I'm sure many of you out there have never heard the term parasocial and that's not surprising! It was originally coined in 1956 and, thanks to things like social media and the internet, has become more relevant than ever.
Take a look at the lovely girl to the left and imagine she is your favorite character in a romantic webcomic that incorporates a first person perspective. So each dialogue box is written as if talking directly to you, the reader. After a particularly heated scene, you read something like this:
"I'm so happy that you're here and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your company. I know it hasn't been that long, but I really can't put into words just how much our friendship means to me; especially after all of the things we have been through. I know what it's like to be taken advantage of and I wouldn't even be here had you not been around to pull me though. You give me so much strength and I'm sorry I lean on you so much. Please stay close though, I don't know where I would be without you."
Though these words are real and the sentiment behind them is very sweet, there is some serious harm that could come from them. Parasocial interactions and the possible parasocial relationships that result from them is something our community should be both educated on and constantly aware of, and that is exactly what I hope to accomplish with this article.
A Parasocial Relationship, in it's most basic sense, is defined as:
"...a one-sided relationship that media users form as a result of exposure to media personas." -Wikipedia
I can tell you from personal experience that, while we aren't dealing with many television personalities (Way to go Vivzie!), we are interacting with what can be considered our ideal fantasies in a one-sided fashion on a daily basis. This comes in many different forms like our sonas, our favorite characters, and even single panel webcomics about daily life that we genuinely relate to! And now with social media in the mix, parasocial interactions are almost impossible to avoid.
Now, I'm sure some of you are asking yourself: "Well what makes this bad? Is it really a big deal to have a favorite character? And isn't that what art is all about? Evoking emotional response and forming communities around a common interest?" The answers to these questions are a lot more complicated than you might think, and they have also been a source of pain for a lot of different people.
Firstly, no, it's not a bad thing to have a favorite character. Take a look at the beautiful girl at the top of the article one more time. Isn't she lovely? Now imagine that you've been seeing her all over and she is your idea of perfect. The artist just won't stop drawing her and you can't get her out of your head. You daydream of holding her hand, petting between her ears, just having that one soft moment with her. It's like every time you turn around she is in your feed, looking right at you. Before you know it, you realize that you absolutely love this girl.
She isn't real. But your feelings are. The only interaction you have ever had is the twitter feed, but what does that matter? She is always looking at you and she is perfect! You save every picture and you find satisfaction in browsing through your little gallery of her. You're not hurting anyone. You always comment on the posts of her and ask the artist for more, and sometimes the artist even responds with how much they enjoy drawing her! Eventually, you and the artist become friends and even form a small bond over the mutual love of this character. This parasocial interaction has become a parasocial relationship, and this can quickly become unhealthy.
One day, you notice that the artist isn't drawing her as much. Then after a while, not at all. You ask your artist friend why and they tell you that they have moved on, they want to draw another character now. And your entire world comes crashing down; a parasocial breakup. You ask the artist if you can buy the character, but the artist is attached to her and doesn't want to let her go. It really is the end. You realize that the perfect girl has vanished and just like a real life breakup, this can be devastating. You experience grief over your loss, lash out, and end up losing much more than just a fictional character. The artist who thought you were their friend is suddenly left alone too, probably with no idea why you don't like them anymore.
Parasocial relationships are something we all need to be aware of. They are potentially damaging, one-sided, psychological attachments that can really bring a lot of toxicity into our lives. While the above example deals with attachment to a fictional character, these can also play out with our favorite artists as well.
Recently, I was having a conversation about the one-sided nature of the Anthro community with an artist. They described an incident that resulted from a parasocial interaction that spanned over a decade. In this incident, the artist was interacting in a chat room and an individual asked them to draw something. The artist declined, but later accepted another idea that was more their style. The first individual took it very personally that the artist didn't like their idea, but this is how parasocial interactions often go; they are one-sided by nature. Eventually, the individual crossed paths with the artist in person, verbally assaulted said artist, and then left. The artist was left bewildered, their feelings hurt, and without a clue why they were just called names in public.
These types of interactions can have lasting impressions on us, and the only way to avoid them is to learn all you can about them. Was that person a jerk for their behavior, absolutely. Did the artist do anything wrong by declining to draw their idea? Not at all. Can artists be jerks too? Sure, but they are not setting out to create parasocial interactions or relationships by drawing.
I, myself, have fallen victim to a parasocial relationship and demonized an artist because of it. I was new to the fandom and I had fallen for a fictional character for the first time. I knew they weren't real, but my thoughts centered around them for several months of my life. Eventually, the artist behind the character disappered for a period of years. I didn't know why, but I created an entire narrative in my head that the artist was just too elitist for the common person. That they took their art somewhere else where I couldn't see it, like a pay service or something. Of course, none of that was true, and the artist I demonized is actually very, very nice. After some thinking and years going by, I realized made it all up. That's how I came to understand what parasocial relationships are, and how damaging they can be.
We all need to do our part to learn about, and cope with, the undeniable one-sided nature of our medium. The artists make the art, we enjoy the art, and the community keeps turning. It's up to us to be nice to each other and understand social dynamics. There is never an excuse to be abusive or toxic towards and artist, or a commissioner, and often simple misunderstandings can be corrected with an open mind and a few questions. We are all wonderful individuals that have chosen to be part of a vast and varied community, so be nice, and keep smiling. You're here by choice, so enjoy it~