You're Not Really Friends With That Internet Celebrity

Why you feel an illusion of closeness to your favorite online personality

Posted Jul 28, 2016

What happens when fans forget their relationships with celebrities aren't real?

This week has brought us the strange case of Marina Joyce, a 19-year-old YouTube vlogger from the UK. She posts fashion and makeup videos and is wildly popular. Her channel has well over 1 million subscribers and her videos rack up millions of views.

Her latest video, posted below, caused an uproar among her legions of fans. They felt her behavior was so odd that something must be wrong. The local police were flooded with calls of concern, reporting everything from "Marina was kidnapped by ISIS" to "She is being held hostage and forced to post." The police have checked on her and confirmed she is fine, she has said she is fine, as have her real friends, yet online fans and conspiracy theorists continue to scour her videos for "clues" as to "what's really going on." All the strange details are laid out here by the Washington Post

Why do fans feel so close to people they don't know and have never met?

Before we get into the psychology, let's just look at it on a casual level. These celebrities are generally posting as themselves (or at least a characterized version of themselves). They share personal thoughts and what sometimes feel like intimate details of their lives. The presentation is casual and often appears very authentic. It is, in essence, how we would expect a (very polished) friend might share something with us in a video. Furthermore, the celebrities often interact with fans through the comment sections or through likes, shares, retweets, and favorites. These lightweight interactions may feel like a true personal interaction with the celebrity.

However, these are not relationships at all. Rather, they are the illusion of a relationship supported by the broadcast medium. Why do they feel so real?

Granovetter's theory of Tie Strength describes the closeness of our relationships. A relationship has four factors that affect its closeness:

  • Intimacy, or sharing secrets and personal information
  • Emotional intensity
  • Time, which includes how long we have known someone, how often we interact, and the duration of our interactions
  • Doing favors for one another, more formally called "reciprocal services"

It can feel like online celebrities are sharing intimate information with fans. Fans may have strong emotional reactions to what is shared. Fans may spend a lot of time watching, reading, and consuming content from the celebrity. And the fans may even feel like a celebrity's post is something offered to them by the celebrity (a favor, in essence). It ticks off many of the same boxes that we look for in real relationship closeness. 

The problem is that these interactions only go one way. Even when celebrities interact with fans, it is a surface interaction on a one-to-one level. There are simply too many fans for a celebrity to build true relationships with more than just a few of them. The intimacy, emotional intensity, time invested in the relationship, and favors are not one-to-one interactions at all. Thus, while a fan may feel like the celebrity is being truly close with them, the one way nature of the interaction means there really is no relationship.

This illusion of relationship with celebrities is called "parasocial interaction," an idea first presented in the 1950s [2]. While it has been studied most in the context of TV and movie stars, sports celebrities, and even fictional characters, it is very much present online. The lightweight interaction of the internet can encourage this illusion, as can the feeling of authenticity around the celebrities' online characters [3].

Even though the relationship is an illusion, the feelings a fan has around it are real. There are true feelings of affection and attachment to the celebrity, and when the celebrity does something a fan does not like or that breaks the illusion of the relationship, the fan can suffer real feelings of loss and betrayal.

There is nothing wrong with being a dedicated fan of any celebrity, but the internet functions in a way that can encourage a fantasy of closeness and feelings of being in a relationship that does not actually exist. It is important to separate the fiction from reality, especially when it leads to real action. In the case of Marina Joyce, she is currently hiding in her own home, locked away from the media that is parked outside, and in constant communication with police who continue to receive calls from worried fans who think they are her friend. Fans have damaged her real life in pursuit of the fake relationship they have built up in their minds.

[1]  Granovetter, Mark S. "The strength of weak ties." American journal of sociology (1973): 1360-1380.

[2] Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229.

[3] Rosaen, F. S., & Dibble, L. J. (2008) Investigating the relationships among child’s age, parasocial interactions, and the social realism of favorite television characters. Communication Research Reports, 25(2), 145-154. doi: 10.1080/08824090802021806

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