You scroll through their Instagram feed, reply to their tweets, watch their TikTok videos and defend them no matter what they do … Are you simply a fan or something a little more?
Parasocial relationships are one-sided bonds people develop with public and media figures such as actors, musicians, influencers or politicians, although the term can also be applied to peers. Unlike developing a crush, those indulging in parasocial relationships feel they are friends with the person – that they know them and know what they’re thinking and feeling.
For Mulaney, whose white, middle-class, male-skewing supporters see him as a comedy visionary and relatable everyman, the very fact their hero was being criticised for the speed of his new romance was tantamount to blasphemy.
“People usually get into a parasocial relationship by falling in love with celebrities, famous people, influencers or even fictional characters,” says Helen Najar, hypnotherapist and well-being counsellor at Miracles wellness centre in Dubai. “They create unrealistic ideas about a person and feel as if they are part of their life. They can also be physically attracted to them and feel emotionally attached, so begin to give the other party much interest, time, and emotional energy.
“This is commonly seen with fans of celebrities, as they truly believe they know the person rather than understanding that they only know the character being presented by the person.”
What is a parasocial relationship?
Parasocial relationships have been around for as long as humans but under different names and guises. Behaviours that previous generations would have termed as ardent admiration for someone, or even a long-distance crush, would almost certainly these days be deemed parasocial.
The term was first coined by sociologists Donald Horton and R Richard Wohl in their 1956 paper Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction, in which they said: “The crucial difference in experience obviously lies in the effective lack of reciprocity … The interaction, characteristically, is one-sided, non-dialectical and controlled by the performer.”
In short: you can like a particular celebrity all you want, but they’re not going to like you back.
Najar says: “This form of ‘relationship’ can give the individual a sense of belonging and that they are part of a group who shares their emotional connection of love and admiration with the said celebrity [character], which in a way normalises the relationship.”
The tipping point into obsession
Despite living in times of peak oversharing online, most people understand the parameters of their parasocial relationships. They know that Justin Bieber isn’t going to leave Hailey for them because they slid into his DMs, nor will Sonam Kapoor Ahuja invite them round for coffee because they admired her living room decor on Instagram.
“As with all things, good and bad co-exist and this can be seen when parasocial relationships tip into obsession, and this obsession or idealization of a character can affect both adults and children,” says Najar. “In children, this can become dangerous if the child idolizes a character and aspires to be like them, for example a certain character or celebrity’s body type.
Enjoying a healthy parasocial relationship: ‘They help people feel more connected.’
Hypnotherapist Helen Najar and psychologist Mina Shafik say the unprecedented levels of access into celebrities’ lives that modern technology has given followers has blurred the lines between what fans know about a public person and what they think they know. Photos: Miracles Dubai; Thrive Wellbeing Centre
The spotlight being shone on parasocial relationships also coincides with the pandemic, which caused people to be confined to their homes, and media and content consumption go through the roof. Similarly stuck in their mansions, celebrities started offering even more insights into their lives, including their homes, pets, meals and daily schedules. All of which made a desire on the part of the fan to “know more” seem less intrusive.
“The expansion of social media means people have unlimited access to a variety of platforms, entertainment sites and celebrities,” says Najar, “making the ability to feel connected to these celebrities otherwise private lives more attainable and socially acceptable.”