Updated: May 22
Who do you look up to? It is a question that we have all been asked at some point in our lives, whether it was in a job interview or just in a passing conversation. However, throughout the years, this answer has looked very different. In the age of social media, celebrities and public figures have had a much larger impact on our lives than ever before. Because of this, many of us have grown to look up to these people, but what are the effects of looking up to someone you’ve never even met before?
In today’s culture, celebrities, influencers, and other public figures are always available to us right at our fingertips. With the prevalence of social media, it can feel as if we almost personally know these figures, even enough to deeply admire them. This type of relationship is known as a parasocial relationship, where a person becomes attached to a figure in the media, and that figure has no idea of the other person’s existence. They are completely normal, but social media has taken these parasocial relationships to a whole new level. Many people have grown up admiring the people they saw on tv shows and in movies, but it does not stop there. Because social media is now a constant part of our lives, we can follow these celebrities’ every move. This means that we can not only see the way these people live, but also feel as if we are a part of their lives, and like they are a part of ours. It is not only celebrities and influencers with whom we can develop these parasocial relationships, but also social activists, politicians, authors, and countless others. Our lives are intertwined with these public figures and we may feel as if there is a closeness that is not actually there and we can grow to deeply admire the people with whom we form this relationship.
But are these parasocial relationships positive in our lives? Millennial senior director of Brand Marketing at Gen.G, Christina Kim, is not so sure. “If you really think about it, will there ever be a chance that this celebrity will know who I am? Probably not.” Kim says that she would rather express interest in people who can give back to her in a relationship, rather than those who do not know she exists. She says that when she was growing up, she did not idolize celebrities or public figures, rather it was her teachers or mom from whom she found inspiration. Growing up as social media was in its initial stages meant that Kim did not grow up with the same pervasiveness of influencer culture. But social media has rapidly changed the way we communicate and observe those around us which has led to a stronger presence of parasocial relationships and has therefore deeply affected who we looked up to.
Who do I look up to? Well, that answer has always been easy and that is my nana. She has been a constant source of comfort and joy in my life and has never failed to support me in all that I do. To say that I look up to her is an understatement and I am truly grateful for her in my life. Now, of course, I have looked up to celebrities and other public figures because of social media, but each of those influences has been fleeting, often based on what is popular, not the person themselves. However, the influence my nana has had on my life has been unceasing throughout my life.
Before even the idea of social media existed, who did we look up to? My nana then recalls that in her childhood, it was not a public figure she looked up to, rather it was a couple who lived near her. They met when my nana sold Girl Scout cookies to them, but she soon found herself visiting their house after school almost every day. They did not have any children of their own and began sharing the life lessons they had learned with my nana. “When the husband died, his wife gave me his favorite chair, and I kept that thing for years,” recalls my nana.
Without the presence of social media, my nana was able to form a bond with people in her real life that were able to mentor her. She formed a personal relationship with this couple and was able to learn from them, and I’m sure they learned from her as well. Through parasocial relationships, we are not able to have these mutual relationships, rather they are all one-sided and based on a false sense of intimacy and closeness rather than a reciprocal attachment.
Is one of these types of relationships better than the other? In the end, it is about balance, and the balance that one has in their life is deeply personal. Being influenced by those we see on social media is not inherently bad, however, you must be cognizant of the fact that we do not truly know these people behind closed doors, and they do not know us. We must find the balance between getting to know these public figures and developing authentic relationships in our lives.
Social media, and the parasocial relationships that come with it, are undeniably some of the biggest parts of our lives in this digital age. We, as users and creators, must be cognizant of how social media can deeply affect our worldview. However, we can’t forget about the real-life relationships in our lives that are equally, if not, more important. After analyzing the effects of the relationships in our lives, it makes you stop and think- who do you look up to?