Parasocial relationships: putting trust in the wrong places
It’s been a hard couple of months for fans in parasocial relationships. As we’ve seen, fans of the Try Guys and Kanye West continue to be let down time and time again by their favorite creators. I think now is a perfect opportunity to examine parasocial relationships that have led to a staggering amount of young people defending someone like Kanye West, despite his his antisemitic comments on Twitter . This is also an opportunity to talk about pop culture and how the celebrity system rewards parasocial relationships and fans interacting with celebrities’ opinions and content uncritically.
Especially in the case of West, who now goes by Ye, his loyal fans still go to bat for him because they feel a personal connection with his message and his music. Ye is an artist that talks openly about hardships in his life, including mental illness. This, in combination with Ye’s arrogant personality, has led fans to see him as one of the few transparent celebrities. Over the years of his career, as he’s gotten more famous, he has also become increasingly controversial. Ye also has the ability to heavily influence his audience, while convincing them that they know his true intentions behind controversial statements. A lot of fans claim Ye is a misunderstood genius or that he has altruistic plans to improve the music industry and the world at large.
The following are examples of fans’ reactions to Ye’s antisemitic comments over Twitter:
#1- : “u dont get it, this was part of the plan, hes finally free. Yes, granted he did give adidas sole ownership, lost all of his partnerships, had his bank, lawyer, & booking agency cut ties, got his movie shelved n more importantly Lost his family but theres something greater at play here.”
#2 : “If Kanye has a million fans, I am one of them. If Kanye has ten fans, I am one of them. If Kanye has only one fan, I’m that lone fan. If Kanye has no fans, that means I am no longer on this earth. If the world is against Kanye, I am against the world.”
However, this process of convincing fans that they intimately know a celebrity is not limited to Ye. In fact, most other celebrities do things like this. Some examples are famous YouTubers , K-pop stars, or even TikTokers . Their job is to mine the parasocial relationship to develop some sort of misplaced adulation from fans that feel connected to them so those fans fund their lifestyle further.
Using Ye as an example of this, he constantly shares his opinions no matter how controversial or polarizing. In doing this, he attracts loyal people that agree with him unconditionally, and this works even more because these fans aren’t used to hearing their opinions vocalized by celebrities. With vloggers on YouTube and TikTok, fans feel connected to these creators, like they are the influencers’ friends.They see the ins and outs of their lives almost every day, and influencers share their personal concerns with their fans. Though these influencers may not be creating parasocial relationships maliciously or intentionally, these fans genuinely feel connected to them, and those connections fuel their popularity and profits.
For celebrities, this seems to be a lucrative way of connecting with fans, as it makes a very loyal and uncritical follower base. These fans are typically young and feel a deep connection with their favorite celebrities. They rarely point out their flaws because they see these celebrities as friends. Due to this perceived closeness, fans are more lenient with the outlandish antics of their favorite celebrities.
The Try Guys, who are YouTubers, also benefit from this closeness with fans. They sell merchandise, cookbooks, and upload videos about some of the most personal aspects of their lives. They’ve branded themselves as unproblematic and kind, and for the most part, they have lived up to that image for seven years. So, their fans feel that they can trust them. For many of their viewers, especially younger fans, the Try Guys have been a significant part of their lives.
However, when Try Guy Ned Fulmer was reported to have cheated on his wife , fans felt personally betrayed as well. The fanbase immediately piled on him and the other Try Guys. Most of the responses could be considered harmless jokes, but they’ve had very real repercussions on the other Try Guys, as they have had large opportunities postponed such as their Food Network show. Fans also became increasingly invasive, demanding more information from the people involved.
However, for Ye, his relationship with his fans has given him a lot of support, even while he is being dropped from several of his largest contract deals with JP Morgan Chase, Balenciaga, Adidas, GAP, Skechers, and more, per the New York Times . His fans are bending the truth of what has happened regarding Ye’s antisemitic statements, and they have tried to further excuse Kanye’s intentions, even though they don’t know him personally.
So what is the real harm of these parasocial relationships? Aren’t people allowed to have a connection with celebrities and public figures they look up to? Well, in the case of Ye, parasocial relationships are leading to an increasingly anti-Semitic and conspiracy based fanbase. He’s influencing young people to deny the truth and support bigoted behavior and ideas. These fans perceive themselves to be in a relationship with Ye, which leads them to trust and ultimately agree with his hateful rhetoric. And in terms of the Try Guys, a lot of people felt personally lied to and emotionally distressed over Fulmer’s actions.
The harm is that when people feel so attached to strangers they don’t know, it’s hard to see how much they are influencing individual opinions or thought processes until it’s too late.
Because of the nature of a parasocial relationship, in which an admirer of a famous person expends emotional energy, time, and money to support a celebrity, there’s a sense of entitlement from that fan that this celebrity owes them things.
In the most extreme cases, a lot of K-pop idols have dealt with a type of fan called a “ sasaeng.” These fans will stalk celebrities, show up to their homes and hotel rooms, and even try to feed singers parts of their body such as their hair and blood. Some will even go as far as trying to kill the celebrity, because they feel a sense of ownership over their life. Parasocial relationships lead certain kinds of fans to cross social boundaries because they feel they are so close to these celebrities that they are entitled to invade their private lives. Parasocial relationships with K-pop stars and YouTubers put the content creators in the position of victim.However, the closeness of Ye’s fans leads them to defend him at his most harmful and problematic, like with his antisemtic statements of late.
So, it’s important to keep in mind that these people are strangers and that we are not entitled to know anything about their personal lives or the people they interact with. In addition, people should remain critical of celebrities like Ye who feed into bigotry and encourage their fans to support their hateful ideas.