The Internet can't save us from loneliness in pandemic

In 1956, sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined the phrase “parasocial interaction.” It characterized the emotional ties millions of people had developed with performers and personalities beamed into their homes through the then-new medium of television.

This “intimacy at a distance,” as they described it, was striking because, in all of human history until the invention of the gramophone and radio, hearing a human voice meant someone was present. TV added a visual element, and the logic embedded deep in our fundamentally social brains—I hear a voice and see a face, therefore someone trustworthy is present and I feel safe—kicked in.

The problem was that all these relationships were one-sided. Sitting around the house watching television, parasocializing with our favorite news anchors or sitcom characters, didn’t confer the same benefits as socializing with real people.

For half a century, the nature of broadcast media meant it was only celebrities with whom we could form parasocial relationships. But with the advent of the internet, which grants us the ability to communicate with anyone through a screen, a funny thing has occurred: All relationships, even ones with people who know us and reciprocate our fellow-feeling, gained the potential to become parasocial.

But this parasociality is different than the earlier variety, existing somewhere in the gray area between a completely one-sided relationship and the special something that comes from a truly shared encounter.