28 Comments
Feb 12Liked by Joshua P. Hill

Well said, Joshua!

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I agree, Joshua. Community is so much more important than parasocial relationships. I appreciate many musicians and artists, but they don't even come close to my actual friendships.

And I think we can have some meaningful relationships online. There is significant room for back and forth.

When I joined Substack, it became a big part of how I was able to process the genocide Israel is committing against Palestine, and I'm really apppreciative of that.

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I'm 61, and unless I count my wife and my son have no close friends (and haven't had any since I was a teenager). I get somewhat tired of being lectured about this (thanks for nothing, Bowling Alone!); I am an introvert by nature and experienced many unpleasant social interactions as a child and teenager that left me unable to put my trust or faith in anyone beyond my immediate family (my wife and I met when I was 18 and she was 17). I do have a reasonable number of what I call 'acquaintances', and while I enjoy their company I would never share my innermost thoughts or feelings with any of them. If someone tries to get closer to me, I will politely make it clear that this is not an option. There's simply too much risk of hurt or disappointment.

I have neither the ability nor the inclination to make friends, but at the same time I am and have been a dedicated socialist who believes internationalism, communitarianism and solidarity are the only things that can save our species. During the years 2015-19, I had a deep para-social relationship with the Labour Party which has since been completely shattered (you can probably figure out why).

I don't know if any of this makes sense, but my point is that atomisation and alienation are the children of many fathers - and have been for a long time. The decline of union membership, political engagement, fraternal organisations - and the fetid cult of rugged individualism - have all fed the trend, but at the same time some of us are psychologically disinclined to engage with other people. Nature or nurture? I'm guessing mostly nurture, but that's just based on my own experiences.

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panem et circes. great essay, very easy to read and straight to the point!

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Yeah, for me corporate sports have a few problems - they distract and reinforce passivity, nationalism, chauvinism, and authoritarianism + they are deeply problematic in how they profit and create and 'share' wealth. And now the gambling... virus threatens to significantly damage a large segment of the population. I'll continue to pass.

Can't wait for Thiel's Enhanced Games!

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I definitely think many parasocial relationships in this culture are toxic ones. The line between 'stranger' and 'friend' being blurred either by passion (esp w kids/adolescents) or by deliberate effort (capitalist exploitation) can pull us away from reality and forget the inherent one-sided nature of a parasocial relationship. As you say, a parasocial relationship cannot fill the void left by our eviscerated communities and lack of connection. But I think healthy parasocial relationships are actually kind of wondrous. For me my 'closest' parasocial relationships are podcasters. I think it's really cool that I can feel effusive love for people whom I've never met, who have never engaged with or spoken to me personally. It's something that's clearly exploded in scale with social media and the internet, but I think our human ability to care deeply for others without having a direct connection to them is really cool. Where parasocial relationships turn unhealthy is when we forget they are one-sided, or build up an expectation of someone we do not truly know. And, as you said, when we are so absorbed in parasocial relationships that we do not spend time on true, reciprocal connections. As always, it feels like balance is the key.

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We do suffer greatly from the lack of robust social institutions at human scale. Arguments have been made that the sweet spot is about a standalone town of 5,000. It's big enough to provide sufficient DNA diversification, has enough points of contact to make it worthwhile to maintain a reputation, enough diversity to maintain a balance of power but not so much as to leave small pockets of tiny communities who are the common victims of everyone else.

Suburbs needs definition. Does it need a clear edge of some decent interval of open fields on the way home from work? Does a Phoenix style endless grid of strip malls qualify? Do we mean the white picket fence model of superblocks with through traffic on a one mile grid with a school in the center, curving traffic calming streets, sidewalks, unfenced back yards, single-family homes with maybe a few apartments on the periphery? That was an ideal as soon as the streetcar suburbs of 1880-1920 began being supplanted by the automobile suburbs of the 20s followed by the long pause in housing starts in the 30s and 40s that lead to a post WWII housing deficit of 6 million units, for a population of only 150 million. You would think then with the explosion of the Interstate Suburbs in the 50s and 60s, community would have been at a low ebb.

It wasn't. Regular churchgoing was a thing but it was more intimate in scale. It was a bit tribal—a Lutheran girl and a Methodist boy were a "mixed marriage." Fraternal lodges and service clubs, bowling leagues, the holy game of golf, company picnics, organized kids' sports that alternated with what we preferred, which was to be left alone by the adults, PTA, union meetings, bars and coffee shops with regulars that strangers felt a need to fit in among, women visiting each other for coffee on a daily basis, the institution of "company" with every things from casual dropins by family and nearby neighbors to cocktails and formal dinner parties. The mass media, as vast wasteland as FCC Chair Newton Minnow put it, gave everyone something in common to talk about even if it was just last night's re-run of I Love Lucy. There were fewer major league teams to go around but everyone had their club, whether it was local or across the company. High school football and basketball were secular religions in some towns. Most suburbs were in the market area for two or more dailies and there were loyalties there too and neatly tied packages ready to squabble over with each other on who had the inside scoop[ and who was making it all up. Kids could walk around the neighborhood pulling their little wagons on paper drives and no one thought it a problem to knock on a stranger's door.

We can't all fit in Jane Jacob's Greenwich Village or live in a walkable ambit of everything and everyone needed for daily life. No one but DINKs can afford to. So, I disagree that it's all down to suburbs.

Finally, a decline from 1990 to 2024 in the number of friends reported ignores the pig in the python. In those days the oldest boomers were 44. Since 2011, they have been reaching age 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day, going out of the rich social network of the workplace and often moving to the Sunbelt which they thought would be like a permanent vacation and neglected to think about starting friendship networks all over again. The YOUNGEST boomers were mid-20s and this year they are all age 60 or above and very few have friendship ties with other parents who have kids at home. I may sometimes feel like I'm the same guy I was at 44, but the fact is that I'm 77 and if my life weren't different, in every way including friendships, that would be odd even if my oldest friends hadn't started to die off.

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This article is one of the exceedingly rare times I'm gonna agree with a Ravens fan.

I'm a Browns fan; have been all my life, and it's not a parasocial relationship with me- it's my genetic inheritance as a Clevelander. Our dads, moms, goofball uncles, even granddads populate our memories connected to that team, through good and (mostly) bad.

I'm going to avoid talking about Irsay and Modell here, for obvious reasons.

But parasocial relationships are indeed sold to us daily; tho' as I see it, fewer people are buying.

When the pandemic shut all social spaces down for a year or more, parasocial relationships were almost all we had. Having that much weight put upon them for that long kind of exposed the seams and the limits of their worth and utility; and even if ordinary folks couldn't name it, they felt it. Diminishing returns. Especially when money creeps into it.

Of course, the celebrity-creation industries lean hard into trying to make us forget that; but their efforts seem insufficient these days. People seem just less prone to idol worship lately, and false 'social-proof' attempts to prime them for it seem more strident, less subtle, and, kinda desperate. It must not be working too well, to hear the tone of appeals rise like it has this past year or so.

Will that translate into more "real" social relationships? Probably not right away, and maybe not soon. But atomization into individual "consumer-pods" has reached its peak; and no gold has been found there. I think you're right in a lot of particulars, but I believe we're farther along the curve than you think.

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The pandemic facilitated and exacerbated this. When we isolated for so long it was (is) hard to come out again and not feel vulnerable.

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Community around creation instead of consumption (in this case of football) is always more resilient.

However, football is the only thing bringing many people (often men) together. The emotional investment is definitely part of escapism... a collective American dream 3.0. But when watching the game with friends serves as a catalyst for actually conversation, I think it’s a net gain.

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Stadiums are the Colosseum of our time, serves the same purpose of distracting people, just go get your popcorn and coke and whatever you do, do not pay attention to what the psychopaths are up to.

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I completely agree about how we should turn the dial down on our parasocial relationships with celebrities in particular. But I'm grappling with something else, too -- I think we often make our news attention a zero-sum game; as if there are Super Bowl headlines, that eliminates any one person's ability to find Gaza news. Obviously on the day of the SB, those headlines will be in our faces. But news about Rafah was breaking in my AP feed last night, too. I don't like to give things more power than they have, so I try to remember that even if it feels like Super Bowl/celebrity/whatever news is the only thing people care about, I can find the news about the things I care about if I seek it out.

I also saw a headline today about all the celebrities who have not spoken out about Gaza, and I don't like that kind of reporting either, because I don't want celebrities to set the tone for what we care about; I don't expect them to give me my news or set my moral direction. If we are invested in decreasing celebrity worship, we shouldn't care whether they center themselves and their opinions when it comes to world events. Unfortunately I think the impetus is on each of us to decide what kind of information we want to seek, and then work a little harder to seek it out. It's there, even if it's a little buried under the less-important headlines.

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I’m not into fighting losing battles.

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I think this essay explains the reason so many fans have been pushing their faves (like Taylor Swift) to talk about Gaza. We KNOW that these celebrities don’t have a true influence on politics but we also know that their fan base is SO depoliticised and so deep in their parasocial relationship that if the celebrity said something for Gaza, then it could actually be a powerful enough moment to mobilise the fan base to pursue political action. Thank you Joshua!

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Really interesting analysis. To think a step further, I wonder if some of these things have morphed into parasocial as a result of capitalist expansionism. Supporting a football club, for instance, used to represent something tangible - it was a community and was embedded within one. Now, with commercialisation complete, those clubs have had to abandon their traditional constituents in search of ever more consumers, leaving them alienated. Of course, I’d hazard that the most extreme form of a parasocial relationship is nationalism itself - patriotism weaponised to garner support for actions beyond any justification

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What if i dont like my neighbors? Don’t want to live in this community?

But i cant leave.

Family and other reasons = stuck. All my friends live far away and there is not enough time or money to visit them. They wont visit me because this place sucks. I feel like all my relationships are parasocial now.

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