July 3

The Risky Practice Of Monetizing Parasocial Relationships

Fan Clubs, Mental Health, Social Media

Parasocial relationships are unavoidable for a large  swath of content creators. But whether or not you as a creator choose to encourage or even monetize them is entirely up to you. 

Some niches rely on this particular form of fandom to really thrive. Others are broad enough that creators rarely engage with fans experiencing a parasocial relationship. At their core, these types of relationships are neither good nor bad. They just are

But there are risks associated with monetizing them, as well as some ethical responsibilities for creators who find themselves often attracting them.

What Are Parasocial Relationships?

The phrase "parasocial relationships" first came about in 1956, when Yale professor and social sciences expert Donald Horton introduced and coined the term, along with "parasocial interaction." But while this specific terminology has only been around for less than a century, the concept behind them has existed presumably as long as the concept of celebrity or idolatry. 

According to FindAPsychologist, "Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence." In the age of social media stardom and influencer culture, the back half of this definition — that one person is completely unaware of the other's existence — is not entirely relevant. There are many parasocial relationships where a creator may recognize somebody's name or handle when they comment on their content, or even have occasional interactions with them in an appropriate setting, like during a live stream or Q&A.

But the rest of the definition remains very relevant. In these scenarios, one person goes beyond the typical parameters of fandom and begins to develop a sense of personal relationship with the other, even if the other doesn't reciprocate. 

How Are Parasocial Relationships Different From Superfans?

On the one hand, you may be wondering how a superfan doesn't automatically qualify as somebody experiencing a parasocial relationship. After all, there are people who see artists dozens of times, get tattoos of a creator's face, set alerts for every post they make, join the fan club and buy all of the merch and meet-and-greet opportunities etc. 

For some creators, these superfans are the lifeblood of their careers. And naturally, they will want to cater to and incentivize continued support from them. 

But not all superfans have parasocial relationships with creators, and not all parasocial relationships involve an exchange of money. There are instances in which these one-sided relationships largely result from a profound respect or need for inspiration and influence. It's possible for somebody engaging in a parasocial relationship to care deeply about the well-being of another person they've never met without ever attempting to engage with or seek reciprocation from them. 

The Importance Of Avoiding Stigmas 

It's natural to place a certain stigma on parasocial relationships. They can, after all, seem like an obsession with another person or teeter dangerously close to a sense of delusion, or potentially threaten more traditional relationships in a person's life. 

In his comedy special what., Bo Burnham has an interaction with a fan who shouts from the audience, "I love you." HIs response is: "You love me? That's very nice. You love the idea of me. You don't know me, but that's ok. That's called a parasocial relationship. It goes one way and is ultimately destructive. But please, keep buying all my shit forever." 

It's funny, biting, and not wrong. But it's only one view of parasocial relationships. 

As more study has gone into the nature of parasocial relationships, professionals are slowly decreasing the stigma around them. For instance, one study found there's no correlation between these types of relationships and a sense of loneliness (a previously commonly held belief). Other studies have found that parasocial relationships can actually play an important role in an individual's mental health, satisfying complex needs and reducing the pressure put on more traditional relationships in a person's life.  

In other words, these relationships often have very little to do with delusion, obsession, loneliness, and instead more to do with a natural desire to satisfy certain elements of our social interaction and personal emotional health. They are fascinating and diverse, and many people engaging in them are often very aware of it. 

And yet, there can be risks involved when creators attempt to further influence or monetize these relationships. 

Platforms Aiming To Monetize Parasocial Relationships

As with discussing the nature of parasocial relationships in general, differentiating between commonplace monetization tactics and those designed specifically to capitalize on parasocial relationships can be difficult. It's a fine line, but apps like Fanfix and Passes have started to hone in on it more than ever. 

Traditionally, platforms create multiple ways for an audience to support a creator. There are things like subscriptions, "gifts" or "bits" (virtual currency a creator gets paid in real cash for), paying to be highlighted in a chat, or any number of ways a creator can monetize a livestream. There are also apps like OnlyFans and Patreon which create a place for creators to make gated content and charge for access to more content and information. 

Most of these forms of monetization don't really target any parasocial relationships. However, Platforms like Fanfix and Passes have started offering pay-to-chat services in which an individual can pay to actually chat privately with a creator. And that's where we see a direct leap into attempting to capitalize on the nature of a parasocial relationship. 

Why is it so risky? Because it effectively establishes a cost for breaking the barrier between parasocial and reciprocal. And for some users, that can create an unhealthy blurring of boundaries, both for the fan and the creator. 

The biggest difference here is most platforms either directly monetize content or products. Here, these platforms are directly monetizing a private interaction between two people. If it sounds a little like late night pay-per-minute hotlines, well, that's because it is. 

Unlike those hotlines, though, a creator's anonymity is much more at risk in the modern age. And at a time when some people have trouble establishing boundaries for themselves and their online communities, it's more important than ever to create a clear delineation between what somebody can and can't expect to get from you, whether they pay or not. 


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