Parasociality, as a concept, feels ridiculous. Developing a fake one sided relationship with someone in your head because you consume things they’ve made or videos they put online of themselves. It feels absurd, but it’s real and we’re in the midst of something pretty rare.
An internet celebrity’s drama has crossed over into the consciousness of people who know nothing about them.
Ned Fulmer, of former Buzzfeed Video group the Try Guys, cheated on his wife with an employee of his company. People are dismayed. People are overreacting. People are going nuts.
And that might seem stupid, but, hey! It’s entirely his fault! Not only because he made the choice to do that two pronged bad thing, but because that’s what happens when you and your real life are the product you’ve built your wealth on! Maybe people shouldn’t care and shouldn’t have bought in, but living in a world of should and shouldn’t is stupid.
If you have built your life and wealth on the back of selling you, in the truest sense, then you are opening yourself to backlash based on your personal choices. When we talk about internet figures, like Ned Fulmer, more often than not we’re discussing people that have sold their true personal lives in exchange for success. They know that’s what they’re doing. We all know that’s what’s going on. We aren’t just getting a peek into their personal lives like we do with musicians or even actors, they are making the intentional choice to publicize their lives in a particular way. There are ways to be online that removes that to a degree. You could not publicize your face or your relationships with other people or your real name. You could create a character. You could curate very particular things you publicize. You could do all of that, but that’s not the easiest way to go.
Of course, those people are entitled to safety no matter how much of their life is public, but they are intentionally publicizing their personal life in exchange for monetary and career gain. They are millionaires off the power of the parasocial relationships they’ve intentionally cultivated and that can be dangerous for their careers. Those people have built their very own court of opinion with the knowledge they may one day be put on trial. That’s the trade off.
With the current situation, caring about the cheating feels a little silly. I don’t care if a man cheats on his wife. That is, in itself, no reason to not consume his media/art/etc. Being an asshole is not a cancelable offense. But what is interesting about this situation is that he was removed from the Try Guys entirely— a company he partially owns and is instrumental in the existence of. I think that removal is what will fuel continued conversation about a situation that would probably have blown over before the weekend was over. But that decision was not made because he cheated. Of course, it’s part of it. It goes directly against The Brand which will impact the profitability of the group on the whole— sponsors, merch sales, the favorability that comes with being Ultra Family Friendly. While those things are real, the removal probably has more to do with the fact that you simply cannot have an affair with an employee of the company you partially own. It’s a job like any other, you can’t do that. It’s too likely to be an abuse of power. It’s fundamentally unbalanced. It is always inappropriate and unacceptable.
The statement made by the company was phrased in a way that was very corporate and deliberate. Maybe that feels as silly to you as the people who care about the interpersonal relationships they’ve been sold, but Youtubers discuss their channels like companies because they are multimillion dollar operations. It is a job, no matter how frivolous you think it is. More than that, it is more dangerous to society to not accept online fame and “influencers” as businesses than it is to develop the cringe parasocial relationship.
As comedian Caroline Easom said in a TikTok recently, there is a not insignificant number of people benefitting from you not thinking “influencing” and making digital content is work. There are children being exploited everyday by their parents with no work protections because people do not perceive the work they do as work. It matters that people treat that work as work and those businesses as businesses. Those children will suffer the consequences of parents making a living— making millions!— off of selling parasocial relationships with children they’re supposed to protect. Those children aren’t able to make the informed choice someone like Ned Fulmer is, but it is important to recognize that both of them are working and their work is built on the back of parasociality.
To write off parasocial relationships as the domain of the social fringe and the terminally online is to reinforce the terms people use to make sure this form of child exploitation will not be taken seriously. You don’t have to care that a man cheated on his wife, but I think it is important to accept that internet celebrity is real work for the health and growth of society going forward. Maybe you think it’s stupid, but it’s real and it’s impacting children.
The internet is a real place. Putting things online can be real work and selling your personal life for the entertainment of others is a legitimate business opportunity. Hey, many of you probably follow this little newsletter because I’ve been willing to overshare personal details in the form of essays. Maybe parasociality as a business feels foreign to you, but it’s important to recognize that it’s real and the reactions people are having right now are the whole point. That’s what people are trying to achieve. That’s what people are creating when they make their children internet famous and that is dangerous. It is dangerous right now and happening all around you.