torsdag 15 december 2011

Para-social Facebook relationships

I have had a longtime interest in so-called para-social relationships, i.e the perception that you have a relationship with someone (a celebrity of some kind) even though you have never met that person in real life. A para-social relationship is a one-way relationship that has been (mass) mediated by radio or (most often) television and movies. People (fans) can feel they have a relationship or even a "special" relationship to an artist (actor, singer), a sportsman or perhaps a politician. Which they of course don't have, since they have never met. Or do they?

The term "para-social interaction" was coined in 1956 by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their article "Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance".

So what are the implications of "para-social Facebook relationships" that we can have with people who don't actually really know us, i.e. when it feels like you know someone because you have checked up on or followed that person on Facebook and even though he/she doesn't know who you are? What happens when, at a party, you already know the name and the face of a friend's friend - even though he/she has never met you and has no idea of who you are? Do you pretend not to know him or mention that you "know her" from Facebook? This example is based on an issue that came up in a seminar discussion on my course on social media, and most students stated that they (would) pretend not to know/recognize the other person. To not do so might feel creepy, "stalkish" to the other person. What happens in the opposite situation - when they know who you are, but you don't know them? Or when (if) both "know" each other although they had never met before (physically).

With social media (Facebook) you can keep tabs on a friend's friend; you can follow them on Facebook, read what they do and watch pictures from their latest vacation or party without them ever realizing it. The border between following someone on Facebook and stalking them online can sometimes be fine...

So what happens when social media (Facebook) allows us to have para-social interaction (interaction as if we are friends/acquaintances even though it is a "one-way relationship") with ordinary people who are not celebrities and who have no reason to expect others to know them or to know about them? What does Facebook do to the concept of para-social relationships, and what do para-social relationships do to the whole concept of relationships in the age of ubiquitous social media? How do people reason about these issues and concepts? What do they feel is the proper "etiquette" in terms of these issues?

Beyond "relationships" with persons who have never met us, we can also have "relationships" with people we once knew but no longer keep in touch with. We can follow someone on Facebook and feel like we (still) have a relationship with her and like we "keep in touch" with him by reading what he did yesterday. But feeling as if we (still) have a relationship must surely be an illusion if we never speak on the phone and never meet for a cup of coffee, right? How do (young) people reason about these issues?

We thus have three cases:
- "Traditional" para-social relationships with celebrities that are mediated through mass media (radio, tv, movies).
- Facebook-mediated para-social relationships with non-celebrities/friends of friends - people we feel we have a relationship to even though we have never met then.
- Facebook-mediated para-social relationships with former friends - people we feel we have a relationship with even though we in fact don't meet them (any longer).

For someone who wants to write a thesis on "para-social Facebook relationships", I suggest the following methods (to be discussed depending on the question you will explore):
- Search for and read as much as you can about "traditional" para-social interaction/para-social relationships and what has been written about para-social interaction in the age of the Internet/social media.
- Think about and analyze similarities and differences between traditional and Facebook-mediated para-social relationships (this will be your "theoretical contribution" to the field).
- Do a study based on qualitative interviews. Let your readings in the area guide you as to what questions you should ask your informants.

The exact research question that you will explore and appropriate methods to explore this question should be discussed with your advisor (me) before you start your work. The emphasis should be on the changing character of para-social relationships in the age of the Internet and social media. How do informants feel and think about these issues? When (in what situations) does para-social (imagined?) relationships create problems? How are these problems solved? Or can they instead solve what used to be a problem, but isn't any longer?

- There are numerous studies and articles about para-social relationships. Search for and read those that seem suitable.
- There are also books on the phenomenon, for example Richard Schickel's "Intimate strangers", Sherry Turkle's "Alone together" and Fredrik Strage's "Fans".
- The theme has also been treated in movies such as (for example) "The fan" and "Taxi driver".


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