There’s something about the internet that’s changed our relationships with others. In particular, it’s changed our relationship with the “celebrity”; an individual who is omnipresent, whom we feel we can relate to. But how has this relationship changed, and why?
We’ve already talked about how mental illness can extend via the internet. In addition, the idea of mental illness creating parasocial relationships with celebrity figures is nothing new. Every well-known celebrity has a case of a schizophrenic who misinterpreted the television screen and newspaper tabloids for reality.
Except, now things are different.
The change was subtle. Celebrities of the old years were able to reduce the development of parasociality by creating the veneer of “fake”. Celebrities didn’t seem like people; they seemed like characters, objects in a distant reality. This shielding came with its own disadvantages — the development of the paparazzi is probably the most notable — but for the wide majority of us we could understand that figures like Martha Stewart and Oprah aren’t our friends. They are beings unlike us. They are separate.
The truth, of course, is that such is not the reality. Martha Stewart and Oprah are people, just like us, who live their own lives, have their own relationships, problems, et cetera, not too different from ours. But this separateness is what prevents us from seeing them as part of our lives, which they are not. It is a fake truth which institutes the real truth.
The internet changed this dynamic. Musicians and TV stars were replaced by Youtubers and streamers, and the veneer began to fade away. People began to view the work of people with only 100,000 followers to their name, who made content not from a lavish studio set but from a living room or office in their house. These people no longer felt like objects, they felt like us. And while the traditional idea of seeing others as celebrities faded away (most online content creators would scoff at the idea of being called a celebrity), the parasociality began to manifest itself even deeper into the audience’s consciousness.
In roughly 2013 to 2016, there began a big outpouring of cash investments into the world of online content creation. Content creators began to sign with large publishing agents, who gave them access to better equipment and studio spaces. And while these creators assumed that their audience would love the added production quality, something strange happened.
They didn’t. In fact, they hated it.
What was happening was that these creators were converting themselves within the public consciousness from that who is like us to that who is like them. In other words, they were becoming celebrities — traditional celebrities, whom we can see as objects rather than people. But it was too late; we already saw them as friends.
The scariest thing about parasociality is that it doesn’t exist within the crazies. It exists within all of us. When you read the title of this post, “I Am Not Your Friend”, you probably had an emotional reaction to it. It was light, and it was brief, but it was still there. And the reason is because, while you don’t know me (and may not even have read one of my posts before) there is a brain trigger that connects this blog to a set of relationships. I am not a character, but rather a person — a person you do not know and do not see, but that you can tell is a person, because I am not a celebrity. If you didn’t have any reaction to the title, then the opposite is true: you see this blog not as the creation of a person, but as a blog which exists within a space, that space being your computer screen.
Humans are social creatures. We build relationships easily. That can help us, but if we’re not careful, it can hurt us just as well.