Romantic, platonic, familial: there are a whole host of ways we define our interactions with other people as we make our way through life.

As technology and social media become more and more embedded in our day to day routines, a type of relationship that is becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives is one that exists solely to service one's social needs without the direct emotional contribution of the other party involved: what we refer to as parasocial relationships.

For many, the idea that there is a specific terminology for their content creator consumption and relationships may seem odd, as it has become an integrated part of our lives, but in a nutshell, the term 'parasocial relationship' means the one-sided relationship between public figures and their followers or fans.

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The term was originally coined back in 1956 by Yale Professors Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, and in their time, was most often used to describe the way people interacted with politicians, figure heads and broadcasters, or rather to define the relationship between a spectator and any media personality.

This relationship style is nothing new, and has been around for almost a century. "It’s not particularly new, is the first thing," explains Dr. Declan Tuite of DCU’s Department of Communications.

"There has been a lot of research, talk and study about it since the 50s, talking about television particularly and those kind of parasocial relationships, whether it be Anne Doyle reading the news at you and she’s a regular part of your life or on a lesser extent the way the people on Eastenders feel like an extended part of your family. That element of it has been around a long while, before the influencers and YouTube."

It is a subconscious bond that makes them feel familiar to us - and in the era of the social media influencer - that we actually know them and that there is an emotional connection between both parties, when in reality the connection is almost entirely coming from the spectator.

While the relationship may not be real, the feelings a parasocial relationship entices are real, be they care, admiration, lust or in some cases, hate. It’s a pseudo-bond that has legitimate psychological, emotional and cognitive levels.

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However, Tuite points out that while parasocial relationships have been around since the origins of television and the concept of celebrity, the notion has changed since the term was coined.

"If you think of uncle Gaybo and Gerry Ryan, they’re parts of many households for many years, and radio is a good place to start with it. Radio - unlike most of television - they’re talking to you. That’s the difference with the Twitch channel people, the people on TikTok, the people on YouTube, they often directly address you and they break that fourth wall.

"So it’s not like you’re watching a drama and you’re like 'oh they’re kind of like my family, I care about what happens to them, will they get married, will they get dumped,’ all that, it’s got an element of it but it’s often not quite as invested as when someone turns and talks to you."

The increased connectivity we have with online media creators is what makes them so tangible in our media centric era, but there is a cognitive level to the process too. While we may automatically think of parasocial relationships in the sense that we’re all wondering if Amy Huberman will reply to our comment about her new dress on Instagram, or feel invested on when Kylie Jenner will give birth to her child, parasocial relationships are actually inserted into our lives from the moment we begin to consume media as infants or children.

"There’s some really interesting research around kids and preschoolers, like ‘what was Big Bird and Kermit talking to you about’ and being part of your world, is now like Marshall from Paw Patrol and IgglePiggle from In The Night Garden - as far as preschoolers are concerned, they’re as much a part of their social world as the kid next door and their cousin, so it’s not necessarily something to be feared," says Tuite.

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Dr. Brendan Rooney, Director of the Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab at UCD, explains that our brains are hardwired from birth to form attachments to faces we come into contact with on a regular basis. For babies, they don’t differentiate if that face belongs to a real person, say, their mother or sibling, or a digital rendering of a face through a cartoon or YouTube video. It’s part of our core make up to connect to those who populate our space on a regular basis.

"It’s an automatic response, almost like being fluent in a language, where we know it so well sometimes that it’s not proper conscious knowledge, our brains are automatically coding these things," Rooney says. He explains that the discovery of mirror neurons may reveal on a cognitive level why we feel so attached to our parasocial relationships.

"A cell in a macaques monkey’s brain responds exactly the same way when it sees its own hand pick up a nut compared to when it sees another monkey’s hand pick up a nut, and that is revolutionary because it means that there are cells in the brain that don’t distinguish between one monkey and another monkey, it doesn’t know that one of those was their own hand.

"That has bigger implications then... we’re always automatically coding faces, stories, body language automatically and it doesn’t distinguish whether we say it on a screen or hear it in a podcast."

When it comes to developing parasocial relationships, this on screen, on air or online illusion of connection that is established bypasses our conscious knowledge and plays into our automatic processes. If we experience these things frequently or in a way that interests us, then we can ignore the fact that it’s not real on a cognitive level.

With the emergence of blogger bashing boards like TattleLife and the past reign of influencer critiquing social media pages like Bloggers Unveiled, it’s clear that to a certain extent, the parasocial relationship between social media personalities and their audiences gives content consumers the feeling that they have the right to express their input about the lives of those who share their skills and lifestyles online.

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And it’s no surprise really, because as frequently as we see our friend's holiday snaps from Tenerife or our work colleagues motivational quote on LinkedIn, we also see a bombardment of snaps and videos featuring the people we don’t truly know but choose to follow because of our interest in their life experiences - for the majority it’s all about feeding some kind of social or emotional need.

"Often it’s painted as this sad lonely person sitting in their pyjamas midday and they have nobody to talk to. There is an element of that, but it’s not everything, there are parts of it that are perfectly normal and healthy and that we have been doing for a long time," Tuite explains.

"People like the radio on or the influencer on for a bit of company, and if you do research on any of the Twitch channels, any media engagement, if you look at it through the lens of uses and gratifications (the theory which presents the audience as having power over their media consumption, and assumes an active role in interpreting and integrating media into their own lives) and maybe we want to be entertained, maybe we want to drift off from reality, maybe we want to find out factual data, but often it’s an emotional or a social need that it has fed. It’s company in the room via the radio host or the twitch streamer."

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Rooney also elaborates that while the content of these bashing boards may be negative, ultimately the parasocial relationships developed with these influencers which lead to the sharing of trolling opinions is just another way humans naturally seek community. In this case, rallying together to call out the perceived bad behavior of a comedian or beauty blogger is the immediate action, but on a deeper level, it’s bringing people together.

"Take cancel culture for example, we mentioned people galvanising together around it, that could sometimes be less about the person that was cancelled, and more about the people who want to get together to share their values and establish themselves as ruling something out and ruling something in. In that case the person who is cancelled experiences the influence from the group," he says.

Celebrity culture has drawn people in for decades, but when it comes to aspiration vs relatability, those whose traits and lifestyles more closely mirror our own seem to win the popularity contest when it comes to parasocial relationships.

Kim Kardashian’s latest divorce developments may be a headliner on every tabloid, but for most, we feel more connection and interest in Paul Galvin’s latest business venture, what holiday Suzanne Jackson is on or how Terrie McEvoy is taking to being a new mum.

"The difference is, the ones that seem to have the deepest effects and the deepest resonance are the ones that always aren't idols and Gods," Tuite elaborates.

"Often the people that really get embedded in our lives are the ones that seem a little more ordinary, just like you and me. They’re interesting enough that you want to get to know them, and they’re a bit skilled in something, but they talk directly to us and we feel they’re not 100 miles away from us, they’re not idol status but we want to know them."

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While parasocial relationships are not always negative, the power imbalance can become the issue, as many influencers and content creators leverage their popularity to make a living - and why shouldn’t they? It takes talent and charisma to acquire an online following, so promoting brands they believe in for a fee shouldn’t be a problem. But like all areas of life, there are those who veer in questionable territory when it comes to exploiting their audience.

"The dangers that most people are worried about are things like the streamer that gets embedded in someone's life and feels like their buddy essentially, but they’re using that influence to personally sell," says Tuite.

Advertisements have always been a part of consuming media, but now they can be inserted into our subconscious minds in other ways. Traditional media gives advertising space to whoever can cough up the funds, but in a regimented, clear and structured way. With digital celebs, the presentation can look seamless and as if it’s a natural part of their organic content.

"We knew they were ads but that RTÉ has editorial control whereas with someone on Twitch or TikTok, the sponsorships, the product placement, the push, it’s a little different," says Tuite. "Also they’re not coming from an official broadcast place, they’re more informal so it seems that it can be a little less honest in that realm. That's one of the dangers."

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Ultimately, parasocial relationships are healthy, normal parts of human nature that should be embraced rather than feared. The content you consume should add value to your life, rather than removing value from your current situation by being too aspirational.

Are you actually inspired by the latest fast-fashion haul or red carpet event? Or does your absorption of information from the lives of others ultimately leave you feeling unfulfilled and jaded by your own.

As we process our emotional needs via one-way associations with celebs and influencers automatically, being as aware as possible about the fact that many of these illusions of life online are highly produced and often leveraged for profit will keep us flipping that trip switch of recognition in our logical brains.

When a celebrity says ‘love you guys’ as they finish off their video, it’s fine to enjoy that warm fuzzy feeling, but remember that you’re one of a million rather than one in a million.