I have a new word: parasocial relationships. These are the realistic-seeming relationships we develop with characters in the media. It could refer to celebrities and politicians, but it can also refer to fictional characters. They develop a sense of real-ness. We may feel like they are our friends or rivals. We may adopt some of their behaviors just like we do with our friends. We forget sometimes, even if just briefly, that they are not real.
Technology has led to a greater prevalence of parasocial relationships. They now have the potential to grow much stronger. Some of us don’t just want a character in TV; we follow them on Facebook and Twitter. We read their blogs. Compare this with many of the relationships we have with real people. I have many old friends or acquaintances who I only interact with on Facebook or email. It turns out, I might have more interaction with the fictional character and through more channels. And because these channels often conceal the fictional nature of the character, who writes blog entries and tweets in the first person, they can become just as visceral; just as real.
A great study in the Journal Self and Identity (and summarized very well here) dives into this phenomenon and draws some conclusions I think you will enjoy learning about. By “associating” with these characters and thinking of them as our friends, we can adopt personality traits that we would not consider in real life. Walter White. Tony Soprano. This way, we can try out these ideas in a safe way. Safe physically and safe from social rejection.
Or we can associate with people we would like to in real life but don’t have the opportunity, perhaps because they are superwealthy or famous or popular. We can try on our “ideal self” when our real self is feeling old and tired.
The article suggests that this is how designers and marketers implement techniques like persona reviews. Therapists can use them for role playing exercises with patients. We have been using these techniques for years, but we can become a lot more immersed in the role now.
So what characters have you developed a parasocial relationship with? Or celebrity? Or politician? Maybe a person from history? Then the real question – are there any that you interact with as if they were real? Read their blog? Follow them on Facebook?