Parasocial Relationships Let Social Skills Atrophy

There’s a lot of money to be made in parasocial relationships, which is why, if you look closely, you’ll notice that a huge portion of the internet is engaged in selling or buying parasocial relationships. Some of these are unavoidable—you cannot help but feel some attachment to a person you hear and see, even if they’re just giving a lecture on theology. The more pernicious ones have a built-in vicious cycle, though.

A person who lacks the social skills (and possibly the self-discipline) to form real relationships with the human beings actually around them, or even to do the much less demanding task of forming and maintaining such relationships with people they only know online, will naturally be drawn to parasocial relationships all the more strongly because their social needs are not lower just because they’re incompetent at meeting them. YouTubers and Instagram stars who tell their audience how much they love them are a minor example. On the more dangerous end of the spectrum you will find males who devote themselves to masculinity gurus or, more extreme yet, women with OnlyFans pages. (I think these are sufficiently obvious that they need no further explanation.) This end of the spectrum manifests somewhat differently for women; for example, a great deal of what gets called “feminism” is actually the attempt by lonely women with poor social skills to parasocially bond with other women. Women in real life often bond over what superficially looks like complaining but is actually an exercise in shared (detail-oriented) social analysis. A lot of the “feminism” that you see has at most the bare trappings of any kind of idea, not even of the ideas of the bad kinds of feminism, and really is just complaining gussied up with popular terminology whose only purpose is to feel like the writer and reader and bonding over sharing experiences. Or what they wish were shared experiences. (“Don’t you just hate it when hot guys stare at you instead of doing their own workouts at the gym???”)

These more extreme forms of parasocial bonding involve no actual interactions, or at most perhaps the interaction of leaving a comment and it occasionally being responded to. This requires few social skills on the part of the “content creator” and no social skills of any kind on the part of the content consumer. Especially on the side of the content consumer, that attracts people who have few social skills, and then it leaves them there. Real relationships are hard, but intrinsically teach people to improve their social skills. Even the thick-headed who don’t try much eventually learn to be more cautious after losing a bunch of friends, though they may blame the friends rather than themselves. Even if very imperfectly, they still learn. But people who consume parasocial content learn nothing. In the case of masculinity gurus and “feminist” complaining, they may even learn only bad lessons. Masculinity gurus sometimes advise the people who listen to them to substitute pointless aggression for confidence and to avoid social skills for fear of being mislabeled as a “nice guy”, and “feminist” complaining sometimes is complaining that women have to treat other people—especially male people—like human beings (e.g. articles that talk about “emotional labor”). As a sort of double-whammy, people who have come to this kind of “content” because they lack social skills are particularly poorly equipped to spot what’s wrong and reject it.

Even if people whose social interactions are primarily parasocial consumption don’t learn bad lessons from the people they flock to, they get their needs for social interaction temporarily met without having to engage in any of the social interactions that will build their social skills. Since social skills, like all skills, takes work to maintain, this means that whatever they do have of social skills will atrophy through disuse. And, of course, the more these skills atrophy, the stronger the attraction of purely parasocial content.

It is by no means inevitable, but it is a dangerous trap.

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