The Internet, Parasocial Relationships and the Myth of the Mutual
Maintaining boundaries is integral to the success of all relationships, Internet driven or otherwise. Chiamaka discusses why lines are often blurred in web-based connection, and how to solve these.
●20th February 2023
With the emergence of the digital age, the appeal of the internet and all the various attractions that it offered became even more widespread. The power of feeling like you have the entire world on your fingertips no matter where you were at the moment inspired so many people to stay plugged in. Of course, internet-based relationships became a natural consequence of this. People, especially those who had a hard time connecting to others in person, found it much easier to go through the web version or method of meeting other people. Then came the rise of dating on the Internet, with Tinder becoming one of the most downloaded apps ever. Unfortunately, COVID19 also came along and enshrined the Internet’s standing in society. As if it was not bad enough that people made conscious choices to ‘surf the web’ COVID made sure that it became a necessity. People were physically not allowed to be in contact with each other.
It was no surprise that relationships created and maintained mostly through the Internet became a solid way people made lifetime connections, whether friendship or otherwise. While romantic web-based relationships receive most of the publicity from society, there is a largely unseen dynamic of social media that has grown into much of a phenomenon. This is the making of friendships through the Internet. These friendships often feel so real that many people involved in them may not even notice that they have subscribed to this theory, and may even contemplate or be convinced that they have met their social media mutuals outside of the application itself. As a person who has had many internet friendships, and still does, I can tell you that it is not something that may occur to many of us.
Ironically, I personally do not struggle with making friends offline. This helps me to be even more attractive online to various people, who then connect with me through the Internet. People do tend to become very close with many a ‘friend-of-a-friend’, quite unintentionally. Internet relationships are often easier to navigate because we get to pick and choose doses of these friendships and engage to the capacity in which we are present. They are more enjoyable because mutuals can share interests, exchange ideas and perform a myriad of friendship activities without really getting into each other’s spaces. After the lockdown and subsequent months of closure, I realized that my Internet friendships had also grown to a large extent. I found myself increasingly invested in their lives, and them in mine, even to the point where we often planned birthdays or big celebrations together. Physical friendships are often not like this, so people tend to have some conflicts with their friends in real life. It is important to note that conflicts are a normal part of human connection, as long as they are not unhealthy and actually based in mutual hatred.
With the rise of the mutuals also came a rise in para-social relationships. Para-social relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence. While one mutual may not be completely unaware of another’s existence, they are many times not as concerned with that mutual as the person believes them to be. This disconnect makes it obvious when one mutual may be upset that the other one has forgotten their birthday or some other important event. At times, one mutual may tweet something that seems combative. The other mutual often reacts as if they are the one that person is referring to, even when the statement has nothing to do with them. At that point, the mutual is becoming over involved in the other’s life and has now created a para-social relationship with them.
Often, a person may be nice to that mutual and then the other one interprets it as an extension of their friendship. While boundaries may help with this in person, it is often hard to set in place boundaries on the Internet when said person has become exposed (or feels like they are) to your inner-most thoughts. For people who feel they may be susceptible to creating this form of relationships, it is important to try and maintain clear communication with others on the Internet. Do not feel the need to overly delve into other people’s lives, no matter how many social media applications you have them on. Appreciate the fact that you have a camaraderie, but remind yourself that this person is still a person on the Internet and you do not really know them. Do not limit yourself from making positive connections, but also prioritize wellness that comes in the form of healthy boundaries.