What we as online consumers get attached to is the blend of human traits and non-living objects.
Let's imagine two people who could be called “creators.”
First you have “Casey Thorn,” a movie fan. A big horror movie fan. Regular Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 type. Casey is on YouTube, Twitch, Stitcher, TikTok. Casey watches the movie, opinions ensue. Casey has a beat. Granted, they might be shockingly bad at it. Yet there is a self-imposed beat. A lane.
Then you have “February March,” a person who wants to be in the mix but who doesn’t yet know how. Now, February might start making videos, move to text, audio, animation. It's all good: February gets more productive when unleashed, free to chase that elusive fun professional comedians are always recommending. February has no lane.
Out of these two creators, who's more likely to become well known? And who's more likely to spout “takes” on topics they know nothing about?
It's a coin toss. They both want you to come back. Come on inside, stay awhile. Both will try anything twice if it makes you come back.
Now let’s call it for what it is: a parasocial relationship.
The term “parasocial relationship” was coined in a 1956 study published by the journal Psychiatry; one that every study thereafter will panic about and course-correct for decades: “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” Credited to Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, it boils down to intimacy from a distance. You get attached to someone you don't interact with. Let me give you a taste:
Radio, television, and the movies give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer. […] The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one's peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media in an especially vivid and arresting way. We propose to call this seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer a para-social relationship.
The study is a blood fountain of 1950s media that banks on intimacy as their raison d'etre. Radio broadcast The Lonesome Gal reassures male listeners plenty of unmarried women are out there, aching for company as much as they do. On the small screen, there's the astounding stuff we'd call “a short-form variety show”: Monday to Friday, 1:00 AM, model Nancy Berg prances around a bedroom set, does a comedy bit, then she gets under the covers and whispers “good night” to the camera. Count Sheep exists because advertisers pay for it.
TV and radio are sold on the promise of information and entertainment reaching you at home. What cooler trick to lure an audience than to engage them in a little one-way intimacy play? Let them feel important.
Rod Serling shows up in the introduction to a Twilight Zone episode, the sharp dressed man there to look at the camera as he warns the audience: “What you're about to see …” The theatrical trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho features the director offering the camera a guided tour of the Bates Motel for six minutes of dread straight up to, pause, the bathroom.
Top Of The Pops, July 1972, David Bowie singing “Starman” and pointing at the camera as he goes “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-ou-ou” – cue endless British teens watching at home: despite knowing Bowie can't see them from his side of the screen, they feel singled out; the fearful pleasure of being chosen by a king.
This simple production fact will seem scary and confusing to researchers over the years. A 1985 follow-up study faces the reality of people saying “I watch the evening news on [Local Station ABC] because I prefer the [Anchorman XYZ].”
Later on, in the before-everybody-lives-online days, intimacy remains the goal. Whole point of a TV show debuting in a crowded market is to create a feel and establish familiarity just enough to get viewers to tune back in. Furniture and decoration assure the comfort of repetition and the safety of problems to be tackled if not solved in an episode. The most frequent case studies would be The Office and Friends. And crime shows, well. Those are the best.
You could argue that most creative work has turned parasocial now. I would. A story is worked inside a room then released into the wild., It's consumed in isolation and, on occasion, it's commented upon in a public space. The lone “good” or “bad” review fails to leave a mark: tons of properties, from literary novels to slick Netflix dramas, do get a bunch of reviews and no one has heard of those, at least beyond a barely tangible Rotten Tomatoes score, let alone cares enough to make up their mind about the work. So we have two major forces at play: overall sunny indifference to your travails vs. immense pressure within a niche.
Every YouTuber with a craving for growth and relevance posts their own "Let's talk about parasocial relationships!" video. So does a number of general interest websites, 2020 a banner year for “everybody” being “too online,” features pumped out in pastel teal or fire-engine red, depending on the perceived urgency – which is not great when you stop to take in how priorities and even taste are constantly on the verge of becoming same-y, the sameness now dictated by micro-trends in creation rather than mainstream events.
There is power to be found in vanity; there is power to be found in keeping your head down.
Video essay powerhouse Natalie Wynn becoming a force of her own, a star, has something to do with canny timing (she releases “Incels” in the summer of 2018, as the topic is entering the broader conversation) and everything to do with Natalie leaning into the room. She makes loud, bold choices in her presentation, costume changes, different locations, she perfects a signature combination of lowbrow humor and erudite references. At her best, what draws you back in, that's her earnest desire to dive into a topic as deep as she can go: her commitment is crucial.
Still, she can have blind spots. A Bernie Sanders supporter, Wynn goes on the record (“Voting”) saying she believed in the absolute dominance of her preferred candidate, an illusion stemming from the amount of online pro-Sanders media doing the rounds in 2019 and 2020. It was everywhere.
Of course. When a micro-trend explodes, it's everywhere. You can't be sure how much it grabs the attention of whoever's one baby step removed from your circle. It's everywhere. Saturation breeds sameness. Days are lost.
Want to get a feel for it? Watch a comedy streaming show. Pick one. When Honest Trailers cracks a joke about late capitalism, is it because that topic is ha-ha relatable to the writers? Or is it because the writers' own bubbles are awash in “life under capitalism” memes? Same goes for any comic book channel devolving into rants about “forced diversity.” Either this angers the staff on a primal level, or they're playing up to a disgruntled crowd. Guys, guys: who's calling the shots? Are you being held hostage by an audience who might walk out anytime? Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes has opined on the phenomenon, on the grounds of his experience as a local broadcaster (1989/2016: Sykes hosts The Bulwark's flagship podcast now). Any day a non-scandal pops on the horizon – “a woman said stuff” – is a day the host has to decide whether to run with the non-scandal vs. take the high road of being normal, and that might be the day a chunk of his audience up and flocks to a rival host who's willing to serve all the rage food they can eat.
If you want to occupy semi-professional space, you need to churn material out, the more the better, and keep at it; volume does not imply insight, or a palate, but it does speak about persistence. If your output comes down to a handful of movie reviews over a year, how am I supposed to get a feel for your taste, never mind tune back in and consult you as a reliable friendly oracle? You don't even know what's out there. You don't know what Tenebrae smells like.
And yet. Knowledge be damned, the internet loves to make fun of a movie that looks bad, double-barrel mocking if the movie rolls out with an aggressive marketing push. (Hey: low hanging fruit is fruit.) I bore witness to the rush to declare Bright, Suicide Squad and Black Christmas unforgivable crimes against humanity: I believe you were there for the great Morbius event of 2022. Haha let's all make fun of some movie that underperformed in theaters! Actors are out of touch! Producers are out of touch!
There are exceptions: movie guy Chris Stuckmann delays his own review of Black Christmas for three months after the release. He still hates it (a rare “F”), but distance allows a cool-off period necessary to frame an argument. Stuckmann chooses to avoid the micro-trend, and that he does out of a desire to skip another cursed opinion cycle (girls ruined horror movies! no, you ruined horror movies!). He has no use for cheap extra views.
Mostly, he doesn't want to get lost in the wrong room.
Pop stars of decades past came to a point where their lives as public simulacra were the most authentic source of emotion they could tap into, so they would write and/or perform a “Complain About Fame” song. The music can be loathed – how dares one bitch about the good life – but more often than not, it's appreciated. There's defiance. Piece of Me is an anthem.
The micro-content cover song is called “Confession About Burnout”, a close friend of “Help! I Have a Crazy Stalker.”
Let's talk about parasocial relationships! Okay, let's. If you've been through the meat grinder that's the attention of a Fan, someone who spirited away every last word you said – at least you have the muscle memory you can build on. Great. Welcome. I love you. If you got too invested in someone else, and you gained a measure of insight about why oh why you caved to solitude, same. Be honest.
Nobody wants a stalker. Nobody harbors this burning desire to find out what they're made of when a stranger knocks on their door at three in the morning. (Untreatable personality disorders might be the exception here, and even then, what sounds like a challenge ends with a body count, so if you think you would have had a blast in the Stanford Prison Experiment, please fashion a quiet way to feel.) But then: if you're part of a creative group hellbent on denouncing others as “out of touch,” the rush to produce betrays a chilly fear of being abandoned by your own idealized self, your love shadow arriving an hour too late to the moment. Where have you been?
Two forces live inside a creator: a desire for attention and a desire to belong. Want attention, fast? Get the scorching stuff out, pretend your taste is a bundle of “unpopular opinions” forged in spite of society. Want to belong, fast? Act like everyone else, modulate a list of yes/no, in/out.
No one relishes being cast out of the circle. You can turn it into a persona – the shunned, the speaker of Truth – but it feels bad. The hurt, it lingers. Name one casual elegant way of walking into exile.
What we're getting attached to, as the audience, is the blend of human traits and non-living objects. The room. Fridge magnets arranged for a sitcom fridge door. A crushed hockey mask on a bedroom wall. A runaway line.
Do we get familiar with a room, any room, out of a wish to live in a low-stakes, solution-guaranteed place we are going to outgrow and eventually leave on our own terms. We will move on to college, to Gotham, to the bright pace of the anywhere-but-here.
This story is being written after a week spent watching a parasocial love/hate wave run through the online spaces I rely on to keep in touch with a small peer group. The specifics are of no interest outside that bubble – shall we whip multiple boards out?: it was everywhere. What seemed to be happening was a culmination of strong personal values clashing with strong opinions on a body of work. All the players involved believed they were thoroughly justified in their actions. There were allegations and past behavior was unearthed and screenshots multiplied as all the spite came out to play. You're out of touch. No, you are out of touch.
And this is where the room breaks. Aren't you tired of revisiting teenage fractures?