YouTube Celebrities Are Killing Our Ability To Make Friends
The live-streaming lifestyle might be breaking our brains.
The defining story of the last century is that human culture is evolving faster than human biology can keep up. In the past, cultural and technological advancements came at a manageable pace — so we harnessed the power of fire and, over centuries, our biology adapted to best utilize cooked food.
Now, the speed of human innovation is pushing harder and faster than ever before, and our flimsy meat bodies can’t keep up. We’ve had internal combustion engines for six generations but we’ve only had access to the internet for two. That’s not nearly enough time for biological evolution to capably adapt.
Food is a great example. As mammals, we’re hardwired to seek out calorie-dense meals because we once had to struggle for every bite. Now that food is more accessible, we’re mired in a culture of obesity where we consume more food than we need (and where we’re subjected to all the health problems that creates).
It’s not just your guts that are being affected by cultural change, though. It’s also your brain.
You would have to be living in a cave not to notice the wild popularity of vlogging. People from all over the world record themselves engaging in a variety of activities, from talking about their lives to playing video games, or opening toy boxes —all for the entertainment of the public.
YouTube — the primary host for this content — is the second most-visited site on the internet. Many of these content creators have millions of subscribers who tune in eagerly to see what their faraway friends are up to.
But these people aren’t your friends. In fact, they’re exploiting a psychological phenomenon that’s been around since the dawn of mass media.
The dangers of parasocial interactions
The phenomenon is called “parasocial interaction,” and it was formerly confined to celebrities and professional athletes. In short, parasocial interaction is when the consumer of media feels like they’re creating a personal bond with someone who is completely unaware of their existence.
These relationships are completely lopsided: one person knows everything and the other knows nothing. In most cases, the content creator isn’t even aware that their counterpart exists, except as a vaguely-defined “audience.”
There’s nothing innately wrong with parasocial interactions. If you find yourself caring about characters on a TV show or responding emotionally to the ups and downs of an athletic competition, you’re experiencing a parasocial interaction. What’s dangerous is when a parasocial interaction becomes a parasocial relationship; this occurs when you find yourself experiencing these same emotions, even when you’re not consuming the relevant media.
Most parasocial relationships are harmless, but they can go too far. One of the most famous examples is John Hinckley Jr, who believed that he was romantically involved with actress Jodie Foster and shot President Reagan to impress her.
Streaming and vlogging are blurring the boundaries between performance and real life. And it’s having an uncomfortable effect on viewers. What makes these relationships so unsettling is that vloggers aren’t “performing” in the traditional sense of the word. The whole appeal of their content is that viewers are invited into their normal, everyday lives. That makes it easier for the brain to gloss over the factors that normally keep parasocial relationships from growing too strong.
Typically, when you become interested in a celebrity or a sports team, you know that they’re not going to reciprocate your interest. This allows you to emotionally detach and save your investment for people in the real world. But the illusion of closeness engendered by streaming and vlogging works against that detachment.
The end result is exemplified in this Reddit post, where a woman bemoans the fact that her husband of 20 years now believes his best friend in the world is a Twitch streamer; he’s so invested in this pseudo-relationship, he’s ending his marriage.
“He has a channel for all his emotional needs and they are fulfilled by this person. At first he wouldn’t even consider this being an emotional affair. But after much discussion he admits that it is, although it’s pure and platonic. He shares our lives with her, his intimate thoughts, and times when he’s unhappy with me.
I can’t compete with a woman that he deems perfect in his mind.”
Perfection is a big issue in parasocial relationships. It’s easy to forget that even though a person seems “real” online, they’re performing for a camera and showing you a curated version of their true self. Of course viewers find it easier to connect with a polished person, rather than a real human being with their own needs and flaws.
Kotaku ran a fascinating article a few weeks ago examining what happens when viewers take their imagined connections too far. One streamer in central Florida had a fan from Singapore show up on his front porch, deeply depressed after not getting into college, asking to stay the night.
That’s something you do to your closest friends, not somebody you watch play video games on the Internet from half a world away. But for many young people, the one-way bonds they’re building with vloggers are stronger than any relationships in their real lives.
The rise of social media has made this line even blurrier. As this paper from the International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies describes, the possibility — no matter how remote — of getting a response from a celebrity on Twitter can give fans an even more heightened expectation of intimacy.
It’s one thing for adults to form these relationships with YouTube celebrities — they have an upbringing full of normal socialization to draw on, making unhealthy attachment less likely. What we should be concerned with is kids, who are growing up and modeling their relationships after their online interactions.
I’m already hearing anecdotal stories of little kids saying “please like and subscribe” instead of “goodbye,” because YouTube videos have taught them that’s what you do when you’re done talking to someone. The standard practices of human interaction are changing as face-to-face, mutual communication is being replaced by one-way media.
The end result of this unusual experience is still up in the air. In the future, will humans fail to engage in face-to-face friendships? Or is the vlogging experience just a passing fad that will be replaced by something more emotionally rewarding? Only time will tell.