With the online and real world separating further and further, there is a clear distinction between how people act in person and through technology.
[Content warning – this article briefly covers themes of sexual abuse.]
The concept of the ‘fandom’ – a group of people sharing an interest in one particular topic – has existed since before the age of the Internet, but has further intensified since it had the opportunity to move online.
Keeping up with every single event of a celebrity’s life, creating fan pages and incessantly tweeting at a famous person is no new phenomena. When this arguably goes too far, it can be considered as a parasocial relationship.
According to Verywell Mind, “A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona.” If you didn’t know the term already, the definition will definitely ring a lot of bells – social media allows fans to have a closer-than-ever connection with their idols.
A new era we have entered is that of the TikTok celebrity – those who have built a brand through a series of short videos, usually focusing on their bold personality or a particular sub-genre of video.
It’s no secret that TikTok has blown up massively over the last few years with 834 million active users as of 2023, and aspiring stars have been given a platform to amplify their voice and promote themselves.
One example of this is musicians, who can use their songs as TikTok audio, which can go hugely viral and bring millions of streams to their music.
Richard Fairlie is a musician and TikTok creator specialising in original song promotion and English covers of anime theme tunes. He has gained over 130,000 TikTok followers, with devoted fans consistently engaging with his content and supporting his career – and luckily, it’s mostly positive.
“The key to TikTok marketing is actually being yourself”, explains Richard. He does exactly this; promoting himself in a way that is funny and relatable to his audience. His comment section is scattered with fire emojis, compliments and the occasional snarky insult – but that’s to be expected when you have such a large following.
Richard is very active on his TikTok account and replies to fans on a regular basis. Whether it’s saying a quick thank you or answering questions, he has clearly built up a relationship with people online. However, Richard speaks of one incident that has acted as a cautionary tale for him.
He spliced a video from another account, in which an influencer was speaking to a group of girls. In Richard’s comment section, there was a thread of men threatening to rape and attack the girls in the video. Because of the lack of moderation on TikTok, Richard had to deal with this himself.
“Normally if I get a hate comment, I try to kill it with kindness. I normally hit them with ‘Hey bro, hope you’re good. If you wanna talk about anything the DMs are open”, explained Richard. However, in the situation of rape threats, Richard had no choice but to report the accounts and “shield” his community.
Whilst this is not a negative parasocial relationship between fan and celebrity, it is instead between fans. This is particularly dangerous, because the TikTok creator is forced to step in and police the negative interaction themselves.
There has been no shortage of complaints over TikTok’s moderation, or lack thereof. This puts creators at a high risk of parasocial relationships developing into something potentially harmful and dangerous.
Psychologist Justess Jacobson has extensively studied social media and influencers, and has a PhD in Forensic Psychology. She has also garnered 1.3 million TikTok likes by sharing her knowledge on the platform.
Justess spoke of the negative parasocial relationship TikTok users tend to have with larger creators, such as Mama Tot. Ophelia (her real name) has 12 million followers and is known for her gracious manner and generous wellbeing, so much so that people look to her for comfort that they perhaps did not get from their biological families.
In speaking about Mama Tot, Justess said there is a risk of a “very dangerous parasocial relationship”. One of the top comments on her pinned video states “A hug from mama tot can cure anything!”, which has 6000 likes. People are having a genuine intimate connection with her, whilst she does not know that they even exist.
A journalist for The Toronto Star even confessed that she had been crying over a TikTok famous cat when he passed away. But why do we feel this way towards animals and strangers on the Internet?
The Cleveland Clinic explains that “repeated exposure” to a public figure’s vulnerabilities can lead to a parasocial relationship. By resonating with their struggles, laughing at their stories and acting as a shoulder to cry on, it allows us to feel as though they are a friend or family member.
Justess explains the danger of this in one of her TikToks, and speaks about how it can lead to psychosis. “People genuinely believe they have a relationship with that person. […] Your brain is telling you that these things are real, and you begin to truly believe that relationship is real.”
To combat the intensity of parasocial relationships, some celebrities have taken a step back from their fans, such as Doja Cat with her infamous flurry of posts stating that she does not know them and that they “weep for mediocre pop”.
TikTok stars such as Richard Fairlie take to reporting those who take parasocial relationships too far. Others simply reduce interaction with their fans altogether.
Featured image by Erotokritos Papis.