I hear parasocial relationships—the ones that resemble real relationships, but only when viewed from one angle—are not that good for your nervous system. To make the obvious explicit, they are fundamentally asymmetrical.
With the help of social media, I sometimes forget this: No celebrity I follow actually knows me. (Maybe a few minor blue checkmarks will occasionally heart my comments.) Yet the longer I follow a celeb, the harder it is to remember I don’t actually know them, either.
Humans are wired for relationships, for reciprocity. We expect it, and in the absence of, well, proof of its absence, we just sort of fill in the blanks—with something like friendliness, because while we have a factory setting for “one-sided worship of a goddess” we don’t like to flip that switch too often. And that’s why I kinda feel like Sam Irby is my pal.
It is not saying anything new to point out that we all now have far too many elevated people living, as it were, next door. We’re all aware that keeping up with the Joneses was already hard on us peasants in our feudal past, because the saying “Comparisons are odious” dates from the 1400s. (That was before people could use Facetune to make it look like those were real pearls hot-glued to their wimple.)
And now of course we’re supposed to be keeping up with the Kardashians and the Hadids, Beyoncé and the Biebers and also all their moms. It’s what the writer Freddie de Boer has called the “horror of multiplicity.” Celebs may be the 1%, but they occupy a much bigger slice of the social attention pie.
Where does that leave us? Down there on the bottom tier with the Joneses, I think. Here we are in this artificial, overstocked fish bowl, comparing ourselves to algorithms and holograms—because we can’t help it; that’s part of the horror—and we suffer from the comparison.
And as they said in the slightly less horrified 19th century, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
It would also not be anything new to say, “Delete your social media apps now!” It would be very old and hand-wringing indeed. So I shan’t say that. I will let Jaron Lanier say it (read his thoughtful little book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now). And I will also say that when I read this mini-festo a few years ago, I left Facebook and didn’t look back. It’s been a massive life upgrade.
Unlike Lanier I’m still over on a couple other platforms, where I’ve begun reducing the horror of multiplicity by purging a lot of blue checkmarks from my feed. I find myself asking: Do I know this person? Can I even tell who they are, or is their avatar some anonymous infant or pet? Would I follow them if they weren’t famous? And what is their “influence” on me, anyway? Do they make me want to cook or knit, or do they make me despair about … everything?
Most important, are they here to make me laugh? Because yes to videos of cockatoos swinging in face-mask hammocks. Yes to all medieval tassel enthusiasts. Yes to impassioned pleas for taking the “t” off “tsunami.”
Because as they tell me in the 21st century, laughter is good for the nervous system. Feeling like I need to be six inches taller and 20 pounds lighter is not just to be one of the cool kids is not.
So tell us where you’ve landed in all of this. Have you decided that life is hopelessly intertwined with social media and resistance is futile? Have you curated your feed to a fare-thee-well and unfollowed anybody who makes you feel bad? Or have you gone medieval and left an app or even social media altogether? Or something else? Tell us—yes, irony noted!—in the comments below.