“You know the characters on How I Met Your Mother better than you know your neighbors” is considered a slight to one’s sense of community. In fact, it’s a reality.
We have thousands of hours of documentaries, dramas, sitcoms, and classic films on Netflix. Why are people still watching Friends and The Office? In the UK last year, more viewer hours on Netflix were devoted to Friends than to any other property. But if you’re watching a TV series you’ve already watched twice or three times, if you can quote the dialog along with your favorite characters, you’re probably not actively “watching” anyway.
Spending time with familiar TV characters is like spending time with friends.
This is the social surrogacy hypothesis, that we use media characters as surrogates for our IRL friends. And it makes sense, especially during pandemic, when it’s been really hard to have the social time we need with the friends we hold dear.
There’s another layer to this, though. Informal research shows that we’re often drawn to put on a particular TV show in the background because we watched the show with someone else. Students attending college away from home often rewatch shows they enjoyed at home with their parents or siblings. Roommates who made a casual party event out of watching The Bachelor and its many iterations choose to put it on to enjoy a touch of nostalgia years later.
Do you have a favorite character on your favorite show? Ensemble comedies like Friends and The Office give us an array of characters to identify with…or against. Maybe you think of yourself as a Ross but you’d rather people see you as a Chandler. But definitely not a Joey. Buzzfeed, beano, and brainfall will all invite your take a quiz to see which Friends character you are most like.
We have one-sided, parasocial relationships with celebrities, fictional characters, talk show hosts, and social media influencers. We don’t have interactions with the celebrity/character, but feel we know them. Parasocial relationships emerge by establishing a bond of intimacy.
This intimacy comes about through a few different factors. First, the character or person’s behavior feels believable, even if not realistic. Wonder Woman’s superpowers, for example, may not seem realistic, but the character is created in such a way that she comes across an actual person who is consistent in what choices she makes and how she interacts with others. Although it may seem odd, we get to know characters personally as we watch them privately.
Finally, the appearance of characters on television, film, and digital media creates electronic intimacy, a sense that the person is up-close and often speaking directly to the camera. Electronic intimacy readily helps to create and strengthen parasocial relationships.
An upside of parasocial relationships is not just that the presence of strangers you feel like you know helps us feel less lonely: it’s that these people have qualities we aspire to. If you identify with a particular character on How I Met Your Mother, you might end up emulating their qualities as a good friend, a good romantic partner, or a decent human being. And that’s definitely not a slight to your sense of community.