The (Para)Social Network

While some of these investments can be harmless—like the celebrity crush Pinterest board I have been cultivating since I was 13, and the radio show that spawned from these romantic infatuations—the inhumanity of other parasocial behaviours of mine has recently reared its ugly head. So, where do you draw the line? And why do I have a sickening feeling that I’m only going to end up ignoring it?


For as long as I can remember, I have always deeply immersed myself in the intricacies of celebrity culture; feeding my brain with the specialised knowledge of celebrity relationships, nepotism webs and net worths; devoting precious minutes of my existence to discovering how long a celebrity couple has been together before getting engaged or if, like the rumours suggest, a certain director was having an affair with their lead actor.

While some of these investments can be harmless—like the celebrity crush Pinterest board I have been cultivating since I was 13, and the radio show that spawned from these romantic infatuations—the inhumanity of other parasocial behaviours of mine has recently reared its ugly head.

So, where do you draw the line? And why do I have a sickening feeling that I’m only going to end up ignoring it?

Up until the middle of last year, I made the uncharacteristically wise and disciplined decision to not download TikTok, knowing that my obsessive personality and my inability to limit my screentime would only result in a downward spiral of sacrificing sleep and productivity to watch an eight-part video series of a stranger’s thrift flip.

But ultimately, thrift hauls, home renovations and cooking videos aren’t a worry. Sure, I probably would have benefited more from an extra hour or two of sleep, but this online behaviour was not hurting anyone. It was only in the last month or so, when my favourite online couple announced their breakup, that this otherwise harmless online activity began dangerously venturing into the not so harmless realm of parasocial behaviour.

In their first breakup video, the first words said are, “Not that we owe you guys an explanation, but… since we’ve shared so much of our love on here to you, we just wanted to come on here and just tell you that we’re going to go our separate ways for a while.”

Despite how publicly these people have chosen to share their grief and give voice to what they’re going through, using various TikTok sounds that ring true for them, their breakup is not an invitation for us, as viewers, to give voice to our thoughts on their still deeply personal and private situation.

Yet their followers, myself included, have proceeded to project our own feelings and judgements onto their videos, as though our status as followers means we know both sides of the story, and as though we’re more than strangers who have come to know these people from the idyllic snapshot of their lives they have chosen to share online.

I wish I could say I was shocked by how quickly their followers jumped to radical conclusions of infidelity and betrayal—despite having adored both parties just days before this announcement—or how readily we altered our perceptions of two people we never met, in the hopes of ‘getting the tea’. Under one party’s cryptic, lip-synching TikTok, a follower had left this comment: “Girl, if he’s already got a new GF you better spill the tea right now… your loyalties died when he lied to you.”

Now, who are we to tell this woman who her loyalties do and don’t belong to? And how dare we have the audacity to exploit a person’s grief so openly for our own amusement; forcing someone who is already struggling with the pain of her breakup to have to mitigate the emotions of her followers and stop them from inflicting unwarranted hatred on her ex.

In the caption of her TikTok, she writes, "Please understand that these videos are for me and my journey. Not for hate on me or them. Don’t mistake me healing and being in pain for hate to someone else.”

We have made something so personal entirely about ourselves, stripping this woman of her humanity and treating her as our personal project; a woman with whom we’ve decided to ally ourselves as we make it our mission to uncover a very personal truth and, in the process, berate and villainise someone else who is also working through the hardship of a breakup.

Yet, it’s not only this toxic investment that is problematic, but the sheer concern and emotional investment we have placed into making sure this person is okay. Comments such as, “I come to your profile every day just to make sure you’re doing okay,” are more frightening than they are comforting.

Why are we, as a collective of strangers who have never met this person, devoting so much time and energy to helping them work through hardship? Is it that we really care, or, perhaps, is it that we crave seeing our pain in others? If the latter, is this what makes us like them more, because we need to see our pain, our flaws and ourselves in others before we can see them as worthy of our admiration?

This goes so far beyond one TikTok couple’s breakup and into a troubling tendency for me to either identify with celebrities or judge and ridicule the ones with which I don’t.

Every now and then, when I reflect on how this plays out in my own life, I grow disappointed; so incredibly disappointed in myself and my desire for seemingly perfect (almost always female) celebrities to share their flaws and their pain publicly before I find myself gravitating towards them and accepting them.

Emily Ratajkowski is the first woman to come to mind. A woman whose beauty and outward perfection was entirely the reason I was so quick to dismiss her as someone worthy of my affection and emotional investment; a woman so foreign to me, so unlike me in every way, that I found myself disliking her, almost as though I despised her perfection. I demanded that she shatter the perfect façade and sway my viewpoint with her vulnerability—a vulnerability I felt I earned as a mere user of the internet.

Her book, My Body, did exactly that. She wrote of her traumatic experience on the set of the ‘Blurred Lines’ music video, and in doing so, dismounted from this unreachable pedestal I had placed her on.

When watching a tv series recently, the opposite occurred when I began embedding myself in a character who I saw parts of myself in, and failed to resist the urge to search up her weight because of my excitement that her body looked like mine.

Information like a celebrity’s weight and past trauma is none of my business. So why does it feel like it is? Why have I construed this deeply flawed idea that celebrities serve to uplift us, to make us see ourselves more lovingly by seeing ourselves in them? Would I have liked her character any less if she didn’t share my body type? And why should her physical appearance have impacted my viewing as much as it did? 

In her book, Ratajkowski encapsulates these sick and twisted parasocial behaviours of mine: “I wonder how many women you've disregarded in your life, written off, because you assumed they had nothing to offer beyond the way they looked.”

But, instead of judging their appearances based on a conventional (and misogynistic) notion of beauty and desirability, I was judging them based on how similar they were to me, granting them more worth as humans if their body looked like mine. Simultaneously, I was resenting women like Ratajkowski because I did not identify with them and demanded that they reveal their imperfections more clearly so that I could form a more nuanced parasocial connection with them.

This sense of entitlement is, unfortunately, deeply entrenched in my navigation of these one-sided relationships. Whilst I and others menacingly flood the comment sections of TikTok breakup videos, we derive a sense of purpose from believing these celebrities owe us vulnerability. They most certainly do not.

Our access to their personal lives is not a revolving door, nor is it a privilege we can exploit purely because these people have decided to live their lives so publicly. They do not owe us the details of their hurt, or the trauma of their pasts, and they certainly should not feel the need to publicise and make a spectacle of their pain to be perceived more forgivingly and empathetically by the public.

Now, I am angry at myself for letting this entitlement fester and grow into the all-consuming fiend I now know it to be. And I want to apologise, however insignificant an apology it may be, to the women online onto whom I have projected my feelings, my judgments, and my self-worth.

I should have never downloaded TikTok.

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