Mediated Interpersonal Communication

By Elly A. Konijn; Sonja Utz et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Parasocial interactions and
paracommunication with new
media characters

Tilo Hartmann*

Contemporary research on mediated interpersonal communication is motivated by the spread of new media applications in the domain of human-human interaction (e.g., video chats or massive multiplayer online role-playing games, MMORPGs) and in human-computer interaction (e.g., communication to chatter bots or other intelligent agents; see Polkosky, this volume). While users are able to interact with numerous media characters in the emerging field of new media technologies, some types of conventional mass communication, especially television and radio, also display considerable similarities and affinity to already known interpersonal communications. The concept of parasocial interaction, introduced by Horton and Wohl (1956), belongs to the earliest theoretical approaches making connections between mass communication and interpersonalsocial settings. Their foundational observation was that real people in the media direct their social and communicative behavior towards the anticipated audience, much as they would for actual interpersonal communication. They greet, wink, gaze, and direct communication acts toward the audience in many ways. The viewers, in turn, may respond to such social behavior “just like” they would if the media character was actually in their living room instead of merely appearing there on the TV screen or the radio. This seemingly “conversational give-and-take” (Horton & Wohl, 1956: 186) between a mass media performer and a user, which closely resembles interpersonal communication (Cathcart & Gumpert, 1983), has been termed “parasocial interaction” (e.g., Giles, 2002; Rubin et al., 1985; Klimmt et al., 2006; see next section).

The concept of parasocial interactions originated in the 1950s, ahead of ubiqituous interactive computer technology. Consequently, Horton and Wohl’s (1956) account of parasocial interactions focused primarily on nonfictional mass media performers, such as newscasters, that were typical in this period. As psychological knowledge about the social perception of mediated characters was virtually non-existent, their concept, although of great analytical depth, necessarily built on vague assumptions. With the advent of new media technologies, a growing number of researchers

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