The Prevalence of Parasocial Relationships
Do we pursue online relationships because we fear offline ones?
This is part five of a five-part series on Christian Twitter.
This is the end of our series on Christian Twitter, and I reflect briefly on this series at the end of the post today.
We have come to the end of our series exploring concerning trends in Christian Twitter. This final concern, the prevalence of parasocial relationships, is most definitely not unique to Christian Twitter, but I think it is uniquely insidious among believers. Let’s dive right into it.
What Are Parasocial Relationships?
The term “parasocial relationship” was coined in 1956 by two psychologists who wanted a word to describe the mediated relationships that audience members have with performers within mass media communications, specifically television at the time.
Did you feel like you knew the group on Friends? Almost like they were your friends? That’s a parasocial relationship.
Do you watch The View or another group talk show and feel like you’re having coffee with your friends? Shows like that are designed to foster parasocial relationships.
These are the sort of television-based parasocial relationships that the psychologists were hoping to categorize in 1956 when they coined the term. Parasocial relationships can also be one-way relationships that are not mediated by a screen, like if you feel as though you’re friends with your barista but you really aren’t, but the term is most commonly used to describe a one-way relationship that one has with a more prominent figure on some form of media.
Today, parasocial relationships are more prevalent than they were even when the term was coined in the 1950s. Not only do people have parasocial relationships with their favorite TV characters or reality TV stars, but we have parasocial relationships we created through a relatively novel medium: the social internet.
Parasocial relationships mediated by the social internet are a greater problem, I think, than such relationships mediated by television.
Why Are Parasocial Relationships a Problem?
Now, obviously it isn’t wrong to feel a positive connection to a character on a TV show or have a favorite player on a sports team. But I think you can understand the difference between pulling for your favorite contestant on The Voice and being sad when she loses versus crying at how beautiful her performance was and writing angry letters to the show’s producers when she does not advance to the finals. There is a difference there.
But enough about TV. Why are parasocial relationships a problem when it comes to the social internet?
Parasocial relationships are a problem because they foster the feeling of friendship and community without the benefits of it. Various arenas within the social internet allow for parasocial relationships to form in varying degrees of severity.1 Whether a Twitch streamer like Ninja, a YouTuber like Jake Paul, or Christian Twitter users like you and me.
Parasocial relationships within Christian Twitter are a problem because the illusion of friendship with people on a social media platform is a hollow form of community often built on conflict and at the expense of real friendships unmediated by a social media platform.
Perhaps the most prominent example of parasocial relationships on Christian Twitter revolves around the beloved Bible teacher Beth Moore. Beth and I have met a couple of times. We’ve had dinner together in a small group. She is incredibly kind. None of what follows is meant to be a criticism of her.
Many, many people have a parasocial relationship with Beth Moore via Twitter. They see her as a mentor, a friend, perhaps a mother, a sister, or the equivalent of a local church leader. They have gone to war for her when she is assailed by the right flank of American evangelicalism. They have awaited her return when she leaves for a Twitter break.
The relationship that these hundreds or thousands of people have with Beth Moore who see her as more than an internationally-renowned Bible teacher is a parasocial relationship because she doesn’t actually know most of these people. But, what makes parasocial relationships mediated through social media so much more insidious than parasocial relationships mediated through television is that an influencer or celebrity like Beth Moore can acknowledge the existence of a fanbase through liking a tweet or shooting off a quick reply without actually reciprocating the friendship being given from the audience.
Often unbeknownst to Beth or any other Christian influencer with a significant following, simple kindness toward adoring fans on social media can actually perpetuate an unhealthy parasocial relationship a fan has with an influencer. It is sort of equivalent to a teenage girl unknowingly leading on a guy friend—the guy loves the girl and thinks she loves him simply because she is being kind.
Again, parasocial relationships on the Christian internet abound beyond Beth Moore and her fans, but this is one of the most prevalent examples of the phenomenon.
My concern is that because we find pseudo-mentors, internet friends, and other kinds of parasocial relationships through Christian Twitter or otherwise, we are forsaking real friendships, opportunities to mentor or be mentored, and other real-life relationships in our midst.
For many Christians, the version of community offered by Twitter is one that is meant to connect us not with people we know in real life but with more prominent Christians. No one I know uses Twitter to connect with people at their church or in their neighborhood—Facebook or other platforms are used for this. They use it to follow authors, speakers, or perhaps friends who live far away. It is harder to see “connecting with others on Twitter” as a problem than fighting with others on Twitter, obviously. But I do think that there are some serious negative side effects to spending our time and energy on connecting with others on Twitter.
To put a point on it: I am concerned that we are spending so much time and energy trying to get the attention of Christian influencers or other Twitter users that we aren’t making real friends. Beyond that, parasocial, or one-way, relationships are just generally unhealthy. They provide the illusion of knowing and being known and are almost always going to be free of conflict given the one-sidedness of the relationship. But, unfortunately, maybe this is why parasocial relationships are appealing to us to begin with.
Why Do We Pursue Parasocial Relationships?
Parasocial relationships are a shell of real, embodied relationships.
Being mentored by Beth Moore on Twitter sounds nice2, but it is no match for having a real-life mentor that you meet for coffee on Tuesday mornings before work—and I think Beth would agree with me on that! Listening to Matt Chandler preach to The Village Church isn’t all bad, but Matt would agree that it’s a problem if you come to see him as your pastor when you have a local church of your own.
All along, as I have thought about writing this for weeks and have been writing this series, I have thought, “People pursue relationships with online influencers and accidentally miss out on in-person relationships as a sort of negative side effect of a life lived online.”
I don’t know if that’s the case, really. I’m sure it is for some, but for many I think it may be worse than that.
I fear that Christians pursue parasocial relationships on social media because we prefer them over real-life relationships with the people in our neighborhoods or churches. I fear that we don’t accidentally avoid real-life relationships because we pursue parasocial relationships, but that we intentionally avoid real-life relationships by pursuing parasocial relationships.
Sometimes I wonder if Twitter is an attractive platform for Christian influencers because they spend so much time on the road or away from their communities that they haven’t developed strong real-life friendships at their local churches and their Twitter fans provide a sense of camraderie that they can’t maintain offline.
I wonder this not only about Christian influencers but the common Christian Twitter user like myself.
I don’t write this to be mean, but sometimes I actually wonder if the relationship between Twitter followers and real-life friends is an inverse relationship, meaning the more active and popular someone is on Twitter the fewer deep friendships they have in real life.
My fear is, to reiterate, that we flee to Christian Twitter for parasocial relationships and pseudo-community because we would rather invest in a social structure that is designed to deliver us affirmation and protect us from the terrifying prospect of being deeply known.
Real-life relationships that exist wholly offline are more difficult than parasocial relationships, and they’re more difficult for good reason: they’re actually relationships.
Don’t hear me saying that you should never be kind to others online—please always be kind to others online. Let’s just maybe check our hearts on the parasocial relationship front. Have we wedded our hearts to some people on the social internet with whom we feel we have a deep relationship when, in reality, we don’t? And to what extent have we done so at the expense of real-life relationships? Do we build relationships with strangers on Twitter because we are afraid to build relationships with neighbors? For the record, I’m convicting myself here, not just pointing my finger at you readers.
How to Resist Parasocial Relationships
One of my best friends in the world is Brandon Smith, professor and theologian at Cedarville University. Our relationship actually began online, when he lived in Texas and I lived in Tennessee, often with me trolling him about theological subjects. We were friends or acquaintances through Twitter. But it wasn’t until the Lord saw fit to move us into homes two miles away from one another in suburban Nashville that he became a brother to me and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Naturally, since he and his wonderful family moved to Ohio, our friendship hasn’t been the same. This isn’t an indictment on our friendship as much as it is a demonstration of how relationships that rely on the internet or other similar forms of communication simply cannot carry the burden of what is required for the deepest of friendships.
None of what I have written in this post is meant to suggest you cannot form real, non-parasocial relationships through Christian Twitter or any other manifestation of the social internet you may prefer. I have a couple of friends with whom 70-80% of our time communicating with one another has been through the social internet. I consider them friends. But, it should be noted, these are not my closest friends. Why? Because our closest friends usually require a certain amount of physical proximity to actually be our closest friends. The more time we spend maintaining parasocial relationships on social media, the less time we are interested in investing into incarnational friendships.
Here are a few quick tips on how to resist the allure of parasocial relationships:
Set a daily time limit on Twitter (and all social media): I have a limit on my phone that restricts me to one hour of social media use every day. With a limit like this, it is more difficult to use social media to build relationships. (This is good.)
Meet with at least one friend one-on-one each week: Whether it’s on Tuesday mornings at a coffee shop before work or on Sunday afternoons while the kids are down for a nap, make time to develop real relationships with friends with whom you interact offline more than online.
Limit your engagements with celebrities/influencers: If you can limit how much you tweet at your favorite Christian influencers or listen to a distant pastor’s podcasts, you can choke out the possibility of developing an unhealthy, one-way, parasocial relationship with someone who doesn’t know you.
Actually get to know your neighbors: I have been historically bad at this, but having a kid has really made this easier for my wife and me. We have begun learning the names of a number of people who live on our street and around our neighborhood, and it has been such a gift to get to know them and realize how unimportant social media is in the scheme of real life.
And now, let’s land this plane.
A Brief, Final Reflection on This Series
When I began writing this series of posts, I was as nervous about this project as any project I’ve ever written. I don’t like being critical, believe it or not. In a very recent time in my life, I loved being critical of other people, movements, and the like. These days I’m confident enough in myself and in the Lord that being critical of others is simply not appealing to me anymore, by the grace of God. But I knew that this series of posts on concerns I have regarding how Christians conduct themselves on Twitter had the chance to sound critical of others, and I really wanted to keep it from sounding like that. As went back and forth about whether or not to even write this series, I eventually came to the decisions that my concerns were too grave to not write. I would feel bad having never said something about the issues I saw. In the end, I’m glad I did it.
Because of all of my trepidation as I began to write this series, the emails, texts, and other feedback I’ve received from so many of you has been profoundly encouraging and a blessing from the Lord. This series of posts on Christian Twitter has been shared on social media less than anything I’ve written in the last six months, but I have received more private, positive feedback on it than anything I’ve written in the last year. This is interesting to me, and I think it demonstrates the latent, but quiet concerns that others have similar to those which I have written about in the last month. While the concerns I’ve written about are discouraging, it has been encouraging to know that these concerns are not figments of my imagination, but real problems seen by other people.
My hope for this series is that it has maybe caused you to simply stop and evaluate your relationship with not only Christian Twitter but the social internet as a whole. I am convinced that social media really is like junk food—it tastes so good in the moment and has long-lasting detrimental effects of which we may be willfully or ignorantly unaware. As I began writing this series I prayed that God would protect my writing from pride and use it to reveal a misplacing of priorities and values in our hearts. I have been as convicted writing these as I know some of you have been reading them.
Also, on that note, if you ever have any feedback or questions for me, you can respond to these emails and I will receive your email! Because I no longer monitor my own Twitter account outside of an infrequent check of the DMs, I likely won’t see your tweets.
Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you on Friday.