Hey, I have a friend I want to introduce you to. I think you’ll really like her. In fact, I think you might even admire her. Her lifestyle is pretty amazing – not particularly similar to yours or mine, but so cool! She’s always going to these fascinating places and getting great stuff, often for free. No, she’s not going to share it with you; in fact, she’ll almost certainly never talk to you at all. But you still want to be her friend, right? I mean… you’ll follow her social media, won’t you? And if she suggests you buy something, you’ll seriously consider it, no problem?
What I’m describing sounds utterly ridiculous, but this kind of “friendship” is exactly what millions of people now engage in online with influencers. We follow their profiles, like their posts dutifully, and listen to their recommendations – even when we know they’re being paid to make them. Before social media, there were just celebrities, people whose moneyed lives seemed distant and strange. But now, with the internet having become the central force upon which our lives are structured, people of more humble origins have the chance to harness the attention of millions while still appearing “accessible.”
Both top influencers and Hollywood stars can collect enormous paychecks in startlingly brief periods of time. For the former, that’s often from a single Instagram photo that can be posted in a matter of hours, if not less. To mainstream celebrities, social media is often merely a piece of the puzzle, but it is everything for influencers – it’s what brought them their fame in the first place and essentially the only thing upholding it. Maintaining a constant presence on at least one platform is a necessity as long as they want to keep their fan bases happy and have those sponsorship dollars continue to roll in.
That explains why we feel differently about influencers than about celebrities. It’s us, the lowly general public, who made them famous, after all, not some powerful director or studio executive. Further, they ostensibly use social media primarily to communicate with us. We like the statuses, favorite the photos, watch the videos, and re-tweet the tweets, and ever so rarely, an idolized influencer may return the favor by tapping the heart next to your comment on their latest Instagram posting. It’s hard not to feel a tinge of appreciation and pride when this happens, even while being aware of its absurdity. All this person did was acknowledge my existence in the most cursory way possible, so why did it feel so fulfilling, and why had I even spent the effort seeking it out in the first place?
Psychologists refer to the pseudo-connections we have with influencers as parasocial relationships. They are, essentially, one-sided relationships, where one person cares a great deal about the other and invests some level of energy in that, yet the recipient of all this attention has little or no idea of who the admirer even is and certainly attaches no emotional significance to him or her individually. In the past, this term was typically used to describe the way people felt toward singers and athletes, but the rise of social media and influencers has provided new and interesting examples of exactly how parasocial interactions can transpire.
Parasocial relationships are quite ordinary – after all, as humans, we crave bonds with other people. Now, obviously, when you watch someone talk in a video, you’re aware of the fact that it’s different from someone speaking to you face-to-face, but the desire for connection with this person, physically there with you or not, remains. It’s also true that those who become social media influencers tend to have natural charisma that would make people want to be their friend anyway – not to mention that the personas you follow are likely to have similar interests to you, making them more appealing as potential companions.
The fact remains, though, that influencers aren’t your friends; the one-way engagements we have with them aren’t dissimilar to those that people develop with fictional characters. Following the feeds of influencers can, too, seem like a glimpse into another world, where things are bright, exciting, and full of joy, like a children’s cartoon special repackaged for an older audience. Obtaining what you may want from influencers, whether that be friendship or just recognition, is an equally unrealistic notion.
Parasocial relationships can be contrasted with those you have with other people in your own life: interpersonal relationships. Unlike the tightly-controlled personas constructed by influencers, real human beings are considerably more difficult to get along with. They are not reliably pleasant and upbeat, the way we have come to expect influencers to be. In an interpersonal relationship, there will be dark spots – moments far worse than an influencer’s missteps of releasing overpriced “merch” or failing to disclose that a post was sponsored.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in some parasocial relationships in your life. After all, the presence of influencers is practically inescapable, and indulging in a large amount of their content probably will result in a subconscious bond forming in your mind toward this creator. In the end, though, influencers can offer you little beyond media. They can only tell you their stories, not listen to yours – only the real people you interact with can do that. Coexisting with other people in everyday life is confusing, messy… and ultimately, incomparably rewarding.