Person vs Persona: Parasocial Relationships in the Internet Age

By Caroline Handel

In Susan Rice’s comprehensive oral history of Grey’s Anatomy, editor Tony Phelan recalls cutting a romantic scene between beloved on-screen couple Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) and Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) with series creator Shonda Rhimes. They might have chosen to move back and forth between the two performances, but Rhimes was insistent that for this scene, the camera, and the audience, should remain closely trained on Dempsey’s face as he recited a dizzyingly romantic monologue. “The woman in Iowa who’s watching this show wants to believe that Patrick is talking to her,” Phelan remembers Rhimes explaining. “If you cut back to [Pompeo], it pushes them out of it” (Rice, 2021).

I haven’t watched the episode in over a decade, but Rhimes, unmatched in her intuitive understanding of audience desire, was right. I can still vividly remember that scene, and how I felt watching it—like McDreamy was looking past Meredith, through the screen itself, and speaking only to me.

What I experienced—and what Rhimes was intent on protecting—was a parasocial relationship, a perceived emotional connection between the audience and a public figure (real or fictional), facilitated via media source. Speaking directly to a character on your favorite show, or daydreaming about hooking up with The Duke of Hastings or hanging out with Taylor Swift, screaming in frustration at Tom Brady after his umpteenth Superbowl win—all stem from developing an emotional investment in the lives of famous strangers.

Parasocial relationships serve as a kind of a backup emotional support mechanism, comforting and fixed, facilitated by media that can cheer us up or calm us down at the push of a button. Studies have shown that these relationships can have an inherently positive effect, increasing the holder’s sense of self-worth and boosting their self-esteem. “Obviously with a parasocial relationship, they can’t provide physical support. So, if you’re sick, they can’t bring you soup,” Jaye Derrick, a Social Psychology Professor at the University of Houston, told Atlas Obscura. Derrick’s intense love of the characters on Friends inspired her to study parasocial relationships more closely.  Though there’s no real physical or emotional reciprocation of the intimacy we feel for those we watch on screen, she posits, that doesn’t stop our fallible brains from perceiving intimacy anyway. “You feel like your TV characters are there providing emotional support. They care about you.”

It stands to reason that parasocial relationships would be ubiquitous, a logical product of the pervasiveness of media in our lives and the exceedingly human desire to connect. “It’s normal to be attracted to people in media, just as it’s normal to be attracted to people in real life,” Gayle Stever, a professor at SUNY Empire State College who studies adult parasocial relationships, explained to Atlas Obscura. Human brains aren’t really equipped to differentiate between someone physically in our midst verses someone we might see on TV, in terms of feeling an impulse to bond. The screen becomes an entry point to an emotional connection, rather than an obstacle.

Some believe that our tendency to develop emotional attachments to people we’ll never meet is something people have done since certain figures first gained notoriety among those not in their immediate group or community. The relationship was classically defined by sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956, gleaned from studying radio and TV shows centered on single personalities, such as disc jockeys, news anchors or variety show hosts–performers readily accessible to audiences in repeated doses. They discovered that audiences often formed attachments to the men they frequently watched and listened to, as though they might be in the same group of friends. The two described it as, “a seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer” (Pg. 215, Horton and Wohl 1956).

As Horton and Wohl conceived them, parasocial relationships were distinctly one-sided, experienced by audiences and minutely controlled by performers. While the audience might have felt as though they were establishing an intimate connection, they argued, the figure the masses really felt they connected to was a persona: a character crafted by the performer (and, often, the well-paid management apparatus behind them), that adheres to a distinct formula, honed over time and meticulously calibrated in response to positive spectator reaction to inspire audience loyalty.

The intensity of parasocial relationships has increased with the rise in digital access to content

Part two of Get Back, the newly released Beatles documentary, features footage of an interview with two young Apple Scruffs. “We’ve been doing this film for the last, sort of, two weeks, and we’ve noticed you every day, at Twickenham Studios and also here,” the off-screen interviewer says. “You stand outside all day. Can you tell us why?” “We just want to see them, that’s why,” the girls chuckle, as though spending their days in the cold waiting to see people who would never know them is the most logical thing in the world. After all, relationships require sacrifice.

In the footage, John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrive and disappear into the studio, and the Scruffs are asked for their opinions on the famously scandalous relationship. They glance at each other, smiles shifting warily—it’s clear they’ve discussed the subject. “It’s his choice, isn’t it?” One of them answers diplomatically. “It doesn’t worry you at all?” the interviewer presses. They shake their heads. “No. It’s got nothing to do with anybody else really, has it?”  

It’s hard not to contrast this measured, reasoned response with the collective mental breakdown that occurred when comedian John Mulaney confirmed weeks of rumor that he and actress Olivia Munn were expecting, less than a year out from a shocking stint in rehab and an even more shocking split from wife Anna Marie Tendler. In the latter case, spectators decidedly did not feel that an incredibly stressful, emotional moment in the lives of three strangers was none of their business. Everyone had an opinion, and then everyone had an opinion on people having opinions, and so on and so forth.

It’s clear that in each case, both men created personas that spectators grew intimately attached to, gaining incredible monetary and cultural success—and a public that felt some sense of emotional stake in their private lives. An increase in the intensity of those feelings of perceived intimacy can be traced back to a few interconnected factors following the rise of the internet: instantaneous, unlimited access to diversifying forms of media content, an unfettered license and ability to more directly engage with that content, and the rising cache spectators place on authenticity and relatability when choosing what content to consume, leading performers to blend more of their real intimate lives into their public personas than they ever have before.

A huge amount of this content consumption can now be traced back to YouTube, the second most visited website on the internet. According to a 2018 article in The Journal of Social Media in Society, the site saw over 800 million unique users consume over 4 billion hours of video per month that year. A search for John Mulaney produces reams of video content, most with unique views in the millions. Beatles fans were no doubt intensely opinionated about the band’s private lives, but the force of parasocial relationships generally (though not always) corresponds to the media access we have to a celebrity persona at our disposal, as they’re dependent on observation and exposure over time. Prior to spectator reliance on streaming and digital media, creators had far more control over how and when fans were able to access their work, making it much easier to hold the line where one-sided relationships ended and interpersonal relationships began. Beatles fans could watch their performances when they aired on TV, or listen to their music via records or the radio, or write them passionate fan mail, or even stake out their studio to momentarily see them in the flesh, but none of those options were available in perpetuity—the expectations we have now for instantaneous, unlimited access to our favorite media hadn’t been established yet.

The internet not only gave the public power to consume any amount of their favorite media at will, it provided new methods for spectators to engage with the creators behind that media, rendering parasocial relationships more like typical social bonds that Horton and Wohl could have conceived of. While previous iterations were siloed in the minds of spectators, the presence of the internet and social media have allowed audiences to take more of a collaborative role in the content their favorite performers produce, with the option to send questions and requests for what they want to see via social media or to debate the quality of output with other fans in comment sections. “In that way, the audience actually has an active role in the content that is created,” Arienne Ferchaud, co-author of the paper “Parasocial attributes and YouTube personalities: Exploring content trends across the most subscribed YouTube channels,” told The Verge. “It sort of blurs the line between creator and viewer [in a way] that hasn’t been possible before.”

Digital Media and Celebrity Personas: The Internet’s Boyfriends vs. The Internet’s Best Friends

In addition to providing users with a never-ending stream of content and the capacity to engage with it, the rise of digital media has also altered the methodology with which celebrities build their public personas. Horton and Wohl defined these figures as creative constructions, specifically designed to engender feelings of intimacy and good will from spectators. Unlike intimate relationships based in physical reality, subject to the foibles and complications of the human condition, celebrity personas perennially maintain a fixed set of attractive attributes, closely adhering to a blueprint refined through the combined efforts of the performer and their management teams, as well as the accumulated expectations of spectators over time.

Vox’s Aja Romano has expanded on that original definition, arguing that modern celebrity personas have become triangulations of the public brand the celebrity has built for themselves, the narrative around them that’s perpetuated by fans and promotional teams, and prevailing societal trends and themes. The proliferation of online culture has resulted in a societal premium on authenticity and relatability. Modern audiences are less enamored with the gilded artifice of fame and fortune than ever before, as evidenced by the increasingly anemic ratings garnered by glitzy award shows. For an audience to feel intimately connected to the persona, for the persona to attract loyal audiences, they have to appear to be someone the masses can, you know, relate to.  The internet and digital media have allowed celebrities to selectively lower the barricades that their fame affords them and share aspects of their actual lives, simulating a sense of closeness and intimacy.  

As with all human customs, our parasocial relationships are directly influenced by our collective societal understanding of gender roles. If celebrity personas adhere to formulas specifically designed to attract, it stands to reason that that formula would be tied to shared societal expectations.

Modern female celebrity personas are often defined by their ability to simulate the intimacy of friendship. When one looks at today’s popular female celebrities, there is a shared cultural longing to get behind their celebrity facades; to feel that, despite their fame and fortune, they’re women we could share a bottle(s) of wine with. In earlier eras, fan access to these women’s personas was extremely limited to vapid questions on red carpets and magazine and TV interviews that often over-sexed or shamed them. With the shift to digital media, women’s magazines in particular have adapted their online presences to attract modern consumers, providing spaces for female celebrities to open up on their own terms.

In Vogue’s 73 Questions series, viewers are taken inside the home of a (mostly, but not always) famous female figure. As they bake cupcakes or sing into chipmunk voice generators, off-screen interviewer Joe Sabia (Conde Nast’s current Creative Director) poses –wait for it—73 questions, mutually agreed upon by Vogue and an array of publicists in advance. The series employs the ‘subjective camera’ technique, creating the illusion of intimacy by making the camera the eyes of the audience; a technological trick that Horton and Wohl observed in their work. Sabia theorizes that the videos have grown immensely popular specifically because they give us an opportunity to see celebrities we love move around their private environments, outside of the glossy pages of Architectural Digest. “It’s raw,” Sabia explained to The Cut. “It’s real; it’s not just putting a microphone in their face and asking them what they’re wearing on a red carpet, or what crazy thing is happening to them. It’s deeply personal because we’re in their space. They’re looking into the camera. To see them in the wild for seven continuous minutes makes you feel like you know them better.”

When studying parasocial relationships, researchers Hannah Schmidt and Christoph Klimmit found that celebrity attractiveness is a mix of physical characteristics and perceived commonalities. This corresponds to a current crop of male celebrities who fall into a specific trope in the persona pantheon: The Internet’s Boyfriend(s).

When detailing the category, writer Sulagna Misra listed several popular male celebrities’ whose personas adhere to similar cultural formulas and reinforce standards and values of the day. Whereas past generations of male celebrities embodied a rugged, rigid masculinity that matched the conservatism of their era, these modern male celebrities symbolize a more progressive ideal. “When real men disappoint us,” Misra wrote, “in their politics, their bullshit, their basic human inconsistencies — the internet’s boyfriend is a paragon of enlightened masculinity, constructed by committee.” The sense of intimacy stems from collective romantic fantasies. Despite their fame, these men’s personas regularly display characteristics (obsessing over their dogs, posting about their political beliefs, doubting their appearance, tussling with strangers over electrical outlets in coffee shops), that render them approachable and authentic—and therefore, more desirable. The internet provided the public with new mechanisms to engage with the media these celeb’s produce, making them feel less remote and impenetrable. We binge their movies and shows. We tweet them our lustful desires (with hope they might react), make and send GIFs and memes of them to our friends the way we might our crushes Instagram for inspection. These internet-provided levels of perceived access reinforce our existing impressions, deepening the association we have of them as authentic, caring, attractive people.

An important ingredient to the “internet’s boyfriend” formula as a modern romantic ideal is the appearance of them as a good partner. They’re protective and attentive to their partners vulnerabilities. They’re appreciative and publicly express it. Even when their relationships don’t pan out, they stay respectful and classy. Deviating from the formula exposes the gap between a celebrity’s actual messy, fallible personhood and the persona that fans have connected to. This offers a further window into the John Mulaney reaction. Mulaney, throughout most of his career, cultivated an everyman persona that heavily featured his sobriety and his adoration for his now ex-wife. You can track the evolution of their courtship through his stand-up performances. Tendler did the makeup for Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s famed Broadway show Oh, Hello! She accompanied him on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and lovingly insulted his taste. Mulaney spoke adoringly of their relationship, once comparing it to the iconic fish tank scene from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet.

Crucially, in his 2018 Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, Mulaney discussed their mutual decision not to have children, an intimate disclosure that proved incredibly meaningful and affirming to fans. Together, Mulaney and Tendler embodied a liberal ideal for a modern couple—one that didn’t have to include 2.5 kids and a white picket fence to be a family, and matched the choices that more and more women are making. The relapse, the perceived insensitivity to his ex-wife’s feelings, and ultimately the surprise pregnancy, demolished the reputation he’d spent years building. It also reinforced a message we’ve often been encouraged to forget: whatever sense of intimacy we might feel towards performers is, ultimately, just the performance of their lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: