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Hell Is a “Parasocial” Place

Where your "friends" may not even exist

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

American literary critic Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) was known for the phrase “What fresh hell is this?” when the doorbell rang. Of course, the intrusion on her writerly life was just another swirl in the urban social flux. But social media, augmented by machine learning, can add—for some—a new layer to hell.

In the 1950s, sociologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl introduced the concept of a “para-social” relationship: While the relationship seems to be a “face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer,” the way it develops is a “one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development.”

Riffing off the concept of “artificial” intelligence, one could call it an “artificial” relationship. All media have this potential, of course, but the total immersion and immediacy of social media make the illusion much more convincing.

Shannon Strucci

Shannon Strucci

YouTube has provided a thriving social hive for that type of relationship, according to video essayist Shannon Strucci.  Her 2-hour essay Fake Friends has gathered over 28,000 views (at YouTube, of course) in the last eleven days. It explores, among other things, the way that a social medium like YouTube can become a virtual prison for the performer:

If there’s a central example Strucci returns to in “parasocial hell,” it’s Jacksepticeye — Strucci selects several clips both of McLoughlin’s upbeat I-love-you-guys addresses to fans as well as a few lengthy rambles from videos where he speaks about the demands and pressures of being a YouTube celebrity. “There is stuff where I let it kind of go long, but I’m making people watch this,” says Strucci. “It was deliberately a confrontational essay.” In a clip from this past July, one of the most recent pieces Strucci surfaces in the essay, McLoughlin talks about longing to live in the same city as his YouTuber friends so they could do normal activities together, and of tiring from making daily videos… all, of course, in a video posted to his YouTube channel. In a follow-up to that clip, McLoughlin says that “freaking out about letting [his audience] down built up this well of anxiety and sadness” inside him…

Creators with devoted fan bases help YouTube’s bottom line, but the platform only does so much to discourage bad behavior cutting either direction. “We live under capitalism — you get people to give you money because they love you,” says Strucci. “That’s why YouTube incentivizes [parasocial interactions].” Strucci tells that, from personal experience, she knows the negative effects of parasocial interaction are ubiquitous, and that she feels there’s no way platforms can wave them away…  Mathew Olson, “How Many Fake Friends Do You Have?” at Digg

Really? At the risk of sounding insensitive, one can hardly help asking, if Sean McLaughlin wants actual, as opposed to virtual, friends why doesn’t he just abandon the Jacksepticeye persona, get off YouTube, move to a nice town and make friends?

Consumer digital hells can be dreadful indeed but they are mostly of our own making. The companies that profit from them are not forcing us to live in them.

That said, students should be taught in school, as part of media awareness training, that the internet’s virtual world features a great deal of fakery, which includes fake friends and Likes on Facebook, fake online reviews,  directory information, and encyclopedia facts,  fake political outrage (astroturf),  fake reputations and even fake science journals It’s not that machines are smarter than we are but rather that the internet doesn’t provide the physical cues and clues that help us spot scams.

The digital world can be a fun and educational place but it is just not healthy for us, emotionally or intellectually, to spend most of our time there.

See also: Screen Writers’ Jobs Are Not Threatened by AI. Unless the public starts preferring mishmash to creativity (Robert J. Marks)


AI That Can Read Minds? Deconstructing AI Hype The source for the claims seems to be a 2018 journal paper, “Real-time classification of auditory sentences using evoked cortical activity in humans.” The carefully described results are indeed significant but what the Daily Mail article didn’t tell you sheds a rather different light on the AI mind reader. (Robert J. Marks)

Hell Is a “Parasocial” Place