When you watch a YouTuber for hours, you can feel like you know them. That’s called a “parasocial relationship.” It’s an uneven relationship between a fan and a creator, sometimes even fostered by creators for financial gain. YouTuber Shannon Strucci is taking an in-depth look at the phenomenon in a series of documentaries.
Shannon Strucci is a filmmaker living in Atlanta whose channel is mostly comprised of videos about cinema and cinema theory. Her videos about parasocial relationships, titled “Fake Friends,” tackles the many ways in which these uneven relationships impact our lives. She covers obvious examples, like YouTubers and television shows like Dora The Explorer in which the character talks directly to the screen, but she also dives into some unusual examples, like therapy robots and Grape-kun, the penguin who fell in love with a cardboard cutout.
Strucci presents parasocial relationships without much moral judgement. Many parasocial relationships have positive aspects: Paro, a therapy robot meant to imitate a baby seal, has helped elderly patients in nursing homes become more social. Even something like Red Letter Media, who make videos of their staffers hanging out and talking about movies, can give lonely viewers a feeling of companionship. Still, she doesn’t shy away from the more detrimental effects of having a completely one-sided relationship, especially on the side of people who are being fixated on.
We’ve all heard the horror stories, like fans showing up at their favorite streamer or YouTuber’s house. Singer and YouTuber Christina Grimmie was murdered at a public appearance by a particularly obsessed fan. The movie Ingrid Goes West is about a young woman who cons her way into friendship with someone she follows on Instagram. But the weight of other people’s expectations of a creator can take a toll in a more gradual way.
Strucci focuses in particular on Jacksepticeye, an incredibly popular gaming YouTuber with over 19 million subscribers. Strucci uses how he interacts with and thinks about his fans as a way to highlight the stress of being a friend to millions of people he’s never met. In the clips that Strucci uses, Jack talks about his fans as if they are his friends and admits to not having much of a social life outside of YouTuber. In one clip, fellow YouTuber Boogie recounts an instance of Jack being swarmed by fans and then complaining that he can’t meet them all. Boogie describes Jack’s reaction as, “There are thousands of girls, and only one of me!”
Over the course of her video, Strucci explores how Jack’s relationship with his fans has changed to the point where he got depressed. In a video called “I Have To Go Away For A While,” clipped in the documentary, Jack explains to his fans that he’s going to Los Angeles for a couple months to see his friends. He says, “When I’m here in this house each and every day, there’s times that I don’t even leave my house. In the past two weeks I don’t think I’ve left my house, maybe to see a movie or something. And that gets to you after a while, doing the same videos over and over kind of weighs you down, so my mental health hasn’t been in the best place.”
Strucci’s video weaves Jack’s narrative in and out of other examples of creators fostering a parasocial relationship with their fans, but I found Jack’s the most poignant. There’s no roadmap for handling the kind of fame that Jacksepticeye experiences. His fans do feel a deep connection with him, regardless of whether or not he’s able to reciprocate that connection. His videos give them hope and happiness. At the same time, knowing that you are being watched and scrutinized is a tremendous amount of pressure, and it can go wrong for both fan or creator.
Strucci doesn’t offer a magic solution for how to make parasocial relationships healthier for fans and creators. Still, simply understanding the reality of the one-sided connections inherent in parasocial relationships might help us think differently about them.