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Parasocial interaction (PSI) refers to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television and on online platforms. Viewers or listeners come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having no or limited interactions with them. PSI is described as an illusory experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show hosts, celebrities, fictional characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them. The term was coined by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956.
A parasocial interaction, an exposure that garners interest in a persona, becomes a parasocial relationship after repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media user to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification. Positive information learned about the media persona results in increased attraction, and the relationship progresses. Parasocial relationships are enhanced due to trust and self-disclosure provided by the media persona.
Media users are loyal and feel directly connected to the persona, much as they are connected to their close friends, by observing and interpreting their appearance, gestures, voice, conversation, and conduct. Media personas have a significant amount of influence over media users, positive or negative, informing the way that they perceive certain topics or even their purchasing habits. Studies involving longitudinal effects of parasocial interactions on children are still relatively new, according to developmental psychologist Sandra L. Calvert.
Social media introduces additional opportunities for parasocial relationships to intensify because it provides more opportunities for intimate, reciprocal, and frequent interactions between the user and persona. These virtual interactions may involve commenting, following, liking, or direct messaging. The consistency in which the persona appears could also lead to a more intimate perception in the eyes of the user.