Cartoon from the New Yorker by the late, great Lee Lorenz
A parasocial relationship is that between an individual and some fictional character or some real or idealized group — an entity you can never really know.
So I might have a parasocial relationship with “the Radical Non-Duality community”, for example, or with the readers and students of Robert Sapolsky’s work. Although I have met and communicated with several speakers in the former group, and exchanged emails with Robert and others on the subjects he writes and speaks about, this does not comprise a social relationship. Even if I comment on a hundred posts in a Farcebook group that I am a ‘member’ of and have many ‘friends’ in, this is not a real, social relationship. There is simply not enough glue to hold it together.
Same with my relationship with a political party or even a ‘nation’. And it’s even more the case if my relationship is with a fictional character or group, where I and others with whom I communicate write fanfic and natter endlessly about the trials and tribulations of some beloved character. Or, for that matter, if the object of my fascination is, say, Taylor Swift and I’m a Swiftie Stan. Not a real relationship, even with other Stans.
Lots of books and horror movies have been written about the dangers of mistaking parasocial relationships for real relationships. But I would argue that they are mostly harmless and can sometimes even be therapeutic. The biggest challenges arise with our current western cultural obsession with self-identifying ourselves six ways to Sunday. In people’s desperation to belong somehow and somewhere in a world full of alienation and fragmentation, it’s easy to start taking the whole issue of identifying yourself in different ways too seriously, almost as if you were a gang member — to the point anyone who disses anyone who ‘identifies’ the way you do becomes an enemy who needs to be sanctioned, silenced, and shunned (or canceled in current parlance). It’s infantile behaviour, but it’s become an epidemic in today’s atmosphere of hysterical censorship. It’s a sign, I think, of serious mental illness in a large swath of the population.
Still, you can have parasocial relationships without becoming neurotic or psychotic. Even if you’ve never met any of its players, you can cheer for your favourite sports team without becoming one of those fanatics (whence the term ‘fan’) who have to be ushered out of the arena by police. If you’re a writer of fiction, you pretty much have to have a relationship with your characters if your writing is going to be any good. The key perhaps is keeping it fun and not taking it too seriously. It’s not real, this relationship!
In a recent Vlogbrothers video, Hank Green introduced the reciprocal term sarapocial relationship (coined by his brother John) to describe the relationship that an individual has with a group that the individual has themselves created or which has been created around them. You don’t have to be famous, idolized, or a ‘leader’ to have such relationships. You don’t even have to be a particularly nice person, as Trump and Musk have ably demonstrated. (And don’t get me started on self-proclaimed ‘influencers’.)
In some cases, these relationships can be just as toxic as the worst parasocial relationships, though in a different way. Since you have relatively more power in a sarapocial relationship, arrogance, narcissism, and abuse of that power are more possible, depending on the extent of that power, and the capacity of the person who has it to deal with it sensibly and humbly. Few people handle fame well.
And for some, sarapocial relationships can become a full-time job. I’m astonished, for example, at the thousands of hours K-Pop stars put into cultivating their relationships with their fans.
In the video, Hank talks about the responsibility of those in sarapocial relationships, both in the sense of not abusing their power, and in the sense of trying to live up, impossibly, to the wishes and desires of a large, amorphous and mostly unknowable group. He also asks:
- What is the ‘core’ (insufficiently gluey as it must necessarily be to be a real relationship) that holds a particular collective group together?
- What can one do to help nurture and facilitate and cohere the group — to make it more capable, in Hank’s words, of doing the things that brought the collective group together — the things they care about in common.
- What is the sarapocial’s responsibility when the group disagrees among themselves on some subject that they think is important?
- How much personal honesty and transparency does one owe the group?
- What else does one ‘owe’ the group that has coalesced (probably mostly loosely and transiently) around oneself or some project one has done?
I thought these were interesting questions. They matter to me because to some extent (less than was once the case) I have a sarapocial relationship with the readers of this blog, and, when it came out, I had a sarapocial relationship with the readers of my book. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on Hank’s questions:
I feel a sense of personal responsibility to be honest in what I write, and not to be mean to my readers. So if I’m going to embellish a story, I usually admit it up front. And I’d rather ignore a really dumb comment or question than ridicule someone for it. But that’s just me; I don’t know that I would hold other writers to the same standard. Some activists believe you sometimes have to exaggerate to goad people into needed action. I’ve never believed that the ends justify the means, but that’s just how I’ve been conditioned.
Likewise I feel no responsibility to respond to comments, though I read them all. I don’t expect responses when I comment (vary rarely) on others’ blogs or send emails to people who must get thousands of them. And I feel no responsibility to referee disagreements between my readers. (Though I am surprised how often readers come to my defence when I’m criticized by a commenter, which is nice of them, but not expected or necessary.)
My role is just to write stuff that helps me make sense of the world, and which hopefully is interesting to a few folks. Even if I asked for money to read my blog articles (which I never have), I’m not sure I would feel any further responsibility.
What is the ‘core’ of a parasocial/sarapocial group? It depends of course on the group, but at a meta level I think it is about trying (despite the awkwardness of the medium) to create and sustain a ‘community’ that shares common
(1) beliefs, values and intentions,
(2) practices, experiences and competencies,
(3) interests and affinities, and/or
My blog, quite early on, shifted from mostly a type (2) audience to mostly a type (3) audience (when I retired). Those with a type (1) or (4) audience still scare me.
I’m not sure anything I’ve ever written has made anyone more capable or competent at anything, as that was never my intention. I’d be content if it piqued people’s curiosity, challenged their thinking in productive or interesting ways, and prompted them to read the work of people who know a lot more than I do and say it more clearly. I’m not being modest in saying that — I’m a generalist on a wide range of subjects, not a specialist or expert in anything. It’s a useful if underappreciated ability.
Hank Green is recovering from a recent diagnosis of cancer, and I doubt I would have the courage he has shown to talk about what he’s gone through if I were in his place. I tend to be pretty open about my life changes, illnesses and feelings, when they have any relevance to what I’m writing about, but much less open about my personal relationships with others, out of respect for others’ privacy. I think writers owe honesty to our readers, and enough transparency to provide a useful context for understanding why we assert what we do — and a responsibility to be sufficiently self-aware to understand ourselves why we do so.
The final thing I think we ‘owe’ to our readers is to put the work in — to craft essays and stories and analyses and creative works that are articulate, interesting, challenging and properly researched. I find it hard to believe I used to read op-eds voraciously — mostly strident, vacuous writing that generally has none of these qualities. Human beings, especially in these crazy times, want reassurance. They want confirmation that what they believe is correct. That’s not on offer here.
So, an invitation: Think about your own parasocial relationships, what you’re investing in them, and whether you’re getting enough out of them to warrant the time and energy you’re putting into them. And likewise, if you’re a writer or artist or newsletter aggregator or ‘content provider’ of any kind, think about your own sarapocial relationships, and what you think you do and do not ‘owe’ to your audience(s), and what you’re getting out of these relationships in return.
If they’re not fulfilling, maybe it’s time to find or create new ones. Or just close the screen and put some more energy into current and potential real relationships. That’s what I’m thinking about after watching the Vlogbrothers’ video, anyway. Now if only I could tear myself away from the screen…