A successful photographer on Instagram notices a follower who “likes” every single one of his posts but doesn’t interact in any other way—until a DM arrives: “I see you’re going to be in Los Angeles. We should hang out!” The photographer ignores this message—one of many like it—but when he travels to L.A., he hesitates to post photos of his trip because he knows how this pattern always plays out: There’s serial liking, followed by a friendly message, an escalating series of attempts to establish personal connection—despite the setting of clear boundaries—and then sometimes, a creepy souring in the form of threats, sexually explicit messages, or stalking. For people who lead public lives, this level of aggressive familiarity, overt entitlement, expectation, and assumption is par for the course, whether its people sliding into their DMs, replying to their public posts on social media, or sending them emails.
The “reply guy,” a term popularized by Chloe Bryan in 2019, is an entity familiar to anyone with a female avatar on Twitter: “On Twitter, a place where a lot of bad things happen, there’s a mostly harmless but decidedly annoying phenomenon. A lot of people, mostly women, have noticed that one or two men always, no matter what, reply to their tweets.” The reply guy earnestly believes that he has some form of connection with the women he follows, so in turn, these women must welcome his commentary, unsolicited advice, and regular presence. Though Bryan says the reply guy doesn’t mean any offense and doesn’t intend to cause harm, his mere presence can suffocate the women he’s always replying to.
There’s a more formal term for this: “Parasocial relationships,” a term coined by sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956, are one-sided connections that people form with public figures that give them a false sense of a friendship or even of romantic connection. While Horton and Wohl were originally interested in the interactions between individuals and mass media performers like radio announcers and TV actors, the idea of parasocial relationships has acquired a larger meaning in the age of social media. There are children’s authors who share snippets of their personal lives on Twitter, Instagrammers who use lush food photography as a way of inviting their followers into their homes, relatable podcasters who keep commuters company on long drives, and sex workers who share glimpses of their dildo collections online. Though we don’t actually know these people, it can surely feel as if we do.
Everyone forms varying degrees of parasocial relationships, and they’re not always harmful or negative. Sometimes parasocial relationships can be rewarding, allowing fans to form rich relationships with public figures that can contribute positively to their emotional well-being and encourage them to participate in acts of altruism and community building. That’s partially the reason why the Nerdfighters who follow brothers John and Hank Green raise millions for charity every year, the Beyhive has become a force of collective solidarity, and socialist-leaning pop star Britney Spears sends her followers cash to help with expenses. And Lady Gaga a.k.a. Mother Monster is such a fan of her fans, who’ve dubbed themselves the Little Monsters, that she got a tattoo in their honor. But parasocial relationships that involve a high degree of objectification can be highly damaging. Building on Bryan’s work, Claire Lower wrote in a 2019 article for Lifehacker that: “Women shouldn’t have to make their worlds smaller so they don’t hurt men’s feelings, and being online is not an invitation to use a woman as a source of emotional labor.”
Parasocial relationships are an especially fraught problem for Black women on social media because they’re amplified by legacies of racism and exploitation, with people asking invasive questions, offering medical advice when it isn’t requested, and treating Black women followers as teachers. Roxane Gay’s Twitter mentions highlight how intensely this can be magnified for high-profile Black women; everything she says or does is picked apart, including her very identity. Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (2020), has experienced the intense escalation of online harassment multiple times. In a 2015 article for Model View Culture, she wrote, “There’s a certain reward system to being a harasser. It’s not necessarily monetary, but it exists nonetheless. There’s social capital in being the one to drive away that uppity loud mouthed person who had the temerity to get on the internet like they had a right to exist in the world.”
In this way, social media has facilitated an evolution of parasocial relationships. People are sharing more of themselves across easy-access platforms, and followers often believe they’re seeing the full life of a public figure rather than a carefully constructed persona. Public figures aren’t intentionally trying to trick people, but the suggestion of intimacy and connection that comes with seeing what one imagines is the real life of a public figure is really a brand-building tool, no matter how authentic and real a persona might feel. People in the media and entertainment fields are now expected to craft a social-media presence that aligns with their interests and to engage with their followers on social media. Whether it’s an editor known for devastating dunks, a good-natured comedian who gives people friendly pep talks, or a journalist who offers exquisite, profanity-laced commentary on the news of the day, all of these social media presences are, to some extent, personas.
An expanding definition of media has also allowed people to achieve some semblance of celebrity status based solely on their creative work, including threads and memes, without necessarily preparing them for what comes along with being a public figure To lead a public life is to be saddled with expectations and a sense of proprietary power that no one has the capacity to consent to. Though some may say that such treatment is the price of fame, they’re wrong; public figures can and should be held accountable for their work, which is subject to discussion and critique, but they should also be able to assert control over their private lives. Intrusive parasocial relationships can become oppressive, with demands feeling invasive and unpleasant. Constant feedback on everything from clothing choices to lunch food options quickly becomes overwhelming.
Public figures also live in fear of disappointing people and being ripped from pedestals they never asked to stand upon, with followers outraged about a work of art they don’t like, a career direction they don’t approve of, or a romantic partner who doesn’t fit their expectations. Few people, famous or otherwise, have the power of, say, Keanu Reeves, who coasts quietly through the world, resolutely refusing to engage or provide openings into his private life. Fans grow deeply, sometimes troublingly, attached to these personas without any regard for the people behind them. Nathan Allebach, the human running the wildly popular Steak-umm Twitter account, asked a simple question in 2018: “Why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention?” Allebach, who has recently drawn attention for using the Steak-umm Twitter account to fight COVID-19 misinformation, answered his own question in a clear and concise way.
“[Young people] are isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meet, and are living with unchecked personal/mental health problems….They have full access to social media and the information highway, but they feel more alone and insecure than ever. Being behind a screen 24/7 has made them numb to everything, anxious, and depressed about everything, and vitriolic or closed off toward anyone different from them….Young people today have it the best and the worst.” Allebach’s right: Most people online, especially those raised with the internet, are encouraged to attach themselves to brands and the characters people play online rather than to people themselves. And that is the downside: Some people feel like their boundaries are being repeatedly violated, and sometimes the only recourse is to shrink their public presence by being more selective about what they share online.
Public figures can and should be held accountable for their work, which is subject to discussion and critique, but they should also be able to assert control over their private lives.
Sometimes, people modify their behavior to such an extreme that social media is no longer pleasurable. After all, not everyone can slap down comments from reply guys with the skill of Chrissy Teigen and the deadpan disinterest of Roxane Gay. Ivy, who works in media and asked that their name be changed for privacy, recounted a troubling trend in their social media interactions: Followers treat a professional relationship with another person as the subject of a rom-com, referencing “shipping” them with their colleague (who is happily married to someone other than Ivy). Ivy’s followers continued doing this, even after repeatedly being asked not to. “I’m a real person. I don’t need fan fiction written about me,” they said.
While people who form parasocial relationships may not have dangerous intent, those on the other side may experience the “relationship” very differently—whether they’re dealing with someone who replies to every single posting on social media without exception; a person who sends long, rambling messages assuming a degree of familiarity that doesn’t exist; or those who construct entire fantasy relationships on the basis of passing interactions. These interactions can be irritating and frustrating, but also scary and creepy, even if they take place only in an online context—though one of Ivy’s reply guys did show up at an event, driving many hours to get there, which shows how easy it can be to transition from online to real-life interactions. At a time when people are even more isolated than usual, there’s been an escalation in the intensity of parasocial relationships; while many public figures may not use the term, they’re certainly expressing concerns about parasocial relationships and about feeling harassed, hemmed in, and controlled by their own public.
Many fans may be unaware they’re contributing to such distress, but others are counting on it. For those on the receiving end of a parasocial relationship, it’s often impossible to differentiate between these interactions. The sheer amount and intensity of parasocial interactions are changing the way people engage with social media—fewer personal stories and images, more impersonality; less engagement with commenters, more muting and blocking; further retreat into locked spaces for conversation. The pandemic alone is not responsible for these shifts in communication, but it’s a contributing factor, which raises questions about whether people will continue to modify their social media practices after the doors are open and the masks are off. The result may be a less rich and vibrant social media, with members of marginalized groups in particular much more quiet than they used to be.