If you missed the news about Taylor Swift and Joe Alwyn breaking up then congratulations, your social detox is working. All I could see on any social media platform this week was people reacting with a myriad of strong emotions ranging from shock to complete disillusionment with love as the news about the singer’s breakup broke. I am not a fan of either but even for me, there was no escape. As many wrote, “This feels personal.” And I couldn’t help but wonder why.
The obsession with celebrities’ lives, from their clothes to dates, fueled by the tiny screens is on a level that it has never been before. From analyzing separation posts to public behaviour that could indicate a rough patch, the excessive investment has been normalised as part and parcel of fan behaviour. We live in a culture which has been taught to project our fantasies onto a public personality, to be their cheerleaders, to celebrate their wins and cry over their losses, so it’s not surprising that their breakup causes fans pain that feels personal.
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Many fans who had projected their real-life fantasies and expectations on Swift’s relationship took to the Internet to make sense of the grief they were feeling. These heightened feelings point towards the culture of parasocial relationships that has been especially widespread since the advent of the Internet. The term was first coined by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956 to describe the one-sided relationships that mass media users have with a media figure. There is a sense of intimacy and closeness that feeds on the illusion of a celebrity seeming accessible.
Parasocial relationships also come with many assumptions such as celebrities needing help or fans needing to step up to show support, for instance Swift’s fans worrying about how she will perform after the breakup news--there are many ways fans end up taking responsibility that is not theirs. This has more to do with their need to care for the media figures than the latter asking for any direct help. Moreover, parasocial relationships often come with a sense of community which inevitably forms an online community. As you grieve over your celebrity’s breakup, there is a larger community assuring you that the grief is collective—a reassuring comfort that many crave.
While building an online community through a fandom is one of the good things about the Internet right now, blurring the lines between being a fan and a friend can make one feel emotions dictated by circumstances they have no control over: for instance, a public figure’s relationship updates. Parasocial relationships are often used monetised to sell merchandise, celeb-endorsed products, and their brands.
Today, with influencer culture growing exponentially, parasocial relationships can easily be justified as a two-sided relationship with comments and replies to messages, making people feel that they are part of the media figure’s friends circle. For instance, obsessively speculating about celeb’s life such as whether they are going through a tough time, if their relationship is not ideal, or if their friends are not so nice. These speculations are masked as looking out for the celebs but can often do more harm than good for both parties.
While it might be easier today to collectively make a celebrity a comfort person but it’s important to understand such relationships often come at the cost of unrealistic expectations and inability to hold a celeb accountable for their actions.
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