Parasocial Relationships: Imaginary Friends of the Social Network Age

Reading Time: 8 minutes

There are a lot of one-sided relationships on social media. They have many names: superfans, otakus, and stans.

When you intimately know the personality, likes, dislikes, and the entire personal history of a person you’ve never met and never had any one-on-one interaction with, you’re likely in a parasocial relationship.

These are the imaginary friends of the social network age. Parasocial relationships are defined by a lopsided perception of connection: one side feels highly connected, while the other might not be aware of the relationship at all.

I think I know everything about you, but you don’t even know I exist — and yet, I still feel like you probably know me well.

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What are parasocial relationships?

The core principle of a parasocial relationship is that it is created through the belief that when you know a lot about someone else, they’re also prone to know a lot about you. This misguided belief is a consequence of the proliferation of mass media.

It started with the printing press. Making books something widely available allowed large groups of people to share in the mind space of an author. If you read the collected works of a writer, you’ll have spent a significant amount of time with their thoughts, integrating them into your own mind. That’s already reason enough to assume that you “could be friends” with them if opportunity availed that.

It got more publicly visible —quite literally— with television. If you see the same people tell you the news or act in your favorite series and movies, you become so familiar with them that you feel you know them personally.

The internet finally pulled the plug and turned the slow trickle of parasocial relationships into a screaming vortex. Twitch streamers, social media influencers, online “personalities,” and educators on YouTube feel like close personal acquaintances.

And it has become more and more intense. Back in the day, you would see a famous actor maybe once a week, in an episode of your favorite show. Today, you’re constantly barraged with the lives of entertainers and lifestyle influencers. Some Twitch streamers stream for ten hours every day and have built communities of loyal followers who feel like they’re good pals with their content creator.

And that has attracted the researchers.

“Knowledge about others reduces one’s sense of anonymity,” said Anuj Shaw and Michael LaForest of the University of Chicago and Penn State, respectively. The expectation of symmetry is a common social heuristic, because our social ties are usually reciprocated. At least that’s how it used to be before mass media.

In a series of lab experiments, they found that people feel less anonymous and think known strangers understand them better. They even ran a field experiment with the NYPD, acquainting residents in a neighborhood with their local police officers, which resulted in evidence that crime actually went down when the locals believed that law enforcement knew them better on a personal level.

According to Shaw and LaForest, “People […] mentally fill in the gaps that make social ties more symmetric than they are.” That means our minds create a connection where it doesn’t exist. We form bonds with others even in their physical absence if we perceive ourselves to be recognized by them in other ways.

I personally am in several such parasocial relationships. My imaginary friends accompany me whenever I do the dishes or mow the lawn. Whenever I have a block of time, I grab my headphones, and my friends appear.

I’m talking about podcast hosts, of course.

We often feel very connected to this particular kind of creator. We listen to them on a regular schedule, like a friend. They’re interested in things we like, and they act predictably because we know them well, like a friend. Any such relationship feels like it turns into a two-way relationship over time. After all, they show up reliably every week. How can we think of them as strangers when they talk directly to us in our headphones — often directly inside our heads?

But they are fake intellectual friendships. The fewest of us ever get to have a real conversation with the podcast hosts we cherish so much.

Why then do we feel so intimately connected?

Asymmetries in relationships are not as apparent as they used to be. Podcast hosts are on our level. They’re not royals who live in another universe, detached from reality. Podcast hosts are just people like us in front of a microphone. They’re as relatable as they get. We follow them on Twitter; they might even follow us back. It feels like they should know just as much about us as we know about them, mainly if there were prior interactions.

But of course, they probably don’t even remember our names.

And that’s a reality we can’t avoid. But we can prepare for it — both on the giving and the receiving end.

Parasocial Relationships and Audience-Builders

Audience-builders experience parasocial relationships in more ways than regular social media participants. We all admire someone who never heard of us, so that’s pretty common. But at a certain point, we become the targets of other people’s parasocial endeavors.

Let me just share a few examples of how this affects me, with an audience well north of 60.000 Twitter followers.

On a daily basis, people slide into my DMs expecting favors because we interacted before. I might have shared their work, replied to a tweet of theirs, or engaged somehow. Usually, this was a while ago, but when I check my metrics for that follower, I see that they have been much more engaged on my content ever since then. For them, that event was the beginning of a new relationship. For me, it was a retweet of something I liked.

When they then reach out to me months later, they will have seen me on their feeds every day, liked most of my tweets, and replied to many of them. In their DM, I can often feel that this created some sort of expectation of me. I’ve learned to expect that, and have found ways to calmly let them down if their expectations were inflated. But it does create a cognitive load: if I don’t reply to the request, their benign expectation can quickly turn into an angry outburst. I don’t need those in my DMs, or worse, in the replies to my tweets. So I kindly decline.

But sometimes, that’s not enough.

I have several “stalkers,” Twitter followers who try to go for 100% engagement by liking everything I post and replying to every Tweet of mine they see. While this behavior usually fizzles out, it can be somewhat disturbing. When someone uses words like “friend” and “bro” unironically and with just a bit too much enthusiasm, it becomes something to manage — and that drains my energy.

When does it start?

So, when does this start to affect you as an audience-builder?

You don’t need to have many followers for some to overestimate their relationship with you. It’s just more likely to happen if you have a few thousand followers.

The moment you become influential —in any way, not just the selfie-centric Instagram influencer-kind— you will have the attention of all sorts of people, both your ideal followers and those who might get a bit too involved.

It also depends on how much you engage with your audience. The more you focus on empowering and celebrating your followers, the more likely it is for someone to take this a bit too far.

The Risks of Parasocial Relationships

What is too far? There are a few the risks for you and your audience

When social ties skew towards a strong asymmetry, the relationship becomes unhealthy — and potentially dangerous for both parties involved.

It can be very convenient to feel affiliated with someone: the relationship turns into entertainment. People can just watch their perceived friend do their work and stop doing what they themselves should do. They watch you build in public instead of building their own businesses. It’s like hopping on the couch to watch a nature documentary instead of going on a hike. The curated experience isn’t the same as your own adventure.

Faux relationships displace genuine reciprocated relationships and inhibit your own self-discovery. Living vicariously robs people of a whole layer of their existence, and parasocial relationships are the catalyst.

Here’s another horror story from the influencer world. Maia Knight is a TikTok “mommy influencer,” — and while there is a lot of controversy around her personal brand, her superfans and haters are equally over-invested in their relationship with the young mother. In what can only be described as a collective manhunt, Maia’s followers tried to find out who the father of her children was, even resorting to digging into birth records and similar detective work — against the will of the influencer. They relentlessly harassed her male followers, trying to discover and reveal private information to the world.

That’s obsession.

And it’s extremely destructive, like a spreading wildfire, out of control.

How can this be prevented?

What can you do to mitigate this? Can this even be avoided?

You have one tool at your disposal: your own outward projection. With every interaction, you set the tone of how you relate to your followers.

Don’t feed into the fantasy. Don’t act as if you had an intimate relationship. Unless you’ve built a genuine friendship with a person, you’re not a friend. You can be a peer or a colleague, but friendship is earned, not faked. If they overstep, draw clear lines in the sand and call people out — kindly and in private.

This won’t hinder your capacity to form normal relationships. While you have to set clear boundaries and be intentional in every single interaction, you can still make friends. Just understand that there are power dynamics at play, and if you have admirers —as wonderful as that is— you’re responsible for not misleading them into thinking you’re a friend.

The thing that helped me most with this was learning to say no. I deny almost all requests I get, as I get dozens a day, and most are more an opportunity for the person asking than they are for me. That was hard at first because my mission is to support as many people as possible. But once I understood that draining my time into projects out of pity won’t allow me to impact more people, it became easier.

With clear boundaries and honest deflection, you can manage the negative consequences of parasocial relationships.

Upsides of Parasocial Relationships

But are there any upsides to this? Can these relationships be used for good?

The flipside of the voyeuristic tendencies of people living vicariously is that what you do as a creator could turn into modeling: they see you doing something, and they start to see themselves doing that in their future. As the parasocially related person, you are likely a role model. Act like it, and your actions will shape the lives of others. Talk the talk, and walk the walk.

The assumption of symmetry also often leads to people establishing trust in you. That’s what audience-building is all about: we seek to attract as many people to follow us, to build some sort of relationship. While it shouldn’t have to become a parasocial one, building a foundation of trustworthiness is in everyone’s interest.

With that trust comes the benign side-effect that Shaw and LaForest found in their study. Believing that a well-known stranger might know more about you than they really do can help decrease the negative aspects of anonymity: people act more honestly and are less likely to cheat.

That’s a good thing for any community.

Your own Parasocial Relationships

Finally, let’s do some self-reflection. I talked about the fact that I have several podcast hosts that I consider to be in a parasocial relationship.

Or was, until I reached out to them, asking if I could be on their show to have an actual conversation. This is the reason I have appeared on the Indie Hackers podcast three times so far: I took the leap and reached out to Courtland. Now we regularly have actual conversations.

Of course, this won’t work for everyone. But if you had asked me a few years ago if I’d ever be on any podcast, I’d have found that ridiculous.

The alternative to establishing an actual relationship is admitting the asymmetry and living with it. It may not be as fun as imagining you have a friend, but it will make future interactions less awkward.

Take the opportunity to think about this a little. We are all fans of someone, and we admire those who came before us. My bookshelf is filled with people I have incredible respect for. Recently, many of those authors have become peers that I regularly communicate with — bidirectionally, if you wondered.

Still, there are others who I think I’ll never talk to.

Well, let’s see.

And make sure we don’t assume symmetry where none exists.

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