How fandom built the internet as we know it from Kaitlyn Tiffany
I will say this. You make a connection in the book between people — particularly young women — who use the internet to actually shape how it works, and people — particularly young men — who do destructive things.
Her new book on the long history of fangirls, from the Beatles to One Direction
Every now and again, I’m asked to describe what The Verge is or do a mission statement or something like that. What I always come back to is that The Verge is about how technology makes us feel. Our screens and our systems aren’t inert or neutral. They create emotions, sometimes the strongest emotions anyone actually feels in their day-to-day lives.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot ever since I read a new book called Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet. It’s by Kaitlyn Tiffany, who was a culture reporter at The Verge several years ago; she is now a staff writer at The Atlantic. The thesis of her book is that online fandom, specifically the hardcore fans of the British boy band One Direction, created much of the online culture we live in today on social platforms. In fact, her bigger thesis is that fandom overall is a cultural and political force that can’t be ignored; it shapes elections, it drives cultural conversation, it can bring joy to people who feel lonely, and it can result in dramatic harassment campaigns when fans turn on someone.
Basically, fandom is the social internet, and our popular culture and the biggest social platforms are shaped by fandoms in ways we only sometimes understand.
Kaitlyn is a diehard One Direction fan herself, and her perspective on why online fandoms do what they do and what they can be rallied to accomplish was fascinating and made me keep coming back to that main idea: all this technology is here to make us feel things. And there’s something about online fandom that explains so much about how technology makes us feel.
One note: you do not need to be a huge One Direction fan to get something out of this episode; I myself got a crash course in the band from my teenage niece and nephew before talking to Kaitlyn. We explain what you need to know in the episode itself, and here’s a link to a playlist if you want to dive into the back catalog.
Okay, Kaitlyn Tiffany, here we go.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kaitlyn Tiffany is a staff writer at The Atlantic. I am required to say you are a former culture reporter at The Verge. You are also the author of the book Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created The Internet As We Know It, which is out today as this podcast comes out. Welcome to Decoder.
Hello, thank you for having me.
This is really fun. It is very true that Kaitlyn used to work at The Verge and some of the wildest things we ever published were a Kaitlyn Tiffany production, so this is really fun. The book is about the social dynamics of platforms as viewed through the lens of the band One Direction, your personal fandom, and the powerful force that is the One Direction fandom. I have a sneaking suspicion that many Decoder listeners might not be deep on One Direction. Can you give us just a brief history of this band and its fandom?
I know it’s hard. You just wrote a whole book about it so we will get there, but just give us the elevator version.
Well, if Decoder listeners are longtime readers of The Verge, they should have some knowledge of One Direction. I guess the simple version is that it’s a British/Irish boy band that was formed in 2011, and became this global phenomenon at the same time that young people were joining social media platforms. It was this really incendiary moment online where all of a sudden you couldn’t avoid knowing about Harry Styles. The other phenomenon happening simultaneously was Justin Bieber, which I chose to largely ignore for this book because I find him annoying.
Because you are a One Direction fan.
Yeah, because I am a One Direction fan.
The tension between the Bieber fans and the One Direction fans is all through the book if you are paying attention to it. You mentioned it was a boy band. I feel like I have to ask this question because it’s Decoder. How is One Direction structured? How does it work? How were they assembled?
They were individual 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys trying out for The X Factor — which is like British American Idol — and they were dumpy-looking. They were all wearing mallrat clothes, had terrible haircuts, and were mostly not even very good at singing at the time. The infamous Simon Cowell was like, “Okay, none of these boys have what it takes by themselves. I’m going to smush them together into this Frankenstein mega pop star.”
Their origin story is a little bit uninspiring. It is as cold and commercial as an origin story can be, but I think they landed on this presentation that was pretty novel for boy bands. They don’t know how to dance. They don’t do choreography. They don’t wear matching outfits. They all get tattoos. There are all these behind-the-scenes videos of them being pretty chaotic, refusing to rehearse and kicking soccer balls at people. It was supposed to be pretty rambunctious and anarchic.
Musically, they started out doing pretty typical pop songs, but later they became this dad-rock cover band in a way that I found really fun. Some people found it annoying, but I feel like it was a good move. It was really weird that they were just suddenly the most popular classic rock band in the world.
I think we should make it clear they are not actually covers. They are not actually doing Led Zeppelin covers, although by the time they have their Vegas residencies, maybe they will work some in.
You brought up their cold commercial origin. One of the tensions throughout the book is between the pure commercialization of music, in the form of Simon Cowell on a reality show assembling a band to sell to teenage girls, and the extremely powerful DIY ethos of the fandom, which is very often in opposition to the thing that they love. Your book is not really about One Direction, though I think it is important to understand what One Direction is. There are infinity One Direction playlists to listen to on Spotify if you need to take a break and take a crash course.
The band itself is not the locus of power that you are discussing, it’s the fandom. The fandom seems to have accomplished quite a lot in its time on Earth. What are some things that it has accomplished?
There are the real accomplishments of the fandom and then the mythological lore accomplishments of the fandom. One Direction fans would claim that at the height of One Direction, fans were able to come together to hack airport security cameras in order to watch them. I don’t know if that really happened, but they took credit for stunts like that.
They also take credit for One Direction’s success in a pretty legitimate way. One Direction famously lost The X Factor; they came in third place. They had this grassroots fandom that really dedicated itself to what you could call media manipulation, tweeting constantly in highly interconnected groups and figuring out how to use these platforms to make something they cared about super visible. I think this is a reason that they had a pretty strong resentment towards the entertainment industry or powerful people that were nominally in charge of One Direction. They felt that they understood the band better, understood how to present them better, and cared about them more and in more of a pure way.
Money is part of fandom and I don’t think any One Direction fans are naive about that. Part of what they want is chart success and sales, to see these boys become rich and famous forever. But that is just a means to an end for them. And that end is everybody in the world knowing and loving One Direction songs.
I would put that in context of the classic music trope of, “I loved this band when they were small, then they got huge and sold out, so I don’t love them anymore.” This is from the complete opposite perspective. They started out designed to be big. They did not win, they did not get big in the way that they were on the track to do, so the fandom said, “We are going to make you big anyway and the goal is even more success.” Those things are in conflict in a really interesting way. It seems like the idea of selling out is completely over, and the goal for all things all the time now is mass success.
Yeah. I feel like selling out would not really enter into the conversation around One Direction amongst their fans.
Are there any One Direction fans that say, “I liked their first album?”
There is obviously some clout to be gained from remembering in-jokes from the very beginning or having been around on Tumblr. As far as musically, I don’t think any One Direction fans think their first album is the best one. That would be objectively wrong. I do not think anybody thinks that.
At one point you actually say, “This book is not about One Direction, who are not that interesting. I would never want to meet them.” Obviously, the book then goes on to talk about the fandom.
Broadly, your point is that fandom is unexamined as a cultural and political force, so that is why you are examining it. I want to focus on that. It seems like the fandom is so apart from the band that the idea of actually interacting with the band is not that important.
It probably depends on the person. I spoke to an amazing writer and academic, Allyson Gross, who had been writing her dissertation on Harry Styles when he walked past the very cafe she was sitting in. She incorporated into her writing that she went out and met him to tell him about what she was working on. It seemed like that was a really fun yet bizarre experience for her. Gods really do roam the earth.
I had a similar opportunity pre-pandemic in the office in Midtown. Somebody in Slack was like, “Harry Styles is in the random coffee shop in the Eddie Bauer store downstairs. You have to get down there.” I was like, “No, he has probably left by now.” They said, “No, no, I’m looking at him. He’s still there.” I was like, “Well, I’m transcribing something. I can’t. This is a workplace.”
“I’m transcribing something.”
I feel like if I met Harry Styles, I would not be able to succinctly explain to him his significance in my life, so it would be unpleasant for me. It would be really stressful. But other people definitely feel differently. There are people who will put in their Twitter bios how many times they have met each of the members of One Direction, and that is exciting for them. I think it just depends on your personality.
The thing I am trying to suss out is how the fandom has retained its power and cultural significance, even as the members of the band have broken up and gone on to very different, independent careers.
First of all, One Direction is technically still on hiatus.
Oh my God, Kaitlyn.
It has not broken up.
The fandom has retained its power in some ways, though it is really splintered. There are a lot of different factions. The Harry Styles fandom is probably the most visible currently because he has the most star power, but there are different factions on Tumblr.
There are people who are only fans of One Direction as a whole that call themselves OG-5. There are people who are only fans of One Direction post-Zayn, called OG-4 fans. Then there are Zayn fans who are hostile towards the remainder of the One Direction fandom because Zayn was really unhappy towards the end and they blame other fans for that. There are fans of Louis Tomlinson or Liam Payne who would be resentful of Harry Styles fans because Louis and Liam are not as successful. That is the most basic summary of it.
There are so many different warring factions even within a fandom. There is also a pretty stark difference between people who stayed on Tumblr — even as it has been crumbling and eroding — and people who have just committed full-time to being on Twitter, which is the louder, faster, more aggressive expression of fandom.
Let’s talk about those platforms for a second. The thesis of the book, with what you just said, is that this band came to prominence as social platforms were taking off. There is a long history of girls on the internet — though there used to be this untrue idea that there were no girls on the internet at all — and as the social platforms took off, they started using the internet more and more. They started using it to communicate about this band. And then the dynamics of the platforms themselves are fundamentally shaped by fandom, whether it be One Direction or Justin Bieber. How has that played out? When you say the platforms are shaped by the dynamics of fandoms, give me some examples.
I think a lot of the emotional tenor of Twitter that we take for granted now is probably thanks to stan Twitter. There is a heightened emotional balance of talking about anything as if it is either the best thing in the world or the worst thing in the world. I think even serious people, who do not realize that they are doing that, talk like that all the time on Twitter.
Even our engagement with cultural objects, political figures, and news events has a really fan-inflected tone, which became notably alarming to people around the 2016 election and afterwards. Trump’s fandom is quite upsetting. There is also the liberal tendency to take figures like Elizabeth Warren or Ruth Bader Ginsburg and hold them up as heroes in a fictional story, to talk about them the same way that you would talk about your favorite character on Glee. I think that is something that came out of fandom that people have started to reconsider recently.
The understanding of how to drive conversation is something that people witnessed either by witnessing fandom or the dark inversion of fandom, which was Gamergate. These groups — who have basically nothing in common except one shared interest that they really care about — can set up these really coordinated campaigns to elevate a message and make it impossible to escape.
Another dark example of that would be the recent Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. People who were stanning Johnny Depp for whatever reason really made that impossible to miss. I felt like the whole conversation last month from people who purposely weren’t following the trial was, “Why am I seeing so much of this?” Those strategies for dominating conversation are things that people learned from early fandom and have gotten better and better at.
The book is very much about Tumblr and Twitter. Why is it those two platforms that are the locus of fan activity and not Instagram?
The Instagram thing is weird to me. I don’t really know exactly why there isn’t more there. It may be because Instagram is a Facebook product, so it is more focused on your actual social circle than it is on meeting people through shared interests. There was some fan activity on Instagram. There was obviously a ton of fan activity on fanfic platforms — like Archive of Our Own or Wattpad — that I did not talk about quite as much in the book because I am not really an avid reader of fanfic.
As far as why Tumblr and Twitter, I feel like they made a lot of sense as a pairing. Tumblr was this insular space where a fan could immerse themself and acquire the visual language, and understand all of the different in-jokes, memes, and expanding lore without a lot of outside scrutiny, because Tumblr is really confusing. The search function doesn’t work and it is hard to just drop in.
Uniquely at the time, there was not a lot of incentive to attach your Tumblr blog to your real identity. It wasn’t weird to completely start over at any time. You could just be like, “I want a new URL. I want a new blog. I have decided overnight that I am a One Direction blog. Now I’m going to try to make it into this community.” There were no public follower counts or anything like that, so some of those communities could grow a little bit more organically. It wasn’t super clear where the power or influence was located all the time.
Twitter was the more public-facing platform for fandom. Fans who would organize on Tumblr would go to Twitter to present the fandom for public consumption, promoting music or winning stan arguments against Bieber fans. They made their presence known on the internet in a way they did not necessarily want on Tumblr.
It seems like Tumblr is very insular, while Twitter is where you go to find all the other people to make them care about One Direction.
Yes. You’re openly spamming people on Twitter. Tumblr is a curation platform. Twitter is a spam platform.
There is a bunch of stuff that fans do now for every major artist where they basically game the system. They set up Spotify playlists to play the tracks. They endlessly Shazam the songs to boost whatever Billboard ranking system that exists. They are VPNing from other countries in the United States to boost rankings.
On the one hand, it is fairly sophisticated. On the other hand, I can absolutely imagine myself as a teenager being like, “I can figure out how this works,” and then doing it. Any motivated teen with time would get there if they needed to, but that just seems a lot of work. Why do people do all this work for free?
To back up a little bit, that description of how to use the VPNs to boost American streaming numbers was something that was flagged by the legal review of the book. She was like, “You need to not be writing this like an instruction manual, telling people how to arguably break the law.”
This isn’t like telling people how to build a bomb. That was something I reported on when I was at The Verge, because I came across a fan on Tumblr who had a gifting blog to boost the downloads of One Direction songs. It was a super interesting concept to me.
Fans would gift each other the song in iTunes, but you could only gift songs to people who live in your country. There would be someone in Lebanon saying, “I want to gift the song to someone, but all my friends already bought it. I don’t know what to do.” This Tumblr user would have this massive spreadsheet saying, “We have 30 people in Brazil and 14 people in Portugal. We are going to match them up in pairs so they can just gift each other the songs to get One Direction 30 or 40 more downloads.”
When you talk to people about it, they rationally know it is not going to make the difference between a One Direction song being number four on the charts versus number one, but I think there is a superstition that comes into it. It’s like how sports fans wear their special outfit at the stadium.
Special outfit? When I go to see a football game I say, “I have to put on my special outfit.”
People have superstitions around fandom, and it’s part of the ceremony of fandom. If you really love Harry Styles and you really want his debut single to be number one, you realistically know that leaving the song playing on your Spotify window is not enough streams to do anything, even if you left it on all day and all night. But you would still do it because it’s just part of your day as somebody who loves Harry Styles. It’s fun, obviously. It’s fun to be on Tumblr and be like, “Hehehe, we cooked up this plot.” That’s a good time.
You spend a lot of time in the beginning of the book talking about the image of the screaming teenage girl as a force in culture. There is a very long history there, starting before The Beatles and then obviously up to The Beatles, and now to boy bands. Explain the sort of stereotype and why you think the stereotype is net negative.
The stereotype is pretty thin. It’s just, “Teen girls see this artificially crafted object of their affection and start screaming and become hysterical. They lose all control of their bodies and sometimes even become dangerous to themselves and others.” When I was reading newspaper coverage of Beatlemania, I was really surprised by how violent a lot of it was. I was like, “Would this pass a modern fact-check?”
There are claims that Beatles fans were getting so excited behind the police barricades at airports and hotels that they would break their own bones or shatter glass doors. There was one article I read that claimed after the Beatles stayed in some hotel and swam in the pool, a fan went and bottled up all the water from the swimming pool and sold it as holy water or something.
Sometimes that is kind of funny, but it can be annoying. When you read that coverage, none of those journalists asked any of those girls what they were doing there. If they did, it would be one question set up to make them sound stupid.
Everyone is more interesting than they appear if you are just watching them do something weird at one moment in time. Everybody has been excited about something and behaved in a goofy fashion. I think it’s strange to not be curious about what’s going on in the lead-up to the concert or after they get home. Why is it so important to them to be there?
Beatlemania was also a super strange time in American history. That was when Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique about the misery of the American housewife. I think she describes it as the “dead expressions” of teenage girls growing up with the understanding that they would live the same way that their mothers lived. Kennedy had also just been shot, which I think is weird that nobody acknowledges.
With One Direction fans in particular, I was seeing these images side by side with Beatles fans or Sinatra fans, or later with Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Bieber fans. I just found it insulting because I was like, “That’s me and my little sisters,” and I think we are funny, smart, and charming. My little sister — who was the biggest One Direction fan in our family at the time — was so funny and self-aware, and made really great jokes about One Direction. It makes me so irritated to think that somebody would see her excitement and say, “Oh, look at that little idiot,” because I don’t think that she is that at all.
I came up in the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC era. I was definitely the boy who thought it was stupid then, but now I can say, “Those are some jams.” At no point throughout that transition did I think, “The fans of this band are a cultural powerhouse that I will have to reckon with in my career and life.”
It is very obvious now that fans of anything are a cultural powerhouse, whether it is Game of Thrones, One Direction, or Donald Trump. Fandom is the dominant mode of all things in culture.
It occurred to me as I was reading the book that the reason for the screaming is that you can anonymously be as passionate as you want, in a way that would make no sense in any other context. You are part of this group and you are doing it. I would say sports fans are exactly the same way. If you go to a state school football game, everyone is wearing blue and singing “Mr. Brightside” together. You would not do that in any other context.
Wait, what school sings “Mr. Brightside?”
Michigan football games. They play it and everyone sings. When they stop the music the whole stadium continues singing “Mr. Brightside.”
Wow, that’s so fun. What a great sing-along song.
It is pretty fun, but it’s also D1 college football. It is a very jarring juxtaposition of ideas. But you can connect that directly to fandoms and screaming teenage girls. Your book is like, “Oh, the social platforms existed at the same time.” You can come home and be that passionate with other people alone in your room. That seems like the mechanism of the power of fandom. You are alone, but you are very much all together at the same level of intensity.
What I find most interesting are the really freaky art projects people would be doing with whatever footage they got from a concert. They would come home and be like, “I have this random still photo of Niall doing something really freaky-looking with his body where he looks like a demon,” and make a meme out of that.
I also wrote for The Verge about this category of short fanfiction that had really convoluted and morbid scenarios. “What kind of outfit would you wear for Niall Horan to hit you with his car?” Stuff that is obviously just as baffling as screaming and breaking your own legs at a police barricade.
I also think it reveals to me how interesting and specific individual people can be in trying to process why they really care about something. They can go home and have these conversations with people they don’t know. There is basically no limit to how out-there they can get, and that is the fun of it. “We talk about these boys so much. There is absolutely nothing left for us to say about them, except to imagine if I were playing Chubby Bunny with Harry Styles and I choked to death on a marshmallow. That is the last scenario I have yet to explore. Does anyone want to explore that with me?”
Some of that stuff is scary but teens have scary emotions. That’s just life. I also thought it was a really fun, exciting time to be on the internet and to be paid to look at Tumblr all day. So thank you for that.
It was good. I definitely did not know that was happening at the time you worked at The Verge, but I appreciated it. The stories are wild. The Kaitlyn Tiffany archive on The Verge is a real ride if anyone wants to go look at it.
You have talked about these boys so much but I keep coming back to the idea that this band is broken up. There really isn’t much left to talk about because they have all gone in different directions, but the culture that is being created out of the band has nothing to do with the band. It’s all fanfiction and collaborative artwork. It has a very different sort of value in the broader culture. No one is streaming Tumblr artwork for pennies per stream. There is no money to be made here, but this stuff is being created at a higher rate than the band itself is creating anything.
That was one of the tensions of writing about this. This is not productive labor in any traditional sense. But at the same time, I think young people are increasingly aware that anything they are doing on social media is productive for someone, and it’s not them or the things they care about. Maybe not so much on Tumblr, I don’t know how well they really did monetizing their One Direction fan base.
They did not do a good job. I think that much is clear.
They are obviously being resistant in certain ways by refusing to make their time profitable. A common critique of fans is that they are wasting their time. “That celebrity doesn’t even care about you, blah, blah, blah.” Older fans that I talk to would be like, “You are wasting your money. You should be more financially responsible, instead of going to concerts all the time or buying sweatshirts that you don’t need.”
They are simultaneously refusing to participate in the way that other people think they should in capitalist society, but at the same time are aware that many different entities are making money off of them. It’s not exactly as punk rock as they might wish.
I mean, the Sex Pistols are effectively a boy band, but that is a different conversation for a very different time. We talk about what it means to scream at a concert, then go home and have all the same people there on your computer, but you’re alone. I don’t know if this occurred to you, but as I was reading the book, everyone in it seems pretty desperately lonely in real life but totally alive online. You have an entire section where you personally talk about chasing the feeling of loneliness for a period in your life.
If you can be at a 10 emotionally online all the time, it just sort of stands to reason that real life will be disappointing. The actions of your day-to-day life will be somewhat disappointing in contrast to this Tumblr window, where the most passionate people you know are being as passionate as they can be at all times. That dynamic seems real in the book. Did you sense that loneliness in people?
Yeah. I feel like a lot of people I talked to did bring that up. Online community is sort of a value-neutral proposition; it can either be really helpful for people dealing with loneliness or it can prey on people. I think that is true even within the One Direction fandom.
For me, it was really fun to have because it also helped me connect with people in my real life. I became a One Direction fan when I was in college, I had a friend from high school who got really into them, and then my little sisters were really into them. It was a way for me to go on the internet when I felt lonely and participate in this thing with people I loved. Especially on Tumblr, it is really an affirming space for young queer people or people of color who would not have seen themselves reflected in that fandom otherwise.
I also spoke to people who got really taken in by the conspiracy theory of the fandom. There were mysterious Tumblr influencer figures who were good at manipulating young people into believing really dark things that were not productive to dwell on. I feel like it can go either way. If your loneliness is driving you to the internet, it is almost a roulette wheel of whether you are going to wind up someplace that will help you deal with that loneliness or wind up someplace that is going to manipulate you through that.
Even inside the One Direction fandom, the conspiracy theory is that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love, which is called “Larry.” I read about this in your book, then I went and read about it for real online. I was horrified by this whole situation. That group of people has wreaked havoc in both of their lives; it has wreaked havoc for their partners and their children.
That connection between “I love this thing so much that I want this to be true” and “I will actively resist the reality of it being untrue” is a pattern we see everywhere. That’s QAnon, right? There is tangible evidence that the people you love dislike it. It seems as though Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson dislike that this is happening and still cannot get it to stop. Why can’t a smaller community that has a shared passion for something self-moderate that out?
I feel like there was a substantial schism in fandom where a lot of people would put, “Larrys DNI, do not interact” in their Tumblr bios and stuff. They refuse to read any fanfiction that was written by someone who believes in Larry, whether or not the fiction has anything to do with it. There is a pretty clear line in the sand through the fandom.
You mentioned QAnon. That conspiracy theory is maintained by influential figures within the community, who will calm everyone and figure out how it actually proves what we thought all along, anytime there is evidence that refutes the overarching narrative. There are those figures within the One Direction fandom, just a handful of women on Tumblr, who are always there to offer a new piece of evidence that gets people excited again.
When Louis Tomlinson tweeted to deny that theory and calling it bullshit, they would spin it as, “Well, management is in charge of Louis’s tweets now. We need to start looking for things that are more subtle. We need to start looking for coded time stamps, uses of symbolism, or different color schemes that mean different things.”
I don’t think there was anything wrong with the original theory that Louis and Harry were in love because that’s fine. Who cares? It was later that it started to have a corrosive effect on the fandom. It was saying that Louis Tomlinson’s child was not actually his, scrutinizing his girlfriend’s body, and mapping out her menstrual cycles in a way that was very disturbing. That is an actual waste of someone’s energy.
A lot of those people became really distrustful, in the same way that other conspiracy thinkers are distrustful of the motives of anybody related to the media or the entertainment industry. Anyone who disagrees with them is some kind of shady figure. Actually, one of them that I tried to talk to for the book became convinced that Kaitlyn Tiffany is not my real name.
It’s actually Tiffany Kaitlyn.
She was emailing all kinds of people, like my publisher, saying, “I demand to know what this woman’s actual name is.” I have been getting that all my life.
Part of the book discusses Channel 4 in the UK making a documentary about One Direction fans who get into this conspiracy theory. But decontextualizing it out of the internet and putting it onto the medium of television just made it feel absurd to everyone. It seems like you ran into the same problem in writing a book. You are decontextualizing a social phenomenon.
It seems like when an online community runs into a non-native platform, bad things tend to happen. There are all these people having very intense social experiences that feel private, because they are in their home. They are looking at a phone screen, which is a very private mode of operation, but it is a social public experience on Tumblr or Twitter. How did you resolve that tension?
It was really hard. I had written about people who believed in the Larry conspiracy theory before and they were already distrustful of me. That would be the really mild way to put it. They were of the opinion that I was this grifter figure who was coming through town and picking up all these juicy tidbits from their blogs, then putting them on the market to make money and achieve a claim for myself. In some ways that’s not incorrect. I tried to think about what specifics I needed from these people’s blogs in order to explain what was going on, without taking things without permission. I tried to minimize that as much as I could.
It was useful to write from the perspective of the One Direction fandom specifically — instead of different or multiple fandoms — because I actually experienced those things myself. I could rely on my own memories of being part of the fandom when it was splitting up over these conspiracy theories and disputes.
There were also some people I spoke to in the book about their own experiences that I felt were useful in explaining why it even matters. It wasn’t just, “Oh, look at how wild and crazy these women are. They believe this thing that is obviously false and pretty twisted.” People actually got hurt by those conspiracy theories, even within the fandom.
Young people went there for some sense of community but got wrapped up into spewing misogynistic vitriol about some guy’s girlfriend that they didn’t know. They later felt a lot of regret and shame about that. At 17, to have to look back at your online behavior from when you were 14 and figure out how you got led down that path is a weighty psychological burden.
That was also a pretty painful time for people of color in the fandom, because Louis Tomlinson went through this phase of doing offensive or insensitive things, including using a British abbreviation of the n-word. The Larry believers were really intent on writing that off as something that management was forcing him to do as part of his straight-guy public persona. That denial of reality became hurtful for people.
It does matter beyond the voyeuristic, “They thought the baby was a doll?” It was important, but it was hard to think about. I don’t want to cause more distress for people.
You brought up those kinds of negative impacts earlier, like Gamergate. It is sort of hard to talk about fan behavior, especially on Twitter, where it seems like that’s the point, without talking about harassment campaigns or influence campaigns. Some of them can get pretty nasty. Music reviewers have even been fired, which is an example in your book. You have a researcher in here actually saying that doxxing and Gamergate are on the same continuum as fandom. Is that getting better? Is that self-moderating? Have people realized, “This is a button we shouldn’t push?”
I don’t know. I think fandom is always going to involve that whole spectrum of behaviors. I do want to emphasize that I think a lot of what fandom does is prosocial. It is funny, interesting, exciting, and artful.
People were paying a lot of attention to the political possibilities of fandom during the summer of 2020 when they were rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement. They used the skills they learned in fandom to participate in that movement in a way that felt natural and easy for them to execute. They were already organized to drive social media conversation and could flood police apps to shut them down. That is an example of the positive possibility of fandom.
At the same time, it is a little bit chilling to think of that as fandom evolving into a political force without necessarily always having a clear perspective. K-pop was also getting involved with Anonymous hackers, or people who were claiming to be Anonymous hackers at the time. It was kind of hard to tell the difference.
Even more recently, there was an incident where Nicki Minaj fans were promoting vaccine hesitancy because of something that Nicki Minaj had said. Tucker Carlson kind of tried to seize on that and embrace the Barbs. That was interesting to watch because you could see it playing out in real time. Different fans within that fandom were bickering over what the political meaning of the fandom should be. Some of them went along with Nicki Minaj and whatever weird thing she said about vaccines, while others chided Nicki Minaj for retweeting Tucker Carlson saying, “He’s a white supremacist. That is not what we want to represent.”
There are these constant battles behind the scenes or deeper in the replies than most people look within the fandom, trying to decide what they mean politically. Sometimes what they decide on is really positive and progressive, while other times it can be reactionary.
I wanted people to come away from the book with an ambivalence about fandom. I did not want them dismissing it as a pathology or as something stupid, malignant, embarrassing, and gross. I also did not want them thinking of it as something that is, “Rah-rah, girl power. Fans are incredible. Gen Z K-pop fans are going to save the world.”
I want people thinking about the full range of what is possible in fandom, the ways that it can really help people in their lives but also the ways that it can take a dark turn. It was hard to strike that balance because I didn’t want the book to be like, “There are all these ways to practice fandom. The way I do it is the good way and the way these people do it is the bad way.” There’s a lot of good and bad and it is important to think about all of it.
I am going to ask one more question about the bad, then I am going to turn to the good. I promise.
You have this line in the book that is close to articulating something I have been struggling with. “There is no such thing as the fan internet, because fan internet is the internet. Fan-ing is the dominant mode of online speech, and the vitriol of defensive fans is the dominant mode of shouting people down on social platforms.”
We are currently in this moment where it feels like the First Amendment is up for grabs. Various states are passing online moderation rules. We talk about how free speech is dead on social platforms and we should rein in Twitter because we don’t know what Elon Musk is going to do.
We are fish, and being harassed by K-pop stans is the water. No one can talk about the invisible fabric tying it all together, which is fan behavior on social platforms. If you say the wrong thing and there is context collapse around your tweet, you might lose your job because the Beyhive is mad at you. If you are a political researcher and you piss off Elizabeth Warren fans, then your life is hell for a day. It is a very isolated experience.
That is the thing we are all talking about when we talk about free speech, much more so than individual Twitter moderation decisions. It is a sense that at any moment you could suffer context collapse and fall into a spiral of bad things happening to you. It just seems we don’t have the language to talk about it except for fandom, which has been dealing with it for years now.
That is interesting. Fandom’s relationship to cancel culture, as you might call it, is sort of murky. I’m thinking about whether you can actually be canceled by fans. I don’t know if that has really happened a lot. I feel like the closest I have been to being canceled was by Glenn Greenwald fans, so maybe it is true.
That’s a badge of honor.
Do you think that is a useful language or a useful framework to think about it? I think the tenor of the conversation about speech on the internet is off. The degree to which it is off is related to the fact that we just do not have the language to talk about how big groups of people act online. The closest we have to that language is talking about fandoms, but we have not yet connected how we talk about fandoms to how we talk about speech writ large.
Sure. When you are talking about the free speech conversation, do you mean people insisting that they are being over-moderated by Twitter, when they are really experiencing people getting mad at them for saying something they don’t like?
There is that, but I think if you look at why Twitter — or any platform — does some of that moderation stuff, the language they use is to preserve the health of the platform or the health of conversations. What they are really doing is moderating against the worst impulses of large crowds. Those moderation decisions get taken, but that is how you preserve a platform like Twitter, which is not a single 230-million-person mass but lots of individual groups.
I feel like every platform suffers this in some way. You have a big user base that is inherently splintered into multiple affinity groups. Those affinity groups will go and do things. The moderation decisions towards those affinity groups are less about overtly racist speech and much more about, “Oh, there is harassment taking place, so we are going to throttle it down. This subreddit has decided to raid another subreddit, so we are going to stop it.”
That is the bulk of the moderation work that the platforms do. If you look at it very abstractly, it is sort of in reaction to, “The fandom has organized on Tumblr, and now they are going to do something on Twitter.” To your point, the thing they do on Twitter could be very positive, it could be very negative, it could be funny, it could be anything. That thing that happens is the actual context of speech we are talking about, whether it is political or just trying to get an album to trend. It just feels like fandom is the right framework to think about it, as opposed to the tiresome arguments about Section 230 or the First Amendment that I end up having.
I feel like fans sometimes brag about putting the platforms in that sort of conundrum of having to moderate overuse of the platform so that it becomes antisocial, when ostensibly what they want is to have millions of young people tweeting all day long. I could go the rest of my life without reading another tweet about Section 230. Although I don’t know if I would love to see everyone in the free speech debate start to talk about fandom.
People should go read your book; I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fandom is everything in it. “It’s the backbone of the influencer economy. It’s a dominant mode of commerce. Brand loyalty is rebranded as fandom.” It feels like if that is true, then the big tension here is that people like you and other people will have to examine fandom in a much more serious way, which will lead to even more of that feeling of violation, of taking it out of the natural context into an academic context. I am just trying to imagine the Harvard Business School course on fandom and brand loyalty. It is coming, and that feels strange, dangerous, and potentially exciting.
You know what? I feel anybody who did that now would also be accused of doxxing. That is one of the things I found strangest about social media in the last few years. Even after I was done researching the book, I have noticed that people who are in those sorts of insulated spaces, like Discord servers, feel that taking anything out of those spaces and putting it somewhere else constitutes doxxing.
Even if their actual name is not attached to it and there is no personal identifying information whatsoever, it is verboten now to move things from one space to another online in order to examine it. You would probably get more roasted than harassed, but it is a weird attitudinal shift.
If this is going to be the dominant mode of commerce, it will happen. Once you attach this amount of commerce to it, people are going to take it out of those spaces to study it and try to figure out how to manufacture it. We can sort of end where we started: One Direction was manufactured to be this thing. The pathway by which they became it was probably not what Simon Cowell had in mind, but the end state was his goal.
I mean, fans did a great job for him. He gets to take credit for being a genius, even though One Direction 1.0 was not much of an accomplishment. It was really the later days, around the third album in 2013, that One Direction peaked. That was when they were maximally engaged with the fan base, doing eight-hour live streams and stuff, which is so insane to think about now. Why would anybody do that? It was a really special and sometimes disturbing time to be on the internet.
What do you think is the next shift in fandom culture? We had this explosion you wrote about, where fandoms for these bands are created and the social platforms take cues from the dynamics of those fans. In many cases they build features to enable it, but then they build features to slow it down. We are at a very strange moment in that dynamic right now. What do you think is the next turn?
I was just talking about people getting even more defensive about guarding the boundaries of these insular online spaces. I feel like the next turn in fandom is to go down a dark path, a little bit cult-y. Ethel Cain is a pop star from Alabama, who just had her first New York Times story. Her fans are called the Daughters of Cain and they have this very religious way of talking about her, as if she is sort of passing down commandments. They congregate in a Discord channel rather than on Tumblr, and they aren’t super public on Twitter. I feel like there will be more of that.
Fandom will hunker down and start policing its boundaries to avoid being capitalized on in the same way that it has been in the past. Not that we won’t still have the enormous K-pop fandoms that are excited about being public and want to be seen all the time. But I think this other form is underground fandom, in the way that there would have been IRL underground scenes. It is just an online version of that. It can be really covert and have a sort of unsettling quality about it. I think that is the next thing.
Kaitlyn, this has been terrific. It is always so much fun to talk to you. I really recommend this book. I thoroughly had a good time, even though I was listening to One Direction almost for the first time while reading it. When you were praising and dunking on the songs, I was like, “Wait, I have to go listen to it.” You are not wrong that they have become a classic rock band.
What is your favorite One Direction song?
Oh, I don’t know.
I’m sorry. I am horrible at remembering the names of songs.
I will say this. You make a connection in the book between people — particularly young women — who use the internet to actually shape how it works, and people — particularly young men — who do destructive things. We spend more time paying attention to young men than young women. It is strikingly true. I hope people read the book just to get that point out of it. How these things work is unexamined, even if the people don’t seem particularly open to being examined.
I feel like I have been a little bit doom-and-gloom during this interview, but part of the reason I wanted to write the book was because I started my journalism career during the rise of MAGA and the alt-right. There was such an urgency at the time to understand how these things happened and people were pretty frantic to dive into all of those subcultures, and I was too. Then the dust kind of settled in 2018 to 2019, and it was like, “Okay, now that we understand those freaks, what about this whole other side of culture that we haven’t really bothered to look at?”
Kaitlyn, it has been great having you on. Thanks for coming.
Thanks for having me.