warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Are Your Strongest Relationships Only Real In Your Head?

Sarah Erickson |
August 18, 2010 | 12:07 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

(Creative Commons)
(Creative Commons)
Ladies and gentlemen, I had a summer fling. Several in fact. And they were Ahh-mazing! 

...in my mind anyway.

As summer comes to a close, I feel it’s time to confess my sins and prepare to start anew.

Truth is, one might say I was the only one invested in at least a couple of passionate summer evenings with my dreamy men-of-choice. 

I, like many Americans today, formed strong parasocial relationships with my latest favorite television, and in this case, Internet personalities. Though these relationships were certainly intimate, they were unidirectional. Such is the nature of a parasocial relationship. 

First identified as a phenomenon by researchers David Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956, these relationships are formed by a viewer through interactions with a media figure and feel to that viewer – on many levels – to be as personal as a real life relationship. Broadcasters rely on audiences forming these strong connections with their characters and TV news anchors in order to keep audiences coming back to them week-to-week. 

Anyone who’s ever cried in excitement at a concert when the lead singer finally takes the stage, or secretly not-so-secretly wished they would run into “The Situation” while fist-pumping at a club, or sworn by every book Oprah’s ever recommended to them can probably relate to my situation.

During a rare bit of downtime in June, I found myself browsing the recommendations on Hulu only to stumble upon a new show advertised with photos of partially-clad attractive young people under the episode title: “Go Nude or Go Home.” Naturally, I clicked on the link. 

The show turned out to be a new reality series called “If I Can Dream” that follows five to six aspiring starlets as they navigate their way through Hollywood for the first time, each attempting to achieve their dreams. All of the “dreamers” live together in a house in the Hollywood Hills and are provided with tremendous opportunities (courtesy of the show’s producers) to actually accomplish their goals. 

The catch is, they’re on camera all the time – literally. More than 60 cameras are stationed throughout the house and hooked up to a live feed, which streams online 24 hours a day. Interested viewers can tune in to the website whenever they like and see what the “dreamers” are up to – which can be anything from swimming in the pool, eating, hanging with friends, sleeping, rehearsing or talking with one of the many celebrity guests who drop by each week. 

Each dreamer also posts a short video log – or vlog – every couple of days to check in with viewers and tell them what they’re up to. 

What makes the show even more unique is the tape-to-air turnaround time: while most reality shows delay airing episodes until months after taping, everything that will air in the new episode on Tuesday will have happened this week. 

I figured all of this out upon watching a second episode and the concept blew my mind. When dreamers kept saying, “Omigosh people are actually watching this right now,” I stopped thinking “Duh” and realized they meant, “SERIOUSLY, someone somewhere – perhaps at a kitchen counter in Colorado at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with nothing better to do – IS watching them RIGHT NOW.” 


It wasn’t so much the mundane actions of the individuals living in the house on a day-to-day basis that intrigued me, but the idea that I could check in on them between episodes to really follow their journey. That’s a step well beyond "Facebook stalking.” It’s a sign of how truly integrated technology has become in our daily lives and how we interact with it. Many of us already do live on the Web 24/7.

Think about it, how many times a day do you log onto a computer to check Facebook? Do you ever find yourself thinking in status update or tweet? Or taking photos just so you can upload them to your latest online album? Beyond that, if checking in on friends through emails, texts, bbms, Facebook, iChat, phone calls, Twitter and Skype aren’t enough, you can also find out their exact location through apps like Foursquare and Gowalla. One can literally follow the tech-savvy social networker anywhere without ever leaving the couch.

Further, research has been done to determine some of the psychological effects of having online alter-egos. Results show that something as seemingly benign as a Facebook “defriending” can have the same emotional fallout of any other type of rejection. Emotional reactions to online activity may be virtually indistinguishable from reactions to real life stimulus.

With mobile web technology predicted to surpass desktop/laptop Web access by 2013, communication technologies will only become more seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of our everyday lives. This will probably further alter our patterns of behavior (anyone else feel restless without a phone to fiddle with during downtime?), social interactions and feelings about cell phone etiquette

Yet through this over-saturation of information tools at our disposal, at the end of the day I still find myself endlessly fascinated by what everyone is up to, rather than overwhelmed or bored. Truth is, I am interested in what you’re doing this weekend, what you think about life and which artists inspire you. Perhaps it is this inherent curiosity that keeps me, and all of us, ever willing to return to our Facebook newsfeeds day in and day out. 

Maybe “If I Can Dream” is simply the first in a whole new level of reality TV shows. If it is, fair warning to all viewers that round-the-clock access to your favorite starlets can make for unexpectedly strong attachments to individuals whom you’ve never met…proceed with caution.


To reach staff reporter Sarah Erickson, click here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.