Back to the Past: Evolution of Parasocial Relationships

December 11 2023 . 3 min. read

Parasocial (or one-sided) relationships, a concept first introduced in the 1950s, have undergone a fascinating evolution over the years. Originally identified in the context of broadcast media, parasocial relationships have transformed and intensified in the era of social media, and now AI. This blog explores the historical development of parasocial relationships, examining key milestones and shifts in their dynamics as technology and media landscapes have evolved. AI augments parasocial relationships but the nature of these relationships has not changed in 80+ years.

Defining a Parasocial Relationship

Parasocial relationships refer to one-sided connections that individuals form with media personalities, characters, or public figures. These connections are characterized by a sense of intimacy and familiarity, despite the lack of direct interaction.

Origins of Parasocial Relationships

The concept of parasocial relationships was coined in the 1950s by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl via their paper "Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” They argued that the authenticity and consistency of media personalities contributed to the development of parasocial relationships. Frequency (regular exposure) also contributed to senses of familiarity and intimacy.

96% of America had radio in the 1950s. The Lonesome Gal was one of the earliest parasocial relationships. It was a short radio program broadcasted in 90 cities depicting a lonely girl without a name or history but who spoke in a caring and flirty voice. It was not targeted towards the “hale and handsome” man but rather the “shy and withdrawn” man. This “influencer” was so desired that thousands of men tried to propose to her.

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Another example, Miss Nancy Berg’s Count Sheep, was on TV and reached a more limited audience (only 9% of American households had televisions!). At 1AM each weekday, many people would watch Nancy emerge in a lavishly decorated bedroom stretch, jump into bed, play with her dog, and go to sleep. Her actions represented connectivity with America’s upper class, given the TV medium which they “met” Nancy through was not widely accessible.

Expansion Through Celebrity Culture

The advent of celebrity culture in the latter half of the 20th century further fueled the development of parasocial relationships. The rise of cinema, music, and television celebrities brought forth a new level of connection between fans and public figures. This era marked the beginning of fandom culture, with fans feeling emotionally invested in the lives of their favorite stars.

The Internet Age

The turn of the 21st century brought about a paradigm shift with the widespread adoption of the internet. The rise of blogs, forums, and online communities allowed fans to connect with each other and share their experiences with parasocial relationships. Additionally, the emergence of social media platforms enabled direct interaction between celebrities and their followers, blurring the lines between parasocial and interpersonal relationships. Fans now have unprecedented access to the personal lives of celebrities, fostering a sense of constant connection. This era also saw the rise of influencers and content creators, whose entire brand relies on cultivating parasocial relationships with their audience.

The AI Age

Generative AI takes parasocial relationships to an all-new level. As we’ve previously written, AI has the potential to magnify and personalize relationships between influencers and fans in ways that no media in history (radio, TV, social media) has been able to do. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know whether the person you admire is even real! That said, in many ways we are back to the past, the 1950s to be exact. People still desire authentic connections with influencers they admire and want frequent conversations. Voices like Professor Liberty Vittert have argued that AI is “ruining an entire generation of men” through making loneliness worse. This is entirely false, in our opinion. Throughout history, segments of the population (i.e., lonely and shy individuals) have resorted to different means to feel acceptance, care, and flirtation. The same group of people who tuned in to The Lonesome Gal on radio or to Miss Nancy Berg on TV in the 1950s are the ones talking to our AI companions on Telegram. Nothing has changed, and nothing will change to society due to AI.