Protecting Yourself Online: Personal boundaries, parasocial relationships, and the risk to your brand

Back in 2016, we published a helpful primer on protecting yourself as a streamer. Digital technology and the Internet moves quickly, so we at StreamerSquare felt it was time to really dig into online security topics.

You are your only advocate for personal safety on the internet. This can’t be stressed enough.

In our previous article in this security series, we talked about the realities of DDoS attacks, and went over some ways to keep your IP address safe. In this article, we’ll explore the problem of “The Obsessed Fan”.

“No one knows what it’s like… to be a streamer… to be a dreamer… behind Blue Mics!”

It’s an interesting juxtaposition when you think about it. Many of us started streaming to make friends while sharing content, then feel overwhelmed with the response and spend extra time isolating and protecting ourselves. Why?

Streamers can have tens of thousands of followers, ranks of devoted fans, and an amazing community filled with great people. That sounds like a wonderful position to be in, and it is! Well… mostly.

Success of any kind breeds its own problems. Success on the internet however, is a modern day “Sword of Damocles” when it comes to your personal privacy. If you don’t take some steps to protect yourself, you could end up with some unwelcome surprises.

‘Why’ these unwelcome surprises exist is a big question with lots of deep answers. When you work as a content creator, you open a Pandora’s box of personalities and behaviors that interact with you, no matter what your metrics are.

The garden variety troll hell bent on disrupting your stream for selfish amusement is to be expected. Heck, it’s often a rite of passage among streamers. But they often can be ignored or dealt with in a manner that poses no risk to your brand.

But there is another personality type that you may encounter that has the potential to impact not only your brand, but your personal life. In this article, we’ll explore the psychology and mechanics of an unhealthy Parasocial Relationship. Or as you probably understand it: “That one viewer who really creeps you out.”

These people push against one of the most important elements of the streamer-viewer relationship…

Boundaries

People don’t always respect personal boundaries, especially on the internet. In a perfect world, you could put yourself out there and not have to worry about it. But as we all learn one way or another, this is far from a perfect world.

The one boundary that you absolutely must set is keeping your physical location and personal details out of your streams and away from your community. This might require you to rethink how you interact with viewers, but it’s an essential key in safeguarding you and your family from unwanted attention.

Once your personal details are out, they can almost never be removed from the collective hive-mind of the internet. So establishing and practicing this boundary early in your streaming career is vital to its effectiveness.

Now obviously, not every streamer has the same exposure risk. As much as we’d like society to have progressed beyond this, women are much more at risk of harassment and inappropriate contact than men. Not to mention the wide range of harassment and other problems faced by many different demographics on streaming platforms.

Everyone deals with trolls and generally unpleasant people during their streams, and you definitely don’t want them knowing too much about you. But a far more difficult problem is that fan of yours who has become too emotionally attached.

“Friendly” vs “Friend”

The nature of being a streamer means that people invite you into their homes to share their free time. It’s an intimate act, if you think about it. One that, unlike face to face contact, is free of being judged, ridiculed or shamed.

Even the most socially awkward or traumatized people can feel safe bringing you into their personal space, beyond the emotional walls they’ve erected to block out their social woes. Through anonymity and privacy, they feel empowered to open up.

During your streams, you interactively share personal experiences. You talk about your day, things you’ve done, places you’ve been. You talk about things that bother you, share your victories and your failures. Your strengths and weaknesses.

On your screen, that’s just you being a friendly and supportive streamer. But for them, it might be the only meaningful interaction they’ve had all day, or the only place they’ve felt safe to share their own vulnerabilities.

Given these circumstances, it’s no mystery why some people can’t tell the difference between Friendly and Friend.

The Psychological Problem

In this modern age of social awkwardness, depression, and shallow relationships, connections to people that resonate strongly can be hard to come by. For many, finding someone they feel a connection with can cause an intense, emotional reaction. Like an ice-cold bottle of water in the desert, it’s a relief from social dehydration.

A Parasocial Relationship is when someone becomes emotionally invested in a one sided relationship with a broadcasted persona. This can take form in a wide range of active behaviors. From a deep, loyal adoration towards a particular streamer, to the criminal actions of a predatory stalker.

This psychological phenomenon dates back to the 1950’s with the advent of the television. Back then, it was obsessions with actors, musicians and television personalities. Because of the one way, prerecorded nature of television, an unhealthy parasocial relationship needed to escalate to an extreme degree before it impacted the target of someone’s obsession.

The Modern Dilemma

But now, the landscape this phenomenon takes place in has changed dramatically. With the explosion of content creators, millions of people put their face and personalities online, available to anyone with an internet connected device.

Unlike the television era, streamers are interactive broadcasters that provide real time feedback with their fans. This give-and-take communication has challenged the classic definition of a Parasocial Relationship.

Further complicating things, these online, two-way social interactions often intersect with difficult problems like depression, social anxiety, isolation, and repression of gender or sexual identity.

People are no longer disconnected from the broadcasters they turn to for relief from these issues. They become directly involved in the content as it happens and can directly influence the outcome. This provides a completely different experience than the environment where our current definition of Parasocial comes from.

It’s a rewarding experience to interact with a streamer who talks directly to you. It fosters a sense of familiarity with the persona you’re watching in a way that television couldn’t accomplish. With that sense of familiarity and banter, there breeds a sense of being a persona’s acquaintance or friend.

Interactive parasocial relationships?

Getting people to invest their personal time with you is a fundamental key in being a successful streamer. So if any of this emotional investment mechanic sounds familiar, it should. You want viewers to feel like you enjoy having them around.

Heck, you probably have a streamer that really resonated with you, that interacted with you in just the right way about just the right things. Enough so that you wished you could have a personal relationship with them as a friend because you so genuinely identified with their content or persona.

Tapping into our primal human need for companionship with a friendly nature and back and forth discussion is in every streamer’s toolkit for increasing viewership. It creates an impression on viewers that elicits an emotional response.

When someone expends emotional effort, time, and energy in a “relationship” with a streamer’s broadcast persona, that fits the classic definition of a Parasocial Relationship. People want to come back to your stream because they felt that emotional sense of connection and familiarity. They expend emotional effort to repeat or increase that feeling.

But the complicated twist of the modern era is; with the arrival of interactive broadcasting, is it still really one sided?

Many streamers do become personal friends with some devoted fans. These normal friendships develop slowly over time with two way interactions, consent, and participation that builds a healthy foundation of trust. It allows the crossing of those boundaries you set up as a streamer in a healthy and safe manner.

This would mean that Parasocial Relationships are not inherently detrimental within this framework. They are part of what drives the engine of content creation on streaming platforms with follows, subscriptions, and donations.

For the vast majority of people, the social contract of personal boundaries and respect for privacy is understood here, no matter how devoted they are to their favorite streamer.

However…

An Unhealthy Habit

With the right mix of conditions, someone can develop an intense emotional connection to your persona, conflating it with your personal life. For some, it might be your appearance and personality that draws them to you. For others, your mannerisms or ideology about life in general. Whatever it is, they receive a sense of gratification from you that needs to be fed.

And with 24/7 availability of your recorded broadcasts, whatever they’re needing can be fed at any time. It may soothe negative feelings of loneliness, isolation, repressed feelings of identity, or depression. They can also fuel unhealthy desires surrounding their perceived relationship with you.

Over time, they can lose the distinction between you being a friendly streamer and you being their intimate friend. Even if you’ve never spoken to them beyond a “Hey there! Thanks for hanging out!” Each and every interaction you have with them is an affirmation of this connection.

Eventually, through no conscious action of your own, you’re the reason a fan has made it through some traumatic event, or are the reason they took off work early… repeatedly. Perhaps they’ve even made a major change in their lives just to make themselves more available to your broadcast schedule or to participate in your content.

People with serious cognitive problems may easily latch onto you. Their thinking errors leading them to become deeply invested in this one sided(?) relationship they’ve created in their minds. Streamers can, and do, fall prey to predatory and possessive behavior. Most commonly by a person who believes they are entitled to an exclusive, personal relationship based on this.

You continually preoccupy or intrude on their mind. They need your streams. You have become their obsession.

The Devoted Fan (Good) vs The Obsessive Fan (Bad)

A devoted fan inherently knows that the person they are watching has a boundary of privacy. They understand that what they are seeing on stream is a projection of the streamer’s persona and not an accurate representation of them in their private life. While they might feel they know the streamer on a personal level, they are aware that it is inappropriate to behave as if they do.

An obsessive fan lacks the social awareness to understand, or has misinterpreted the boundaries of privacy as something they are exempt from. They might feel as though the persona is an accurate representation of the streamer’s private life. Any interaction between them and the streamer equates to an interaction in a personal relationship.

Do both of these descriptions fall under a Parasocial Relationship? This seems to be a topic of ongoing debate. But what isn’t a debate is that an obsessive fan is an unhealthy form of Parasocial who can be dangerous.

The Signs and Signals

There’s no one thing to look for that isn’t an obvious red flag already. The clues can be subtle and add up over time. This is what makes this type of problematic behavior so difficult because they’re often a slow burn with someone you might never suspect.

You don’t need us to tell you when someone is being creepy or not. But there are a list of behaviors to keep an eye on.

Some of the clues are:

  • Constant questions or remarks about your personal life, even when deflected.
  • Excessive contact via your social media. Often in PM/DM’s.
  • Attempts to manipulate you into contacting them.
  • Dropping personal details or remarks about you in your stream’s chat that are inappropriate.
  • Talk of watching your VODs an excessive amount.
  • Over the top reactions to you missing a message from them in chat or not acknowledging them on social media.
  • Very defensive of you against any perceived slight or trollish behavior. Think “white knight” on steroids.
  • They talk about visiting your city ‘hoping’ to bump into you. Not in a joking context.
  • Overly helpful, too eager to try and become part of your content management team and react poorly when they aren’t invited.
  • Knowing details about your stream, brand or personal life that you’ve not officially announced yet, often times mentioning them in your community to identify themselves as an “insider”.

Most of the time, these warning signs will float to the surface of your awareness. But isolated and on their own, these behaviors might not warrant discipline. Many genuinely curious or immature people might behave the same way, so it really takes some long term observation and evaluation in the absence of overt, red flag events.

The Risks To You And Your Brand

One of the most obvious risks from an obsessive fan is the potential for stalking. If you’re a streamer, most likely you’re of the generation who’s grown up with social media embedded into your lives. As we all learn a bit too late in life, once something is on the internet, it never really goes away.

This means the probability of finding a few of your personal details laying around is already pretty good. However, if you’ve not created that boundary between your personal life and your brand, the probability of someone finding things like your address or personal emails are much higher.

Stories about obsessive fans showing up on a streamer’s door step aren’t uncommon. Stories from streamers who’ve experienced stalking and harassment are easy to find. Imagine trying to keep your brand professional and entertaining while constantly in fear of someone knocking on your door. Not to mention the fear of being victimized weighing on your creativity.

Even if they can’t find you, a scorned, obsessive fan can be vindictive on an incredible scale. Creating entire social media campaigns to discredit you with lies, posting your personal information, attempting DoS attacks, reporting you to sponsors or partners with false allegations… all of these brand damaging actions are well within the normal spectrum of an angry obsessive person.

What You Can Do About It

On a long enough timeline, every streamer will deal with a problematic fan. Your entire business model revolves around getting as many people as possible to buy into your brand, so you’re bound to run across one or two during your career.

Making sure that you set clear expectations of where your personal boundaries are with your moderation team and community is essential. This will be different with every streamer, but at a minimum these things should be off limits:

  • Home address / neighborhood
  • Personal phone number
  • Personal email
  • Your real name

If you keep the above information away from your streams and community, it will go a long ways towards setting a boundary of personal privacy. All without getting in the way of the interactions that make the relationship between a streamer and their community a cornerstone for success.

Even so, you still might find yourself victim of an obsessed person who, regardless if you know it or not, has decided you’re their new best friend for life. In the event that you are, here are some things to do:

  1. Document everything. – In the event this escalates to involving law enforcement, there will need to be a very clear history of them ignoring your requests to stop contacting them.
  2. Ban, Block, Remove. – Get them out of your community. Report them to your streaming platform’s moderation team. Document these reports. Do it frequently until the platform staff acts.
  3. Don’t engage. Once you have sent them a clear message that says “Do not contact me ever again, for any reason.” That’s it. Do not try to reason with them, do not try to scare them off. Most likely, they will take you continuing to engage with them as a sign that you “…really didn’t mean it”
  4. If they contact you in person, immediately get in touch with law enforcement in your area.

Only One Piece Of The Puzzle

Setting a boundary is only one aspect of your online safety. Separating your personal life from your business requires a much more thorough audit and compartmentalizing of your digital footprint.

You might need to create a whole new digital footprint to do this correctly, perhaps even scrub your old personal accounts.

In our next article, we’ll do a deep dive into how segregate the “personal you” from the “streaming you” to create and maintain a secure space for everything in your life that you don’t want an obsessive parasocial to find.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parasocial_interaction

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1713/da74f55ec2edef19225b6db96e4dbeaf7201.pdf

https://thejsms.org/index.php/TSMRI/article/viewFile/364/167

https://research.vu.nl/ws/portalfiles/portal/2367215/Schramm+Hartmann.pdf