What do K-pop “stans,” YouTube fandoms, and Swifties have in common? At one point or another, they have all gained a reputation for being over-obsessed with their celebrity of choice. You’ve seen it on Twitter, Tiktok, and possibly even in person, but to many people’s surprise, this phenomenon has its own name: parasocial relationships.
What are Parasocial Relationships?
According to findapsychologist.org, parasocial relationships are defined as “one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.” The one-sided nature of parasocial relationships between celebrities and fans is often dismissed as harmless, but it’s allegedly far from it.
Fans think they know everything about a famous figure from the content they see online or brief in-person interactions. This dynamic creates unrealistic expectations for the media personality, with fans making assumptions about the celebrity’s life and opinions. Parasocial relationships can have massive impacts on both the celebrity’s mental health and the fans’ independence.
Like with many slang words, the origins of the word “stan” are ambiguous, but it seems to have begun as a compound of the words “stalker” and “fan.” Although stan is now used in a positive sense, many argue that the “stalker fan” characterization is still an accurate representation of K-pop fans.
In the most extreme cases, K-pop fans who are obsessed with “idols,” as the celebrities are called, actively seek out their personal items or personal information. Some use Instagram or Twitter to sell this information to other obsessive stans (called sasaeng), as shown below.
The sasaeng have attacked many “idols” and even broken into their homes. This repeated behavior has given K-pop stans everywhere a reputation for being disrespectful, obsessive, and dangerous.
In a less drastic way, YouTube fandoms have also displayed unhealthy behavior towards famous YouTubers. YouTubers Daniel Howell and Phil Lester are best friends and an entertainment duo that found their success through the creation of their channel “Dan and Phil.” However, that success wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows as many started to speculate about their sexualities and digging deep into their personal lives.
As Howell stated in a coming out video posted to his personal channel, “What me and Phil had was ours and personal and yet some people were trying to get access to it for their own satisfaction.” He reflected on the impact it had on him by saying, “This experience seriously triggered some PTSD in me, and I was back in that dark place.”
For many celebrities, not just Daniel Howell, the assumptions and expectations that come with life in the public eye often lead to mental health issues and a disdain for fame. Unfortunately, the more famous the celebrity, the worse the parasocial relationships are.
The “cult” of the swifties
After Taylor’s Swift’s ultra-popular Eras Tour, her ongoing romance with NFL player Travis Kelce, and record-breaking opening of the Eras Tour concert film, it seems impossible to walk into a room without hearing her name. Swift has reached a new career high, but with so much fame comes a lot of unruly fans.
On August 18, 2023, Taylor Swift was attending a friend’s rehearsal dinner in New Jersey when word got around that she was in town. Hundreds of fans, or Swifties, poured into the streets outside the venue and chanted her name, hoping they’d catch a glimpse of her as she exited.
This behavior is not new to Swift. In her documentary “Miss Americana,” she is shown leaving her New York apartment surrounded by screaming fans. As she enters her car, she looks uncomfortable and says, “I’m highly aware of the fact that that is not normal.”
Similar to the K-pop stans, Youtube fandoms, and other fan groups, the majority of Swifties are not over-obsessed or engage in invasive behavior. Those who do have unhealthy parasocial relationships with celebrities are condemned by the other fans in the community. Despite this, it’s always the “crazy” fans that make the news.
How does this affect fans?
It’s clear that parasocial relationships greatly impact celebrities from all levels of fame, but it’s often forgotten that it’s unhealthy for fans as well. Obsessive fans get so caught up in trying to get as close to a celebrity as possible and being the “perfect fan” that they associate their purpose with that celebrity. Being the number one fan of someone becomes their whole personality.
In addition, they blindly support the actions and opinions of that celebrity, without ever stopping to think about whether they should support and promote them. All of these consequences of a parasocial relationship come at the expense of the fan’s independence. Even for non-obsessive fans, parasocial relationships reflect badly upon them and spread false stereotypes.
Regardless of whether you’re a massive Swiftie, a casual k-pop listener, or a simple observer of this phenomenon, there’s something to learn about parasocial relationships between fans and celebrities. We can all agree that nobody should idolize a celebrity to the point that they lose all sense of self or commit crimes. However, we should also keep in mind that being part of a community of people who enjoy the same artists, actors, or creators is one of the simple joys of life. Humans crave community, so for as long as no legal (or moral) lines are being crossed, we should be respectful and non-judgmental of other people’s interests.