Audience Replies to Character Blogs as Parasocial Relationships

Audience Replies to Character Blogs as Parasocial Relationships

James D. Robinson (University of Dayton, USA) and Robert Agne (Auburn University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch027
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News anchors, talk show hosts, and soap opera characters often become objects of parasocial affection because of the nature of these program genres. This chapter explores the concept of parasocial interaction by focusing on audience replies to blog posts made on behalf of a TV character, Jessica Buchanan of ABC Television Network’s One Life to Live show. The authors employ communication accommodation theory to illuminate the concept and to identify specific communicative behaviors that occur during parasocial interaction. The chapter presents evidence of parasocial interaction within the blog replies and audience accommodation to the blog posts. Analysis suggests that parasocial interaction is the mediated manifestation of the relationship dimension inherent in television messages and used by audience members in much the same way it is used during face-to-face interaction.
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It is estimated that in the U. S. 12 million adults “blog” or keep online journals and 57 million adults or 39% of all adult Internet users report reading blogs (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). A worldwide total of 175,000 new blogs are created every day, and the web search engine Technorati (2008) reports tracking 112.8 million blogs worldwide. Blogs are used as a vehicle for providing commentary to the public. The critical differences in blogs and diaries are the opportunities for reaching a mass audience and the opportunity for that mass audience to respond to the commentary found within the blog. Because of the interactive nature of the blogs and blogging software, readers are able to add comments, links, pictures, video, or any other media format to the blog for the edification and entertainment of other denizens of the Internet.

Popular television characters - such as, Dwight Schrute (The Office), Joe the Bartender (Grey’s Anatomy), and Jessica Buchanan (One Life to Live) - have blogs that allow audience members’ additional insight into the character’s identity and additional information about the story or plotline. These blogs are different from the blogs maintained by actors since they are written from the perspective of a fictional character. More importantly these character blogs allow audience members the perception that they can interact with the character – even though this interaction is parasocial. While audience members have always had some opportunity to interact, or more often, parasocially interact with characters through fan mail, the messages they send have not been readily available to scholars for study. Blog messages are more plentiful and easier to access, and provide communication scholars an invitation for studying parasocial interaction in depth.

In this chapter we first address what is known about parasocial relationships between the audience and TV characters. We then introduce communication accommodation theory as a framework for identifying specific communicative behaviors that are likely to occur during parasocial interaction. An analysis of a TV character blog determines whether parasocial behaviors occur in blog replies and whether there is evidence of audiences accommodating the communicative behavior of the character. Finally we offer some suggestions for future research and future trends in this line of research.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Accommodation: The modifications in communicative behavior made by individuals during interaction. Accommodation may include changes to verbal, vocal and non-verbal behaviors. The process of accommodation may occur as an intentional communicative strategy or may occur without the conscious awareness of the individual; it is motivated by the desire to be liked. Accommodation can be manifest as convergence (adopting the communicative behavior of another) or divergence (behaving stylistically different from another to maintain our differences).

Thought Listing Procedure: A social psychological procedure for cognitive response evaluation technique used by researchers to gather the cognitive responses of individuals. After exposing subjects to a message, the researcher asks subjects to list the thoughts that ran through their heads during message presentation. Each thought or cognitive response can then be examined to see whether respondent thoughts are consistent or inconsistent with the message and ultimately how effective a particular message may be.

Web Logging or Blogging: Blogs are online diaries or journals used by their authors as vehicles for providing commentary. They are updated on a regular basis and tend to focus on the personal experiences of the author. The critical differences in blogs and diaries are the opportunities for reaching a mass audience and the opportunity for that mass audience to respond to the commentary found within the blog. Because of the interactive nature of the blogs and blogging, software readers are able to add comments, links, pictures, video, or any other media format to the blog for the edification and entertainment of other denizens of the Internet. Blogging, then, is the act of updating a blog or an online diary.

Divergence: When we communicate with someone we perceive to be socially unattractive, we diverge or behave in such a way that we will be viewed as being different from that person. Motivated by the desire to be seen as socially desirable, in the presence of an undesirable communicative partner, we fail to accommodate and actually behave in ways that will distance us from another. For example, if someone uses coarse language or slang, we might diverge by employing formal or more precise language. If they talk in a loud voice, we might talk in a quiet voice; and, if they wave their hands, we might maintain a more still communicative style.

Parasocial Relationship: The term parasocial relationship was first coined by Horton & Wohl (1956) to describe the pseudo-friendships that occur between audience members and TV characters and other media personae. The notion of relationship is used here to describe faux interpersonal relationships that typically share some commonalities with actual interpersonal relationships. For example, an audience member can feel affect toward a character, “know” or understand the character, or relate to a character as if the character was an actual acquaintance. These relationships can represent little more than the liking of a character; they can also extend into the realm of delusion. In such extreme cases, audience members may actually believe they have a relationship with the character. The term is often used to identify the similarities between interpersonal relationships and mediated relationships.

Communication Accommodation Theory: Proposed by Howard Giles, professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to explain the adaptations people make in their communicative behavior during conversation. The theory assumes people adapt their communicative behaviors and message content in an effort to be perceived favorably by high social status individuals. When interacting with individuals of low social status, we are motivated to maintain our distance or be perceived as being different from the low status individuals. This theory is based on many of the same tenets as social identity theory.

Cognitive Response: Thoughts that occur while we are listening to someone talk are called cognitive responses. Cognitive response is not a synonym for decoding a message. “Decoding” refers to a completely separate process. In decoding, sound or visual stimuli are translated back into language. Once we have decoded the message, our idiosyncratic responses or thoughts to those messages are described as our cognitive responses. If we are very interested in the topic, our cognitive responses may be message relevant. Message relevant responses focus on counter-arguments or additional evidence supporting a particular position. If we are not interested in the topic, our cognitive responses may not be particularly message relevant (e.g., “I “I need to get gas on my way home”). In short, our cognitive responses are the things we think of while listening to the messages of others. Cognitive responses occur while reading, watching television, listening to the radio, or surfing the Internet.

Parasocial Interaction: The term parasocial interaction is often used as a synonym for parasocial relationship. When the two terms are differentiated, parasocial interaction is used to describe the specific audience and/or character behaviors. One character winking at an audience and another giving a soliloquy are examples of parasocial interaction. Similarly audience members talking to their TV or generating verbal replies that go unexpressed are examples of parasocial action too. It is generally believed that the way a show is designed and shot contributes to the likelihood of audience members engaging in parasocial interaction and/or establishing parasocial relationships.

Convergence: When an individual imitates or adopts the communicative behaviors of another in conversation, we say they are converging or becoming more like the other communicatively. For example a person may accommodate the communicative behavior of another by talking louder or adopting an accent (vocal accommodation), by appropriating the language of another in conversation (verbal accommodation), or by imitating kinesic or facial behaviors (nonverbal accommodation). These adaptations are efforts by a communicant to be viewed favorably by the high social status other during conversation.

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