When “parasocial relationship” becomes the default explanation of what fandom is


Blog / Sunday, February 1st, 2015

Earlier today Mashable published a features piece that looks at the ‘phenomenon’ of fans clamouring for the attention of their favourite celebrities by aiming to be the first person to respond to their tweets or Instagram post. The article points out that social media has created the illusion that fans can foster an intimate relationship with their favourite celebrities based on their online presence, using the psychological concept of “parasocial relationship”. Indeed, the notion of the ‘parasocial’ has been used to describe the intricate relationship between celebrities and fans in early works that frame celebrity studies, often positing fans as lonely individuals searching for some sort of emotional and/or erotic outlet. The article explains that the fans interviewed in the piece employ specific strategies to be noticed: spending about 15 hours a day in front of the computer, monitoring the social media activity of their favourite celebrities in order to be the first person to comment or respond to the posts so as to heighten the possibility of being noticed [1].

In retrospect, the piece is tame compared to how others have portrayed fandom, and more specifically, fangirls [2]. My issue, as I pointed out to the author of the piece on Twitter, was that, to those unfamiliar with fan practices and the complicated facet of the fan identity, it still paints a one-dimensional, problematic figure of the fan. For example, there’s a quote from the psychotherapist, whose work on social networking has been used extensively for the article:

“Persistent fans like this may be more likely to get that coveted response or retweet from their much-loved celebrity,” said Dr. Balick. But it’s “likely to encourage them to be even more attentive.”

The perception of which, when an earlier quote from a fan stated that they spend 15 hours a day to monitor Fifty Shades and The Fall‘s Jamie Dornan’s social media presence, is immediately that the fan is sad, and thus needs to get out of the house and socialise more with real life friends. In other words, fans need to get a life, which then plunges us back about 20 years worth of fan studies work that academics have been engaging with. And therein lies the frustration.

Because looking at the tweet responses and comments to the article, most immediately comment about how problematic this sort of fan behaviour is, and that it shows that fans are sad or worse, mentally ill. Not that one can control how readers would respond to a features article. For all I know, readers will still respond the same way even when the article presents the complexity of fan interactions with celebrities on social media. But it always seems so much easier to resort to a psychological explanation when a person or a group’s behaviour deviates from the norm (mind you, I’m going to bet that going to a sports event, being emotional at said sports event, spending lots of time and money trying to accrue tickets to meet sporting heroes will, I’m sure be presented as normal, healthy behaviour).

I’m not saying that all fan-celebrity interactions on social media aren’t potentially problematic – I would indeed be the last person to say so. Or even that the concept of parasocial relationship isn’t a useful one to contextualise into fan studies. But when journalists latch on to offer only psychological explanations of what fandom is, and who fans are (and it is always about the parasocial relationships between the fan and the celebrity), without acknowledging that there are other, more complicated matters at play, it brings us back to square one. It circumvents all the work and awareness that fan studies, as an academic field, has been trying to do, especially at a time when fan studies is receiving more attention from the media industry as well as the press, where the exploration of the fan identity is often myriad and (now) accessible through works done by the Fan Studies Network and open access publications like Transformative Works and Cultures.

But we again fall back to the age-old definition of who fans are: problematic, and seemingly need to be told by the normal people to get a real life. To not spend 15 hours a day scouring the web, just waiting for a new post or picture from their favourite celebrity. Because there is no inherent difference about the different fan practices, between those who tweet-spam celebrities asking for a follow, an acknowledgement of their existence, or a response to their declaration of love. To those curating news and/or pictures for fan sites, performing fan labour as a service to both the celebrity and fandom. Or to those who produce and create transformative works, who participate in social activism, spurred on by other fans to fight for a cause. No, it’s much easier to write fans off as sad individuals who need a reality check, because in absence of real, meaningful relationships in their personal lives, all they can hope for, is a parasocial one with a celebrity.

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[1] An aside, as @travelingheidi has helpfully pointed out, the rush to be the first commenter appeared on blogs and YouTube, and very possibly as far back as the early 00s. This video, for instance – again thanks to @travelingheidi – explains the phenomenon: http://youtu.be/CmRh9tFYC68

[2] See, for example, Lori Morimoto’s post, Fangirls in the Crosshairs, about how (female) fans of Cumberbatch are portrayed, and often persecuted in popular media. One wonders if Dornan’s fans will be next considering it’s been often commented that he’s slated for international stardom post-Fifty Shades. Would this now subject him to “inappropriate” adulation?

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