Your Imaginary Relationship With a Celebrity

In a highly connected era where fans can easily and directly interact with famous people online, long-standing parasocial relationships have intensified and become increasingly complex to navigate.
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No, Rihanna doesn't want to be your prom date. (Photo: nrk-p3/Flickr)

No, Rihanna doesn't want to be your prom date. (Photo: nrk-p3/Flickr)

When Facebook was still an unwieldy kingdom of college students with far fewer users and functions, a reliably entertaining use of the platform was creating fake romances between users with the relationship feature. Some enterprising undergraduate would sacrifice their “.edu” email address to make fake profiles for the likes of Brad Pitt, Kelly Kapowski, Abraham Lincoln, Conor Oberst, or even Jesus Christ. These jokesters would then proceed to marry off their celebrity avatars to their friends. One freshman was engaged to Bjork, another was dating Colin Farrell. Sometimes celebrities would pair off: Saved by the Bell’s Screech Powers found love with Lisa Turtle at last, and things remained tenuous but civil between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., who opted for “It’s Complicated.”

It was before the introduction of Facebook Fan pages or the creation of Twitter, when the idea of inserting a celebrity into our quotidian lives was a way of expressing our appreciation in a more clever way than wearing a band T-shirt. Few of us had entertained the idea that we might soon interact with celebrities in the same digital spaces where we conducted our social lives. Now that celebrities and mere mortals share their lives on the same platforms, there is an asymmetrical feeling of intimacy: The fan can follow the celebrity with great attention, and the celebrity can broadcast their life without giving a thought to the massive public audience at the receiving end. With the old hurdles of gaining access to celebrities removed, fans have an unprecedented sense of connection to the private lives of their idols. And while some fans use this access to lavish praise, there are also those who use it to demand the direct attention of celebrities. While many of these dispatches are unreasonable demands of time and labor to which fans are not entitled, they can also be used as a method of demanding accountability.

When we are just as likely to see a photo or video of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby or Taylor Swift’s cats on Instagram as we are to see one of our actual friends’ babies or cats, the boundaries and proximities blur.

Being fascinated by and attracted to celebrities is neither new nor abnormal. Researchers coined the term “parasocial interaction” in the 1950s to describe the relationships consumers felt they shared with early television performers and personalities. Research suggests that, for young people, the parallels between their feelings for celebrities and their feelings for people in their own lives can play a role in developing their conception of self and their perception of relationships. A study in Human Communication Research surveyed young adults and found that 90 percent felt a strong attraction to a celebrity at some point in their lives, and 75 percent reported “strong attachments” to more than one celebrity. Another study found that 30 percent of young people expressed a desire to actually be the celebrity. And with our growing sense of proximity to celebrities through social media, it is not as easy to dismiss aspirations to fame as delusional.

Before social media ubiquity, fans that wanted to interact with celebrities had to be far more enterprising in order to reach them. Finding a P.O. Box to send fan mail or buying concert tickets and attempting to get backstage took effort. Today, all a fan needs to do is press a button to make dispatches from celebrities appear alongside updates from their real friends on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. But these images are still carefully curated constructions of the “real” celebrity. “No one media source, not even the one most associated with the celebrity, gives us a full understanding of the complexity and tensions inherent in celebrity personas,” writes Erin Meyers, an assistant professor of communication at Oakland University, in a paper examining the concept of authenticity and celebrity. But when we are just as likely to see a photo or video of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby or Taylor Swift’s cats on Instagram as we are to see one of our actual friends’ babies or cats, the boundaries and proximities blur.

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Brian Spitzberg, a professor at San Diego State University’s School of Communication who researches stalking and personal relationships, explains how social media interactions with celebrities “supercharge any sense of ‘ordinary connection.’ We aren't just dropping a text to our friend, but to our famous friend.” This super-charged connection elevates the importance of that communication in our minds and might make us more preoccupied with it than our typical social media interactions. Spitzberg describes how a fan might respond to something like a celebrity tweet and then, days later, see an unrelated tweet from the same celebrity and read meaning into it because they’ve been thinking about the star in the interim period. “This phantom reciprocity may be one of the reinforcing aspects of the sequential and ongoing process of receiving messages from the celebrity,” he says, “which despite going to thousands, can feel uniquely responding to that fan's devotion.”

“As we all become mini-celebrities, we can more easily imagine that we can become real celebrities.”

Stephen Duncombe, an associate professor of media studies at New York University, notes that the popularity of celebrities like Kim Kardashian is related to the mastery of self-presentation. Because, ultimately, we too are mastering our own self-presentation on social media. “As we all become mini-celebrities, we can more easily imagine that we can become real celebrities,” Dumcombe says. It is worth mentioning that before Kardashian became famous for a sex tape, she was the sidekick of Paris Hilton. It is not hard to see why some fans would see it as plausible that they could replicate this rise to fame by association. The ability to communicate directly creates the illusion that celebrities are just one solid Instagram comment away from being a person’s real friend and providing him or her with subsequent fame.

It would be tempting to mock these beliefs as delusional were it not for the fact that many celebrities actually do engage their fans. When a fan account asked Kim Kardashian for a birthday tweet, Kardashian replied, “happy birthday doll! Love you!!!” In February, Taylor Swift set a new standard for audience engagement when she responded directly to a fan named Kasey who was going through an emotionally traumatic break-up. Swift went beyond offering general condolences and wrote, “You fell in love, no games. Now you’re saying goodbye with no games. Protect yourself, please. I’m so sorry this happened.” Fans have come to expect their favorite celebrities to take an interest in the lives of fans because celebrities are taking an interest in the lives of fans. And though these requests are part of a deluge of inquiries that celebrities receive every minute of the day (and that even a small army of social media managers would struggle to manage), the visibility of these interactions gives hope to fans who are preoccupied with celebrity.

But for every delighted fan that has a direct interaction with their favorite celebrity, there are untold numbers desperately seeking acknowledgment and not receiving it. There is an entire Twitter account devoted to finding and sharing tweets from fans who claim their pets or family members have died in their quest to get a follow from Harry Styles, of the pop group One Direction. While most of them are harmless, there are also those that relentlessly threaten suicide if Styles does not follow them back. Styles is not the only target of entitled One Direction fans: A Twitter search for the phrase “Zayn owes us” reveals that even weeks after Zayn Malik’s departure from the band, huge numbers of fans feel that he remains in their debt.

“Social media has opened up this more visible and public back and forth between star ... and the audience in ways that let us intensify that parasocial relationship.”

Earlier this year, a Instagram user asked if Rihanna would be their prom date if they could get 100,000 RTs of the invite. Rihanna made news not for accepting the invitation but for promptly replying “no.” Celebrities like Mila Kunis and Kate Upton have been routinely pressured into accepting date invitations—to events such as the Marine Corps Ball and various American proms—via YouTube pleas. Writer Kat Stoeffel aptly described the manipulation at play in these stunts: “Once someone has choreographed a marching band or hired a skywriter, the question is no longer ‘Do you want go to prom with me?’ It’s ‘Will you choose not to publicly humiliate me?’ And once it’s a trending topic, the question cannot be ignored.”

While these stories of grand gestures toward celebrities get a lot of attention, most fans trying to get celebrity attention are not actually expecting it. “I think most fans rationally are aware that just because they say something to a star on Twitter doesn't mean s/he is going to do exactly what they say,” Meyers says. “But social media has opened up this more visible and public back and forth between star ... and the audience in ways that let us intensify that parasocial relationship.”

In this intensified environment, fans that we might usually consider delusional are arguably demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of the nature of celebrity. “These fans understand quite consciously the political economy of celebrity and that they do owe them something,” Dumcombe says. Because fans are responsible for perpetuating the privileged status of celebrities, Duncombe argues that there is some assertion of power in these interactions. “It is taking to task celebrities who act like your friends,” he says, “and saying, ‘Well, be my friend.’”

No one reasonable would argue that we all deserve a date with our favorite celebrity because we gushed about them on Tumblr and bought tickets to their movies. That Kate Upton ultimately didn’t go to the prom with that kid is a good sign and so is Rihanna’s no-nonsense refusal. Fans can and should use this new power to reward celebrities for positive engagement and hold them accountable when they act irresponsibly or take their status for granted. But having the power to perpetuate celebrity is not a license to issue ultimatums or attempt emotional blackmail. Celebrities can’t just sit around all day making dreams come true through birthday re-tweets; they have product endorsements to make and glamour babies like North West to raise. And frankly, we need to back off when it comes to Zayn. What demanding and sometimes deluded fans must realize is that they too are being watched and judged for how they present themselves in their miniature social media kingdoms. They would do well to make their relationships there lean more toward civil than tenuous.

The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.

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