lifestyle

Online friends and cultural obsessions: How the internet made parasocial relationships take over


Social media’s insistence that we update, share and the latest snapshot of our lives has made the Internet a noisy and fast-paced environment. The infinite supply of fresh content means we’re never too far from the latest viral sensation taking hold of the public psyche, no matter how seemingly random and ridiculous it may be.

Couch Guy is a prime example of these fleeting trends that become internet obsessions.

For those of us who don’t spend their lives scrolling through TikTok, an otherwise innocuous video of a young woman surprising her boyfriend at university went viral earlier this month, with many speculating the boyfriend (the aforementioned Couch Guy) would have rather stayed sat with the three other women who were with him on the sofa.

Despite bored viewers watching on their phones knowing next to nothing about the couple, the #CouchGuy tag on TikTok became a subculture in its own right, with TikTokkers, celebrities and even brands duetting, stitching, investigating, and parodying the original video, attracting over half a billion views.

But Couch Guy himself, real name Robbie, was left less than impressed with his newfound fame and the intense scrutiny that accompanied it. In his own TikTok video, he reminded those on social media that his relationship was not to be analysed like “true crime”.

‘Don’t be a parasocial creep,’ he added.

But the situation Robbie the Couch Guy found himself in isn’t one that’s new – or even particularly rare in a time where social media is so prevalent.

Even those with fairly modest followings can find themselves caught up in one-sided, parasocial relationships, where obsessive thoughts and wild assumptions from a stranger can potentially infringe on someone’s wellbeing.

The concept of parasocial relationships was theorised in 1956 by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe the phenomenon where someone forms close-knit, social bonds with a popular icon and figure without any real hope of those feelings ever being reciprocated. Think of those caught up in Beatlemania, or the extremity of some 1D fans, as typical parasocial relationships.

Now, there’s an increased prevalence of the term – perhaps because we have more opportunities to form parasocial relationships than ever before.

‘There are more potential targets that we can form parasocial relationships with now compared to 30 years ago, between social media and the increase in TV channels and streaming services,’ Dr Veronica Lamarche, postgraduate teaching director of psychology at the University of Essex, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The key difference between being a fan and having a parasocial relationship with someone is the feeling of a bond that mirrors feelings of friendship. Unlike simply liking someone (i.e., being a fan) people feel like parasocial targets are their friends.’

Social media helps foster this immediate sort of intimacy, with many influencers documenting their day-to-day lives for their followers to see and engage with. By looking at a camera and addressing the viewer directly, observers may feel as if they have a genuine dialogue with an influencer, despite it being entirely one-sided.

‘We know from research on two-sided relationships that self-disclosure is a way to build feelings of intimacy, closeness and connection,’ Lamarche says. ‘A lot of social media and influencers create content with an intent of making people feel like they know them and what’s going on in their lives.

It’s all too easy for parasocial relationships to turn into obsession – sometimes with damaging results (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

‘Whether this is an honest glimpse into their real lives or a highly curated one, it makes sense that their viewers could begin to feel a sense of connection and familiarity despite having never actually interacted with them in “real life”.’

While parasocial relationships are not inherently damaging, there are occasions where they can overstep the mark, leaving influencers feeling unnerved and vulnerable. This may not necessarily be on the same scale as what ‘Couch Guy’ encountered, but it can certainly be unnerving – with some social media users fearing for their safety.

Writer and editor Gina Tonic, 28, says that some of her 13.7k followers have acted inappropriately online, being too forward and familiar despite having never met them.

‘My Instagram following pretty much doubled last year during lockdown as I started using the platform more regularly,’ she explains. ‘I get comments all the time from people I don’t know.

‘If I’m not being trolled, I’m quite often sent very triggering messages from people looking for advice or consoling on pretty dark topics. The latter is probably more taxing than the troll comments as they make me feel quite helpless.

‘I want to help people as much as I can and it’s hard to remind myself I am not responsible for the personal happiness of every single person who follows me.’

After a particularly unsettling incident, in which Gina feared for her wellbeing due to being targeted by a blank account, she now limits who can contact her on social media, and sometimes questions her output.

‘Boundaries are incredibly important and by being accessible to so many for so many different things I kept finding myself too burnt out to really look after myself,’ she says. ‘I’ve since added limits on who can message me or comment on my platform, but you still get people sneaking in dick pics semi-regularly regardless.

‘I guess it has made me question whether I am too sexy or inappropriate online, but as a lot of my work centres around sex, it would be very difficult for me to change my output.

‘I also get the odd feeling if I was totally closed off about sex online and stuck to turtlenecks, the number of creeps wouldn’t deplete that much.’

The crossing from parasocial relationships into inappropriate behaviour is something that social media platforms need to take responsibility for, Lamarche believes.

‘Like any kind of relationship there are going to be healthy and unhealthy parasocial relationships,’ she says. ‘If someone were to become obsessed with their parasocial relationship it could have negative outcomes – just like becoming obsessed with a two-sided relationship can have.

‘Social media companies that directly aim to create these kinds of parasocial bonds could be more accountable in making sure their spaces are safe for creators and users alike.

‘This could be reminding people of what respectful interactions look like, ensuring they protect creators who are the targets of abuse, and avoiding manipulating these bonds for profit.’

But parasocial relationships are not inherently negative in and of themselves, and could even be symptomatic of a healthy and empathetic state.

Lamarche says studies with some of her PhD students have found that people actually believe that their parasocial relationships can be responsive to their needs better than relationships with acquaintances could.

‘Parasocial relationships can negate the chance of rejection and empower us to model individuals who are compassionate, moral and make a positive impact,’ psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers explains.

‘They can also provide a feeling of relief when other relationships are challenging, and can help us get through tough periods in our lives. They provide a level of connection and companionship, and can be a place for positive emotions such as gratitude and encouragement to be expressed.’

Seeing how prolific social media is and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future, parasocial relationships will only become more, not less, commonplace.

‘Parasocial relationships will continue to exist as long as we have media and access to information about other people’s lives,’ Lamarche says. ‘Even though it might sound funny that we build connections with people we’ve technically never met or interacted with, it is a perfectly normal and common phenomenon, and engaging with these bonds is associated with lots of positive psychological outcomes too.’

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Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.


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