Revisiting parasocial theory in fan studies: Pathological or (path)illogical?

Rivkah Groszman

Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Parasocial theory is not currently in favor within fan studies because it is seen as depicting fan behavior as pathological. However, an examination of the original text and its modern interpretations reveals the true, neutral image of fans that parasocial theory portrays, which allows it to be applied to fan communities and fan works. Accordingly, these applications are also discussed, with an emphasis on the K-pop industry, where the theory is particularly relevant.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience psychology; Celebrity studies; Fan communities; Fan fiction; K-pop

Groszman, Rivkah. 2020. "Revisiting Parasocial Theory in Fan Studies: Pathological or (Path)illogical?" Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. Introduction

[1.1] A little over a year ago, I became a fan of a K-pop boy band called EXO. It turns out that there are, indeed, other popular K-pop boy groups besides BTS, although everyone and their brother doesn't seem to be aware of that. This includes my own brother, who drew me a beautiful picture of BTS' Jungkook for my birthday. Jungkook is the K-pop poster boy, but he's not my K-pop boy, as my brother was dismayed to learn.

[1.2] I believe that just as my love for K-pop and EXO has been misunderstood to be a love for BTS and Jungkook, parasocial theory has been misunderstood as depicting fan behavior as pathological. This has caused the theory to be largely dismissed within fan studies, which is a shame in my opinion, because I think it has newfound relevance as K-pop's popularity continues to grow worldwide.

[1.3] Accordingly, I'll aim to show how parasocial theory does have a place in fan studies and isn't outdated. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't necessarily paint fan behavior in a negative light and can provide a new perspective on many modern fan studies topics.

2. A brief history of parasocial theory

[2.1] In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl published "Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance," where they first introduced the concept of parasocial interaction. They described a phenomenon where media users had the sensation of interacting reciprocally with media personalities, despite these experiences being very obviously one-sided.

[2.2] This single concept subsequently became a subfield of psychology and psychiatry, and academics began understanding parasocial interactions as relationships—long-term emotional attachments between viewers and their chosen media figure(s) (e.g. Brown 2015; Rubin and McHugh 1987). However, contemporary work argues that we must distinguish between parasocial relationships and parasocial interactions because they differ in key ways (Hartmann 2016).

[2.3] Parasocial interactions (PSI) are illusions where media users interpret on-screen images as people to whom they respond socially, and perceive this as a personal, reciprocal encounter. Meanwhile, parasocial relationships (PSR) involve media users forming an emotional connection with media figures by becoming familiar with their "mannerisms, behaviors…and other personal details" (Kurtin et al. 2019, 33). Basically, PSI are temporary illusions, while PSR are long-term attachments that form over time.

[2.4] Additionally, PSR don't depend on PSI to exist. According to Hartmann (2016), "a parasocial relationship can be experienced and also continues to exist even if the mediated other is not present" (132). Repeated parasocial interactions may result in a parasocial relationship, but PSR can also develop by simply observing, rather than feeling as though we're interacting with, the people on our screens. Since PSR are often separate from PSI and aren't illusory experiences, individuals can have parasocial relationships while being totally aware they're one-sided.

[2.5] This distinction is essential. Without it, it's easy to wrongly assume that parasocial relationships consist of repeated parasocial interactions. PSR could then be characterized as a series of successive illusions, which borders on the concept of delusion. This depicts fan behavior negatively and thus makes parasocial theory more prone to dismissal in fan studies.

3. Pathological? You sure?

[3.1] I can understand why some may find the ideas of parasocial theory off-putting. The one-sided nature of parasocial relationships and the resulting uneven dynamic between fan and persona may seem psychologically unhealthy. However, this view might change if we think of celebrities as service providers. This is especially relevant in the K-pop industry, where idols not only record albums and perform their songs on live TV but also constantly interact with fans through meet-and-greets, social media posts, livestreams, and regular concerts. Unlike Western artists, who drop an album and then seem to drop off the face of the earth (at least until the next one), most K-pop idols are active throughout the year, delivering a steady stream of content to their fans.

[3.2] Interactions between service providers and receivers are often not equally important to both parties. For instance, if I, as a barista, knew a regular customer's overly complicated order off by heart, it might make them feel special, but I'm just hoping for a nice tip. In the same way, if Jungkook holds an adoring fan's hand for a nanosecond at a fan meet, it might make their year, but he's just hoping they'll buy BTS' next album. Neither one of these interactions, while one-sided, denotes delusion, so why is the second one frowned upon while the first one isn't?

[3.3] Parasocial theory has also been criticized because it belongs to the field of audience psychology, which has traditionally painted a negative picture of fandom by failing to differentiate between normal fan activities and behaviors and pathological attachments to media personalities (Duffett 2014, 6). However, Horton and Wohl's original text explicitly states that for the vast majority of people, parasocial relationships simply serve to complement a normal, healthy social life. The authors also specified that parasocial relationships are generally not pathological, except in two specific circumstances. Either the PSR must become a substitute for all real-life social relationships, or it must "proceed in absolute defiance of objective reality" (¶ 8.1), meaning that the subject considers the relationship real and two-sided, and expects reciprocity from the media figure (Hartmann 2016).

[3.4] Nevertheless, this issue gets a little muddy when we consider Horton and Wohl's ([1956] 2006) hypothesis in the same article: "the para-social can properly be called compensatory, inasmuch as it provides the socially and psychologically isolated with a chance to enjoy the elixir of sociability" (¶ 7.5). This could be interpreted as suggesting that isolated individuals use PSR to compensate for their lack of authentic connections, which resembles the first criterion of pathological parasocial relationships. Joli Jenson (1992, 17) asserts that this interpretation reflects negatively on fandom and perpetuates the idea that people become fans because they are "psychologically needy" and want to make up for the reciprocal relationships they don't have.

[3.5] However, later psychological research "did not find simple and direct links between…potential social deficits of users and parasocial relationship intensity" (Hartmann 2016, 135). Rather, research found that social skills facilitate the development of PSR because they develop similarly to real-life relationships. Specifically, studies found that socially adept people who desire intimate real-life (romantic or platonic) relationships but are anxious about being emotionally vulnerable with others may be particularly motivated to develop PSR (Cole and Leets 1999; Cohen 2004; Greenwood and Long 2011). But these studies didn't find that people use parasocial relationships to avoid the anxiety of forming real-life relationships. Like me, they may instead enjoy both their parasocial and reciprocal relationships and find a healthy balance between the two.

[3.6] Horton and Wohl's ([1956] 2006) original text is primarily an essay expressing their ideas and opinions—not a research report. Although the authors do provide examples from popular media to illustrate their points, they don't cite many other academics and their ideas don't seem to be based on many specific psychological studies. Later research in this field (some of which is cited in this essay) formally tests Horton and Wohl's assertions and shows that some must be modified, either because they're no longer accurate several decades later or because they never were in the first place. It's important to take into account these modern adjustments when evaluating parasocial theory's attitude towards fandom and its relevance within fan studies, because much of the modern theory reflects more favorably on fans and fandoms.

4. PSR and community

[4.1] PSR can help with loneliness, and not just because you feel your parasocial buddy is keeping you company. In their essay "Fan Cultures and Fan Communities," Kristina Busse and Jonathan Gray (2011) discuss the ideas of Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss concerning the psychology of individual fans consuming fandom media. Hills argues that although this media may be consumed individually, it's also communal because many fans share in the enjoyment of its consumption. This makes the experience more meaningful and may help fans feel more connected to one another. Furthermore, according to Sandvoss, fans who are physically alone when consuming this media may not feel alone because they create "an imaginary space [for themselves] that is shared with others" (quoted in Busse and Gray, 434). The individual fan imagines other fans who are also enjoying this media. They have the impression of interacting with the fandom, even if they aren't actually communicating with anyone. In this way, they're experiencing a parasocial connection with both the media persona and other fans (Busse and Gray 2011).

[4.2] I've definitely experienced this. While reading fan fiction or consuming media featuring EXO, I've wondered how many other people have enjoyed it before me and how many will continue to do so after me. The communal aspect of this media makes it more special, and I feel an abstract connection to the anonymous members of my fandom. Sharing the same bank of knowledge with other fans makes me feel like a full-fledged member of the community.

[4.3] Second, PSR can foster real community. It's always easier to connect with others when you have something in common. In the case of fandom, that common ground can be the media figure(s) with whom you and other fans have a parasocial relationship. It's as if you all have a mutual friend, or even many friends. This may be especially helpful for the subset of people mentioned earlier, who want to create real relationships with others but are anxious about it.

[4.4] I personally don't interact with other people in my fandom on the internet, mainly because I have a friend who's also a fan, so I'll discuss EXO with her. We became closer once I got into them because we had even more to enjoy together. People having parasocial relationships often think about their media persona and construct links between the persona and themselves. They might compare their personality with the persona's and look for similarities, or imagine what it would be like to be friends with the persona (Klimmt, Hartmann, and Schramm 2006). My friend and I have had many such conversations and it has helped us bond further. Likewise, many internet fan forums will post discussion threads about these topics, where fans can provide their input and recreate this bonding experience virtually. These interactions may lead fans to explore other common interests and the relationship can grow into a true friendship.

[4.5] Parasocial theory therefore provides a new explanation of why fan communities are so appealing and beneficial to fans, whether they actively engage with other fandom members or simply consider themselves part of the community.

5. You didn't think I would forget fan fiction, did you?

[5.1] Applying parasocial theory to fan fiction yields some intriguing insights. The common behavior in parasocial relationships where consumers "try to understand a persona's goals, attitudes [and] utterances" (Klimmt, Hartmann, and Schramm 2006, 297) may lend itself to the widespread fandom practice of shipping. Fans, fueled by their perceived knowledge of the interpersonal dynamics between personae, support a theoretical romantic pairing between two personalities, usually from the same media source. Whether or not they think these relationships are real, fans often express their love of a particular pairing by reading and writing romantic fan fiction featuring the persona(e).

[5.2] I believe this hypothesis is especially relevant to the K-pop industry because idols usually keep their romantic relationships secret from the general public. Idol dating is considered scandalous among Korean fans, and a dating scandal could ruin an idol's career. Fans therefore don't usually get to see their favorite idols in any real romantic context, and may be especially motivated to fill in these blanks through romantic fan fiction.

[5.3] Why else are these stories so enjoyable for fans to read? Well, fans experiencing a PSR will learn about the persona and form a subjective mental representation of their identity (Klimmt, Hartmann and Schramm 2006). Accurate characterizations in fan fiction can therefore create a vivid reading experience for fans. They're already familiar with the persona's physical appearance, voice, personality and mannerisms, so they can experience narratives as if they were watching a performance in their minds (Coppa 2014). Additionally, readers may be more invested in the story, and therefore more entertained, if they have a parasocial bond with the protagonist(s) because "PSR strongly affect the formation of positive or negative dispositions towards media characters and, consequently, the experienced level of suspense" (Klimmt, Hartmann, and Schramm 2006, 294). Furthermore, this style of fan fiction may provoke a stronger emotional response in readers because their PSR with the protagonist(s) makes them more empathetic towards them. Research has found that "observers of a romantic episode in a love [story] may acquire the same flowery condition that the personae exhibit…[and therefore] mood contagion phenomena…are conceivable" (299).

[5.4] Parasocial theory can also explain why slash fiction is so popular among boy band fans such as myself. The reader may have a PSR with both protagonists because they're both members of the boy band, and so a story where two members fall in love with each other would create a doubly entertaining and emotionally satisfying experience for the reader, compared to het fan fiction featuring only one boy band member as a love interest. In my experience, K-pop idols are often more physically affectionate with one another on-camera than members of Western groups such as One Direction or Fifth Harmony. The discrepancy could be a product of the Korean idol training system, which is a very effective bonding device, or Western-Eastern cultural differences. It may also simply be fan-service, which is highly emphasized in K-pop. I believe that constantly seeing group members showing affection to one another not only further encourages shipping within a group but also gives K-pop fan fiction authors a lot of material they can use to make their writing richer and more realistic. Furthermore, as in my case, readers may find slash fictions comforting not only because they're fond of the protagonists but also because the characters' mutual physical affection is very familiar.

[5.5] From the perspective of parasocial theory, works of fan fiction take advantage of the parasocial bond that readers already feel toward one or more of the characters. They then build on this connection through fans' intimate experience of being privy to the characters' fictional thoughts, emotions, and personal life and use it to make readers care deeply about their well-being and experience an intense emotional response to the story.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Parasocial theory, particularly the modern, scientifically tested version of Horton and Wohl's ([1956] 2006) original framework, is potentially quite relevant to fan studies and to analyses of K-pop fandom in particular. The K-pop industry is sustained by the strong, one-sided emotional connections that fans form with idols, which may very well be parasocial relationships but are not necessarily negative. This piece only briefly touches upon the various ways that Horton and Wohl's theory can be applied to popular fan studies topics, and there's still so much to discuss and learn. I hope future research secures a place for parasocial theory within fan studies, just as I found a spot for Jungkook on my bedroom wall.

7. References

Brown, William J. 2015. "Examining Four Processes of Audience Involvement with Media Personae: Transportation, Parasocial Interaction, Identification, and Worship." Communication Theory 25 (3): 259–83.

Busse, Kristina, and Jonathan Gray. 2011. "Fan Cultures and Fan Communities." In The Handbook of Media Audiences, edited by Virginia Nightingale, 425–43. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Cohen, Jonathan. 2004. "Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21 (2): 187–202.

Cole, Tim, and Laura Leets. 1999. "Attachment Styles and Intimate Television Viewing: Insecurely Forming Relationships in a Parasocial Way." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 16 (4): 495–511.

Coppa, Francesca. 2014. "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 225–44. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Duffett, Mark. 2014. "Celebrity: The Return of the Repressed in Fan Studies?" In The Ashgate Research Companion to Fan Cultures, edited by Linda Duits, Koos Zwaan, and Stijn Reijnders, 163–80. Farnham: Ashgate.

Greenwood, Dara, and Christopher R. Long. 2011. "Attachment, Belongingness Needs, and Relationship Status Predict Imagined Intimacy with Media Figures." Communication Research 38 (2): 278–97.

Hartmann, Tilo. 2016. "Parasocial Interaction, Parasocial Relationships, and Well-Being." In The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being, edited by Leonard Reinecke and Mary-Beth Oliver, 131–44. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. (1956) 2006. "Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance." Particip@tions 3 (1).

Jenson, Joli. 1992. "Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization." In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 9–29. London: Routledge.

Klimmt, Christoph, Tilo Hartmann, and Holger Schramm. 2006. "Parasocial Interactions and Relationships." In Psychology of Entertainment, edited by Jennings Bryant and Peter Vorderer, 291–313. New York: Routledge.

Kurtin, Kate Szer, Nina O'Brien, Deya Roy, and Linda Dam. 2019. "Parasocial Relationships with Musicians." Journal of Social Media in Society 8 (2): 30–50.

Rubin, R. B., and M.P. McHugh. 1987. "Development of Parasocial Interaction Relationships." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 31 (3): 279–92.