On an icky sick day, I have a fool-proof recovery system: ginger tea, hot pad, and… a Youtube family vlog series. For years Adanna and David, a Nigerian-German couple in Ireland, have shared their memories and take on life, from grocery shopping to traveling to raising anti-racist children. I’ve laughed at their inside jokes and teared up when their third child was born. And yet, I’ve never met them. When I realized recently I’d been watching their adventures for over seven years, I was taken aback. Was that normal? I soon came to understand that I was participating in the time-honored tradition of parasocial relationships. Parasocial relationships are when “one person extends emotional energy, interest and time and the other party, the persona, is unaware of the other’s existence.” By nature, they are one-sided and involve strong investment.

Lest we think they are only an online-age phenomenon, 18th century philosophers fended off crowds of fervent supporters. But media today allows us to stay extremely connected to our favorite artist, entertainer, religious leader, athlete, writer, or activist. Parasocial relationships may not generate mutual intimacy, but they have real bearing on our lives. In these relationships, we find inspiration, cheer their life milestones, financially invest in their dreams, join advocacy campaigns, and adjust our lifestyle. They help us explore parts of ourselves and support creators whose work isn’t recognized by traditional institutions. And yet, parasocial connections can also deepen consumerism, deceive, disappoint, and ultimately sadden upon their end—think of the public mourning when public figures die.

I started to wonder if it was wise to trust and admire so many people I didn’t truly know. Did I like what they were contributing to my life? How could I maintain healthy parasocial relationships? To answer these questions, I’m starting to:

Audit myself. I ask myself how certain personas impact my life and what that says about my values. For example, after joyfully following the work of sociologist and writer Eve L. Ewing for years, I realized it invigorates me to see a Black woman boldly be her kaleidoscopic self: writing in multiple genres, baking bread, researching in community, learning running and the piano, loving her city, and more. When I attend her event or see her social media, I am reminded to be curious and accepting of all the lights in my life.

De-commodify my expectations of a persona’s presence. After diving into the world of dizis, Turkish dramas, I joined forums to chat with fellow viewers. Most of our online experiences brimmed with humor, but I cringed when I saw the occasional complaint that a favorite actor had not appeared in public recently. In a system where personas become commodities, fans assume they are owed something: a window into personal life, responses and explanations, fresh content, even power in creative decisions. When these “debts” aren’t paid, some cross privacy lines. Others feel rejected and their once-eager loyalty sours into disdain. This dynamic is especially relevant when a fan’s social power has shaped their expectations, like when a straight man can’t accept that a woman creator is not positively responding to his online advances, or when writers from marginalized identities receive frustrated messages because they aren’t commenting on every unjust world event. To help shift my perspective, I check for a boundary highlight in creators’ Instagram stories, which state their guidelines for interacting with their online community and set expectations for productive engagement and availability.

Ask myself, “How do I act when this relationship is exposed to stress?” Could this persona do anything to cause me to re-examine my support? Is my ultimate loyalty rooted in a persona rather than in my values? Because we identify so strongly with personas, we become convinced of their goodness and struggle to see errors and harm, or to ask for an account for their power. As a result, in the face of criticism, fans rush to defend with insults for dissenters. And after an allegation of harm, we’re prone to denial instead of pause and truth-searching. The risk for blind faith is even higher with those we see as champions of a cause. I remember my sense of betrayal when I realized several criminal justice reform leaders I admired had not stewarded their public role in the movement (which does not belong to anyone). As a result, I’ve started to emphasize collective action over any individual, and I’ve learned a lot about defensiveness and how not to apologize.

Delight! I could go on and on with admonitions that our glimpses of personas’ lives are only snapshots (with better lighting), but instead I’ll end with gratitude for the quirky ways parasocial relationships can enrich our lives. When navigating grief left me too tense to sleep, I was soothed by artist and interior decorator David L. Quarles IV’s colorful renovations. Was I going to start my own DIY project? No, but it was simply enough to be reminded of the endless ability to craft beauty. On other days, I note what has inspired me and make it my own: recreating Samin Nosrat’s pizza, experimenting with the same poetic device Eve L. Ewing uses, or inviting others over for quality time because I realized how much I appreciated it in Adanna and David’s family vlog. Because in the swirl of all these influences, I remain, as ever, myself.


  1. Katie Van Zanen

    Really useful questions here, Comfort– I’m thinking a lot about the “relationship exposed to stress” thing and the lessons about defensiveness there.

  2. Laura Sheppard Song

    Thank you for these reflections! I tend to be hard on myself for the parasocial relationships I find myself valuing. When my two favorite podcasts each had a co-host leave this past year, I mourned as if losing two close friends. But I appreciate your assurance that there can be something natural and beneficial to these and your guidelines for how to be sure we hold on to ourselves through them.


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