Guide to Parasocial Relationships in Streaming and Social Media

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The term “parasocial” is becoming something of a buzzword among the gaming community recently. The advent of huge streaming personalities that appeal to vulnerable audiences has long been an issue in the community. From Twitch metas to VTubers, to streaming ban appeals, everything about the current Twitch culture is about cultivating and tweaking the parasocial relationship between the viewers and the streamers. The term “parasocial relationship” is tossed around to refer to the unhealthy results of bad parasocial practices.

What is a Parasocial Relationship?

We’ll start at the beginning. What exactly IS a parasocial relationship? The term may sound like a complex ‘abnormal’ condition, but it is actually very simple and a common and critical part of the human experience.

A parasocial relationship is when an individual experiences a one-sided relationship with another individual, group, or organization that doesn’t know that this individual exists. The individual feels all of the genuine emotions and connection that come with this relationship, however it is not reciprocated. The term was created by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their 1956 research article. They observed that viewers of mass media experience real emotional connections to the figures on the television and radio programs they consumed. They noted that these relationships were one way, but the emotions and cognition of the individuals were the same as if they had a face-to-face relationship with the mass media figures.

Parasocial relationships are voluntary and the individual often experiences positive emotions like happiness, gratitude, loyalty, love, and encouragement. The individual will also often feel that they identify with the media parties, sometimes the experience can help the individual find and reinforce their own personal identity.

Is it Bad to Have a Parasocial Relationship with a streamer?

Parasocial relationships are not bad in and of themselves. Studies have shown that these relationships build positive emotions that are crucial for mental health, and that individuals actually grow their social connections through parasocial relationships. The stereotype that it is only lonely sad individuals that form these parasocial bonds is entirely incorrect. People form parasocial relationships all the time and the vast majority of these parasocial relationships are healthy and productive. Have a favorite sports team? What about a historic role model that inspires you? Favorite band? Do scientific institutions make fill you with marvel at the possibilities of the future? Well, all of these are examples of parasocial relationships.

The one-sided nature of parasocial relationships is great for building self-esteem. The individual is free to engage sincerely in the emotions and bond in safety without the rejection, meanness, manipulation, and abuse that can show up in other relationships.

How to Spot When Para-social Relationship is Unhealthy?

The signs of an unhealthy parasocial relationship are very similar to those found in other unhealthy relationships. The individual can experience body image issues. Parasocial relationships also become unhealthy when the individual’s feelings become obsessive causing them ruminate on these negative thoughts. Parasocial breakup is a phenomenon where the individual experiences a break-up of their parasocial bond with the other party. This results in all of the pain and mental distress that accompanies break-ups in other types of relationships. The individual can experience feelings of bitterness, resentment, and anger towards the party.

Parasocial Bonds and Twitch Streamers

The advent of social media has given viewers more access to mass media than ever before. People can spend all day watching content, and engaging in fandom of their favorite creators. However, this comes at a price because social media is designed by function to create and exploit parasocial relationships. Streamers learn to foster parasocial bonds because it creates a fiercely loyal fanbase that will always engage with content. In some cases streamers will feed their own narcissistic and manipulative traits by cultivating toxic fanbases where no criticism of the streamer is allowed. These streamers will even rally these fanbases as a personal attack force to go after critics and other creators. The tier three sub meme has come to represent these fans that have crossed the threshold into unhealthy parasocial relationships with streamers.

Too many streamers and people in the industry see the toxicity of these parasocial relationships and make an attribution error, blaming the toxicity on parasocial relationships rather that looking deeper and seeing that it is the way in which that relationship was cultivated that is what makes a parasocial relationship shift from typical to unhealthy. This is the same thing as when people say that all relationships are bad rather than looking at behaviors of the individuals involved in a relationship and how they maintained it.

What Can We Do?

As a viewer it can be difficult to maintain a proper perspective in the age of social media and content creators pushing closer and closer parasocial bonds to drive engagement and views while at the same time ultimately treating their fans as faceless nobodies at best, and holding them in utter contempt at the worst. It’s important to keep these things in mind when enjoying your favorite content:

  • Remember the streamer is selling a product at the end of the day. Approach it as your would any other salesperson.
  • Your feelings are your own, and they are valid. However, the streamer is never obligated to reciprocate.
  • Always take care of yourself first. A friend wouldn’t want you to deny yourself or suffer for their sake.
  • It’s okay to take breaks. There is nothing wrong with unplugging from your favorite streamers/content for a while.
  • Try to friends and forge new bonds with other members of the streamer’s community.
  • Explore other streams and types of content. Spread your wings and broaden your horizons.
  • Respect yourself. If a streamer/creator is legitimately mean or abusive to their audience, you have the power to walk away. You don’t need to announce it or give a reason why.
  • Enjoy yourself. If the parasocial relationship between you and a streamer/creator is causing you pain take a step back and assess if the bond is healthy one, and if it isn’t consider changing your perspective or taking a break.
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