tisdag 20 december 2011

Para-social interaction

I've been fascinated by para-social interaction and para-social relationships ever since I heard about the terms 10 or perhaps 15 years ago. They are the kinds of perceived relationships we have with celebrities even though we only know them from TV - and they don't know us at all.

Ten years ago, when my wife was new to Sweden, we got onto the subway one morning and she stepped in and walked right up to our former prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson. She, not knowing who he was, didn't think twice about standing right next to him. I was a little bit more hesitant, but of course followed her and stood beside her (and him). When she started to talk about totally prosaic things like what we would eat for dinner or that we forgot to take out the trash, I felt very uncomfortable. It felt like when the former prime minster listens to your conversation, you should talk about more statesmanlike topics; politics or perhaps at least academic topics.

My problem was that I couldn't find any way to get out of the situation. I wanted to tell her to shut up, but how could I? Even more interesting was that I felt an urge to enlighten her as to who we were standing beside, but how could I? On the one hand, I wanted to, well, present her to Ingvar; "Tessy, this is Ingvar Carlsson, our former prime minster". And then what? "Ingvar, this is my wife, Tessy"? I realized how ridiculous that would be since he not only did not know her, but he of course didn't know me either. My relationship to Ingvar was not a "real" relationship, but a para-social relationship - a one-way relationship mediated by mass media. I had seen and heard him many times (on TV, radio and in newspapers) and it viscerally felt like I "knew" him. Which I obviously didn't.

Based on this event, my interest in the topic and a discussion at one of the seminars in my recently-finished social media course, I have formulated two thesis proposals that both touch upon how social media changes our relationships to other people. Mass media changed our relationships to other people decades ago, and some perceptive social scientists noticed, analyzed and wrote about it. With the shift from mass to social media, our behaviors are once again changing. My students notice this and I want them to explore and document how, and analyzed and explain why. I will hopefully get hold of some students to do this already this spring (bachelor's and master's thesis season). The first thesis proposal is called "Para-Social Facebook relationships" and the second is called "Impact of social media on social behavior".

I have also formulated a third (unrelated) thesis proposal, "E-sports/professional computer gaming" and will formulate a bunch of more proposals during the next couple of weeks (before thesis season starts).

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