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Celebrities are humans too: Inside the minds of superfans and stans

Ever think about how much you love that one celebrity? Celebrities are human but, in our heads, it’s soo easy to forget that. Enter superfans, stans, and fandom.

It’s not that it’s fair, but can you blame us? At the same time, how is it that the public can grow so close towards these figures that we don’t really know?

To all the superfans out there…

Before we ask why let’s step back and ask what. This type of relationship that a person adopts with celebrities is typically referred to as a para-social relationship.

These relationships aren’t exactly new. In fact, the term ‘para-social interaction’ was first coined in the 50s by two sociologists, known as Horton and Wohl.

This term was first used to describe the relationship between a performer and their audience members.

For example, a relationship where the audience member felt completely close, like a friend, to someone who really had no clue of their existence. In other words, it was used to analyze fan behavior.

In more recent definitions, the terms para-social interaction and parasocial relationships have separated, holding their own meanings. According to a study done by Sarah F. Rosaen, Tilo Hartmann, and Jayson L. Dibble,

“Parasocial interaction refers to a faux sense of mutual awareness that can only occur during viewing. In contrast, parasocial relationship refers to a longer-term association that may begin to develop during viewing, but also extends beyond the media exposure situation.”

It should also be noted that a parasocial relationship can grow without the other being acknowledged, for example, one where a fictional character is involved.

Unless a person thanks their fans or the character breaks the fourth wall, there is no acknowledgment of the viewer.

When everything changed

As time has passed and technology has grown, para-social relationships have flourished, thriving from these changes.

This is primarily since media has allowed an even closer bond to happen because there is so much content to gather about a performer or an individual.

Instagram Live Stories, Twitter, Twitch Streams, Facebook streams… It is so easy to keep track of anyone. Hell, the internet has allowed us to develop para-social relationships with anyone we see on the internet, not just mainstream stars anymore.

Even still, celebrities or media can offer a sort of comfort in being a constant. Unless an artist quits music or the series franchise flops, there is a consistency that exists in this para-social relationship.

Stars are usually portrayed in very intentional lights, areas, and do not stray from that visual. It is easy for a star to seem perfect, of course—everything an audience member sees is purposeful.

That’s why we meme Youtubers who show up in an apology video, no makeup on, crying to the camera in sweats about how terrible the thing they got caught doing was.

We have kind of learned that, with a lot of these things, there is an algorithm, a function to it.

Correlation Causation

Of course, that only raises the question as to why we indulge in this. There are several theories that have tried to explain why we tend to do this, to develop these relationships.

Some studies say that this is due to the way humans process attachment. According to the book, The brain has a mind of its own: Insights from a practicing neurologist, and a study done by Gayle Stever, It is difficult for our brains to make the distinction between who we know IRL and who we know via social media.

Plus,  there’s also the fact that we are biologically predisposed to bond with people who are familiar, can help answer why we do it. We can’t help it.

Loneliness and adolescence can also exacerbate this type of relationship as well. According to the Social Cognitive Theory, our environment, behavior, and our own personality can also play into how susceptible we are to creating these relations.

However, don’t immediately tear that Harry Styles poster off your wall just yet. It should go without saying that parasocial relationships do not immediately mean infatuation.

Infatuation is a much darker side of a para-social relationship. It’s an extremity. While these relations are still a topic of hot debate in psychology, these phenomena are fairly common in adolescents.

The caveat is that this dependency can leave us at moments crushed when say, our beloved celebrity turns out to not be that smart, or quits music, or fails us in our expectations of them in some way.

In other words, we are in love with the idea of someone, rather than their actual person.

“I’ve never met him but he’s the love of my life.”

This isn’t our fault—we don’t expect celebrities to really fail our expectations because we have learned what to expect through media.

Except, like all things, they’re human, and sometimes that reality can drop on you like the realization that you didn’t submit your final paper.

Also, that realization? It can be nasty. I mean, apply this type of relationship or attachment to well-known shows or games.

That’s why when games like Last of Us 2 don’t meet the expectation that we as an audience have come to meet (thanks to our head insisting it’ll be exactly like the first game), people can go off the deep end.

So the solution? Don’t sever the connection, but do take breaks in your disbelief.

Ground yourself in reality, whether that means pulling off of social media, interacting with friends, or straight up reminding yourself that this a para-social relationship.

You can still have your cake and eat it too, just so long as you remember it’s not your wife you’re eating.