In their 1956 article, “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a distance,” Horton and Wohl described both parasocial relationships and parasocial interaction for the first time. They used the terms somewhat interchangeably, but mostly focused their exploration on the illusion of conversational give-and-take a media consumer experiences with a media figure while watching a TV show or listening to a radio program.
This led to some conceptual confusion. Although a great deal of research has been done on parasocial phenomena, especially since the 1970s and 1980s, the most widely utilized scale in that research, the Parasocial Interaction Scale, combines questions about parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships. However, today, scholars generally agree the two concepts are related but different.
When a media consumer feels like they are interacting with a media figure—a celebrity, fictional character, radio host, or even a puppet—during a discrete viewing or listening scenario, they are experiencing a parasocial interaction. For example, if a viewer feels like they are hanging out at the Dunder-Mifflin office while watching the TV comedy The Office, they are engaging in a parasocial interaction.
On the other hand, if the media user imagines a long-term bond with a media figure that extends outside the viewing or listening situation, it is considered a parasocial relationship. The bond can be either positive or negative. For instance, if an individual adores the host of their local morning program and often thinks about and discusses the host as if he is one of their friends, that individual has a parasocial relationship with the host.
Scholars have observed that parasocial interactions can lead to parasocial relationships, and parasocial relationships can strengthen parasocial interactions. This process resembles the way that spending time with a person in real-life can result in a friendship that then gets deeper and more committed when the individuals spend additional time together.