Philosophers sometimes talk about relationships as having a special significance in the theory of value. We might owe more to those we have certain relations to than others, a certain kind of ethically mandated partiality; and this might even generate counterexamples against certain substantive moral theories. And relationships themselves might be a unique source of value in human life, a part of living that is irreplaceable, or among the highest goods, or even itself the purpose or point of being human. Overall, this area of study is often referred to as the philosophy of love and friendship.
A different type of human relationship has received relatively little philosophical attention, though, and in the age of social media it is arguably the more common type. In 1956, two Chicago sociologists, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, coined the term parasocial interaction to refer to one-sided relationships. They wrote: “One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media – radio, television, and the movies – is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer… The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media in an especially vivid and arresting way.”
Social media affects and expands parasociality in a few ways. First, it vastly expands the potential scope of parasocial relationships. On TikTok, everyone is on television; on Instagram, everyone is a model in a glossy magazine; on Facebook and Twitter, everyone writes press releases. Even entities like national parks and corporate brands seem to have personalities, in virtue of clever marketing employees who author their posts. Second, it makes parasociality even more tempting, because social media affords the appearance of real interaction. Even successful, notable people who themselves have large followings seem to go agog when interacting with genuine celebrities online, as political scientist Corey Robin did a few years ago after correcting Chelsea Clinton about the meaning of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil.” When a movie star or famous musician or ubiquitous fast casual restaurant or clothing brand responds appreciatively and humorously to your message, it seems normal to feel as though one has ascended to some kind of higher plane.
Philosophers might start by comparing and contrasting parasocial relationships with the more standard relationships that have been discussed for millennia. One view might be that parasocial relationships offer the same kind of value that love and friendship do. Even though parasocial relationships are one-sided, they still connect people to something outside of themselves, perhaps larger than themselves. Another might be that parasocial relationships are actively harmful. As one-sided relationships, they are a kind of desiccated form of what humans should strive for; they are vampiric, sapping humans of the social energy that should be aimed at the genuine good of interpersonal relating. A third view might be that they are neutral. Neither providing nor detracting from genuine social goods, parasocial relationships might simply be viewed as a form of entertainment like any other, and neither helpful nor harmful in the illusion of one-on-one interaction that they produce.
There is a larger set of considerations when it comes to the ethics of parasocial relationships. Do we owe anything to, for instance, celebrities? Do they owe anything to us? Are there limits on how we ought to represent public figures in, say, fan works? Is it sensible for us to be offended by what someone famous has said in the same way that we might be offended by what a friend has said?
Perhaps more centrally, we might also ask: Does it wrong someone, either intrinsically or in likely consequence, to make them the object of a parasocial relationship – that is, to develop a one-sided relationship with them? In the fall of 2018, after a public-facing article of mine was published, a Reddit commenter wrote something along the following lines: “This guy is obviously one of those pipe-smoking Catholic reactionaries who writes with a fountain pen while wearing a bow tie.” It’s not that I see anything wrong with being that sort of person, though I’m a Jewish agnostic laptop user myself. Indeed, the content of the comment is surprisingly inoffensive in the grand scheme of things. What made it memorable was the vividness of the persona which the commenter had constructed around me, the author of a single public essay. I realized that I have very little control over the characters in other people’s elaborate stories who just happen to bear my name.
They are rarely presented this way, but I think a certain subset of concerns about “cancel culture” are actually concerns about the ease with which social media users can become subjects or objects in parasocial relationships. It is an almost everyday occurrence on social media that someone not famous, a complete unknown, will post something that turns out to be controversial, and that hundreds of people will comment on in reply, sometimes positively but most often negatively, both to castigate them and to offer guesses as to other facts about their life. In this way, cancel culture makes everyone into a potential celebrity, as Andy Warhol predicted – but it provides the negative parasociality of fame without any of its apparent perks. This is often called a form of “mob” behavior, but I think something is off in that description. Though a lot of people end up replying in similar ways, many also try to vary their responses to be funnier or more cutting than what others have said, or at least to broadcast their participation to their own audience. While some do delight in the anonymity of the crowd, many engage in this kind of behavior precisely in order to be noticed, and to express what we have to assume is genuinely-felt outrage or derision.
It is the genuineness of the feeling that marks this as the beginning of a parasocial relationship: party A develops an intense emotional reaction to party B, while party B knows party A only as a kind of faceless member of an audience. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the problem is precisely not parasociality but an illusion of parasociality. After all, social media users see other people’s angry replies to them; the relationships aren’t ultimately one-sided, and in fact the object of derision may end up thinking about a particular abusive message far more than the writer did.
There is an odd assumption even in characterizing cancel culture as wronging regular people by treating them like celebrities, which is that there is a heightened standard of behavior proper to celebrity – that “celebrity” itself is a sensible category that helps us explain the less clear phenomenon of cancellation. I think that’s a mistake. The whole edifice of parasociality is strange, a gray area in ethics as well as in our understanding of human relationships. My own view is that we should avoid it as much as we can, and that we should reserve our strongest emotions and our most concerted actions for those about whom we can reasonably tell ourselves we know something, and who will feel something more than confusion or panic in return. Of course, there are other, more specific rules that are appropriate in cancellation scenarios – don’t say something if a hundred other people already have, don’t compete with friends to see who can be cruelest to a stranger, things like that. But these rules will also emerge from the general principle to avoid both (a) truly parasocial interactions and (b) treating social interactions as though they are parasocial. Whether the development of a philosophical account of parasociality would vindicate or undermine my approach, only time can – hopefully – tell.