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Parasocial Distancing

Parasocial interaction is a type of relationship created between a media consumer and a media personality based on limited interactions. It's probably been around since the infancy of mass media when it was common for listeners to develop attachments to radio personalities and have a sense of knowing the person behind the voice. The advent of television likely increased both the volume and intensity of these relationships as names and voices could be then be paired with faces and many obstacles to accessibility seemingly disappeared.

The interwebs took us to a whole different level both in terms of accessibility and the sheer number of media consumers. Expanding the number the media platforms put more media personalities in the public eye and an entire global generation has grown up in a world where information and entertainment comes in all shapes and sizes and for the most part without borders.

Consider the number of content creators, eSports celebrities, and social media sensations throwing their names into a hat already replete with movie/tv stars, athletes, and other more traditional celebrities as well as public figures. The hat is getting bigger and bigger, and the means of engagement are increasing as well. Information and/or entertainment content from each of these personalities can be consumed via multiple platforms from multiple stationary and mobile devices by people engaged in just about any activity in just about any location.

We live in a world where traditional social interactions are being steadily replaced or simply augmented by digital interactions. Why take a long weekend to visit the grandparents when you can just Facetime them on a weekly basis? Everyone gives up 15-20 minutes instead of an entire weekend. The grandparents are more involved and up-to-date on what is going on, and the kids and grandchildren are alleviated of both a travel burden and guilt associated with avoiding such inconveniences.

The downside of the convenience-for-time tradeoff is the lack of relationship development that is unique to the incubator that is physical proximity created by shared geo-location. It's unfortunate, but it's also the norm. As such, it may become increasingly difficult for some to differentiate between the relationship fostered through familial ties or a face-to-face friendship developed over years and a parasocial one created by content consumption.

The issue is unsurprisingly prevalent for Twitch streamers and people who are TikTok or YouTube "Famous" - many of whom put their faces on screens for hours and hours in a given day. It's also prevalent for celebrities, athletes, and public figures who are leveraging these same platforms along with Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to increase their digital influence footprints.

Given the infinite possibilities and size of the potential audience, it's only natural that many of these people would seek to capitalize by leveraging social media consultants as part of their teams. Doing so is not too dissimilar from a corporation using a PR firm to carefully cultivate its image, disseminate cherry-picked information, and manufacture carefully curated tweets. The primary difference is that one expects this from a big corporation, but it may be far more difficult to make a distinction when tweets are associated with a one-person brand.

The problem is the degree of association. A tweet from a Twitch streamer may be indistinguishable from a tweet sent by the streamer's team. It's firsthand vs secondhand with neither necessarily representing the organic, spontaneous thought they may be taken to be. At least with a corporation's official Twitter account you can safely assume that it's tweet-by-committee and not intended to represent a single person. At the end of the day, you aren't likely to feel like you know a company, but it's possible that someone could feel like they know the content creator/celebrity/sportsball person.

Baseball is no exception, and while the indicators that a parasocial relationship exists may be subtle they are definitely there. Look no further than your Twitter timeline or the next game broadcast and take a moment to really think about what someone says about a particular player.

Back in 2012 I covered an event that included David Freese, Tony La Russa, Jon Jay, and a few other players from the 2011 WS team. I was given what I refer to as "media-type privileges" and was able to speak freely with the players and fans in attendance. As I stood near the backdrop where Jon Jay was taking pictures with fans, I heard two things over and over again when making small talk with both people waiting in line and people leaving the line.

"He seems like a really nice guy."

"He's a really nice guy."

The distinction should be obvious. Each represents an opinion likely based on a single, brief interaction (granted, some may have met him previously). The first example feels like an acknowledgement that the opinion is just an impression based on very limited information. The second feels much more definitive as one would expect with a well-informed person's opinion.

I hear and see an awful lot of the latter while noticing a pronounced absence of the former. It's probably just semantics, and maybe I'm just nitpicking here but....

When a broadcaster or beat reporter say that someone is a "good guy", then at least you know that they are working with a lot larger sample size than you likely are. They have official access in official settings, but they also have a lot of casual interactions in less official settings. This makes the relationship both professional and somewhat casual at the same time. That's not quite the same as being a very personal relationship although that's also a real possibility.

Regardless, that's very different from a fan who has had little or no direct interaction with a player outside of a staged or controlled environment making the same proclamation. If Bobby Baseball signed a ball and threw it into the stands to a kid, does that automatically mean that Bobby is a good guy? Maybe he's got an agent reminding him every morning that he's in a contract year and needs the good PR. What if he donates to some really noble charity? Perhaps he donated $50K. Does that mean he's a good guy? If not, then does he simply need to increase the size of the donation?

We are indeed judged to a great degree by our actions, and I'm not saying anything bad about fan interactions or charity work. What I'm saying is that judgment based on an incident or three isn't the same as judging a larger, more substantial body of work.

This is about awareness. Please be aware that parasocial interaction is a real thing. Please be aware that there are healthy and unhealthy behaviors associated with these relationships. Please be mindful of how you think of someone you mostly know through digital experiences. Familiarity with someone's personality may be largely illusory. That's not just true of parasocial relationships. This can happen with just about anyone.

How much can you actually know about another person?

I put all of this out there at a time when we're still enduring a prolonged period of social distancing. The pandemic has done so much to the collective "us" and to each of us as individuals. It's natural to try to fill the void left by missed vacations, family gatherings, Super Bowl parties, and dinners out. Just maybe try to actively evaluate how you and your family/friends are filling the void because some relationships are more meaningful than others.


Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in psychology or with parasocial interactions, but I did stay at Holiday Inn Express not too long ago.

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