With social media, we reach celebrities with a click, we think we know them, and we’re quick to turn on them. Has our “swipe right, swipe left” culture gone too far?
IF, in the last half decade, you’ve been dumped, or done the dumping, or gotten late-night drunk and decided it was time to explore your options for 15 minutes before becoming overcome by shame, or if you’ve ever been single, or know single people, or if you just, like, have the internet, you know about “the state of dating.” Virtual dating has gone from video personals to three photos on Tinder and a prayer for rain.
Culture is like that, too. Instead of buying records, we stream music on services that plop ads in between our favorite songs. Welcome to our current cultural moment—getting face-fucked by a nonstop stream of information and entertainment.
Famed sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl called this “para-social interaction,” and it’s making America stupid. In 1956, they introduced the concept because TV sets were being bought for most households. People were suddenly “interacting” with strangers for the first time on a national scale. Back then, the friendship was one-sided and completely controlled by the performer.
“There are, of course, ways in which the spectators can make their feelings known to the performers and the technicians who design the programs, but these lie outside the para-social interaction itself,” the sociologists wrote for Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. “Whoever finds the experience unsatisfying has only the option to withdraw.”
That’s how it used to be, but a lot has changed in the contract between the performer and his or her “friends.” Social media gave the performers unprecedented ability to market themselves to us. It’s also transformed marketing into an activity almost more relevant than the performance itself. Chrissy Teigen hasn’t actually modeled in however long. Emily Ratajkowski is more famous for taking off her clothes on Instagram than she is for taking off her clothes in the “Blurred Lines” video. Alexis Ren…well, you get the idea.
Whether they are models, porn stars, or Star Wars actors, performers are now generating their fame from direct audience interaction. This means that we are now closer than ever to being actual friends with actual celebrities. Rather than reading about them on TMZ after their overdose or reenacting Basic Instinct outside Les Deux, we watch celebrities melt down on Twitter in real time.
This is a problem because it pushes the formerly easy-to-understand para-social interaction into this bizarre gray area where the celebrity creates the illusion of friendship with normal people—well, as “normal” as a person running a stan account can be. It’s also a problem because we are constantly inundated with celebs or wannabe celebs who desperately want our attention. And we give it to them, because we want to be friends with famous people—or at least talk shit to them in a venue in which there’s a chance we’ll be acknowledged.
What’s it like to have a large group of hot people who want to be friends with you, but present very little concrete information about their actual lives? Also, you’ll never meet them in real life and they for sure don’t want to fuck you. Basically, pop culture is now Tinder.