Statistics reveal that nearly two billion people use YouTube each month, and one billion videos are viewed each day. YouTube stars have become celebrities, and they influence the fans that welcome them into their homes via mobile phones, tablets and computer screens.

UVA Wise senior Allison Salyer, along with oversight by Assistant Professor of Communication Julia Weiss, recently completed a senior capstone project that surveyed people who follow the YouTube stars to see what factors affect the development of a parasocial relationship, the feeling of having a friendship or relationship with a media figure, with the celebrities. Salyer also examined if the perception of having a one-way relationship with the stars encourages them to basically do what the celebrity asks them to do.

Salyer, a communication major, chose video gamer Markiplier, a YouTube star, and she, along with Weiss, developed a survey that was submitted through Redditt and also sent to a handful of the gamer’s fans. The survey, among other topics, probed those who participated about their perceptions of the celebrity and his authenticity.

Weiss had never heard of Markiplier and was not a devoted YouTube follower, so she worked more on the academic side while Salyer handled the pop culture aspects of the capstone project.

“I had been watching his YouTube videos since I was in high school,” Salyer said. “I knew he did a lot of work raising money for causes. I thought I’d see if perceptions of him caused people to donate their money to the causes he supported. I knew there had to be something there. There had to be some form of connection between YouTube stars and the people who watch them.”

Salyer was correct. His fans developed the feeling that they could trust him to do what he said he would do  with the money he raised for the charities he supported. Weiss came to the same conclusion.

“Interestingly and importantly, we also found that feelings of closeness and the perception of having a parasocial relationship influenced followers’ willingness to donate to charity when Markiplier requested they do so,” Weiss said. “Finally, feeling like one had had a parasocial relationship also influenced followers’ willingness to travel to live events for a chance at meeting Markiplier.”

What Weiss and Salyer found was that the more authentic and real the YouTube stars appear, the closer the fans feel connected to the celebrities.

“It can increase the degree to which their fans feel close and connected to them, which in turn affects their real-world behavior such as donating to charity and traveling to events,” Weiss said.

Because of her capstone project, Salyer, who lives in Pike County, Kentucky, is acutely aware that she was also influenced by the gamer. She still watches him now, and often speaks about him when she is conversing with her parents at home.

Salyers and Weiss are considering submitting the work for publication. In the meantime, Salyer would like to expand her research to see if the same parasocial relationships apply to other YouTube celebrities who do videos on other topics.

She plans to graduate in December, but she wants to get some work experience before considering graduate studies in the future. She also took advantage of UVA Wise’s program that allows students from the Appalachia Regional Commission to attend the College with in-state tuition rates. She said she would encourage her fellow Kentuckians to consider UVA Wise for quality of academics and to take advantage of the ARC program.