Parasocial relationships are a phenomenon that can often be observed on large social platforms such as Twitch, Youtube, and other similar media. The establishment of such relationships can extend beyond “real” figures. It is an illusionary experience which lets people interact with online personas, ranging from celebrities to content creators all the way to fictional characters, via the usage of social media.
This article will discuss the meaning and establishment of such relationships as they are expressed on Discord and how to deal with them from different perspectives from both subjective and objective standpoints.
A parasocial relationship describes a one-sided relationship between a spectator who develops a personal attachment through various influences to a performer who is not aware of the existence of the spectator. It is strengthened by continuous positive exposure to its source, which mainly happens on social platforms.
In this section we’ll take a look at how parasocial relationships are developed and how to establish the severity of the level of parasocial relationships you are encountering from a moderation standpoint.
The establishment of parasocial relationships can be portrayed as such:
User A, in this example a popular content creator, uploads regular content on a big platform. User B, who takes the position as a member of User A’s audience, takes an interest in their content. User B reacts to User A’s content and observes them. While User A may know that people are enjoying their content, they are unlikely to be aware of every viewers’ existence. This total awareness becomes more unlikely the bigger the audience gets.
User B on the other hand is regularly exposed to User A’s content and takes a liking to them. The interest is usually defined by User A’s online persona: content, visual appeal, likeability, and even their voice can all be influencing aspects. User B perceives User A as very relatable through common interests or behaviors and starts to develop a feeling of loyalty, or even responsibility, during that phase of one-sided bonding. This behavior can be attributed to personal reflection in User A, as well as psychological facts like loneliness, empathy, or even low self-esteem. As a consequence, User B can easily be influenced by User A.
At this point User B might feel like they understand User A in a way nobody else does and may even begin to view them on a personal level as some sort of friend or close relative. They see this individual every day, hear their voice on a regular basis, and believe that they are connecting to them on a deep level. They develop an emotional attachment, and the stronger the parasocial relationship gets, the more attention User B pays to User A’s behavior and mannerisms. While User A most likely doesn’t know User B personally, User B will seek out interaction with and recognition from User A. That behavior is typically represented through donations on stream, where User A either reads out their personal message and name or publishes a “thank you” message on certain websites.
Additionally, User B tries to follow and engage with their idol on as many platforms as possible aside from their main source of content creation. These social media platforms are usually Instagram or Twitter, but can also include User A’s Discord server.
While that type of relationship is natural and sometimes even desired, it is important to define the level of parasocial relationships and differ between its intensity for the safety of the community, the staff members, and the performer. In their article in the Psychology focused academic journal ‘The Psychologist’, researchers Giles and Maltby designed three levels of severity of parasocial relationships based on the Celebrity Attitude Scale.
“Fans are attracted to a favourite celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and to become a source of social interaction and gossip. Items include ‘My friends and I like to discuss what my favourite celebrity has done’ and ‘Learning the life story of my favourite celebrity is a lot of fun’.”
The least harmful level is the general public and social presence. The targeted celebrity is subjected to gossip and mostly provides a source of entertainment. Their presence is mostly found in talks with friends, talk shows, on magazine covers, and similar public-facing media. Discord users on this level usually interact with the community in a relaxed, harmless way.
The next level is parasocial interaction. The characteristics of this level are the development of an emotional attachment of a spectator with a performer, resulting in intense feelings. This behavior is characterized by the spectator wanting to get to know the performer, followed by the desire to be part of their life as well as considering them as part of their own life. A result of that can be addictive or even obsessive behavior, which can be noticed in Discord servers, too.
“The intense-personal aspect of celebrity worship reflects intensive and compulsive feelings about the celebrity, akin to the obsessional tendencies of fans often referred to in the literature. Items include ‘My favourite celebrity is practically perfect in every way’ and ‘I consider my favourite celebrity to be my soulmate’.”
Spectators of that level usually ping the performer or message them privately in an attempt to be recognized. While that behavior is natural, anything that endangers safe interactions between themselves, the community, or the performer needs to be supervised carefully. Unrestrained abusive behavior, which can be found in unwanted intimate, borderline NSFW questions or comments, needs to be addressed and corrected accordingly.
The final level is considered the most intense level and also the most dangerous. It contains severe, harmful obsessions that can extend all the way to stalking and real-world consequences. Parasocial relationships to this degree will rarely be found on Discord, but have to immediately be reported if present.
“This dimension is typified by uncontrollable behaviours and fantasies about their celebrities. Items include ‘I would gladly die in order to save the life of my favourite celebrity’ and ‘If I walked through the door of my favourite celebrity’s house she or he would be happy to see me’.”
The vast majority of users won’t reach the level past seeing the performer as a source of entertainment, but moderators should be aware of potential consequences of anything beyond that as they can be harmful to both the spectator, the performer, and the safe environment you are working to upkeep for all.
Parasocial relationships on Discord can pertain to anyone who is perceived as being popular or influential, making them “celebrities” of Discord. Some examples of parasocial relationships on Discord can be found between a user and a moderator, a user and a content creator you are moderating for, or even a member of your moderation team and the content creator you are working for.
But what does all that mean for you, the mod? While Discord moderators are not nearly as popular and influential as big content creators or celebrities, they are still observed by Discord users. While being a moderator puts you into a position of power and responsibility over the wellbeing of the server, some users perceive it as you climbing the social ladder in the Discord server. In their eyes, becoming a moderator changes your overall social status within your Discord community.
Being hoisted higher in the servers’ hierarchy results in members quickly recognizing you and potentially treating you differently due to your influence, even becoming “fans” of you as a person. Some users will soak up any information they can get about you, especially if they realize that you have common interests. This may lead to the development of a parasocial relationship between users and you. Users you have never interacted with before might see you as a person they would get along with and seek out your attention, leading to a one-sided relationship on their part.
Having such an audience can be overwhelming at first. People will start to look up to you, and younger users especially can easily be influenced by online personas. They might adapt to your behavior or even copy your mannerisms. Knowing that, you should always be self-aware of your actions and etiquette in public to promote a healthy, sustainable relationship with the users. Receiving special attention from users can quickly influence and spiral into developing an arrogant, or entitled attitude. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your position and accomplishments, but being overtly arrogant will influence a members’ behavior towards you.
The mindset of one user deciding a moderator is not being responsible can spread through the community in negative ways. They might belittle you in front of new members and give them the feeling that you won’t be there to help them or might not inform you of ongoing problems on the server during a temporary absence of moderators in the chat. A healthy user-moderator relationship is important to prevent or stop ongoing raids as well as make moderators aware of a user misbehaving in chat.
Additionally, it’s important to be mindful that your perceived fame does not start to negatively influence your judgment. For example, you may find yourself giving special attention to those who seem to appreciate you while treating users that are indifferent towards your position as a moderator more harshly. It also causes the dynamics within the staff team to change as fellow moderators might start to perceive you differently if you begin to allow bias to seep into moderation. They may start to second guess your decisions, feel the need to check up on your moderator actions, or even lose trust in your capabilities.
If you ever notice that you experience said effect, or notice one of your fellow moderators is experiencing it and letting it consume them, be supportive and sort out the negative changes. When confronting another moderator about it, make sure to do it through constructive criticism that doesn’t seem like a personal attack.
In spite of that, the effects of parasocial relationships don’t always have to be negative in nature. If users manage to build such a connection to a moderation team, the general server atmosphere can grow positively. Users know what moderators like and don’t enjoy, which will lead them to behave in a way that appeals to staff and usually abides by the server rules. They will also be able to predict a moderators’ reaction to certain behavior or messages new people might use. As a result, they will attempt to correct users that are mildly misbehaving themselves without getting staff involved immediately in hopes of receiving positive feedback from staff. Naturally, moderators won’t be able to know of every single person that tries to appeal to them through those actions, but once they are aware that such things happen in certain text channels, it will give them the opportunity to focus on other channels and provide their assistance there.
As mentioned before: In the case of content creators who frequently upload videos, streams, and other forms of media for their followers, the chance of a parasocial phenomenon being developed can be even greater. This will only intensify by joining a creators’ Discord server. This can be done under the false assumption that there will be a higher chance of their messages being read and noticed. Your responsibility as a moderator is to neither weaken that bond nor encourage it while providing security for users, staff, and the content creator. Let the users interact in a controlled environment while maintaining the privacy of the content creator.
Some users might even feel like the content creator owes them some sort of recognition after long-term support, both through engagement or donations. Such a demand can be intensified when they’re shown as “higher” in the hierarchy through dedicated Discord roles, such as Patreon/Donator or simple activity roles. In the case of multiple people building a parasocial relationship with the same content creator and experiencing that phenomenon, they may see other active users or even moderators as “rivals.” They see the content creator as a close friend in their eyes and feel threatened that others, especially those that financially support the content creator, perceive them the same or think they are even closer to them. During such moments, it is recommended to keep the peace between users and let them know that the content creator appreciates every fan they have. While the ones providing financial support are appreciated, every viewer is what makes the creator as big as they are and played a part in getting them to where they are today.
Maybe it won’t only be the user that feels closer to them by joining the server. Many beginner moderators may also find themselves feeling as though they are above the rest of the community because their idol has entrusted them with power on their server. Being closer to them than most of the users can easily fog your judgement; it is essential to prioritize being friendly and respectful to the users over these personal convictions. When adding moderators to your moderation team, it is important to keep an eye out for this kind of behavior to combat it, and to hold your teammates accountable should you see this behavior begin to exhibit in one of your teammates. Making sure your entire team is on the same page regarding your duties and standing in the community is essential to maintaining a healthy moderation environment. As a moderator for a Content Creator, this individual you may admire deeply has put their trust in you to keep their community safe. Falling into the machinations of developing an unhealthy parasocial relationship with them directly interferes with your ability to do that, failing not only the community but the creator.
Despite the potential dangers from parasocial relationships, the fact that they develop at all may indicate that you are doing a good job as a moderator. While positive attention and appreciation are key factors to a healthy development, not everyone may like that sort of attention and it is completely acceptable to tell your fellow moderators or even the users themselves about it. At one point you might feel like you reached your limit and need a break from moderation and managing parasocial relationships aimed at you and those around you. Moderator burnout is very real, and you should not hesitate to take a break when you need it.
Users will view you, as a moderator, as a leader that helps guide your designated Discord server in the right direction. As such, you will be a target for rude comments by users that have personal issues with the server while simultaneously getting showered with affection by other users who are thankful for what you do for the server. Never be afraid to ask for help and rely on the moderation team if things go too far for your personal boundaries or comfort level, even if you are an experienced moderator. Establishing a healthy relationship with the community is important, but being able to trust your fellow staff members is even more so. Nobody expects you to build an intimate relationship with every member, but knowing you can count on them and their support is essential for the team to function correctly.