This weekend, I carved out two solid hours in my increasingly busy schedule to watch a YouTube video. Made by Shannon Strucci, ‘Fake Friends’ is an ongoing series about the phenomenon of parasocial relationships. A parasocial interaction is characterized as a one-way experience, usually with media but also seen in areas like sports. The term has been around since the 1950s but, as Strucci details, it feels almost tailor-made for our current era of YouTube, social media, late-stage capitalism and sad penguins (it makes sense in the video, I swear). The way an internet celebrity, for example, cultivates a seemingly deeply personal friendship with their fans who help pay their bills through their dedicated interaction is a parasocial relationship. Such things aren’t always toxic, but Strucci extensively explains how twisted and deep-seated the issues behind these interactions are. Combined, the two videos are close to 2 and a half hours, and they’re often unwieldy affairs but I heartily encourage you all to watch them. Give them your full attention too.
I have been on the planet for over 28 years, but I’ve been a citizen of the internet since I was 15, when my parents got the first family computer and I dedicated much of the latter part of my adolescence to the experience. I cut my teeth on the IMDb message boards, but it was LiveJournal, as it was for so many teenage girls, that proved especially formative. I made friends with whom I am still close to this day on both sites, but LJ was where I tied myself to the platform. I was deeply personal at times, often embarrassingly so. I would ask for comments from basically anyone and I had no qualms about becoming instant BFFs with anyone who showed the slightest sliver of interest in me. For a woman who struggled to make friends in real life and who would later go to university with undiagnosed anxieties and even less friends than before, these places were life savers. These friends, and they are really friends, were a lifeline. Twitter would soon follow, at a time when the site was so green and hopeful, and I remain there to this day, even as the platform sinks into existential despair.
Soon, I’d start reviewing books on my LJ page, with snarky YA romance recaps that proved unexpectedly popular. I moved to blogs and soon each site converged in a synergistic manner. I wrote the blogs, I plugged them on Twitter, then I wrote about the experiences for LJ. After I left LJ once the site fell into Russian spam sadness, Twitter was my default. It still is, honestly. I live-tweeted shows with LJ friends, I got angry about politics, I geeked out over celebrities, and I let my paltry follower numbers know of my struggles. It stayed like that pretty much all the way through university and the years of home living, job struggles and personal crises that followed. Blogging was my constant, a creative output when I had no other, but Twitter was my social life.
As time passed, my blogging got a few more hits and people who wrote professionally started following me. They’d share my pieces and my tweets and soon the follower count went up. I got better at knowing what people liked to read from me. I knew when to clamp down on sillier tweets and how to refine my message for 140 characters. Eventually, I started finding paying writing gigs through Twitter, and I finally found myself able to build a professional persona as a proper writer.
The internet made me, but it was social media that made me brand who I am.
And that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s completely true.
I am keenly aware of the good things the internet has brought into my life. It gave me friends, direction, ambitions, interests, entertainment, confidence, and much more. I am a child of the internet at what was arguably a good time to be so, or at least way less sociopathic than what it would become. I would never discount or dismiss the positives being online gave me because the benefits have been undeniable.
Yet all that also makes me hyper-aware of how tangled up I am in an unbearably unhealthy ecosystem. I wouldn’t have the career and character I have now if it weren’t for a deeply damaging site chock full of Nazis that also happens to be good for casual schmoozing. I hate what that site has done to our discourse, but I’ll probably never leave it, or at least I won’t until a viable alternative is made.
Strucci’s parasocial discussion also hammered home a lot of my fears about boundaries and their increasing liminality. Everyone on the internet is encouraged to build a brand. It may not be exclusively for purposes of profit or self-gain, but the instinct is still there. It’s in every corporate social media account run by a savvy account manager who knows the PR benefits of making that company with terrible hiring policies seem super cool in their usage of memes. It’s in that thrill you get when a tweet does well, and you make the Soundcloud account joke in response but still make sure to link to your blog or Ko-Fi account. It’s in the way you try to strike up a super casual and funny conversation with a Twitter user you like in the hopes that they’ll like it enough to follow you back. ‘Please like me’ takes on a whole new meaning when a key feature of your site is the ability to like things.
It’s weird to get a modicum of internet recognition. Believe me, I am no celebrity and I know that the brief moments of ‘Hey, I like your work’ that I get are nothing compared to many of my peers, particularly those who have made their names on the internet. Still, a lot of emotions go through your head once you realize there’s a decent sized number of strangers who have expectations of you. Or that Reddit has decided to make a target of you. Or that you’re now considered one of the media elite because of your job. You want to cultivate good relations with the people who like your work and you do everything in your power to not call them ‘fans’ because it’ll never stop sounding creepy or indicative of power you don’t feel you possess. You want to do more to build up your image and your career but as that Twitter follow number increases and the number of strangers in your mentions calling you unmentionable slurs gets higher, you’re aware of how impossible the bind becomes.
I can’t imagine how much harder it is for actually famous people on the internet who have real fans and Patreon accounts and sponsors and business commitments. There will always be people who miss the ‘old’ you, the one whose work was different from what it is now, and they’ll be in every comments section letting you know this fact. They’ll demand you reply to them and reciprocate whatever emotional needs they have, and when you ask for the boundaries to be respected, they’ll claim you just don’t respect your fans enough. I’ve seen it happen to people I know who have had their private lives picked over and fantasies projected onto their day-to-day existences. I deal with some weird shit in my internet existence but at least nobody has claimed they own me yet.
We don’t own any celebrity’s life or personhood, but parasocial conditioning and its influence on our culture has made that demand seem unusually reasonable. It’s easier to sell products to customers when you call them friends, especially if you do it to teenagers. The directness of social media makes a mere like feel real in a way it has no right to be (and I say that as someone who still geeks out when it happens to me with celebrities I like). Parents encourage it too, as seen by the sheer amount of YouTube celebrities who have detailed instances of fans coming to their homes, accompanied by their mum, as if stalking is okay because they put themselves on the internet.
We don’t want to be fans, we want to be friends, so we talk to celebrities in unnervingly casual ways that may seem cute in abstract but are actually shockingly rude and invasive. This happened at the ACE Comic Con in Seattle this year during a panel featuring Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie and Tom Holland. The trio are known to fans for the way they rib on one another in friendly banter, but when fans try to replicate that, they don’t seem to understand that they have no basis to do such things.
This is depressingly common nowadays and manifests in baffling ways. Hayley Atwell left Twitter for a number of reasons, but the stand-out incident seemed to be the way fans would call her ‘mom’, despite her telling them she didn’t like it. Hudson Yang from Fresh Off the Boat told the Hollywood Reporter about a fan interaction where someone repeatedly messaged him on Instagram, which culminated in said fan messaging Yang his own address. It wouldn’t be acceptable at any age but let the record show that Hudson Yang is 14. That last part was included in a piece called ‘Top 30 Stars Under the Age of 18’, and sadly there are other fan interactions even creepier than Yang’s. Fan interactions like this aren’t new, unfortunately, but there’s an intensity and danger to them that feels very much of our age. Everyone is on the internet and encouraged to be there. It’s just good business.
I’m not sure there’s a wholeheartedly healthy way to be on the internet these days, to be honest, yet on we march because its benefits are so rewarding and addicting. It’s a matter of boundaries, of establishing them and sticking to them even when it seems unfair. Having good people in your corner helps, as does the ability to do things outside your house if you can. This is a great part of my life, but I must strive to ensure it isn’t my entire life.