In 1956, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined the term parasocial interaction to describe the psychological relationship that people were starting to have with TV personalities. Though radio had already started this phenomenon, the television brought with it an entirely new dimension. People started to really feel as if they knew that person on TV. They had become a friend.
But as Christopher Mims points out in this recent article about loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic, the problem with parasocial interaction is that it’s entirely one-sided. It also isn’t real: “Sitting around the house watching television, parasocializing with our favorite news anchors or sitcom characters, didn’t confer the same benefits as socializing with real people.”
The internet has further enhanced the way we parasocialize. Similar to how TV built on radio, the internet has built on TV. Instead of just scripted television shows, we now have Instagram Stories, TikTok videos, inappropriate Snaps, and many other methods of communication, some of which are maybe a little less scripted.
Of course, we also see our real friends online and those people we know, but never actually spend time with, maintaining only a loose “relationship” via the occasional emoji reaction. Mims argues that this has created a new kind of “mental equivalence.” It has become harder for our minds to distinguish between our real friends and our parasocial friends.
Recently, we have all become familiar with terms like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing.” But what is clear as we all start isolating ourselves at home — whether mostly or entirely — is this: it sucks. Even with all of the tech and social media that we now have available to us, we cannot replace what it’s like to give someone a hung, look them in the eyes, and have a meaningful conversation.
That said, the Italians seem to have really mastered this whole self-isolation thing with their balcony orchestras and internet videos like this one here:
Stay strong, friends. Normalcy will return.