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Body + BrainBody & Brain

The Parasocial Phenomenon

One-way digital communications is rewriting a fundamental piece of the human experience—social interactions.

ByAnnette ChoiNOVA NextNOVA Next

Colorful miniature figurines and a surfeit of plastic packaging fill the laptop screen as Chloe Warfford, 20, watches “Halloween Shopkins Unboxing,” a video by her favorite YouTuber, Bunny Meyer. For Warfford, this is more than just watching another YouTube video. She says she feels personally involved in the unboxing process, as if she’s getting to know Bunny as she’s learning about the product.

With every giggle or gasp, a different color spikes on the running graph below. Warfford is being monitored by software from Affectiva, a company that uses webcams to gauge a person’s reaction to a digital experience like a YouTube video. The graph the software produces suggests that Wafford is experiencing spikes of “joy” and “surprise” mixed in with a smattering of “contempt” and “disgust.” After Warfford is done watching the video, she can play it back along with the software’s interpretation of her emotions at various points.

Affectiva’s software developed out of the work of Rana El Kaliouby, a former research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab who had been studying ways of using technology to connect distant people on an emotional level. Much of the previous research on facial mapping focused on teaching machines to recognize a handful of highly exaggerated facial expressions. El Kaliouby, on the other hand, has worked on identifying the subtle cues that appear in 24 “landmarks” on the face. She and her colleagues then trained a computer to recognize changes in face shape—like furrowed brows—that more commonly occur in response to an emotion.

By recording the facial expressions of nearly 4.5 million volunteers via their computers’ embedded cameras, Affectiva says they now have the largest emotion analytics repository in the world. Though its predominant use has been for market research and advertising, the company is testing its wares in retail, the automotive industry, and on digital platforms like YouTube. They’re hoping that artificial intelligence can help predict—and understand—why certain trends pop and persist or eventually peter out. And for those unfamiliar with various digital subcultures, it may shed light on what ultimately drives their appeal.

Though Warfford has never actually met Bunny, she says their relationship is effortless and real—or at least, it feels that way. “It’s comforting and easy because you don’t have to try,” she says. Warfford’s affinity for Bunny is what psychologists call “parasocial,” or one-sided. While parasocial relationships are nothing new, digital media has opened new doors for people to feel connected. Studies have found that these parasocial relationships can help put people at ease, particularly useful for those with low self-esteem, calming their fears of social rejection. But some experts argue that these types of relationships might also lead people to develop unrealistic expectations that could affect how they handle their real life relationships.

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Unboxing the Trend

If you went looking for the epicenter of parasocial relationships on the Internet today, a good place to start would be YouTube. There, people post videos about seemingly anything and everything. Among the more popular genres on YouTube are what’s called unboxing videos, in which people open and discuss new products, ranging from children’s toys to high-end tech equipment. Hosts typically begin by holding up a product still wrapped in its packaging. As they begin to open it up, they often talk about where and why the product was purchased before diving into its features. Unboxing videos have a tendency to be extremely intimate, with the camera snugly zoomed in on a host’s face and hands.

Over crinkly cellophane or squeaky styrofoam—sounds that form a core part of the experience for many people—the host will talk directly to the viewers, describing each step of the experience in great detail. When the item is stripped of its packaging, they’ll present the product to the camera while carefully narrating everything from how it feels to whether they think it was worth the investment.

Justine Ezarik, better known as iJustine, unboxes the new Nintendo Switch.

Since 2010, the number of videos on YouTube with “unboxing” in the title have soared 871%. Their appeal has largely to do with their relatability, says Yalda T. Uhls, a research scientist at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center and author of Media Moms & Digital Dads . For viewers, each video is one part surprise, one part desire. They combine the excitement of unwrapping a gift with the utility of assessing a product they might want in real life. “They are things that [viewers] desire,” she says, “and everyone’s unboxed a present and gotten excited.”

Warfford, who watches unboxing videos on a near-daily basis, says they help her decide whether it’s worth buying a particular makeup brush, clothing brand, or collectable toy. But unlike more typical customer reviews left on Amazon or other sites, she says, unboxing videos have an emotional dimension. “You do develop a connection with the person unboxing because you’re excited about the same thing,” Warfford says.

“You start to develop a one-sided relationship with that person where you feel like you really know that person.”

Such feelings are common, says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit based in Newport Beach, California. With traditional reviews, people only see the facts. But with unboxing videos, there’s a more personal appeal. “We see the face. We see the action. So it isn’t as separate from face-to-face communication as our brains process it, as we might rationally or consciously think.”

The visceral cues provided by the up-close-and-personal nature of the videos help blur the line for viewers, allowing them to feel that there is a genuine bond with the host, Rutledge says. “You start to develop a one-sided relationship with that person where you feel like you really know that person.”

This phenomenon isn’t necessarily new or particular to YouTube. It’s common with another video medium, television, where people can become heavily invested in the lives of television characters, celebrities, and hosts, such as Oprah. For example, fans had to remind themselves that they didn’t really know Oprah, and Oprah didn’t really know them, Rutledge says.

It’s not just Oprah, either. In a 2007 study, three researchers found that the more media people consumed, the more likely they were to form parasocial relationships with the characters they watched; despite the fact that the participants didn’t personally know or interact with the celebrities on TV, they were still genuinely attached. Viewers said they found comfort in the regularity of the relationships—which occurred in the form of weekly TV shows, daily newscasts, or recorded reruns that could be revisited at their leisure. When their favorite shows were cancelled, they felt as though they had lost a relationship.

But where scientists have years of data on TV usage, they are still parsing the potential ramifications of digital media use. Though, some studies suggest that digital media can have similar effects as TV.

Take one 2014 psychology study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example. Researchers discovered that by indulging in some extra screen time children may be losing their ability to read human emotions. It didn’t matter whether that time was spent on smartphones, tablets, or otherwise.

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The researchers studied two sets of sixth-graders, one with and one without access to digital media, for five days. The group that was banned from all digital screen use was significantly better at reading facial emotions and recognizing nonverbal cues than the other group.

“There is a lot of evidence that looking at faces and looking at people increases one’s ability to understand emotions and recognize it,” Uhls says. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean all screen time is detrimental, Uhls says. In some ways, our digital interactions can be extensions of what we might do in real life. “Our brains are wired to recognize emotions,” Rutledge says. “Our social skills are one of our fundamental skills for survival. There’s no reason that anything on digital media would take away from that.” She believes the key is finding a sensible balance. “You don’t worry about some digital media use. You worry about excessive digital media use in the same way you worry about excessive ice cream eating.”

“Watch Me Eat”

On YouTube, unboxing videos are merely the tip of the iceberg. Another trend that has recently surfaced—and is quickly gaining a significant following—is mukbang, which is short for muk-neun-bang-song—Korean for “eating broadcast.” It is, essentially, social eating. The phenomena arose in South Korea in 2014 and has since taken the U.S.—and other countries—by storm.

In mukbang videos, hosts usually indulge in immense quantities of foods while engaging in a one-way conversation with their viewers. Ben Deen, a Korean-American YouTube personality currently based in Seoul, South Korea, has found great success with his mukbang videos, amassing over 160,000 subscribers. “Mukbangs are originally done in a livestream format, so I think that kind of direct relationship with the viewers is definitely a large part of the appeal.” Deen says. Despite the success and an intuition for what draws in viewers, he’s a bit dumbfounded by the popularity of the trend. “I still find it amazing that so many people can find entertainment or satisfaction or enjoyment from watching such a simple video of me just enjoying food.”

Watch Ben Deen’s latest mukbang video.

For many viewers, mukbangs add a social element to an otherwise solitary affair. According to one food industry study, 46% of all eating and drinking happens alone. Mukbangs allow busy or lonely people to feel connected, like they are sharing a meal with another person.

But like many social phenomena, mukbangs can have a darker side. Some viewers have admitted to watching the videos as a way to cope with unhealthy eating patterns, vicariously binge-eating, for example, so they can indulge their impulses while sticking with their diets. That’s troubling to nutritionists like Katrina Smith, who works closely with individuals struggling with various eating disorders. Relying on mukbangs to manage serious psychological issues is far from a healthy coping mechanism, Smith says. She also worries about what mukbangs might be doing to the hosts. “It sounds like they could be priming themselves for an eating disorder.” Smith has one particular mukbang host in mind. “She eats this great quantity of food, but she reports that she only eats that way once a week, and that the rest of the time she only eats vegetables and exercises.”

Limited Benefits

Though parasocial relationships are not “real” in that the people involved do not actually know or interact face-to-face with each other, the psychological effects of the relationships can be genuine. And that can be a good thing. In one study of parasocial relationships and self-esteem, Jaye Derrick, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, found that one-sided relationships encouraged people with low self-esteem to be more goal-oriented and more comfortable in their own skin. “We found that parasocial relationships help people with low self-esteem feel closer to their ideal selves,” Derrick says.

There are myriad reasons why one might find parasocial relationships appealing, says Riva Tukachinsky, an assistant professor of communication studies at Chapman University. By removing one half of the equation, parasocial relationships eliminate the awkward tension, anxiety, or discomfort that can accompany certain social situations, she says. In these relationships, there is little to no risk, which allows people who are typically afraid of rejection to comfortably connect with others.

There are limits, though. While parasocial relationships can produce some of the same benefits of real relationships—such as a strong sense of belonging—ultimately, Derrick says they cannot replace real life interpersonal relationships. In less ideal situations, parasocial relationships can become a crutch, creating problems in other parts of a person’s social life. By relying on one-sided interactions, Tukachinsky says, “a person could be creating and rehearsing unrealistic scripts of how relationships are handled in real life.”

The rise of parasocial relationships seems to be an inevitable result of the prevalence of the Internet in our social lives. “It’s still not the same thing as sitting in person with someone where you see the whole context,” Uhls says. “But it’s all about the content—what and who they have that parasocial relationship with.”

Those parasocial relationships are ripe targets for companies looking to hook digital-savvy consumers. Recommendations from the star of an unboxing video channels carry a lot of weight among fans like Warfford, who represent the sort of ideal customer that many advertisers are hoping to reach. And companies like Affectiva, of course, hope to tap into that by identify rising trends so advertisers can take advantage of the deep connections that viewers have with digital personalities.

There’s no telling what the next YouTube craze will be, but it’s unlikely that parasocial relationships are going to disappear anytime soon. In an age where the digital sphere is used for practically everything, from dating to learning how to change a flat tire, it’s not unexpected that people would also use the medium to develop virtual relationships. Parasocial relationships were already established before the advent of the Internet as one way that people connect with each other, though digital media allows people to branch out in ways they never could before. And while parasocial relationships can’t take the place of face-to-face relationships, they can help supplement and better round people as the innately social beings they are.

“What most people are trying to do is connect with other human beings,” Rutledge says. “That is the preeminent developmental task, so it makes perfect sense that they should be looking for every way possible to do so.”

Photo credit: Patrick/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.