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YouTubers are not your friends

A concept created over 60 years ago explains our attachment to online celebrities

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Against a quiet backdrop of autumnal ornaments and a roaring fireplace, YouTuber Charisma Star welcomes her audience with a familiar line: “Hey, my beautiful shining stars!” They respond eagerly in turn. “Love you,” some declare. Others gush about her videos or ask about her family. “Can’t wait for the baby’s arrival,” writes one. “More about how your pregnancy is going love you,” adds another, punctuating the sentiment with a heart-eye emoji.

Charisma Star, real name Charis Lincoln, has used the phrase “shining stars” to describe her viewers since the beginning of her career as a way to bring them closer. “By naming my audience, I feel that I have a very close connection to them, almost like a sister or BFF,” she tells The Verge.

She’s been extraordinarily effective at building that connection. Most of Lincoln’s 932,000 followers have never and will never meet her. Yet their dedication to her is undeniable, and it’s a perfect representation of the ever-expanding social phenomenon of parasocial relationships, wherein individuals attach affections to celebrity figures. The concept is more accurate than ever today, and it’s crucial to understanding the complications of life as an influencer or creator in 2018.

Charis Lincoln on her YouTube channel.
Charis Lincoln on her YouTube channel.

Sociologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton originally coined the concept of parasocial interactions and relationships in 1956 to explain how audiences developed attachments to media figures. It boils down to one-sided affection: a person invests emotional energy and attachment in a media figure, and they develop a sense of kinship and intimacy that makes them feel as though they know the celebrity — even though the celebrity has no idea they even exist.

Modern researchers have expanded upon Wohl and Horton’s original findings to better understand online celebrities. “Since 1956 when it was first talked about, we’ve gotten so many new technologies... [that] really change how we are entertained and how we engage with content,” Arienne Ferchaud, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Florida State University, tells The Verge. Ferchaud co-authored a paper last year — “Parasocial attributes and YouTube personalities: Exploring content trends across the most subscribed YouTube channels” — with an eye toward the most popular influencers.

Previous celebrities existed behind the one-way gate of television, but today, audiences can chime in on social media with questions, requests for future content, and opinions on what a creator produces. “In that way, the audience actually has an active role in the content that is created,” says Ferchaud. “It sort of blurs the line between creator and viewer [in a way] that hasn’t been possible before.”

These relationships are vital to YouTubers’ success, and they are what turns viewers into a loyal community. High view counts generate more ad money and the potential for a trending spotlight; large subscriber bases ensure better visibility. “That’s not to say that the only incentive is money — it’s not,” says Ferchaud. “People also want to feel like they’re close to their audience ... There is more social interaction [than a medium like television], and I think creators want to have that, otherwise they would not do YouTube. They would do something else.”

“It sort of blurs the line between creator and viewer [in a way] that hasn’t been possible before.”

Leslie Rasmussen, an assistant professor of communications at Xavier University, argues that while some YouTubers may not even be aware they’re cultivating parasocial relationships, the steps they take to grow their audiences are exactly that. Rasmussen published a paper earlier this year — “Parasocial Interaction in the Digital Age: An Examination of Relationship Building and the Effectiveness of YouTube Celebrities” — that focuses on the beauty vlogging community. Speaking to The Verge, she offers an example of a beauty vlogger saying “we’re going to apply this eyeshadow” to include their audience in the experience. “I’m not applying it; you are,” Rasmussen says of the vlogger. “But you’re using this language that does intensify that relationship.”

Rasmussen thinks of the influence vloggers have on their community as a powerful tool. Viewers seeking the advice of their favorite beauty gurus do so because they trust their opinion. “Like a lot of advertising, it presents a lifestyle that maybe you want,” she says. “Even if they’re not advertising a product in a video, they’re still presenting this life that you connect with somehow.”

The power of parasocial relationships can be a double-edged sword, but there’s a lot of power in a loyal audience. After PewDiePie playfully addressed being overtaken by T-Series as the biggest channel on YouTube, his fans rallied and ran to their comments to fan the flames of feud. It can even make or break a YouTuber’s career, especially in the face of extreme controversy. While Logan Paul was reviled for filming a dead body for his channel, his fans (or the Logang, as he calls them) remained his most loyal, loudest defenders.

Viewers who feel friendship or intimacy with their favorite creators can also have higher expectations and stronger reactions when those expectations are disappointed. Just last month, the beauty community was embroiled in a scandal around unearthed racist comments as several beauty gurus (and former friends) feuded online. Part of the fallout included a cringe-worthy apology video from beauty vlogger Laura Lee, which amounted to about five minutes of wiping her eyes and offering excuses. She was subsequently torn apart by fans and fellow YouTubers alike for the rambling apology most believe was forced. She’s since lost more than half a million followers.

Because creators often earn money off their fans through memberships, Patreons, and other cash avenues, there are fans who feel entitled to specific details about the lives of creators or even specific content. Twitch streamers deal with prickly expectations when it comes to disclosing their relationships, whether they’re dating someone or not. Fortnite streamer Ninja explained he doesn’t stream with women to avoid precisely this kind of gossip. While the framing of his issue was clumsy, he later clarified that decision is a preventative measure against harassment and a larger problem faced by streamers: the way fans feel they’re entitled to details and involvement around creators’ personal lives and relationships.

“sometimes viewers will feel some sort of ownership over the creator and the content.”

The divide between creators’ lives and their work is a fine line. In the case of YouTubers like Charis Lincoln, it’s a tricky balancing act. “I share a lot of my life online, but there are a lot of things that I keep private as well,” she says, noting that her husband is especially valuable in helping her navigate awkward situations. She advises others to “save some privacy for your closest friends and family” in order to keep a healthy harmony.

This entitlement can extend to the creative output of influencers as well. “Some YouTubers have talked about how they want to do things creatively but feel constrained to what the audience wants or feeling that frustration that the audience doesn’t necessarily want to see what they want to do,” says Ferchaud. “The issue that that then creates is that sometimes viewers will feel some sort of ownership over the creator and the content.” Look no further than creator Bobby Burns, who faced backlash from his community when he moved into vlogging. Or h3h3Productions, a husband-and-wife duo who met immediate backlash from fans after returning from a three-month hiatus with a promo for a video game they helped create, rather than new vlogs.

As for viewers, it’s important to remember that divide exists and to respect it. “You are not behind the curtain,” says Ferchaud. “You only know what you see in the video. Even if you saw all the videos for 10 years, you only are knowing a portion of that person. You’re not knowing the real-life version. And again, that’s not to say that’s not an authentic version, but it’s just not all of that person. It’s only a portion of them.” It’s become a YouTuber’s burden to enforce boundaries, but fans would do well to remember their favorite celebrities are still there to do a job.