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Parasocial Relationships with T.X. Watson


In this episode Elizabeth chats with TikTok creator and researcher T.X. Watson about parasocial relationships and how this term created in the 1950s applies, or not, to digital content creators. T.X. talks about relationships between influencers and their followers and how both research and popular culture still don't have words to properly describe this new form of connection. They discuss important topics that show up throughout this season of Wonks and War Rooms, such as authenticity, ethics, co-creation and measuring influence.


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Episode Transcript: Parasocial Relationships with T.X. Watson

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Elizabeth Dubois: [00:00:04] Welcome to Wonks and War Rooms where political communication theory meets on the ground strategy. I'm your host, Elizabeth Dubois. I'm an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and University Research Chair in Politics, communication and Technology. My pronouns are she/her. Today we're talking about parasocial relationships with T.X. Watson. T.X. can you introduce yourself, please?


T.X. Watson: [00:00:23] Yeah. Hi, I'm T.X. Watson. I'm the actor who plays T.X. Watson on TikTok. I've been making content on the platform for about three years now, I think. Actually almost four. Started [at] the same time a lot of people started, early in the pandemic. About six months later I was able to switch over to doing it full time. I make educational-ish content.


T.X. Watson: [00:00:48] I also research TikTok. I work with the Online Content Creators Association in a collaboration with Arizona State University. We've done a few projects together. We're currently working on a series of interviews with TikTokers on a, I think, NEH [The National Endowment for the Humanities] grant. And I've worked with Kelly Cotter and Shaheen Kanthawala at Penn State and University of Alabama. Apart from that, I'm currently in the process of applying to graduate programs. Oh, and I presented at AoIR this past year, the Association of Internet Researchers conference.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:01:19] Yes. And that's where I got to know about you and your work. One of the PhD students that works in the PolCommTech Lab with me, Louise Stahl, saw you talk and was super impressed and said, you know, "we got to talk to T.X. on the podcast". So thank you so much for being here. I am really excited to talk to you. Given that kind of combo of academic experience and lived experience being on TikTok, making content all of the time. We're going to talk about parasocial relationships today, and I'm really curious about your perspective on that. So as always, I'm going to start off with just a quick definition that I've pulled from some of the academic literature, and we're going to chat about whether or not that makes sense in your experience, whether or not that makes sense from your research and move on from there.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:02:05] So, when we're thinking about parasocial relationships, for a lot of people, that term has only become something we've heard of in the last couple of years, as social media influencers and content creators have gotten more popular, and people have tried to explain what the relationship between a content creator and their followers or fans is. But the term itself actually came about in the 50s. So back in the 50s, researchers were trying to understand how people relate to TV newscasters and to radio personalities, and also to like cartoon characters and other fictional characters played by actors [see: Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance]. And what they described was this parasocial relationship, which they contrasted to interpersonal relationship. An interpersonal relationship is two people having interactions. It's the kind of relationship we have with our friends, our family, our colleagues, that sort of thing. Parasocial is when it's one-sided. So the person, the fan, the follower believes they have this intimacy, this connection, this relationship with whoever the TV personality is. But in reality, that TV personality has no idea who they are and does not actually connect with them or interact with them at all.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:03:20] As our understanding of the role of content creators and social media influencers has evolved, some people have taken the term parasocial relationship and said "Yep, that's what that is". Other people like Crystal Abidin, who's done a whole bunch of research on content creators and internet celebrity, says "It's not actually quite the same. There's some important differences". Which we can get into a little later. Others have talked about trans-parasocial relationships, also pointing to some differences [see: Social Media Influencers and Followers: Theorization of a Trans-Parasocial Relation and Explication of Its Implications for Influencer Advertising]. But before we get into all of that, I wanted to get your initial thoughts. Have I described this in a way that makes sense to you? Is there anything you would add or change?


T.X. Watson: [00:03:56] Yeah. I think you covered all of the things that I generally try and hit in introducing someone to the concept, which is that the term parasocial is used in sort of popular discourse right now to talk about internet content creators, like internet celebrity, but it significantly predates that and was coined to talk about a kind of media relationship that is, in many important ways, extremely different from being an internet content creator.


T.X. Watson: [00:04:24] And I think that it makes sense that the term got popular to talk about this, because it's a relatively recent phenomenon that anybody needs to be able to talk in-depth and detail, in casual, social conversation about one's relationship to people who are like celebrities in some sense, as opposed to just talking about the existence of those celebrities. People needed language for that, and they reached for the nearest available language. And I think it's only after that started happening that academics like Crystal Abidin noticed that was happening and were like, "Actually, there is not a great alignment between the language we're using and the concepts we're trying to capture. So let's try and develop more nuanced tools for talking about this stuff" [see: Communicative Intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness].


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:05:07] I think that makes a lot of sense. Can you talk a little bit about what you think those important differences are? What are the pain points that stick out most for you with the way parasocial relationships is getting used kind of in popular discourse?


T.X. Watson: [00:05:21] Yeah. So the easiest contrast I can think of to draw is between late-night talk show hosts and TikTok creators. Because the original paper on parasocial relationships was written mainly to talk about late-night talk show hosts as a distinct kind of celebrity from actors [see: Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance]. Because there is a continuity of their personality over time and their identity over time, in the course of many works. And because it is represented as being their authentic self. And the degree to which that is or isn't the case, I think is maybe beyond the scope of this conversation and in any case, way too messy to draw any useful conclusions about.


T.X. Watson: [00:05:59] But a late-night talk show host in the 1950s, with respect to their relationship to audience members who have this parasocial sense of attachment, they're going to be able to reliably expect that anything they choose to broadcast their audience will see. And it is extremely difficult for that audience to get any messages to the [talk show] host.


T.X. Watson: [00:06:23] Conversely, TikTok creators have no control over which of our videos TikTok chooses to push out to our audiences. Audiences have to go well out of their way to consistently access all of the content we're trying to put out, rather than what comes across their feed. And by default, creators are immediately exposed to every thought any audience member chooses to share with us.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:06:47] Right.


T.X. Watson: [00:06:48] I have notifications entirely off for TikToks, except for DMs [direct messages], and my DMs [direct messages] are limited to mutuals only. But if a creator doesn't do that, then their phone lets them know in the middle of the night that someone has an opinion about their latest video. And that person probably hasn't seen the four other videos they've made expanding on the point that cover all of the things that person's about to bring up.


T.X. Watson: [00:07:11] So parasocial relationships as a concept, part of what it aims to capture is the idea of this dramatic difference in access to communication and while there are dramatic differences in access, they are not the same differences from platform to platform. And I think TikTok makes a really stark contrast to talk shows. But there are other contemporary media platforms that are more like talk shows, like a podcast host has a much more talk show-ish relationship to their audience.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:07:39] And then there's some platforms where, depending on how you choose to use it, it could be more similar to the talk show, or it could be more similar to TikTok approach. I'm thinking about Instagram, for example, where you could be doing lots of reels and taking a very TikTok style approach to the way you make use of the tool. Or you could be only putting out things, maybe in your stories, and ignoring any of the interaction, and really, it's just about broadcasting information to whoever's chosen to follow you. Because there is more of a culture of choosing to follow accounts on Instagram, because Instagram existed before reels became a thing, mostly to compete with TikTok.


T.X. Watson: [00:08:21] A thing that I would really love to see, and I see this sort of developing a little bit in the language that's emerging and has been being developed over the last decade about this kind of stuff, but I would love to see rather than names for different kinds of relationships, I'd love to see a language for different variables that different media structures can have in terms of, what kinds of relationships they afford between audiences and creators.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:08:50] Yeah.


T.X. Watson: [00:08:51] And when I say, I'd love to see that, I mean, that's what I want to work on in grad school. I really hope somebody lets me in.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:08:55] I agree with you. We really do need better ways of describing what's happening, but I think we need to be building out our theories and our conceptual frameworks in ways that help us think about how it also changes over time. One of the things with the way social media and digital technology more broadly have changed communication patterns, consistently comes back to how quickly the technologies evolve, how quickly affordances of different technologies evolve. Shout out to past episode where we talked about affordance theory, for anyone who doesn't know what that means [Technological Affordances with Rachel Aiello]. And the norms of the use too, right? Our expectations of what is appropriate and what isn't. And so I like that sort of variables approach. Can you give us a sneak peek? What kinds of variables do you think need to be considered?


T.X. Watson: [00:09:41] Jumping back a sec, because this is just like an umbrella concept that will be useful in answering that question. You mentioned when you were explaining, the popular use of parasocial, that people talk about it being one-sided relationships. I think that that framing lends itself to misunderstanding. I prefer to talk about it as asymmetrical relationships. And that parasocial relationships are a type of asymmetrical relationship. There are a lot of types of asymmetrical relationships: like parent-child, teacher-student, government-subject.


T.X. Watson: [00:10:14] But when it comes to parasocial relationships, the asymmetry is between, in one direction the relationship is individual and in the other direction the relationship is collective. A fan has a relationship to the creator. The creator has a relationship to their audience.


T.X. Watson: [00:10:31] And that's one of the things that [...] I have a lot of audience members who I know personally and have more direct relationships with. This is actually something Nancy Baym in "Playing to the Crowd" talks about the concept of relational labor, which is a really useful framework for talking about that kind of interaction, where it's "the ways in which having relationships with or to people, it is part of your job and it is part of your professional life". But apart from that, I also have like a sense of collective relationship to my audience as an entity. And that is the part of the relationship that I think is parasocial.


T.X. Watson: [00:11:08] But yeah, so that asymmetry is, I think, an important variable that is worth tracking. I think authority is also a very weird one. I was listening to some of the recent episodes of your podcast, the one on news influencers and about [how] there are people who disavow the position of being reporters in spite of doing things that are unambiguously reporting [News Influencers with Rachel Gilmore]. And this is something that I want to work on because I think creators need it as much as, because it would be useful to have research language for it.


T.X. Watson: [00:11:41] There are not easily referenceable frameworks coming from any kind of place of authority that can help a person decide what their ethical responsibilities are, and determine how to communicate their sense of their ethical responsibilities to their audience. Journalists have codes of ethics in the industry. Those ethics are not consistently expressed across all publications, but also there is a fairly straightforward way of getting a cultural vibe of how respectable any given publication is, perhaps less so in the last few decades. But, you know, when I was a kid, I recall it being uncontroversial that, like the National Enquirer was not as credible as the New York Times.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:12:29] Yeah.


T.X. Watson: [00:12:29] You can get a lot of that by looking to older creators and looking at what they say about that, but that's extremely scattershot, just based on who you happen to want to be listening to, and which of those people you happen to catch talking about ethics on the day they decide to talk about ethics. Because, again, it's not easy for people to systematically get out particular messages to everybody. You know, I think a lot of my intuitions and feelings about the ethics of content creation come from the Vlogbrothers John and Hank Green, because I've been watching them for 12 years.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:13:00] Right.


T.X. Watson: [00:13:00] But if somebody wanted to go back and get all of the same influences that I have, that would be an incredibly arduous research project, because there's 12 years of content to comb through. And a lot of it is something Hank said in a 45 minute long Hank's Channel video that is not relevant to the point that the video is supposed to be about.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:13:23] Yeah, there's no keyword searching that's gonna work. That's gonna pull that up for you. Even if you had a database of all of it. Because the conversations around ethics can get embedded into how all kinds of different content get created. It's not like you have a channel all dedicated to ethics, necessarily, although I'm sure somebody does. But if you're looking to which creators do I want to emulate, or do I admire, or do I think are doing a good job, there [are] lessons [that] are lessons are going to be scattered throughout a whole bunch of content.


T.X. Watson: [00:13:53] Yeah. And even in that case, what you're getting is somebody's opinion about what your ethics should be. What I want is a collectively established, through some sort of large scale established creator collaboration. Essentially a series of if then statements that are like "if this is what you're trying to accomplish and this is how you're presenting yourself, these are the assumptions that your audience are going to make about you. And these are the ethical standards that if you are not holding them, there exist people who are going to be judging you about that". 


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:14:25] Which just seems so difficult to do, though, when we think about that ever changing environment in terms of the technology and the norms. But then also one of the things that I've been observing is how we like to be able to clump content creators, but actually we have a bunch of folks who are using content creator logics, tactics, strategies, who are also playing the roles of other kinds of actors in society. I mean actors as in players, not as in theatrics.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:14:56] Yeah, we've talked about news influencers [News Influencers with Rachel Gilmore]. We've talked about political influencers on the podcast [Political Influencers with Nate Lubin]. There are politicians who use a whole bunch of content creator tactics in their approaches. There are so many different professions where you see a content creator version of it, and I have to assume that the ethics of those different professions and different kinds of roles are going to intertwine with ethics of content creatorship. And so, man, that's a lot of if then statements to create.


T.X. Watson: [00:15:24] Yeah. And I think that actually circles back to the thing about wanting like just a set of variables to talk about this stuff. I fairly confidently believe that if you dig into it hard enough, you're going to find that there's no coherent way to distinguish politician from content creator.


T.X. Watson: [00:15:40] I think that those are the same job. It is a job where your primary responsibility is performing to an audience and you are dealing with a constant negotiation between the material impact of the things you do with your platform and the perceived narrative impact of the things that you do with your platform. And your ability to keep your job depends on that second one, not the first one.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:16:05] Yeah, that's a really interesting perspective. There's a whole bunch of questions about all of the things that are part of a politician's job that are not done on platform and that are not like the public presentation of creating content. But I can definitely see that connection that you're drawing.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:16:22] Let's pull this apart a little bit. I'd love to talk about the performance part. Because I actually really enjoyed that, in your intro, you start off with "the actor who plays". Talk a little bit about your experience performing yourself or your TikTok self and what that actually means.


T.X. Watson: [00:16:41] So this is something where I feel my experience doesn't necessarily universalize well. Because I have always felt like a very performed person. The idea that there are parts of life that are not performance has never made any sense to me. So being an internet content creator, performing a version of myself for an audience feels the same thing as being a person in relationships who performs a version of myself for my friends. It's just like a different show.


T.X. Watson: [00:17:11] And, I have found when I talk to other creators about this, that this is actually very far from being a universal experience, even among specifically people who are very good at being internet content creators. But as I understand it, coming from a lot of other people, there are a lot of creators who have a very strong sense of tension between being an authentic self on the platform and being a performed self. There are issues that can emerge as a result of that, because a lot of people get successful because they are performing their own authentic enthusiasm, and then they wind up in a situation where they have a professional obligation to perform an enthusiasm that they may not be feeling at any given particular moment. And that can really start to eat into a person's ability to make the content that they make and also enjoy the things that they were passionate about enough to get a platform talking about.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:18:07] Yeah, and there is something about being a content creator and growing your online persona, growing your business, if that's what you're trying to do, you change your relationship to the thing that you're talking about, that you created a community around.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:18:22] Now, that's not always the case, but particularly when people go from being a super relatable "I'm just like you testing out, you know, like grocery store brands of whatever makeup" to like, "Oh, I am a multi-millionaire now. Getting sent top-of-the-line samples from all of these really fancy, extremely expensive brands". Like, that's a very different kind of content, very different kind of relationship that you can develop. And even if you start out feeling[...] (I'm going to use the word authentic, which is another one of these words that's terribly overused and used in a nonspecific way right now). But even if you start out feeling like you are presenting yourself as you are, eventually through the process, you may get farther from that.


T.X. Watson: [00:19:11] The idea of being authentic is being a version of yourself that you would be, if there were not influences affecting your decisions about how to be. That is the way that I understand most people understand it. And by pursuing that intentionally, you are already failing. So making authenticity a goal, it's just a mechanism for self-punishment. It's a kind of elaborate way to self-flagellate about being conscious of the way that you interact with people.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:19:38] Yeah. Which obviously can lead us down spiraling into circles that are not necessarily productive or helpful. One of the things I always talk to my students about is: if you're using any of these concepts, you have to pick whichever one makes sense for whatever argument you're trying to advance and understand. And my issue with authenticity is sometimes you take too broad a version of it and then it's no longer useful. But we're getting a little off track.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:20:03] I wanted to return for a second to some of those critiques of the idea of parasocial relationships being used to understand content creators' connections to their followers. So some of the arguments that we've already talked about are the idea of the relationship one has, and I really like how you frame it as it's not about being one sided or not, it's about asymmetries. There's a bunch of types of relationships that can have asymmetries. Parasocial is just one of a wide variety. One of the other things that gets talked about a lot in the critiques among the folks who say parasocial isn't quite the right term, is the idea of co-creation and the idea of that sort of interactivity and creating content [see: Communicative Intimacies: Influencers and Percieved Interconnectedness]. And so when we're thinking about the kind of relationship that content creators have to their audiences, co-creation can look a bunch of different ways. Can you talk a little bit about how it looks for you?


T.X. Watson: [00:21:01] Yeah. One of my favorite things that I do as a part of my job is one of my Patreon rewards that I share with a bunch of other creators (because this is a thing that is much easier to do when it's like a reward for any of several people's Patreons). We host a reading group together where we meet once a week and do a discussion. My friend Ellie reads a text on their Twitch channel, and then we do a group discussion, and then we go to a private discord channel where the discussion continues with our audience members [see T.X.'s reading group on twitch]. And that is some of the most fruitful conversations I have on a regular basis. And I have had a fair number of TikToks that started with ideas that came from that. I just kept thinking about them and eventually had thoughts that were coherent enough to put in a TikTok.


T.X. Watson: [00:21:46] And apart from that, comment responses. I don't do comment responses super often because I get nervous about being angry at someone who is expressing an interest in talking to me on the internet, it can feel like a mean thing to do. But also just sometimes a comment irritates me so much that I have a lot to say about it, and it makes it very easy to make a follow-up tiktok.


T.X. Watson: [00:22:07] I also have friends who I will stitch them and make videos built on their videos. Or even people I've never met before who are talking about an interesting thing that I want to follow up on. And I think that co-creation as an element of artist-audience relationships is, I think, a really good place to bring up. One of the things that I think stands in the way of a clear cultural understanding of what content creators are, which is the cultural belief that there is a meaningful sense in which there are people who are artists and people who are not artists. A lot of people understand themselves to be not artists and not artistic people and not meaningfully contributing to art. And when I say they shouldn't think of themselves that way, I don't necessarily mean they should start painting.


T.X. Watson: [00:22:55] I don't mean they need to change anything about the way that they're living their whole lives, but their ability to understand the media they engage with, the art they engage with, the content they engage with, the news they engage with would significantly improve if they were not holding this barrier of creative input between themselves and the nominal creator. Which, as I say, nominal creator, it occurs to me that another major cultural block in the way of getting people to agree with this premise is the importance we place on authorship. Because, thinking of yourself as meaningfully contributing to a work in your reading of it - I don't want to say consumption, because I feel that is sort of a loaded term in a sense that it is loaded in a way that it contradicts my premise - but the idea that you meaningfully contribute to a work by reading it, I think, for a lot of people feels like it would be insulting to the author, like it is an attempt to claim authorship over something that someone else is exclusively entitled to claim authorship of.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:23:55] It makes me think a lot about the ideas of remix culture and the kinds of things that we saw when web 2.0 was the big thing, and everybody was interested in how people could take content and make it their own, or repurpose it or add to it [for more on remix culture see the book: Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy]. And there were some very legitimate and are some very legitimate copyright concerns, for sure. And as you're saying, even outside of the copyright legal infrastructure, there's questions about whether or not it seems presumptuous to be "Oh, yeah, I contributed to this author's content". That author put so much into creating it. But then I think about things like, how many times have we repurposed Shakespeare? And that only makes Shakespeare way more culturally important. You know? Shakespeare is not alive to reap the rewards or feel the detriments of his work being taken and used in different ways, but it does feel culturally relevant, I think, to think about that history that we have as a society of building off creation.


T.X. Watson: [00:24:56] Yeah. And I think the important thing when it comes to talking about the way that these kinds of ideas have copyright implications, is that copyright is not a moral system. Copyright is a pile of gum and duct tape designed to make creative expression a thing that a person can do without starving to death. It is a legal interfacing tool between expression and capitalism. And your values about how art works and what art is do not need to be compatible with copyright philosophically, in order to affirm that copyright is a moral necessity in the industrial system we live in.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:25:31] Yeah, that's a helpful framing of it. While we're on the topic of capitalism, one of the ways that the idea of parasocial relationship has been popularized beyond academia has been through social media influencer marketing and the whole marketing world that tries to explain what the value of content creators could be to a given brand. Right? And the argument is, and there is some research that's backing this up, that creators that have strong parasocial relationships are able to more directly impact the adoption intent of their audiences. Their recommendations are more likely to be taken up versus somebody who doesn't have a strong parasocial relationship [see: Micro, macro and mega-influencers on instagram: The power of persuasion via the parasocial relationship]. There's also some interesting early findings that suggest, you know, if you have a strong parasocial relationship with your audience, the number of followers you have becomes less important in terms of your ability to influence decisions.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:26:26] Now, there's all kinds of fun methods, questions about how you measure any of that, but let's just take for a moment this potential role of parasocial relationships. And this is a two part question, you know: does this resonate with how you think about parasocial relationships? And if not, how do you think about parasocial relationships? Is it a tool that's useful to you when you're thinking about the content you're creating and your experience online?


T.X. Watson: [00:26:54] I think that this is a great segue into one of my favorite things to complain about in the talk about social media influence. I forget the name of the guy, but the guy who coined the terms social capital in the book where he first introduced those terms, there's like a footnote where he explains the idea of social capital, cultural capital and symbolic capital [note: Here T.X. is talking about Pierre Bordieu and his book Forms of Capital]. He says there are those three, and then there's economic capital. And he says the field of economics only concerns itself with economic capital, because it's the only one that can be meaningfully converted into numbers, which I just think is a very funny subtweet of an entire field. They pretend the other kinds don't exist because they can't be measured. And I think that it is impossible to have a meaningful opinion about influencers, if you maintain the conviction that a thing doesn't exist, if it can't be measured. 


T.X. Watson: [00:27:43] But I think the really important thing about understanding influencers and understanding influence is that influence is a word we use to describe a huge variety of relational phenomena that have enough in common that it's sometimes useful to group them. The problem is the ways in which it's useful to group them, very specifically by exactly the conversation you're having.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:28:07] Right.


T.X. Watson: [00:28:08] And when you use the word influence to talk about, [for example], whether everybody on the platform can sell things and you treat number of followers and engagement rates as a proxy for influence, what you're going to get is comparisons between a cooking channel with 100,000 followers who could very easily sell cooking products to their audience, and me, a person who has built their platform on anti-capitalist rants. No one has ever wanted to work with me, branding wise. I have had one ad deal, and it was an experiment that I was doing with the Online Content Creators Association. We made up a fake company to see how strict the TikTok creator marketplace was about vetting the people they work with. It turns out, no vetting whatsoever [note: the TikTok Creator Marketplace is an official platform to connect content creators with brands wishing to work with them].


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:28:57] Ah, good to know.


T.X. Watson: [00:28:59] We felt it was important that our members know that the fact that somebody is operating through the official TikTok creator marketplace does not mean they are any safer than somebody who DMs [direct messages] you on Instagram. Yeah, I've had one ad deal. It was that. So, I do not have influence over my audience that would compel them to purchase things, because there is nothing about the authority that I represent myself to have that corresponds to commercial products. Except maybe books, but to the extent of my knowledge, very, very few, if any people hire influencers to plug their books.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:29:37] Right.


T.X. Watson: [00:29:38] And certainly not like academic books. But the crux of the point that I'm trying to make is influence is not fungible. Influence is very specific. And just because you have a lot of power to make your audience do things, does not mean you have that power to make them do anything that occurs to you to ask of them, or anything that someone might want you to ask of them. Like [the Vlogbrothers] John and Hank Green, to go back to the example of people successfully leveraging their platform. I guess MrBeast [Youtuber] is probably that. But Hank Green gave a talk like ten years ago that really influenced me, where he talked about how like a two-step process for how to build a platform. One is [to] gather a whole bunch of people who are really passionate about something. That's step one. And then step two is [to] exploit the hell out of them. And then he goes on to say, you just do stuff and say "Hey, I'm doing this thing. You guys want to help me do this thing?" And if it resonates with the values of your community, you'll have a lot of success. And that line, if it resonates with the values of your community, is so important. John and Hank Green have started several companies recently that donate all of their profits to, I think, mostly child mortality in Sierra Leone [note: John and Hank Green have been supporting Partners in Health in improving the local health care system in Sierra Leone. See John Green talking about their support]. People sign up for those companies because John and Hank Green have demonstrated a lot of concern for the quality of the things that they make. And because they are expressing a value that is extremely consistent with the thing that they are trying to do, and there is absolutely no world where they could take what they've built and use it to promote a Marvel movie.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:31:08] Right.


T.X. Watson: [00:31:08] Like, it just wouldn't work. It would work basically, not at all. And it would also significantly damage their credibility in the eyes of their audience.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:31:16] It's interesting because I totally get that and that makes sense. But then we look at examples like Taylor Swift finally deciding to get political. And so many people registering to vote when she was like, "go register to vote", that the actual website crashed for a bit [see: Voter registrations skyrocket after Taylor Swift’s get-out-the-vote push]. Or other people who are never political, and then suddenly getting political, it gets more attention. And it's risky because some people dislike that you've gone political, but it creates a splash and a level of attention. That shock and awe technique sometimes works.


T.X. Watson: [00:31:48] I think it is worth distinguishing between this influence is not fungible and the more accurate statement this influence is not freely fungible, and it's not always going to be easy to tell what things this influence can be used for.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:32:03] Yeah. And I think that's where it comes in, the part of the parasocial relationship idea and trans-parasocial relationship is, having this collectively reciprocal relationship between the creator and their followers and their groups, because the idea of the creator needing to know who their followers and fans are and understanding them as an entity [see: Social Media Influencers and Followers: Theorization of a Trans-Parasocial Relation and Explication of Its Implications for Influencer Advertising]. You're not always going to know everything about them, but paying attention to it and having some level of interaction with that group as a group seems really important for being able to calculate when and if you're going to be influential, when and if you're going to be sending people down a rabbit hole that they're going to love versus one they're going to be like: "Well, I am unfollowing you".


T.X. Watson: [00:32:47] Yeah. And I think also "Hey, you should register to vote" is very different from endorsing a candidate. I'm trying to think of people who are telling their audience to register to vote would hurt them. And I think some punk bands would have that problem, but even then they'd be able to mitigate a lot of the potential damage by selling it as like political strategy.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:33:09] Yeah, there is so much more that we could talk about, but we are at time. So I'm going to end with the normal pop quiz that I end each episode with. But given your research area, I'm sure it's going to be an easy one for you. Short answer question on an exam, how would you define parasocial relationships?


T.X. Watson: [00:33:29] I would define a parasocial relationship as an asymmetrical relationship between a collection of people and an individual or small group, where the relationship dynamic is one in which the larger collective of people are receiving and consuming a stream of information produced by the individual, and the individual receives communication from the collective in a way that they experience as more a collective expression than a series of individual relationships.


Elizabeth Dubois: [00:34:08] All right. That was our episode. Looking at parasocial relationships. I hope you liked it. As always, we've got a ton of resources and links available in the show notes. And head over to Polcommtech.ca for annotated transcripts in English and French with a ton more resources. I also want to acknowledge that I am recording from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people, and I want to pay respect to the Algonquin people, acknowledging their long standing relationship with this unceded territory. Thanks for listening.




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