All social media is now parasocial

This is an excerpt from my newsletter. If you like it feel free to subscribe.


Thing on my mind:

I discovered the term “parasocial” recently while reading about OnlyFans. “Parasocial” describes relationships where you are emotionally invested, but the other side doesn’t even know you exist. OnlyFans is a very obvious example of parasocial because it seems like a bunch of desperate men are forking over their hard-earned money just to see pictures from hot girls, but if you consume any media where you feel invested in the person featured, you are engaged in a parasocial relationship. It describes your relationship with your favorite “influencer” or “personality” on TV, YouTube, podcasts, Twitter, Twitch, TikTok, etc.

I brought this topic up on Palcast recently, and people chimed in with their stories. One friend mentioned that her nephew thinks he plays Minecraft with a YouTuber even though he simply watches the videos. Another friend said that her husband was living in nature on his own for a long time but didn’t feel lonely because he’d always listen to podcasts and feel like he’s with friends.

I’m not gonna say these are bad or unhealthy relationships because they’re not “real.” Of course they could be unhealthy, but they’re real enough to be part of the solution to our loneliness epidemic. It just seems inappropriate to pay a model for a sexy pic or a reply to a DM, but we do similar things all the time like paying more money to be closer to the stage at a concert so that we can interact more intensely with our favorite performer.

What I worry about is these parasocial relationships are competing away the time we could otherwise use on our real relationships. Our friends are simply not as interesting as the influencers who spend all day thinking about how to win our attention. Recently, more of my friends have gotten into TikTok, and some of them have started to say that they’re finding Instagram boring. It’s sad but I agree. TikToks are way more interesting than IG Stories even though IG Stories are from friends that I’m supposed to care more about.

So how did Facebook get me to care about my friends in the first place? There were no influencers or professionally produced content back in the day. What they did was they got all of my friends to sign up around the same time and made it really easy for me to interact with their content. To get enough of my friends on the service, they tapped the built-in network of colleges (and later companies). This way even though a status update from a single friend was not interesting, when presented together with updates from all of my friends, Facebook suddenly became much more interesting. To make it easy for me to interact, Facebook put all of the updates together in a News Feed and made interacting as simple as clicking “like.” The result was that I was more likely to find a piece of interesting content quickly scrolling down the News Feed, and hitting “like” made it fun. This is why I hear that internally at Facebook even if you can’t describe the “problem” your feature is solving, if you can describe how it removes friction, you’d be okay.

But what happens when you are too successful at removing friction is that everything becomes meaningless or just fake, and then it becomes boring again. Posting an IG story is easy, and interacting with it is easy. Every time I post a story, about 100 friends will see it, and a few will send me an emoji reaction. But I can’t tell you who was the last friend to react with an emoji, and I definitely can’t tell you who the 100 friends that saw it. Give me a day or two and I can’t even tell you what content I posted to my story. I remember nothing and I feel nothing.

Because of this, social media today feels much more “parasocial.” If I like a friend’s post or react with an emoji and they don’t remember or notice, then what’s the point? It’s not like the content was that interesting in the first place. I might as well go back to watching YouTube.

In Eugene Wei’s latest post on TikTok, he said “The goal of any design is not to minimize friction, it’s to help the user achieve some end. Reducing friction is often consistent with that end, but not always. You might say that the quote tweet reduces the friction of manually copying someone else’s tweet, but reducing friction to organizing a mob to pile on someone might not be a core mechanic you want to encourage if your goal is civil public discourse. Some forms of friction are good.” But removing friction was pretty straight forward to think about. If that’s not the right thing, then what?

You can do what Instagram did and make your friends less boring with filters. But at some point it becomes a competition to see who can be the most interesting. That’s why Instagram’s feed feels like a performance stage now. TikTok didn’t even bother trying to get you to care about your friends, but then that’s just not a “social” network.

This pandemic is showing me how easily my relationships with friends can ground to a halt. Pre-pandemic, Facebook and Instagram were already feeling meaningless, but we had lots of IRL options that we could use to socialize: dinners, coffees, happy hours, movies, concerts, book clubs, sports, parties, BBQs, etc. These options were great because they didn’t require our friends to be interesting to keep us entertained. But now if we wanted to connect with our friends, all we have is Zoom, FaceTime or the phone, and that means our friends really have be interesting on their own without much help, and that’s making it much harder to want to try to connect. Even if you had a real reason, like you want feedback on your startup, without the excuse of something like “let’s get drinks” then the ask is much harder to make because it’s less likely to be pleasant for the recipient. We don’t have any viable digital alternatives either other than stuff like HouseParty, Discord and Netflix Party that offer excuses like “play games with friends” or “watch something with friends.” But those are not as generally appealing. I’ve spent way too long writing this newsletter…am I making any sense?

Piece of content I recommend:

Stephanie aka Tanqueray’s 32-part story on Humans of New York

I spent an hour this weekend reading about Stephanie aka Tanqueray and getting super invested in her story to the point of feeling like I was gonna cry. It’s not just me, people donated $2.5M towards this woman’s care. Talk about parasocial!

Funny enough, Stephanie was an influencer her entire life and made her living off of parasocial relationships. She started as a go-go dancer and later became a famous burlesque performer. She also wrote a regular column in an adult magazine. If you want to understand parasocial relationships, read her story and you’ll get it on multiple levels.

View this post on Instagram

(1/32) “Tanqueray, Tanqueray, Tanqueray. When this photo was taken, ten thousand men in New York City knew that name. My signature meant something to them. They’d line up around the block whenever I was dancing in Times Square, just so I could sign the cover of their nudie magazine. I’d always write: ‘You were the best I ever had.’ Or some stupid shit like that. Something to make them smile for a second. Something to make them feel like they’d gotten to know me. Then they’d pay their twenty bucks, and go sit in the dark, and wait for the show to start. They’d roll that magazine up tight and think about their wives, or their work, or some of their other problems. And they’d wait for the lights to come up. Wait for Tanqueray to step out on stage and take it all away for eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes. That’s how long you’ve got to hold ‘em. For eighteen minutes you’ve got to make them forget that they’re getting older. And that they aren’t where they want to be in life. And that it’s probably too late to do much about it. It’s only eighteen minutes. Not long at all. But there’s a way to make it seem like forever. I always danced to the blues. Cause it’s funky and you don’t have to move fast. You can really zero in on a guy. So that it seems like you’re dancing just for him. You look him right in the eyes. Smile at him. Wink. Put a finger in your mouth and lick it a little bit. Make sure you wear plenty of lip gloss so your lips are very, very shiny. If you’re doing it right, you can make him think: ‘Wow, she’s dancing just for me.’ You can make him think he’s doing something to your insides. You can make him fall in love. Then when the music stops, you step off the stage, and beat it back to the dressing room.”

A post shared by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

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