Friends on Demand

Why we need to be more aware of the wall between us and internet celebrities.


Rachel Walker | Thu, 21 Mar 2019


Image Courtesy of janeb13, Pixabay

Cast your mind back to 2016, the year when so many major celebrities seemed to queue up to shuffle off this mortal coil. Most people will have had at least one celebrity whose death hit them harder than it should have. This seemed worse for young people, who lost figures like David Bowie and Carrie Fisher, who had been major cultural presences for their whole lives. When someone as influential as they were dies, it feels like an individual loss. Even if you didn’t know them personally, they were a part of your world - a longstanding landmark in your cultural awareness. Yet, in the past, the person you were mourning was filtered down to the exact moments they wanted you to see. The closest you would get to any celebrity would be a tightly edited TV show or a concert. Even at a concert, where the physical distance between you and the celebrity is small, your emotional distance from the artist remains huge. You know the person they wanted you to know. But with the rise of social media and podcasts, celebrities feel far less like someone in the distance and more like friends who don’t know your name yet.
 
Podcasts have had a boom in popularity in recent years. They are conversations between a listener and host, minus the listener’s input. Often, this may be the most stable and regular social engagement a person will have. Of course, they aren’t your friends, they don’t even know your name. Yet that doesn’t diminish the idea of knowing them in your mind.
When you’ve listened to over 300 hours of conversations between people, it becomes difficult to continue seeing them as simply a voice coming from your headphones. 
Personally, I’ve listened to every episode of the Elis James and John Robins podcast, meaning I have listened to their conversations for hundreds of hours. I have spent less time than that with most of my friends. These one-sided connections have become known as parasocial relationships and are becoming more and more common.
 
Social media also causes this effect. Celebrity tweets sit equal to those of real-world friends. Even the content of the tweets are the same. It’s hard to separate a celebrity and real-life friend when their posts are indistinguishable. A YouTube vlogger or a Twitch streamer does much the same. They quite literally sit for hours on end and talk to their audience about the kind of thing a friend would. How can they not begin to see these streamers as their friends?
 
Often, communities form around the personalities. Look at the Facebook group of the Elis James and John Robins podcast. Even with over 11,000 members, people post extremely personal information about their lives and others reply with kindness. This is nice; the feeling of not being on your own is nice. The chance to have friends that always fit around your schedule is comforting. However, these parasocial relationships are just that. By listening to someone’s podcast you do not become their friend. Spending three hours on a Twitch stream is not equivalent to spending three hours of quality time with someone. It is all the good parts of friendship without the tough parts, or the real parts, or the meaningful parts.
You don’t have to cope with someone being unreasonable because they had a bad day on a podcast.
You don’t have to sit outside and talk to someone for an hour when something bad happens on a YouTube video. You don’t have to make sure someone gets home safe on a Twitter feed. The screen is always the wall in the middle.
 
As with most modern technology, new media comes with a dark, sharp edge. With social media breaking barriers, it becomes more and more difficult for a person to see the wall between internet celebrities and themselves. When you compare our new kind of celebrity-fan relationships with those of the past, the feeling of intimacy is so much stronger. When David Bowie died most people were mourning an influence, grieving the loss of a persona. Today, celebrity deaths are becoming more personal, as we get the sense that we know them more. The public grieved those that died in 2016 for the loss of a stage presence, a talent. Soon enough, it will be for real people.
 

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