Picture this. You’re scrolling late at night through your Instagram recommended feed, when a perfectly curated picture catches your eye. You open up the profile. You’re intrigued. Maybe it’s a perceived similarity between you and the person in front of you, maybe you want to dress like them, maybe you both share a niche interest in vintage Russian babushka dolls. Soon enough, you’re looking at pictures from 2017, and then you follow them.
Their pictures pop up on your timeline, and then you’re commenting. If they have a YouTube channel, you’ve subscribed. All this time, you’re watching. Consuming.
All of a sudden, you feel a sense of fondness. You might start referring to them by their first name instead of their username. You know what they ate last night—in fact, you helped them choose between Uber Eats and a home cooked meal. They confided in you the last time they had a really bad day. All this happened without you meeting them.
One day, they tell you a story about how much their dog, Bubbles, means to them. They may even list at length the memories they have with Bubbles; it all sounds really sincere. Heck, you’re even struck by what a cute dog Bubbles is. Sentence after sentence, they draw you in. When you get to the end you see it, because it’s always there: “that’s why I feed my dog Nom-Noms (#ad).” You press “like” and don’t think about it too much.
One day, you go to the supermarket and lo and behold, there’s Nom-Noms right there on the shelf. You think of your favorite influencer. You think about your dog. You love your dog! He deserves the best. So even though Nom-Noms is $5 more expensive than the brand you normally buy, you put it in your cart. That’s what any responsible dog owner would do—and after all you are nothing if not a responsible dog owner, much like your new internet friend.
In the months following this, you become an avid follower. You consume posts about the type of clothes you should be wearing, your toothpaste, your shoes, and all the while you start to regard this person as someone you know. You trust their judgement. After all, they haven’t led you astray yet.
Almost a real friend—almost—and yet after all this time you’ve never met them. But this minor bump in the road hasn’t stopped you from absorbing all this information about them, as well as supporting them financially. All because you felt a deeply seated tenderness for them—a person who doesn’t know you exist.
This phenomenon is called a parasocial relationship, a one-sided relationship where one party extends emotional energy, interest, and time while the other stays blissfully unaware of their existence. This term was coined by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in a 1956 study, which concluded that people who consumed mass media such as radio, television, and movies developed feelings of intimacy towards performers which were analogous to the feelings they had for people they knew in real life.
A person in a parasocial relationship may feel like they really know the person on the other end, without meeting them; they might be as attached as one would be to a close friend or a family member. The information that the person on the giving end of the relationship shares is a reinforcement of that bond, and as the amount of information increases, so does the intimate bond between the person consuming and the person giving. Most relationships are based on reciprocity, but for people in parasocial relationships, attempts to reach out to the objects of their affection are enough.
Don’t feel bad—we’ve all been there. For me, my first parasocial relationship took the form of a mild obsession with Justin Bieber, which resulted in my parents forking out sizable amounts of money to sustain our (as I would have put it at 13) “relationship”.
Technological advances in social media have revolutionized the manner in which we stay up to date with people we do not know. Even the average Joe can overload their followers with an unprecedented amount of personal information. This overload of interactions has led to an increase in the frequency and intensity of parasocial relationships, with more people than ever believing that their relationships with the people they follow are real. A 2017 study showed that 61 percent of adolescents saw their favorite media personalities in the same way they saw relationship partners. Not only has the internet created new routes to getting famous, but the effect of the internet on how we consume traditional media (such as music, movies, and TV) has made it much easier to develop parasocial relationships to celebrities from those worlds, and made those parasocial relationships even more intense. The intimacy we share with our favorite influencers is something that Horton and Wohl could have only dreamed of.
When we look at the defining parasocial relationships of the last 70 years, it seems that they were heavily orchestrated by P.R. teams to create an intended reaction: Beatlemania, for example, was a result of a very purposeful type of marketing. However, relationships built with influencers are more organic. When Tati Westbrook and James Charles—two of the most popular makeup “gurus” on YouTube—picked a fight with each other in The Great Vitamin Scandal of 2019, their fans picked up their weapons and marched to the battleground of YouTube comments and Twitter mentions, in a battle that raged for over a year and was fought between millions of people on both sides. These fans did so because they believed that they knew, in essence, who these people were.
Influencers are supposedly different from traditional celebrities, in that our attachment to them is not based on their perceived superiority, but in their similarity to us. They trigger our homophily, our tendency to create social ties with people who remind us of us. If I were a fan of Beyoncé, perhaps I could say that I like her because she is an extremely talented singer and a marvellous performer, but I don’t necessarily compose my Instagram following based on talent. I follow people because they like the same clothes I do, have the same interests in artisanal bread and so forth. It makes no difference to me what Beyoncé’s favorite foods are or what she does on weekends, because Beyoncé’s impact on my life isn’t dependent on her sharing those characteristics with me.
Furthermore, there is always a clear distance between me and a traditional celebrity. Beyoncé’s music might hum through the corridors of my house when I am cleaning on a Sunday morning, but she’s not triggering my emotive responses by posting videos of herself doing “catch ups” and filling me in with what’s happening in her life. Although I might be willing to pay a lot of money to see her get ready or do a mukbang with me, I will sadly never have that opportunity. Of course, celebrities have also started to lean into the world of influencing. Developments like Naomi Campbell’s YouTube channel have blurred the lines between influencing and celebrity. There are also countless examples of celebrities doing things that influencers have traditionally done, such as Harper’s Bazaar’s series of celebrity skincare routines. The difference is that even today, traditional celebrities by and large do not foster intimate relationships with their fans in the same way influencers do. There is a feeling that influencers are more “authentic,” because they do not have large P.R. and marketing teams that sell them, and because of their seemingly earnest relationships with their fans.
Influencers have erased the metaphorical fourth wall. By sharing so many of what we presume to be their most intimate moments, we are brought into the fold of their personal lives, resulting in our relationships with influencers being more intense than they would be with regular celebrities. There is an obvious distinction to be made between people who watched David Dobrik and Liza Koshy’s break up video, and those who read about the torrid details of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s breakup in People magazine. While Britney and Justin did not choose to share the details of their breakup, and most of the information the public received was trickled down through the tabloids, fans’ commitment to Koshy and Dobrik was fostered by their choice to share their cherished moments in a culmination of videos, posts, and vlogs. Their breakup video was just an extension of this behavior, with them laying out their emotions in a seemingly unedited confessional in which they shared their feelings directly with their fans.
The combination of homophily and constant interaction (albeit one-way) creates a profound relationship between the influencer and their followers. Influencers use this to promote certain behavioral outcomes, such as getting followers to comment on pictures or subscribe to their YouTube channel. Sometimes, this ability can get a little out of hand.
Take the case of online gaming personality Bachir Boumaaza, also known as “Athene.” In 2011, Boumaaza became interested in philosophy and physics, eventually releasing a series of videos that dived into consciousness and the meaning of life. This included one called “Athene’s theory of everything,” that would eventually become the foundation for a religion that he coined “Neuro-Spinozism,” or “Athenism,” a belief system which Boumaaza claimed could cure depression (though he later recanted this claim).
25 of Boumaaza’s fans ended up abandoning their lives and moving to Athene’s compound to live with him and work for free, in hopes of actualizing their belief in a better world by practicing Athenism. The results seemed impressive at first: the group started a fundraising initiative called Gaming for Good, which eventually raised more than $25 million for the charity Save The Children.
However, when escapees of the compound spoke candidly about their experiences living with Boumaaza, they attested to the normalization of manipulation, misogyny, and emotional abuse in the group, which many have labelled a cult. The fact that the underlying relationships that led to the formation of the cult were fostered on social media is a cause for concern, and brings questions about dependency to the fore.
Some theorists have attempted to use Mark Granovetter’s idea of “tie strength” to explain why influencer-follower relationships can seem so real. Granovetter argues that the strength of a relationship is dependent on four “ties”: amount of time, intimacy, intensity, and reciprocal services. If we apply those four factors to relationships with online personas, it’s not hard to see how someone could be easily convinced that they knew their favorite vlogger, after spending innumerous hours consuming information about them, watching videos in which they may be expressing intense emotions, commenting on such videos, and maybe occasionally receiving a like or personalised discount voucher in response.
Breeding parasocial relationships with your followers is also extremely profitable. A phenomenon called “sadfishing,” in which influencers share their personal struggles, thus further deepening the emotional connection between them and their followers, results in substantial increases in social media engagement. When influencers share information that makes them seem vulnerable, such as details of their mental health struggles, they end up with seven to 10 times their usual engagement, according to influencer marketing firm Captiv8.
Advertising for large-scale multinational businesses such as Fashion Nova, Missguided, and Pretty Little Thing is now almost completely online, with traditional fashion retailers also migrating online, and parasocial relationships play an integral role in establishing the success of these advertising strategies. A recent study found that 82 percent of people are more receptive to product recommendations if they come from someone they know—and these days, a lot of people consider influencers to be in that category. This brings into question the manner in which the language surrounding influencer marketing is designed to feel more organic: words such as content instead of ad, framing personalized discount vouchers as “help” instead of promotion, referring to board rooms of marketing executives as “family,” and stressing the alignment of big corporations with “personal values” all contribute to the smoke screen of what is essentially a well thought out marketing strategy.
With over 15 million Instagram followers, Fashion Nova is Instagram’s top-performing fashion brand. They have earned this title by posting every 30 minutes, and by frequently teaming up with influencers, either by sending them free clothes or paying for posts.
Influencer marketing allows brands to disguise the nature of their relationship with their target market. Fashion Nova and Missguided gain more credibility through our online friends, who have become the face of the business. We are exposed to them and interact with them through sponsored posts, or even through “try on” videos, essentially advertisements for their products disguised as entertainment.
At this point, I can imagine some detractors saying that none of this is inherently harmful; that influencers, much like everyone else who works for a living, are just cogs in the system. However, the fact that influencers are largely responsible for the marketing of fast-fashion clothing lines means that they have led a huge amount of people to buy excessive amounts of clothes that were largely made in exploitative conditions.
Take for example online retail giant Boohoo. Despite being in the midst of a large scandal that brought to light its atrocious labor practices, its sales have recently surged. This was achieved through a curated marketing strategy that ramped up online advertising at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (and coincidentally around the same time as the labor scandal). To the influencers who continue to work “in collaboration” with Boohoo, it seemingly doesn’t matter that workers are being exploited at Boohoo’s garment factories. Even further from their minds is the fuelling of an environmental crisis by the promotion of fast fashion—an industry that uses 80 billion cubic meters of freshwater and produces 92 million tons of waste per year.
Obviously, influencers are not solely to blame for the environmental impacts of an industry that benefits from the legacy of colonialism and exploitation in the global south. But we have to acknowledge that their content plays an important part in getting the clothes out of storage rooms and onto our backs.
Furthermore, by aligning themselves with companies whose net damage to the planet and its people is incalculable, influencers allow brands to sanitize their reputations even when they appear to be pushing back. For example, beauty guru Jackie Aina asked companies that she had worked with, including Fashion Nova, to “open their purses” and donate to the various organizations that raised funds for the Black Lives Matter movement. Aina followed this up by urging these companies to release their diversity reports. This is all well and good, but as the writer Lola Olufemi so eloquently put it, Fashion Nova does not exist in the world we seek to build. The representation of Black and minority Americans cannot be done off the backs of women in the developing world (and in garment factories in the United States, too) who get paid below living wage to make clothes that get sold at highly discounted rates. Even as Jackie Aina was posting about workplace diversity, Fashion Nova was ruining the lives of its garment workers, many who reported being suddenly fired in the middle of the pandemic.
Aina argued that these businesses benefit so much from Black culture that it would be morally wrong not to contribute to the movement. However, by arguing that it would be enough for Fashion Nova to give money to the Black Lives Matter movement, when the clothes that businesses like them dump into Western countries affect Black people in Africa, Aina allowed Fashion Nova to whitewash their commitment to the movement while still maintaining their position as an oppressive capitalist entity.
Influencers do not just affect our consumer behavior. In recent times, there has been a push for them to engage meaningfully with social causes. This is embodied in the uptick of posts asking for justice for Breonna Taylor, which have been positioned at the bottom of selfies, sandwiched in between posts of an otherwise perfectly curated feed and placed above ads. This phenomenon has been critiqued as memification and commodification of her death.
The gruesome killing of Breonna Taylor resulted in something that Jude Casimir calls the “grief industrial complex,” which saw the publicization of her murder and the calls for justice thereafter turned into snappy Instagram captions and used to direct traffic to people’s online stores. The worst example of this was the BreonnaCon, a 4-day women’s empowerment event hosted by influencers that focused on “beauty, money, and justice” as a way of honoring Breonna Taylor’s legacy.
It’s not all bad. Influencers with large followings have at least in part attempted to engage in mass voter education in America, providing a platform for their followers to learn about the importance of voting and where both candidates stand on important policy issues. If people will buy things because of the enormous amount of influence these figures have, it is likely that their posts can also lead to large amounts of people fulfilling their civic duties. I am, however, not convinced that the mesh of parasocial relationships and political issues will necessarily have a good outcome.
Some might argue that influencers have already played an important political role by democratizing the beauty industry. The fact that the act of following someone is largely dictated by a sense of relatability has had the inevitable effect of changing the definition of beauty, which for the first time in modern history has been expanded to include women who wear hijabs, and are disabled, dark-skinned, and fat. It seems that on Instagram or YouTube, with enough followers, anyone can be beautiful.
The problem is that to be beautiful, you must pay the metaphorical entrance fee. To be beautiful is not about one’s humanity or dignity, but rather something that can be purchased from a makeup company with an inclusive amount of foundation shades. In this way, no one with purchasing capacity can be excluded from this egalitarian desirability. Beauty is no longer something that is out of reach and unattainable—it becomes tangible in the feeling you get when you open a new eyeshadow palette. The democratization of beauty through wider representation leads us to believe it is a salvageable concept, one that is truly inclusive, without fixing the ways in which a “lack of” beauty affects the people who are excluded from this definition, or who simply don’t want to buy the right eyeshadow, or any eyeshadow at all. Representation in beauty then loses its sociopolitical importance, and becomes simply another tool for boosting sales.
The question then becomes how to mitigate the negative effects of parasocial relationships. While it is tempting to say that influencers should simply make their relationship with their fans seem less personal, this would probably defeat the whole point of “influencers” in the first place. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that influencers make a living from expressing deeply personal parts of their lives in their jobs, and some influencers would simply not be able to pay their bills if they obscured their faces or refused to share personal information. It would also be unfair to pretend that influencers have been the only people to benefit from these relationships. People like Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber are living embodiments of the benefits of the love and enjoyment people get from their one-way relationships with famous people.
However, there has to be an awareness by influencers that it is harmful and predatory to manipulate the emotions of your (often lonely) followers for financial gain. On the other hand, viewers have a responsibility to be aware of the media that they consume and the effects thereof. It is not enough to blame influencer culture for our continued support of businesses that contribute to large-scale societal harm. It seems that parasocial relationships will, for the foreseeable future, constitute a large part of how we associate with people online. For those of us who are viewers and consumers, the responsibility, in part, lies with us. We must look beyond the allure of likability, and pay attention to what we are being sold.