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Parasocial Media

December 13th, 2009 by Liesl received 2 Comments »

As is disturbingly common for average young women today (and a few men, but mostly women), I have a cyber-stalker. What was once seen largely as part of the price of fame is now available to the masses, and affects as many as 1 in 8 Brits. And while hardcore stalkers of old may scoff at their virtual cousins, it is a worrisome trend to be on the rise.

Studies are quick to point fingers at online media for facilitating obsessive tendencies, and while I agree that immersive environments have made parasocial inclinations more pervasive, I think we’ve been documenting our trouble with virtuality, self-reflection and one-way relationships for millennia (certainly since Narcissus).

Luckily for me, there are several oceans and large landmasses between myself and this person (who I assume to be one ‘w’ short of a URL) and the level of nuisance is only that of discovering ants in your living room (annoying, but not the end of the world). Many cyberstalked people have to make major life changes to return to some form of normality.

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE

Visual approximation of Liesl's cyber-stalker

Visual approximation of my cyber-stalker

Nevertheless, it is rather unsettling to see in your stats that invasive searches are being performed or that they visit one of your sites daily. Emails and texts you can delete, calls you can ignore, and the very technology serving you this torment bails you out with a whole set of beautiful rules, blocking and automated actions. But you can’t shake that feeling of being watched, when you know someone’s out there following your every link.

So why am I blogging about it?

Well, it gets me thinking about Social Media, traditional media and our preconceptions of both. And I like thinking about those things.

PARASOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS

In university communications classes, I was taught that TV/film/etc. nurtures parasocial, one-way relationships by very virtue of the fourth wall of the screen or “passive” nature of the medium. You can see Robert Pattinson (and feel things about him, his character or his stupid haircut), but he can’t interact with you: ipso facto any “feelings” generated by his performance are yours and yours alone (I hate to break it to you, but he won’t be glittering himself up for a date with you).

Most people understand that passive interaction and the difference between reality, fantasy and mediated experiences. Of those who immerse themselves in a world informed almost totally by media, the majority of them understand on some level that they are obsessively involved as fans or what-have-you (“I’m a trekkie and this costume is made of recycled set pieces and small flakes of what eBay tells me are Patrick Stewart’s nail clippings”). Some decide that a mediated experience is what they want to enrich their lives and they are quite happy to invest time, money and energy into making their reality ape their fantasies.

But then there are the deluded few who have pathological difficulty understanding that you can enjoy them, you can fake them, you can even indulge them, but no matter how pervasive the fantasy, it still doesn’t make it real. For them, the film star or the singer is somehow speaking to them directly. All media is dangerous because it nurtures the escapist, virtual and parasocial thoughts that fuel their delusion.

ONE-WAY STREETS

While these few have a potentially clinical problem, I think every one of us can relate to parasocial feelings. They are most often what make us attached to certain mucisians, actors and brands, and marketers have been finding new ways to make us feel “connected” in a way that builds “relationships” and capitalizes on our need to insert ourselves everywhere from celebrity life stories to big name brand stories.

Tabloids alone are growing based on a celebrity’s need to expose themselves and our need to build our relationship with them, even when that relationship is negative (“OMG That Britney’s Shameless” goes the self-referential “Piece of Me” lyric.) The very notion of aspirational advertising is to sell us the dream of a lifestyle, persona or connection to a greater idea: buying this camera makes me just like Avril, punky AND girly!

THE SOCIAL ALTERNATIVE?

So, if traditional media encourages parasocial tendencies by virtue of passivity, surely interactive media should encourage more social, two-way relationships (as well as three-way, four-way, and so on, you greedy sods)? Well it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? In fact, in some ways it isn’t taking the parasocial out of traditional media, but infusing parasocial behaviour in our day-to-day lives, where it didn’t used to get much airtime.

Social networking sites are becoming a great way to project a different reality, persona or connection from your day-to-day life, and many people have remarked on how they are turning us all into wannabe celebrities within our own online communities (be they 100 or 1,000 friends strong).

Cyberbullying, stalking and obsessive, destructive behaviour start with lurking, over-Googling and other passive tactics before they graduate into active strategies. The very idea that you can assemble your relationships by friending or unfriending people is strangely possessive, and you can see how in the minds of the misguided it can go all “Butterfly Collector.”

DEATH OF PRIVACY

People have made a big hoopla over the death of privacy. That the only real privacy left is anonymity, and there’s a whole generation coming up behind us for whom the very concept of the private is alien. If it’s not in mediated space, it might as well not have happened. Young-uns hold up devices to record every concert they go to, they text while driving, the present isn’t good enough unless other people have access to it. Now.

Share it or go home.

VIRTUAL INSANITY

Luckily, we are slowly getting more control over privacy, more aware of the implications and developing a greater understanding of what our cumulative obsession with documenting our existence is doing to our experience. While I am concerned for the historians of tomorrow, who will either have to wade through a future ground-breaker’s billions of digital tidbits and micro-content or face roadblocks like wiped harddrives, unarchived profile pages, and no tangible , real-world fingerprints to go by, I am excited about our ability to shape our lives, images and “brands.” Even if there has been (and continues to be) a steep learning curve and even though it is proving difficult for those of us who cannot cope with the virtual overload.

And until we know what the greater implications of it all are, the SEO-friendly among us know how to be more visible, so theoretically we also know how to make things disappear.

I can only hope that, whether or not my cyber-stalker finds this blog (who am I kidding? It will be found), that eventually their ego and my existence can disconnect and we can peacefully coexist in the world.

A CONNECTION IS NOT A PLUG

Social is interconnected, like Scrabble

Social media should be about interconnectedness

Our experiences online are still “mediated,” even if they are interactive, and I don’t think it’s the nature of one medium to be more conducive to parasocial than another, rather that all media brings out parasocial inclinations in us.

There are a lot of alarmists out there, but human beings have always struggled balancing their virtual flights of fancy with their mundane, rooted lives (even Madonna has had acting ambitions, poor thing). Words themselves are little drops in the virtual bucket, but it is our ability to project ourselves beyond the here and now that can get us in trouble, both online and off. Thankfully it can also uplift us and give us a greater understanding of the human condition.

I truly believe in the power of social media to build strong, meaningful connections between people, and that despite the proliferation of parasocial activity, the best interactions are still based on fostering and growing our shared bonds and collective experiences rather than contributing in name only by simply plugging project A, B or one’s sheer existence. Whether the names are of celebrities, brands, or your average Joe.

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Posted under: Cyber-stalking, Parasocial Activity, Social Media


2 Responses to “Parasocial Media”

  1. Y’know, I recently read a terrible article about tech-related etiquette, but the one brilliant thing it DID say was this: you don’t HAVE to “friend” anyone on Facebook. Seems like a simple notion, and maybe it’s even common-sense, but given the way Facebook pushes us all to be “friends,” stop and think about it for a second. Not everyone I have a relationship with is my friend! Some of them are people I work with, and see only during work hours. Does that mean we should friend up? Not at all. And especially not if I’ve got multiple jobs and the person in question might be offended by that… or by my tendency to overshare.

    Basically, the article gave us all permission to deny the existence of parasocial friendships, the people who really AREN’T our friends. And I liked that a lot, because when I can’t even identify the person’s name, I’m certainly not going to befriend them, but I’ve definitely felt pressure to add people to my social networks who don’t really belong. And (to make a short story long) that’s why we need more choices than Facebook vs. LinkedIn.

  2. Liesl says:

    I completely agree, in fact I’m working on a post about Facebooking in schools and it touches on the whole “To friend or not to friend” issue and peer2peer pressure.

    For personal use (as opposed to marketing initiatives), I think of Twitter as a public platform, Facebook as a forum for friends & family, and LinkedIn as professional networking territory. There are exceptions, and many applications are pushing the envelope to extend beyond the boundaries we’ve created for them so that they can make greater inroads into our media diet.

    As you mention, there is a lot of pressure to add people to your social network, some of whom may be only acquaintances or professional contacts. I like how LinkedIn encourages us to add only people we actually know, it’s a more genuine/organic way to build your network and it’s more effective for building connections in the long run. If only because managing larger contact lists requires more energy and effort.

    Facebook, on the other hand, is tackling this issue by giving us greater content control, as a way to effectively allow us to define multiple communities (e.g. create a “family” list vs. a “McGill Friends” list, etc.) and publish to different groups or individuals with more granular privacy options.

    It seems Facebook sees their way forward as both a public and private publishing tool, encouraging users to publish to a variety of audiences (be they friends or vague online acquaintances), which is likely an effort to encroach on Twitter territory and encourage users to “friend beyond their means,” so to speak. Facebook grows as their user base grows and the more relational data within the system the more (theoretically) profitable their information is. There are definite downsides to this, but I think what is clear is that we need to define why we are using the tool to understand how we should use it best.

    Sometimes that means respecting someone’s decision not to add you, or not to join these networks at all. I used to proselytize, but now I realize that if someone isn’t interested in understanding the way these applications work, they shouldn’t be using them.

    I recently noticed you were cleaning up the accounts you were following on Twitter, and I think we can all benefit from occasionally pruning our networks. Whether you’re a heavy or light user, these accounts should be kept manageable (I, for one, have no idea how people with 1,000+ friends manage, but more power to them).

    Sometimes Facebook acquaintances turn into real friends over time, which is great, but if they don’t, we should feel perfectly comfortable removing them or limiting their profiles. And if the instinct is not to add/confirm, I think LinkedIn has the right approach: just don’t.