From Dial-Up to DMs: Are We Friends IRL?

Last week, I shared my first foray into the digital world with GeoCities. I received several emails from people sharing the digital waters they first dipped their toes into. From Tagged to MSN Messenger to MySpace, those responses took me back down memory lane. Although it’s natural to feel like our early ventures into cyberspace were HTML horror stories, I’m grateful for that simplistic time of the internet. The truth is that even the digital world can have some dark sides.

In my research, whether on motivational practices or burnout in volunteer organizations, I strive to maintain objectivity. While biases are inevitable, approaching topics with a neutral perspective can enhance the applicability of research in both real-world and academic settings. In Social Media Influencer Marketing literature, there’s a concept known as parasocial relationships, which refers to one-sided relationships that consumers form with influencers (Aw & Chuah, 2021). While this phenomenon extends beyond social media, let’s stay in the digital world.

I’ll spare you the theoretical development, but the idea is that since social media provides a concept of perceived access to others, it allows people to feel like they truly know someone from what they post. This close, intimate, pseudo-connection exists may only in the follower’s head; the influencer may not even know them at all (Aw & Chuah, 2021). Not even a little bit.

It might sound creepy, but give this a try: Think of an influencer or celebrity you follow and answer these questions:

  • Where is their hometown?
  • Where do they currently live?
  • Do they have children? If so, how many?
  • Are they dating/married?
  • Do they have food allergies?
  • Where do they work?
  • Do they know you exist?

Not so weird, right? Have you ever spotted a relative or spouse of someone you know while out in the wild, only to realize you only recognize them because your friend posted about them on social media? Do you introduce yourself? Do you walk past them because they “don’t know you”?

Now, we can say, “Well, people post everything on the internet!” Possibly, but maybe not. People may post frequently, but they may not necessarily reveal much. Good branding involves specific content pillars, meaning everything shared should be entirely true to the brand but not the full scope of someone’s life. Seeing information online can make us feel closer to individuals, but this leads to my next point: proximity is not the same as access. Just because someone is consistent on social media does not mean we truly know them or have access to them.

Like I mentioned in the last blog, I never thought my offline friends in Yahoo! Chat Rooms and MySpace messages would ever make it out of my computer screen. Back then, there was an element of the internet that was still mysterious and separate from real life. Decades later, we have blurred those lines, Robin Thicke.

I’m not here to say whether these things are good or bad because even knowing these concepts exist, I’m still caught off guard when I encounter them in real life (IRL). However, I do believe that awareness can change how we use the internet and encourage us to teach the next generation to have safe, authentic relationships — online and offline.

Aw, E. C. X., & Chuah, S. H. W. (2021). “Stop the unattainable ideal for an ordinary me!” fostering parasocial relationships with social media influencers: The role of self-discrepancy. Journal of Business Research132, 146-157.

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