Parasocial: Twitch and the new normal of online relationships

MJ Widomska, 16 June 2020

Have you ever caught yourself forming a bond with an online creator?

Perhaps you were watching their film review on YouTube and thought it could be fun to grab a beer with them. Maybe you followed their make-up tutorial and felt like they’re speaking directly to you. Or you replied to their Instagram story and got a bit annoyed they never messaged you back.

If any of these scenarios sounds plausible, you’re already familiar with the concept of parasocial relationships. The term itself was coined in the 1950s to describe interactions between TV personalities and viewers. In a nutshell, it’s a one-sided connection: you know they exist, they don’t know you do.

Parasocial relationships aren’t new but these one-sided interactions have really come to thrive on social media. There’s an illusion of access to your favourite creator. They’re not quite a Kardashian, so you might just get through to them.

There’s a chance they’ll read your comment and even respond. If you follow them on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, you probably hear from them more often than you do from your actual friends. And then, there’s the hours and hours of content: online creator’s job is to produce constantly. Their fans constantly consume and get invested in the process.

It’s not hard to believe you really know someone when you’ve spent tens or hundreds of hours interacting with them. Yet, you’re not getting their real self. It’s just their social media persona, broadcast to you and millions of other viewers worldwide. The relationship is an illusion.

Parasocial activity

Sites like Twitch amplify this illusion. Professional streamers create content live, and it’s a bit like a video chat with a friend. It feels far more personable than a pre-recorded vlog with high production value. Their success as a streamer largely depends on how well they interact with their audience.

Watch some top streamers on Twitch: they ask and answer questions, joke around, monitor the conversation. What’s more, they often customise the donation system to make sure it gets their attention when streaming. If you become a paying subscriber, your username will pop on their screen and the streamer will read it out loud: you’ll be noticed. If you’d like to, you can donate a little bit more to send them a message, or trigger a specific sound and watch them react.

Even though there are hundreds, if not thousands of fans in the chat, it doesn’t feel that one-sided anymore.

But what does it mean for marketers? These creators have a huge hold over their audiences but it’s one they might not quite grasp themselves. If you’re interested in ethical marketing, it’s your duty to make sure you’re not exploiting this power.

Real consequences, virtual platform

This holds true on every platform, but especially on Twitch — since fewer brands work with streamers than they do with YouTubers or Instagram models, many creators on Twitch don’t know much about sponsorships. It’s your responsibility to guide them. Similarly, audiences on Twitch are not used to being targeted in influencer marketing campaigns, which makes them especially vulnerable.

First of all, make sure ads are clearly marked. If you’re asking an online creator to review a product, make sure they mention they were given the product for free or were paid to create content about it. If your sponsored content lives on Twitch or Mixer, create a company account and be present in the comments, answering questions and interacting with their audience.

That will help even the youngest and most vulnerable fans understand there’s a disconnect between the creator and what they’re advertising. But, if you do it well, this may be a chance for your brand to connect to the audience. Parasocial relationships aren’t inherently negative or positive — many of us form them to some extent and have no trouble differentiating between them and relationships with our friends and family.

Yet, we have an obligation to understand how our influencer campaigns impact fans of online creators and avoid exploiting them, especially on live streaming platforms that intensify parasocial bonds.

Originally published in The Drum.

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