Credit: Jeshoots via unsplash

Parasocial relationships in the internet era

By Frederick Needle

How close are we really to our favourite celebs?

We’ve all been there; scrolling Twitter at 2am looking for updates on Taylor Swift’s new beau; checking Instagram every other minute for news of Rihanna’s baby; hanging eagerly on DeuxMoi’s every word. If you identify with any of the above, chances are you’re in a parasocial relationship – congratulations!

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and you’re certainly not alone; a study published in 2022 found that up to 51% of Americans have likely been in a parasocial relationship at one point in their lives. Defined as a one-sided relationship with someone you don’t know in real life, most parasocial relationships develop when fans or followers of public figures start to perceive themselves as sharing a special connection with them, usually through repeated exposure to their work or to details of their private lives.

In the current internet age, parasocial relationships are formed faster than ever, as super-fans (or ‘stans’, as most of us will know them) can congregate in huge numbers and at all hours of the day on threads or forums, providing constant affirmation to each other in exclusive online spaces. On top of this, our favourite celebrities have never been closer to us than they are today – at any moment, you could receive instant access to Kylie Jenner’s skincare routine (although of course, we all know she doesn’t actually use Kylie Skin) or the latest bombshell development in Joe Jonas’ and Sophie Turner’s divorce.

While none of this might seem all that terrible – there’s nothing wrong, for example, with talking about a shared interest with some like-minded pals – there is one major ethical issue at the heart of today’s parasocial relationships. At the end of the day, these celebrities and public figures are real people, who still have a right to a private life. There’s a troubling undercurrent of ownership present in many stan discourses; some threads and forums descend into spirals of hatred when a celebrity performs in any way that their fans might not expect them to – Timothée Chalamet, for example, has recently come under intense fire from many of his fans for his new relationship with the aforementioned Kylie Jenner. 

However, this attitude towards celebrities as a commodity to be analysed and obsessed over is not a new phenomenon and one that can’t be blamed on either the internet or on stan communities themselves. Decades of destructive tabloid coverage of the private lives of celebrities, from Princess Diana to Britney Spears, often far predating the rise of the internet, have for years laid the foundations for parasocial relationships to become a regular part of everyday life for many. 

In fact, parasocial relationships can be vitally important in affecting how individuals perceive their social networks, and have even been shown to improve quality of life in those who participate in them. Particularly following the widespread social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tabs that we keep on our favourite celebs have been recognised as being more important than ever in making us feel included and seen – either in the communities that surround these figures, or in the figures themselves.  


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