Why Can’t We Be Friends

Podcasts and other forms of “parasocial” media reframe friendship as monetized self-care

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly common for people to develop intense one-sided relationships with famous people on the internet. What are called parasocial relationships (meaning almost social, or perversely social) have spread almost everywhere. For example, John Mulaney fans share concern over his recently messy personal life as much as they laugh at his jokes. Fans of K-pop groups like Blackpink (called Blinks) and Twice (called Onces) flood YouTube videos with millions of comments in support of their favorite performers. (“Rosé has worked so hard for this moment, let’s support her as much as we can!!”) Zoomers goof off in the chat for hours watching Twitch livestreamers play Minecraft or PUBG. Even Peloton trainers are marketed as supporting us on our fitness journeys rather than coaches who simply encourage us to sweat.

The hosts of podcasts in particular are the subject of these intense feelings of connection, as many observers, like Rachel Aroesti in this Guardian piece for instance, have pointed out. I have a few parasocial podcast obsessions myself, particularly the podcasting family the McElroy Brothers, who make the comedy advice show My Brother, My Brother and Me and the “actual play” Dungeons and Dragons podcast The Adventure Zone, among other things. I follow fan subreddits, chuckle at McElroy memes, and buy merch to support the good good boys (as they are called). I have become as much a fan of the McElroys “themselves” as I am a fan of their content. I know their childhood nicknames, their struggles with depression and social anxiety, and I know about the time Justin got fired from Blockbuster for stealing a Fight Club DVD.

The McElroys are a reliable feature of my life. Every Monday I know that there will be a new My Brother, My Brother and Me, as comfortable as a box of Kraft mac and cheese. When I was struggling with my dissertation, I’d sometimes slink under the bedcovers and listen to the McElroys until my problems felt lighter. I feel — and this is embarrassing to articulate — like the McElroys are my friends, that if we saw each other on the street, we could have a nice chat about our lives and maybe share a beer. I know, of course, that the McElroy brothers are not my friends. But the feeling remains that we could be friends, if we actually spent time in one another’s company.

To understand why so many people have turned to online celebrity friends, we need to look at the long history of friendship. At its simplest, friends are people who satisfy our need to belong. The psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary showed in this 1995 paper that people’s need to belong is satisfied only when pleasant interactions with other people are framed in a predictable and regular structure. In the deep human past, such belongingness was mostly provided by the extended family: spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The history of modern friendship is how people have responded to disruptions of that family structure of belongingness by looking outside it, to sworn brothers, friends, TV hosts, and podcasters.

I know, of course, that the McElroy brothers are not my friends. But I listen to the show completely alone, through the privacy of my earbuds. I can fool myself into thinking they are talking directly to me

In the West this history begins perhaps in the 14th century, when in short succession Europe was hit by the Great Famine and then the Black Death. As much as half the population died. This disrupted the family, that central foundation of belonging. People responded by developing close, bonded relationships with people outside their families, particularly those who shared a mutual interest or a similar outlook: friends. The word friend and its cognates started to appear more frequently in documents. People started to write letters to friends about their daily lives, their emotions, and their souls. Sometimes men swore eternal brotherhood to one another in church, exchanging rings, merging their heraldry, and planning to be buried side by side like married couples. A number of new institutions arose to facilitate these bonded relationships with non-kin, including the confraternity. These institutions of belonging turned strangers into brothers and sisters through concrete rituals of solidarity like sharing bread and singing songs. You could rely on these friends. They ate with you when you were hungry, gave you money when you were broke, and said mass for you after you died: because they could trust that you would do the same for them.

Over the 18th and 19th centuries, friendship became even more important, as people moved from rural communities to increasingly dense cities filled with strangers. But people needed to find a new structure of friendship, as the slow shift from agricultural labor to manufacturing and services wiped away the old rhythms of seasonal work and play that once gave people something to do together. Leisure activities moved from public spaces like village greens and markets to paywalled destinations like pleasure gardens, theaters, and coffeehouses. There, people bonded over consuming the same things, like drinking coffee together, reading magazines, or appreciating the same art. The institutions of belonging became more formal as they came under greater and greater pressure to help an increasingly dislocated population. In the 19th century, over one half of adult males in Britain were members of a Friendly Society, a club where men paid a regular fee to eat and drink together, with part of the fee saved to provide social insurance. Elks Clubs and Oddfellows groups made 19th century America a similar “nation of joiners,” as Gerald Gamm and Robert Putnam have argued.

Postwar America faced another crisis of belonging. The unprecedented material prosperity of the 1950s led to a self-satisfied culture of individualism and private consumption. More families were huddled in suburban homes, left to the solitary enjoyment of their stuff. On the other hand, people who would not conform found themselves frequently shut out of the few remaining institutions that could provide belonging, like the church or the bowling alley. New mass-marketed consumer products sought to fill this gap of belonging: self-help books, Tupperware parties, and especially the mass media.

This is the context in which the trend toward parasocial media consumption was first described. In their often-cited 1956 paper “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction,” social scientists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl identified a new kind of radio and TV program that they called the personality show. The format of these programs was calculated to cue viewers into feeling like the show was one side of a conversation with a close friend: shots were framed to show every nuance and tick of the personality’s charming face, they were set in domestic spaces like dens and bedrooms, and the personality even spoke directly to the audience, anticipating their responses and sharing personal details, so that the viewers came to feel like they really “lived with him” as they tuned in week after week. Most of these were simply talk shows, the 1950s analogues of Stephen Colbert. But the shows could be oddly intimate. In the 1951 radio show Lonesome Gal for example, a nameless woman spoke a “throaty, unctuous” monologue to her shy, withdrawn, and lonely lover. “Don’t you see darling, that I am only one of millions of lonely girls. I belong to him who spends his Sundays in museums, who strolls in Central Park looking sadly at the lovers there. But I am more fortunate than any of these lovers, because I have you. Do you know that I am always thinking about you?” These parasocial relationships, Horton and Wohl argued, gave lonely, isolated, marginal people the belonging they couldn’t otherwise get from the society around them.

Recently there has been another crisis of belongingness caused by economic dislocation. Material goods like food, electronics, and cars are cheaper now than they have been in the past, but care — health care, education, child care — and particularly housing have become increasingly expensive. This has further weakened the family. Millennials are having fewer children than they want or deciding not to have families at all. Friendship can only do so much to fill in the gap, because it has been strained by longer working hours and more transient living conditions. Institutions of belonging have also declined. As scholars like Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol have argued, fewer people participate in civil society organizations like bowling clubs, churches, or political groups. This has led to a crisis of friendship, especially among men: a much-cited 2006 study showed that from the 1980s there was a drop-off in the number of people Americans talked to about important things. This has only been exacerbated by quarantine’s forced isolation.

People responded to each crisis of belonging with the technology they had available: letters in the Renaissance, clubs in the early industrial era, TV in the 1950s. Today, people can turn to phones.

Like the personality programs of the 1950s, parasocial media today are characterized by a calculated performance of intimacy. Performers speak to us conversationally, they let us know about their personal lives, they reveal what are framed as their vulnerabilities. The content is often in domestic settings: in bedrooms, at computers, among family and friends — informal and unpredictable, like real friendship. Bo Burnam’s recent Netflix special offers a good example of the larger genre: he is alone with his camera in his messy home studio — alone with us — sporting an isolation beard and hollow eyes, all sadness and self-confession. But the lighting is perfect and the shots well-framed. He takes time to show us the conceit of it all: Here he is, fiddling with the precise angle and tint of his professional-grade lights, carefully performing friendly self-confession so that the viewer can imagine he speaks to them alone, like a friend.

Parasociality promises to satisfy a need that it can only make more acute

But unlike the televisions and radios in the 1950s, which were still heavy appliances in living rooms and dens, today’s parasocial media is everywhere, available whenever we are feeling bored and lonely: on the bus, on the toilet, or under the covers in bed. What’s more, the content itself has become ever more targeted. Mass media in the 1950s had to appeal to a mass consumer: It had to be pleasing to a certain lowest-common-denominator audience to make the economics work. But today, because there’s such a huge potential audience online, content can instead target highly specialized niches. The exuberant obscurity makes internet culture compelling: fake baseball leagues, ASMR, mukbang — when you discover something you like, you can feel like you’ve stumbled across a secret and precise part of yourself you didn’t even realize you had before, that you get to express for the first time in the intimate time you spend with your screens.

The intimacy of modern media is in tension with the scalability that makes it financially viable. I know, for example, that My Brother, My Brother and Me has hundreds of thousands of listeners, perhaps millions. But I listen to the show completely alone, through the privacy of my earbuds. I can fool myself into thinking that the McElroy brothers are talking directly to me, even as they are talking to a huge crowd of isolated fans.

Contemporary parasocial media overcomes the tension between intimacy and scalability by blurring the boundary between content creator and content consumer. It can feel like these celebrities are able to step across the stage and actually notice us, take us from being a passive consumer of their content to an active participant. Taylor Swift, for example, has surprised fans at special events, like weddings and bridal showers. Niche subgenres rely even more on these fan interactions to drive engagement and sustain their business model. Every episode of the fast-food review podcast Doughboys, for instance, begins with two pieces of fan content: a “roast” of the host Mike Mitchell over his weight, and “the drop” of a fan-made song that calls back past episodes, memes, and in-jokes. This not only provides regular content, but makes the show feel like a conversation between the personalities and their fans.

Payment sites like Patreon, OnlyFans and Twitch allow the precise monetization of these hints of intimacy. On Twitch Streams there is “the chat” — a rolling stream of user comments, memes, and emojis that hosts can interact with. The VTuber (a streamer who uses a computer-generated avatar) Chester the Otter puts on a maid costume when the chat chants MAID COSTUME. (The chat can also pet Chester on the head.) Many streams monetize this interaction: The host will give you a shout-out if you donate. Patreon makes this relationship even more explicit and sophisticated by allowing fans to organize themselves into tiers by how much monetary support they give the creator. On the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer’s Patreon, you can pledge to get access to her regular webchats. Pledge more and Palmer will not only let you in on these chats; she will send you personal postcards from her travels. This is framed as a personal relationship, not an economic exchange. You support the creator because that’s just what friends do, and the creator responds in the language of friendship — by answering your questions, saying your name on the stream, sending you postcards, letting you pat them on their head.

Parasociality promises to satisfy a need that it can only make more acute. Fans often want their one-sided relationship to be reciprocal, for the content creator to recognize them as an individual who, like a friend, isn’t just useful but is loved for themselves. But because of the scale of internet culture, to the creator, fans can never be in aggregate more than an anonymous mass of fluctuating metrics.

Yet the interactive structure of modern parasocial media stages this impossible mutual recognition again and again. We see that Taylor Swift can surprise fans on their weddings — why not us? We can pat Chester on the head — maybe they can pat our heads once in a while?

Performers speak to us conversationally, they let us know about their personal lives, they reveal what are framed as their vulnerabilities

The constantly evoked and then frustrated desire to be recognized by the creator can make fan culture cruelly capricious. I saw this happen in the My Brother, My Brother and Me community, when “the middlest brother” Travis McElroy took over The Adventure Zone and the show began to sag. Reddit threads became lists of grievances, and discontent quickly focused on Travis’s personality. Fans’ long history of consuming Travis’ personality gave them ample evidence to use against him. And we were angry — angry that he had pretended to be so close to us, and that he failed to listen to us when it counted.

Horton and Wohl thought that the lonely and isolated people watching personality programs on TV were naïve rubes duped by callous mass media producers. In a similar vein, critiques of parasocial media today often blame the creators and platforms for exploiting vulnerable and lonely fans. A top-down solution typically follows from that analysis. If people shame parasocial content creators like Travis McElroy, they might stop calling themselves “the internet’s best friend” and encourage a healthier and more sustainable kind of media consumption instead.

But this response underestimates the fact that fans themselves can be critical and creative about their consumption. Fan spaces are oriented around the personality of the content creator, of course, but they can be grounds for genuine community and belonging in their own right. The creative energy of fan art, fan fiction, fan criticism is overwhelming. Fan communities are also at times frankly self-critical. The term parasociality itself has come to prominence through fandom. The McElroy critique subreddit quickly adopted the language of parasociality, particularly after the YouTube critic Sarah Z used the concept to understand the fan backlash against the brothers. Many niche fan communities frequently explicitly warn against the dangers of parasociality: VTubers, John Mulaney, KPop.

You support the creator because that’s what friends do, and the creator responds in the language of friendship

Yet even this promise of community and self-criticism offered by fandoms is deceptively unsatisfying. Online fan spaces look like collaborative communities only because social media platforms show us a distorted image where everyone is popular and active and engaged. But the vast majority of people on social networks — perhaps 90 percent — are lurkers who rarely contribute anything to the conversation. What look like thriving fan communities are, in reality, parasocial relations within parasocial relations: Most people participate by passively consuming the performed enjoyment of a select few. Lurkers passively consume super-fans’ fan-art, fan-criticism, and love, just as they consume the creator’s personality.

This isn’t the democratic paradise that social media once seemed to promise, an open-ended and unpredictable set of conversations among peers who would grow through free debate. Instead it has turned out to be more like looking through a window at a group of friends having a conversation, who can’t hear you as you laugh along with their jokes. In this sense, the prevalence of parasocial media reveals the disappointing parasocial interaction at heart of the internet more broadly. Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook tend to flatten interactions with even our friends to parasociality: We scroll through all these images of the people we know doing stuff while we are idling or waiting or sitting alone, not doing stuff.

Many of us have learned to post content as though we were hosting one of the old personality shows of the 1950s, calculated to look like we’re providing one end of a friendly interaction. We look into the cameras, we talk to our audience directly, we make the gestures of friendship, so that the people observing us are cued into thinking we are responding to them and them alone. But we are responding to something else, a fantasy of how we should be or the image of ourselves reflected back to us on the screen. Parasocial media in itself is not the problem but the expression of deeper hunger for belonging amid structures that can’t sustain it, scrolling through tempting, evanescent, one-sided interactions that engage our attention while rarely delivering on the promise that we can be seen and known, as individuals, as friends.

Brendan Mackie recently received his PhD in History from Berkeley.  You can find his writing about history, technology and parenting on his substack.