Every day, tens of thousands of vloggers look into their camera lenses and muster a familiar phrase: "Hey, what's up guys?"
This is more than a simple start to a video. They're putting on a friendly face, saying hello, initiating a hangout. It follows that for every successful internet personality there are thousands of people who feel like they know them. Decades before the dawn of the internet celebrity, researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined a term for these illusory relationships just as '50s TV presenters started acting like viewers' pals — they defined a "parasocial relationship" as a "seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer" that is developed via interactions that are "one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development."
Now, video essayist Shannon Strucci is bringing Horton and Wohl's terminology to a new audience on a platform that may thrive on promoting parasocial relationships more than any other: YouTube. Strucci's essay series "Fake Friends" is only on its second of four planned episodes, but the newest is a real journey: While the first installment of "Fake Friends" gives a twenty minute primer on the idea of parasocial relationships, the second episode is an extensively researched and thoroughly sobering look at how commonplace parasocial relationships have become online. The episode clocks in at just under two hours.
There's a very good chance that little of what Strucci's series has covered so far will be entirely alien to you. In the first episode, Strucci argues that parasocial relationships are likely "something all of the people watching this video have experienced, even if [they] haven't ever really thought about it or tried to name it." While watching "Fake Friends," you may realize that a nagging problem you have with life online is explained by research into parasocial interaction, or you may find the term problematizes something in your life that you previously thought was benign. As Strucci draws on examples of YouTubers, streamers and podcasters, it becomes clear that many of the benefits and drawbacks of social media cannot be separated from parasocial relationships.
There are multiple reasons why Strucci chose to draw her analysis of parasocial relationships out over multiple lengthy episodes. "I still have, from 2016, all these studies I printed off and took notes all over," Strucci tells me in an interview over Skype. "I was like 'I can't, this is much more than a twenty minute video.'" Diving deep is also something of a calling card for Strucci that can be traced through her earlier essays on film (we've featured some of her work on Digg in the past). "I think, more than other essayists, I like to just collect everything I think is relevant regardless of the quality of it," she says. "It's sort of like more of a collage, versus something slick or more to the point and short, which I don't think would have as much of an emotional impact."
Additionally, Strucci acknowledges that with the second installment, titled "parasocial hell," the feature-length runtime alone might pique newcomers' interest. "If I obviously put a lot of work into it and make something unique, and that I feel is important, maybe people will respond to it more than my half-hour Uncanny Valley essay, which you only watch if you care about robotics," Strucci says. Thanks to the depth of her research, the opening minutes of both episodes establish that online parasocial relationships are pervasive, under-discussed and warrant being examined at length.
At the top of "parasocial hell," Strucci uses clips of comedian Bo Burnham and of YouTube celebrity Sean McLoughlin, a.k.a. Jacksepticeye, to contrast the ways they address the one-sided relationship they have with their fans in their own work. Burnham, who has referenced the idea of parasocial relationships by name on stage, has on multiple occasions cast fan/performer dynamics in a critical, negative light. In the essay, Strucci then cuts to McLoughlin, who just last week crossed 20 million YouTube subscribers and in a typical week releases more minutes of vlogger or game streamer-style content on his YouTube channel than Burnham releases of comedy in a year. "I get direct feedback from you always, all the time," McLoughlin says straight-to-camera in a clip from the essay. "It can be a bit overloading at times and some people from traditional media might think that that's a bad thing," he continues, "because it's too much stimulus all the time. I love it."
If there's a central example Strucci returns to in "parasocial hell," it's Jacksepticeye — Strucci selects several clips both of McLoughlin's upbeat I-love-you-guys addresses to fans as well as a few lengthy rambles from videos where he speaks about the demands and pressures of being a YouTube celebrity. "There is stuff where I let it kind of go long, but I'm making people watch this," says Strucci. "It was deliberately a confrontational essay." In a clip from this past July, one of the most recent pieces Strucci surfaces in the essay, McLoughlin talks about longing to live in the same city as his YouTuber friends so they could do normal activities together, and of tiring from making daily videos… all, of course, in a video posted to his YouTube channel. In a follow-up to that clip, McLoughlin says that "freaking out about letting [his audience] down built up this well of anxiety and sadness" inside him.
Near the end of the second episode, Strucci highlights a number of unnerving social media comments she collected throughout her research, narrated by a few of her friends and fellow content creators: "At the most I thought, if you leave these comments, maybe you should feel embarrassed about yourself? If you bother me about my relationships with my friends? That was the most confrontational aspect about it" (At multiple points throughout the two episodes, Strucci notes she doesn't intend to condemn all manners of parasocial interaction, a stance she backs up in our Skype interview: "At no point did I want to make people feel guilty unless they had overstepped these boundaries, in which case I don't mind being judgmental").
More so than the content of the unsettling comments Strucci selected, however, she found that her choice of guest narrators provoked a response in viewers. "I was originally going to voice all of them," she explains. "Then I was like 'I don't wanna hear my voice doing this, I've got friends who are talented who can do this.'" Fellow YouTube video essayist H. Bomberguy and co-host of the podcast Chapo Trap House Felix Biederman are amongst the cameos in comments montage, which had the inadvertent effect of alerting some of Strucci's viewers to their own parasocial relationship tendencies. That, Strucci says, was not her intent: "Multiple people were like 'oh my God, I watched this segment and I recognized the voices and was so happy, and then I felt disgusted with myself.' I hit a raw nerve. Someone called me Machiavellian."
If, intentionally or unintentionally, "parasocial hell" irks segments of Strucci's audience, it seems like a natural and unavoidable result of tackling parasocial dynamics online in a nuanced light. No, it is not morally wrong that individuals feel like Jacksepticeye videos have made them feel less lonely, or that (in another from a long list of positive examples featured in the essay) meet-and-greets with celebrities like John Cena top the Make-a-Wish fulfillment list. However, to focus only on those positive examples would be to intentionally ignore that, as a culture, we are well past the point where flagrant violations of privacy and civility arising from parasocial interactions have been all but totally normalized. Being stalked, doxxed or swatted are potential consequences of fame — in truth, aided by transparent and insecure parts of the internet, they can happen to anyone for nearly any reason — but they should not be seen as "part of the job."
As Strucci points out in the first episode of "Fake Friends," no matter the potential harms to creator or to viewers, platforms like YouTube encourage the fostering of parasocial relationships to help boost a channel's performance. Creators with devoted fan bases help YouTube's bottom line, but the platform only does so much to discourage bad behavior cutting either direction. "We live under capitalism — you get people to give you money because they love you," says Strucci. "That's why YouTube incentivizes [parasocial interactions]." Strucci tells that, from personal experience, she knows the negative effects of parasocial interaction are ubiquitous, and that she feels there's no way platforms can wave them away:
I got one person who was very, very angry at me in the comments and was like "you expect me to feel bad, this is a bougie white person problem, they're rich, how dare you" — leaving comments multiple days in a row, furious with me. At the point that they left these comments, I was making $300-350 [via Patreon]per video.
I get all this weird invasive stuff. I'm not a rich white dude.
That person's anger is emblematic of that: "Well, these people deserve it. They profit off of us, so we get to do whatever we want to them and they have to just take it." Even if we did fix the platforms to discourage it, I feel like we'd have to change the entire culture, which… I don't think I can do that.
Personally, I don't know if another format could introduce and address the subject of parasocial interactions as effectively as the video essay does. Describing her narration style in our interview, Strucci says she isn't posing as "your friend, [she's] not having a conversation back and forth" — but despite that distance, carefully cultivated and maintained over Strucci's body of work, the video essay as a broader form is still native to the internet and informed by one-sided creator/viewer interactions. Strucci cannot entirely avoid parasocial dynamics while producing and promoting her essays, a perspective which undergirds the rigor of Strucci's research and analysis on the topic. By virtue of the fact that she has skin in the game, so to speak, viewers are asked to relate to Strucci's position as an internet creator without falling into the parasocial trap of over-identifying with a person they don't actually know.
Watching "parasocial hell" certainly had an impact on me. For years I've felt that the rules and incentives at play with YouTube are out of whack; that the "cushy" reputation of live streaming masks real health risks; that, by and large, trying to corral the entire internet into a 24/7 popularity contest is a mistake. After watching "parasocial hell," I have language and a framework that's relevant to all those issues and to countless episodes in my own life. Now, instead of vaguely wondering where the line of good conduct is between myself and someone I'm a fan of, or where that line is between myself and someone who reads my work online, I can start by looking to the idea of parasocial relationships and ask: "Is the issue that we simply don't know each other, or that one of us thinks they know the other?"
Strucci's work isn't done; episodes of "Fake Friends" focused on further academic studies on parasocial interaction and on Strucci's own experience with parasocial relationships are forthcoming. "A lot of my viewers are English-as-a-second-language, or are teenagers," she says, discussing her commitment to those episodes. "I can make this understandable, condense it down and put in the time for it."
Undoubtedly, though the format she leverages is the same, Strucci's motivation behind the "Fake Friends" series differs from her other essays. "With the film stuff it was like, film culture is very elitist and exclusionary and I want to bring this to more people who might otherwise not be exposed to it," she says. "With 'Fake Friends' it was both having friends who are content creators and me being a content creator — or video essayist, whatever you want to call it — and dealing with creepy, weird fans."
To me, actually talking with Strucci one-on-one, she seems to know all too well from past experience that some bad online behavior will remain simply inexplicable. "I knew that I would get weird hateful messages and sexual messages because I grew up online — of course I knew that would happen — but I never thought about how obsessed people would get," Strucci says, considering the following she has amassed from her essays. "Not just leaving 'fuck you' kind of mean stuff, but how they really want to hurt you."
She pauses. "I'm like… 'I make movie videos on YouTube.'"
In the essay, Strucci includes clips from several YouTubers who have had fans trespass on their property and references the break-in perpetrated against YouTubers Gavin Free and Meg Turney earlier this year. In our interview, we touched on the 2016 murder of YouTuber Christina Grimmie.
At the time of publication, Strucci's patrons have now pledged a cumulative sum of $692 for each video Strucci releases.