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Fan Favorite: Parasocial Relationships

Modern-day media is changing how fans interact with their favorite celebrities.

Parasocial Relationship: a nonreciprocal connection, often between a fan and celebrity, where one party invests time and emotional energy through repeated contact.

The numbers don’t lie.

A 2021 study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, on average, people spent less than an hour a day socializing, even with members of their own household.

However, that number triples when it comes to engaging with media like television, books and computers. It’s no wonder that parasocial relationships have become such a hot topic when so much of our time is spent in these one-sided conversations.

Doris E. Acheme, an assistant professor from the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Georgia, says that understanding the one-sided nature of these relationships is the key to navigating them.

“These types of connections can mimic real-world relationships,” said Acheme. “We are building attachments with a character or a celebrity to the point that we feel like we know them because we follow them on social media.”

‘Stanning’ in the 21st Century

In the last 20 years, the rise of modern-day media formats has changed a lot about how people interact with each other.

Netflix. Twitter. Zoom. Allowing fans constant access to their favorite singers, television stars and social media influencers has given rise to a new era of “stan culture.” The term “stan” stems from Eminem’s hit 2000 song about his experience with a stalker and is often used to refer to hyper-obsessed fans.

Some celebrities like Misha Collins from “Supernatural” even give out their phone numbers so fans can text them at any hour of the day.

The more points of contact that someone has with a celebrity, the more they invest in the relationship. Your interaction with a movie star no longer ends when you leave the theater. Now, you can watch them make breakfast for their family on TikTok. You “like” their behind-the-scenes photos of an upcoming episode on Instagram. You fight with other fans online when celebrity feuds dominate your Twitter account.

Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard
Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West
John Mulaney vs. the entire internet

Despite not knowing them personally, millions of people across the globe take part in intense social media battles in defense of their chosen superstar.

In February 2023, Hailey Bieber released a series of TikTok videos apparently mocking Selena Gomez’s eyebrows. Gomez’s fans immediately rose up in her defense. In the ensuing media frenzy, the latter gained several million followers in a matter of days, while the former was the subject of multiple condemnations across social media.

Are parasocial relationships new?

Media attention for this concept may have blown up surrounding the great “wife-guy” debacle of 2022, but the concept of die-hard fans isn’t new at all.

  • Groupies
  • Satellites
  • Swifties
  • Beyhive

“Fan groups provide an added layer of community. There’s a kind of shared sense of identity that comes from being part of the group,” said Acheme.

The words we use to describe this phenomenon evolve and diversify, but the concept of parasocial relationships has existed in some form for many years. The term was originally coined by two sociologists over 60 years ago and stems from the idea of contact hypothesis.

Contact hypothesis theory is a framework around how intergroup contact can reduce prejudice through positive interactions with members of other groups.

Current research supports the idea that consistent exposure to celebrities who identify with various religions, races, and gender identities increases tolerance for those groups.

Are parasocial relationships harmful?

Whether the attachment is harmful or not depends on the fan. While they can reduce prejudice, they can also increase it, depending on how celebrities choose to wield their influence.

People often talk about the extreme negative situations that occur within parasocial relationships, such as the murder of Selena and the shooting of President Reagan.

However, celebrities can also effectively raise awareness of major health, political and economic issues. You might roll your eyes when your co-worker tells you all about how full the animal shelters are for the fourth day in a row. However, it’s a separate issue when Taylor Swift posts about adopting her cat, Benjamin Button.

In our search for genuine bonds, parasocial relationships fill important needs for the people in them. Whether they are looking for entertainment or emotional support, these connections are affecting not only how we communicate with one another but as a society.