As someone who loves to watch television, it is hard not to consider the potentially profound implications of para-social interaction on viewers. While we can certainly cite examples of audiences being heavily invested in figures shown on television (e.g., gossip surrounding soaps or my friends and The Hills), I’m also interested in ways that the content has attempted to foster this sort of interaction.
For me, one of the earliest forms of interactive television (long before American Idol) came in the guise of Winky Dink and You, a children’s show that allowed kids to “participate” in the program by drawing on a plastic screen.
What I find most intriguing here is the manner in which the host speaks to the viewer (ostensibly children, although parents may be watching as well). Seen in other shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues, this kind of call and response might do much to foster our para-social relationships with those we see on screen.
On one level, it seems admirable to attempt to engage children in these sorts of educational television shows knowing that the medium of television presents some important limitations. Although we are developing better models of interactive television, the medium still represents a form of broadcast, meaning that messages can only travel in one direction. Pointing out some of the absurdities of cultivating relationships with viewers is this clip from Fahrenheit 451.
However, beyond just the medium of television, we also see the phenomenon’s striking presence more generally in our current culture of celebrity. Evidencing this tendency on multiple levels, we talk about characters and actors as if they were friends, conjecturing statements of opinion on their behalf or giving ourselves license to talk about them like we know them. (It should be noted, of course, that the history of fame and celebrity reaches much farther back and, although I have not done extensive research on this, I surmise that similar types of conversations were happening in earlier eras involving other public figures. In other words, although the current form of para-social interaction might be particular to this moment in cultural history, the phenomenon itself isn’t necessarily a new one.)
And, to be fair, in a way, we do know them. As viewers or fans, we undoubtedly accumulate information about a persona through careful observation; we might know the quirks of these individuals better than we know our own. But although we are validated in our understanding of a personality, the truth is that we only know a part of them—the part that we are shown. For me, public personalities are similar to characters on shows or in films in that they are fictions that, while grounded in truth, represent fabrications nonetheless. By this I do not mean to suggest that those who engage in para-social interactions are somehow deluded, but merely that we call our “relationship” what it is: one-sided. The feelings of intimacy generated between us and a persona are real—for us, at least—and should be considered as such, but we should also be wary of mapping our experiences with “real world” relationships onto these mediated forms for although we may lament the loss of a beloved celebrity, chances are that he or she would not feel the same about us (if our absence was even noticed in the first place!).
November 7, 2011 | Categories: Media, Movies, Pop Culture, Television | Tags: American Idol, Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, Fahrenheit 451, Para-Social Interaction, Sesame Street, Television, The Hills, Winky Dink and You | Leave a comment