The allure of fantasy friends

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<span>Photograph: Michael Simon/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Michael Simon/Rex/Shutterstock

In that glorious way that modern life works, a phrase rarely uttered outside therapist’s dinner parties has breached the border wall and has now spread itself thickly across the internet. Like “gaslighting” and “narcissism” before it, this week the “parasocial relationship” is the subject of every third online conversation, and every fifth IRL.

The trigger was John Mulaney, an American comedian whose shtick was so focused on his partner that he’d become known as the ultimate ‘wife-guy’ – he said he didn’t want kids because it would interfere with the time he spent with Annamarie. When he went to rehab, then announced not only that he had filed for divorce but impregnated actor Olivia Munn, his fans had some feelings. Frantic tweets and TikTok videos appeared, asking why, how – how could he do this? Specifically, how could he do this to us?

Which is where the parasocial thing comes in. The first use of the term was 65 years ago in an academic paper on Intimacy at a Distance. Now it mostly describes the way we engage with celebrities: a one-way relationship where we know what the comedian or athlete or gamer eats for breakfast, thinks of autumn, wears to parties and worries about at night and also that they don’t even know we exist. Today, “parasocial” will typically be dropped into the discourse like a man cannonballing into a kids pool. “John Mulaney is not your friend!” say tweets shared a thousand times, occasionally bringing up issues of consent – “Parasocial relationships are toxic!” (another therapy word poured hotly into our laps). In a recent post-rehab standup set, Mulaney said his relationship with audiences was the longest-lasting and most intimate of his life, and people began to clap. He asked them to stop – he didn’t mean it was a good thing. No, not for him, maybe. For the audience though?

When my daughter was very little she had an imaginary friend called Uncle

When my daughter was very little she had an imaginary friend called Uncle. He lived in a tall pink house and liked potato, and she would hold the phone to her ear mmmhmm-ing at his conversation while she went about her busy business, putting her doll to bed for example, or walking importantly around the table. He existed, I see now, as an accomplice, a character who performed the crucial silent role for a child very keen to play the interminable game of adulting.

For a long time parasocial relationships were seen as a symptom of loneliness, but recently psychologists have acknowledged the many positive side-effects. No, we don’t know the person behind the celebrity, even though their holiday photos sit beside our sister’s on a scroll through Instagram, and despite us being able to name all their dogs and one of their moles, and even though we have played some part – yes – in creating them. But by inserting ourself into their lives, however much of a fantasy it might be, we can benefit from the reflected rays. We watch, we judge a little, we discover what we like, then perhaps, what we are like. What society values. Whether a sockless loafer is acceptable at this precise moment in our culture. Hair. We have the opportunity to play out whole relationships from the safety of our bus or bath, then hopefully transfer the knowledge we’ve accumulated to real life.

Over the pandemic, inevitably, these distant friendships have become more important, as the ability to talk to or touch actual people has fallen away. Sometimes the fantasy relationships lead to real friendships, albeit rarely with the person we’re focused on. Those talking about Mulaney online (or the recoupling and redemption of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) may not know the strangers they’re discussing, but they quickly get to know the strangers they’re discussing them with. Communities are formed in fury, titillation and delight.

Communities are formed in fury, titillation and clean delight

There was a time when I might have joined those people telling others off online for their parasocial tendencies, but I recently realised the comfort I take not just in following the marriages of actors and pop stars, but in imagining the inner lives of the plants I grow by the sink. And I often reply to Cher on Twitter. “HAVE A GOOD DAY!” she’ll scream glamorously and my thumbs, quite independently, will type: “You too xx.” “Morning!” I’ll reply, or: “Night!” because despite never having met her she is my close personal friend and mentor, and her presence in the world – her attitude, politics, undying dazzle – is a constant reminder to me that such energy is possible.

I have learned to enjoy these moments, these times when our cultural lexicon briefly cracks to allow a word to slip from academia to the internet. Even when, as in this case, a phrase tends to be used sneeringly, in order to distance the user from the petty failings of the fans she describes, I rejoice. Because each time it feels like an opportunity to further understand and explain our humanness, the complicated ways we are sensitive to each other, our dark emotional creativity, and the many ways we silly mortals attempt to connect.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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