Op-Ed: Parasocial Relationships in the 21st Century

For as long as there have been celebrities, there have been people who adore them. But at what point is it concerning to worship a person who is not aware of your existence? This question has plagued the minds of many in recent times, myself included. Fresh off the heels of Super Bowl LVIII, which felt more akin to a star-studded award show than any I’ve seen before, there is no denying that celebrity fever is in the air. Has this always been the case, or is it a new occurrence prompted by the expansion of social media and the political state of the world right now? 

While it is certainly not a new phenomenon, the concept of fandom seems to be increasingly relevant in pop culture. One notable example is Taylor Swift’s legion of fans, which is dedicated enough to shell out thousands of dollars for concert tickets and merchandise. But a rarely talked about side to the story is the egregious violation of privacy that comes with many superfans. This summer, swarms of Swifties crashed producer Jack Antonoff’s wedding rehearsal after hearing rumors that Swift would be in attendance. What could possibly compel any rational human to intrude on a total stranger’s wedding for the promise of seeing a person who doesn’t know you exist? The answer might be a psychological phenomenon known as parasocial relationship. Find a Psychologist defines parasocial relationships as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities, organizations (such as sports teams) or television stars.” In the case of Swift, a singer-songwriter who writes music with emotionally intimate lyrics, fans may feel as though they know her on a personal level after listening to her discography.

A parasocial relationship can be formed with any celebrity and is often harmless. It takes a turn for the worse, however, when fans become obsessive and engage in stalking or harassment. Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus are both celebrities who have been victims of stalking.  

Fans engaged in parasocial relationships often face a wake-up call when their celebrity of interest addresses it. Musician Doja Cat faced backlash last summer for her comments on parasocial relationships in a Harper’s Bazaar interview, where she stated, “My theory is that if someone has never met me in real life, then, subconsciously, I’m not real to them. So when people become engaged with someone they don’t even know on the internet, they kind of take ownership over that person. They think that person belongs to them in some sense. And when that person changes drastically, there is a shock response that is almost uncontrollable.” This especially rings true in the age of social media, where it becomes easier than ever to have access to a public figure’s personal life.

There is a very fine line between being a fan and a parasocial relationship, and one crosses it when they fail to realize that celebrities are human beings, and no amount of idolization should ever include stalking or harassment.