Everyone has at least one internet crush (AKA a parasocial relationship), right? Let me tell you about mine. 

Every day I would watch her Instagram stories, greedily consuming content like the feral little gremlin the internet has conditioned me to be. Over time it developed into what we could playfully call an ‘internet crush’—the good, queer kind where it wasn’t clear if I fancied her or wanted to be her. 

Then one day her account was deleted. This wasn’t entirely surprising given she is a dominatrix and social media hates sex workers and women showing their bodies in ways they want. I wondered if she felt the irony of being punished by a platform. I imagined Zuckerberg laughing maniacally, who’s the dominant one now? The power play is meta. 

I was upset, but not just because I’m aware of the harms caused by de-platforming and censorship. I was also upset on a personal level. And honestly, I was surprised by how much I missed her.

Let me be clear, I don’t know this person. I was under no illusion that we were friends, although I’ll admit that I genuinely started to believe we’d get along in ‘real’ life. I was attached to the idea of her not as a full, complex person, but the flattened version presented to me via my iPhone. The more scientific term for this is parasocial relationship.

Parasocial relationships are older than the internet. The idea gained attention in a 1950s research paper exploring one-sided attachments people form with public figures. Back then this meant feeling personally connected to news anchors and mainstream celebrities. Fast forward and now it looks more like teens creating bonds with their favourite musician or gamer on Twitch, mums following parenting influencers on Instagram, the reply-guy on Twitter, or even just listening to hours of a podcast and laughing along with your “friends”. It’s extremely common.   

Source: Know Your Meme

Just like the authors of the original paper, many blame followers for being lonely creeps who have lost sight of reality, duped into perceiving closeness that isn’t there. But even though parasocial dynamics can be creepy and sometimes harmful, framing it as a follower problem ignores the third party in the relationship: the platform. Given the business model of social media relies on engagement by fostering emotional responses, manufacturing intimacy is a key part of their design. 

Social media has evolved into a creator economy in which we’re all simultaneously creating and consuming content, meanwhile platforms themselves contribute little but hold all the power and pocket the bulk of the revenue. With so many niche subgroups, micro-influencers and tech that encourages us to capture and share the most mundane parts of our lives, it’s no wonder people feel like they know those they follow.

Subscription-based platforms like Patreon, Twitch and OnlyFans take this to the next level: the entire premise is to leverage connection and turn it into that sweet, sweet cash. While there’s nothing wrong with people being compensated for their time and effort, these platforms push creators toward a kind of curated vulnerability, so that we, the viewers, feel a strong enough connection to like, follow and subscribe. In doing so, they encourage us to monetise not just our labour, but to commodify who we are, and how we relate to each other.

So yeah, parasocial relationships are problematic, but it’s not as simple as people imagining bonds that aren’t real. They raise deeper questions about what it means to connect online in an environment that seeks to turn everything into a transaction.  

Mortifyingly, I decided to reach out to my internet crush to see if she wanted to chat about her experience being on the receiving end of parasocial relationships. Amazingly, she was up for it. 

Miss Marilyn explained that her followers often felt they could give their opinion on her life as though they were close friends, and that this actually intensified after she made the decision to stop perfectly editing and curating her posts. “Funnily enough, I never minded when people sent me sexually explicit messages, but I’ve been bothered by messages I’ve received since I started just posting completely as myself, rather than Miss Marilyn,” she said. The more ‘real’ she appeared to be by talking about mental health and the less-glamourous realties of sex work, the more people started to message her about deeply personal things, like suicide and self harm. 

“It’s always been really upsetting for me to receive messages like this from people I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and I’ve felt fucking terrified waiting to get a reply sometimes.” 

It doesn’t have to be like this. Imagine what digital spaces could be if they weren’t driven by surveillance capitalism, hellbent on commodifying our human desire to belong. Thankfully, work in this space is happening. But until things change it’s worth remembering that social media platforms encourage parasocial relationships by design, and profit from the illusion of more meaningful connection than what really exists. 

While social media platforms profit off manufacturing parasocial connection, the illusion of community can be harmful on both ends. “It’s a very lonely place to be. Online with a following. Not that I’m complaining, it’s how I work and how I make money,” Marilyn says. “It’s having a community that won’t help or hear you.” 

Still, that doesn’t let us off the hook either. We can take back some small amount of power and dignity by choosing how we interact with each other. Sliding into a stranger’s DMs with unsolicited advice, criticism or TMI based on an imagined sense of closeness isn’t cool. But influencers and creators placing all the blame on their fans for becoming attached while leveraging that very connection for their own benefit isn’t cool either. Digital platforms work hard to break down our boundaries, but we don’t have to let them. 

As for me, my crush on Miss Marilyn has only gotten stronger since seeing a small glimpse of her outside of Instagram, but that’s all, because I remind myself: we are not really friends.

Samantha Floreani is a digital rights activist and writer.