they’re fictional. But gaining inspiration from media/parasocial relationships, as well as community (fandom) I think can be an amazing asset and coping skill, and it seems like a lot of people are using it as such. You’re right that in some ways the net can divide us, because a lot of people have a hard time enjoying what’s physically in front of their nose in favor of being online. But it can be hard because literally the entire world is in those electronic devices, and it can be so much easier to find communities that value the same things we do online, which is what can make being online so addictive and so wonderful. I think finding the balance between online and offline activities is key… but I have long ago stopped calling offline activities “real life,” because what I do online is very much part of my real life too!


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