Recently, I borrowed Pamela Pike’s new book, Through Our Eyes: A Fan’s Perspective on Artist David Archueta, from a friend and was pleasantly surprised when the book’s first chapter introduced the concept of parasocial interaction theory. As Pike writes, “Individuals develop a relationship with celebrities, just as they would with people in a real community. Except the celebrities are not a part of the person’s life; thus the relationship is called a para-social relationship. This para-social relationship is the key to understanding the fan-celebrity phenomenon” (p. 5).
As a media studies researcher, it is not often that I encounter a psychological or communication theory in a non-academic book. Pike discusses the meanings that fans and professionals who have worked with David have derived from their interactions with him. In addition, Pike thoughtfully describes her religious conversion experience to David’s faith and her joy in sharing that news with David.
Parasocial interaction theory offers a fascinating opportunity to examine the range of fan relationships and behaviors regarding David. Pike asks: “We are infatuated with celebrities. We idolize them. We are followers at heart. We are celebrity obsessed. Why do we love them so much?” (p. 5) Parasocial interaction theory can help explain how some fans are so touched by David and his music that they have converted to his religion. Parasocial attachments are also apparent in how fans attend multiple concerts, give David gifts, passionately discuss David-related topics online, and attempt to communicate with him through letters and Tweets.
Pike’s book does not critically use parasocial interaction theory to examine fan behaviors. Parasocial theory could help uncover how Pike’s perceived familiarity with David through the mass media may have played a role in her conversion to the Mormon religion. Of course, a critical analysis is not Pike’s intention.
Although Pike does not conduct a critical analysis, her mention of the theory in the first chapter is spot-on. Parasocial interaction theory helps explains audiences’ attachment to David and even the fan angst around the as-yet-unproven mission rumor. Before I discuss these two issues, though, I would first like to extend Pike’s first chapter by briefly explaining parasocial interaction theory, which is a fascinating area of fan studies research.
A Brief Overview of Parasocial Interaction Theory
Without a doubt, the mass media has helped create fans’ attachment to David and other public figures. In the early 1900s, motion pictures originally appealed to non-English-speaking immigrants because movies told simple stories that could easily be understood. By the 1920s, the burgeoning motion picture industry attracted a broader audience. As audiences began to attend movies as a popular pastime, the movie studios realized that they could create celebrities and increase ticket sales. Movie studios began to develop celebrity culture by manufacturing celebrities such as Clara Bow (known as the “It Girl”), Mary Pickford, and Rudolph Valentino. Studios heavily promoted upcoming films and even fabricated celebrity scandals to publicize their products.
As the media industry expanded in the affluent post-war 1950s, psychology scholars asked why audiences developed familiar and strong attachments to celebrities in television shows, films, music, and radio. During this time of rapid cultural change, teenagers had more disposable income to spend on entertainment. Rock and roll, especially, created music heartthrobs who also appeared on television and in movies. It is no coincidence that teen fan magazines such as Tiger Beat and Datebook appeared by the mid-‘60s, and further placed celebrities in their fans’ everyday lives.
As a result of this constant exposure to their idols, audiences displayed certain peculiar behaviors. Teenagers wore mop-top wigs to mimic their favorite Beatle and wrote lengthy fan letters to actors. Audiences also sometimes acted in disturbing and angry ways. For example, when a Datebookcover story reprinted John Lennon’s controversial statement that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now” in 1966, fans picketed concerts and staged bonfire burnings of their albums.
To attempt to explain these fan behaviors, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl introduced the concept of parasocial interaction in their research paper, “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance,” published in Psychiatry journal in 1956. Parasocial interaction refers to one-way interactions in which a person knows a great deal about someone else.
Although parasocial interactions can occur between non-famous people, the theory is especially relevant today as audiences learn about a real or fictional media persona through mass media such as television screen or vlogs. The media persona is frequently presented in a very familiar, conversational way and appears to speak face-to-face to the audience. Audience members form attachments to the persona and believe they have an intimate bond with the public figure. As Pike writes, “The distance between them and us can stretch thousands of miles. With constant exposure, our favorite star can almost feel like a family member, because he or she is absorbed into our everyday life” (p. 5).
This situation certainly is the case for me. I find in conversations that I often refer to David Archuleta as just “David,” like I would a family member. It makes no sense given that we are actually strangers to each other, but the parasocial interaction makes David seem familiar. Several years ago, I introduced myself to David at a concert and mentioned that I had given him a scrapbook at a previous concert. I quickly realized that my manner of speaking assumed familiarity, but in reality, I was probably just an unfamiliar face in a blur of tour activity.
Social Media and Parasocial Attachments in David’s Fandom
Like most millennial children, David is a heavy social media user. Vlogs, blogs, and even Twitter give the illusion of David’s one-on-one interactions with his fans. When David addresses fans through Twitter and vlogs, his communication feels friendly, personal, dependable, and direct.
Several years ago, I was intrigued when some fans mentioned that when they approach David at meet-and-greets, they sometimes feel as though they know him because he has been on Twitter or television so often. Parasocial interactions are apparent when fans think of David as a relative or friend. Social media only strengthen parasocial interactions because we are able to send messages to celebrities, and they can respond to us.
In many ways, the success of “American Idol” relies on parasocial interaction. Amanda Scheiner McClain, a communication professor at Medaille College in New York, offers a much-needed analysis of “American Idol” in her forthcoming book, American Ideal: How American Idol Constructs Celebrity, Collective Identity, and American Discourses (Lexington Books). McClain argues that the show’s official online discussion forums and interactive voting system generate audience loyalty toward the contestants.
In addition, McClain asserts that “American Idol” creates a narrative, or story, around each contestant to give the contestant a persona and build fan relationshiops with that person. In David’s case, I was instantly intrigued by his backstory of vocal paralysis. The overcoming-a-hardship narrative is a familiar device used by the show to generate loyal followers. David’s plotline, coupled with his soulful voice and shy demeanor, humanized him and I was hooked.
Moving forward three years, I have attended many concerts, met David on different occasions, and frequently communicate online with other fans. I enjoy following David’s vlogs and Tweets that describe aspects of his everyday life and professional work. All of these interactions encourage parasocial relationships as fans send David letters, give him gifts, and send frequent Twitter messages describing their everyday, minute activities.
Parasocial Interactions and the “Hacker” Controversy
Parasocial interactions can have a more troubling side in any fandom. Three weeks ago, David’s fandom imploded following the recent “Twitter hacker controversy” and subsequent appearance of trolls on various websites.
Whether the Tweets and trolls shared legitimate information is not my concern here. It is likely that David will test out new ideas and decisions as he navigates through life experiences in his 20s and beyond. Those decisions may or may not take him away from a public music career. Scanning across the different fan sites and chat rooms, I read the outpouring of fans’ reactions of surprise, confusion, sadness, and even grief about a possible departure from the music industry for two years or more
Some people discount parasocial relationships as trivial fan fantasies. However, parasocial interactions are powerful and real in today’s media culture. We feel kinship with David when we listen to his music and follow his online communication. When David shares how the fans motivate him to work harder, it helps us feel like we share a small part in his musical journey. Many fans look forward to David’s Tweets that might be about having a turkey sandwich, recording yet another song take, passing a school crossing guard, or learning how to drive a manual shift.
As I read online fan discussions over the past three weeks, I was repeatedly struck by how some fans have expressed how David’s departure and ensuing total silence would be like losing a friend. On one fan site this past week, the discussion turned to the topic of grief as fans honestly described their reactions to the mission rumor. Some fans shared their wide-ranging reactions that were underscored by an overall feeling of sadness.
I have appreciated many fans’ honest reactions. Not all fans agree that the fandom should even be discussing the mission rumor, but the grief is real within the context of parasocial interactions. If David walks away, I know that I will experience loss and sadness over someone who will probably never know who I am.