So here we are. No better way to really get into what this massive monstrosity is gonna be than to just… jump in. So, without further ado,
I mean, after all, I’ve got an omniscient being waiting on me to post this before she goes back into her library hibernation.
Simply put, for this journal, I want to highlight fandom culture as it exists on the internet and social media. As with anything online (anything at all, really), there is a fine line between Just Enough and Too Much, and I would like to explicitly point out that line, maybe put up a glaring light-up sign that says Here Is The Line as kind of a warning for people just finding themselves falling into a fandom, so they learn the healthy ways to support The Thing they love. Said Thing could be a book series, TV show, video game, art movement, band, etc.—whatever floats their boat, at least some portion of what I have to say in this entry will correlate. (Is that the right word? Or is it just relate? Connect? Link? Make sense? Thesaurus ain’t helping me here.)
In the end, I hope this entry provides readers/users/viewers/etc. with an idea of what it means to be in a fandom, and how there is, with anything, the good, the bad, and the worse.
Now this might sound broad and vague, so I’ll narrow it down a bit. The current fandom that I frequent is that of the K-Pop music scene, as my lovely alchemist friend so intrusively discovered and so often nags me about, and as such I’ll be exploring a lot of things from that context, including obsessive/stalker fan culture, effects of such behavior on both the fan and the subject of their fanaticism, and how the industry and media are perpetuating this behavior.
Let’s start basic, though.
What Does It Mean To Be A Fan?
Being a fan of something isn’t a new concept. The rhetoric of fanaticism has been around for decades, most of it negative, to no one’s surprise. Chung et al. (2008) take a more “open-minded approach” to the broad term. They cite a whole hoard of early-2000s studies in the formation of their definition of fanaticism: “a unique form of loyalty characterised by strong, intense, and extreme levels of commitment, allegiance, devotion, passion, emotional attachment, enthusiasm, and involvement” (p. 333). Fanaticism itself spans practically any context you can think of—pop culture, religion, politics, brand names, music, etc. If it exists, someone is devoted to it at some level.
And those levels… can get pretty high.
As a personal observation, I would say that the introduction of the internet and social media spurned an exponential growth in the availability and community of fanaticism, thus forming fandom communities.
Ah, for those unaware, allow me to introduce:
Generally, whenever I find an internet/slang term I’m not familiar with and I’m too much of a wimp to ask my friends to explain what the Heckie just came out of their mouth, I’ll consult the internet Bible, UrbanDictionary. Highly recommended. Though… use your best judgment with some of the definitions they have up. They can get… sarcastic, to put it lightly.
But anyway. As I was saying. For those unaware, let’s take a peek at the definition(s) for “fandom.”
Shoutout to JennaTheKiller and Danker Memer. You’ve done the world a service today.
As a member of several fandoms (which I’ll get into later), my first instinct is to defend myself, saying It’s Not An Obsession!!! I just like _____ because blah blah blah!!! We’re not that bad!!! but… yeah, no, these are pretty accurate. Which, unfortunately, does no favors for us in the eyes of the public.
In his novel Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture, Mark Duffett (2013) points out how there is a distinction between ‘fandom’ and ‘fanaticism’ in the way there are perceived by modern society. ‘Fandom’ nowadays, and in recent years, has been seen as immature, a home of obsessive (often nerdy) teens fawning over the latest issue of a comic or novel in a series or version of the D&D manual as though they have nothing better to do. (Fangirls of a boy band are particularly scrutinized.) They (we) were seen as worthless to mainstream society, pegged as the token ‘nerds’ seen in coming-of-age movies.
It’s taken a turn, though, with fandom not just spanning elements of geekdom, but all manner of fan communities, despite how out of place tacking on ‘fandom’ sounds to a topic of fanaticism.
Anyone here in the sports fandom? Golly, I… sure do love… sport… ball.
As I mentioned earlier, the internet has allowed for rapid expansion and easier connection between members of a fandom. It’s a refuge, as well, given the less than favorable view of fan communities/fangirls by society.
Online spaces where fandom is pretty rampant include most popular social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), Tumblr, YouTube, as well as creative sites such as DeviantArt, FanFiction.net, and Archive of our Own (AO3).
The latter-mentioned creative sites exemplify what Henry Jenkins (2006), in his novel Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, describes as participatory culture, where fans are key components in the creation of content, often the creators themselves. Fan art and Fan fiction (respectively, art and writing based on published content and often posted for free to view/read online) are the most widespread and easily accessed.
For the fans, this content creation is a creative outlet, a hobby, but can be the start of career paths. Practice, if you will, or just the first step.
Let’s skip forward a bit from definition and theory to the application of fanaticism on real people, or celebrities.
In past blog posts of mine both this semester and my previous participation in #NetNarr back in 2017, I’ve touched on the concept of being a fan, or even a ‘stan,’ of IRL (in real life) people.
Oh ho, looks like it’s time for another rousing UrbanDictionary Time!
As the first definition here mentions, the term ‘stan’ comes from the Eminem’s 2000 song “Stan,” telling the story of an obsessed fan and the unhealthy progression of his obsession. Below, I’ve attached the lyric video, if you’re curious. Warning: language and graphic depictions of violence.
The term, as can be seen by the second definition I posted, has taken on a less menacing connotation in recent years, meaning more of a loyal devotion than a stalker-like one.
Regarding those, though, ‘stanning’ IRL celebrities as opposed to fictional content is where things get complicated and dangerous. Sure, discourse exists in all fan communities, with horror stories to go with them, but when real people are involved, this/these subject(s) of fanaticism’s lives could be endangered, with them often being victims of stalker behavior. I’ll be talking more about this in a K-Pop context in a moment, but I would like to stress that this kind of behavior is worldwide.
One particularly devastating result of this kind of behavior is that of the case of Christina Grimmie, YouTuber and rising singer/musician who was killed by one of her fans at an autograph signing in 2016. As Sarah Grossbart of E! News describes, Grimmie had a close relationship with her fans, or ‘frands’ as she called them. It is devastatingly unfortunate then, that one such fan, who “harbored an obsession with Grimmie” would commit such an act before turning the gun on himself.
Incidents such as this, though few and far between, can be unfortunately considered an extreme resulting circumstance of fanaticism and fandom. Those participant in fandom surely would rather these perpetrators not be associated with fandom at all, and I would agree, but it is my belief that these cases should be acknowledged, in part so that fans could possibly—crude though it may be, and I apologize for this—experience some form of reality check of their own behaviors.
How much do they know about their subject of their fanaticism? How much time do they devote to the subject? What sort of opinions or feelings do they have of the subject and possibly of those close to the subject such as family and friends?
Forgive me for the grim turn this post has taken, and though I will be attempting to lighten the mood a bit, there is a bit more upsetting information to come.
As I mentioned previously, I will look further at these questions through the lens of the K-Pop fandom, which, particularly today, relies heavily on a social media and online presence.
K-Pop and The Hallyu Wave
Think of The Beatles. The British Invasion of the 60s. Both of these are comparable to the current sweep of Korean pop culture across the globe, known as the Hallyu Wave, that began in the 1990s after an economic crisis in ‘97. By and large, Korean entertainment (K-Pop, Korean dramas, etc.) has, since then, been one of South Korea’s biggest exports.
I assure you that I will not be able to give a proper history or cultural lesson on K-Pop with my few-years’ knowledge, but I’ll try my best to give you the basic gist.
Before I get into the reception of the music scene, allow me to give a bit of basic insight on the industry itself.
At the beginning, it’s no different from American labels. Large companies hosting artists and groups and producing music. That’s about where it ends, though, as most of the time, artists, or ‘idols,’ auditioned for companies such as JYP Entertainment, YG Ent., SM Ent., Pledis Ent., Bighit Ent., etc., in order to become trainees, going through rigorous training in a variety of musical abilities before (eventually) debuting as either solo artists or in groups of various sizes.
From there, it’s not unheard of for the companies to have very strict control over the artists, including over their private lives. For example, ‘dating bans’ plagued artists’ contracts, forbidding them from pursuing any relationships for fear of “damaging their reputations.” Idols are meant to be viewed as ‘perfect’ beings, idolized, and marketed “to sell dreams” or the fantasies of relationships (Oi 2016). Thankfully, this pristine image is not always taken quite so seriously, and fans acknowledge that their ‘idols’ are more along the lines of ‘humans,’ with their own thoughts, flaws, and emotions.
Before I go into how exactly this idealism poses a problem (as though it weren’t obvious, right?), allow me to chat with you a bit more about the music scene in general.
Existence and Growth on Social Media
A large portion of K-Pop’s success worldwide has to do with social media. The IRL fandom takes place in the form of concerts, conventions (KCON anyone?), fansigns, other sorts of fan meetups, etc. etc., but it’s the online landscape where the fandom truly thrives, especially for international fans. This web-wide communication takes the form of music videos, social media posts by the artists themselves, behind the scenes videos, live streams (V LIVE anyone?), variety shows, exclusive Official Members Only ‘fancafe’ sites, etc. etc. Any place I mentioned earlier that fandom has its claws in, you’ll find the K-Pop fandom. Oh notes in his 2017 article “K-Pop Fans React: Hybridity and the White Celebrity-Fan on YouTube” that “YouTube works particularly well in the promotion of K-pop because of the highly visual nature of K-pop performances” (2270).
Seeing as the music videos and behind the scenes content are usually always posted to YouTube first, you could say it’s the epicenter of the social media boom. From there, I’d argue Twitter is a close second, as that’s where (1) all the groups’ official accounts post updates and (2) where a Good Chunk of fandom lives.
But maybe I’m biased, as that’s where I frequent. Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr are also breeding grounds for the fandom, but I would argue they snag a good portion of their material from Twitter.
But again, I’m biased.
Having so much information on a constant stream for fans, coupled with the industry’s usual promotion of these artists as potential partners for those fans, breeds a sense of entitlement to an idol, and a need to be noticed. The sense of connection between artist and fan, while well-meant, is taken to the extreme.
It’s not all fun and games anymore, now is it, Hyungwon?
Ah, he doesn’t wanna say it, but he knows what’s up.
I’ve brought up stalker fans previously, and I’m bringing the topic back, unfortunately. Let’s allow an Urban Dictionary Time once again to get an idea of what we’re dealing with here.
(Apologies for the language.)
As the definition says, sasaeng (pronounced sah-sayng) fans have one mission: to get noticed by their idol by any means necessary. If that means the attention will be negative, then so be it.
‘At least they’ll remember me.’
In 2012, the Korean documentary “Reality of Sasaengs” was released about the nature of sasaeng culture, including interviews with several parties involved. I was able to procure some clips from the documentary:
The documentary, after depicting some of the disturbing behaviors of these sasaeng fans, stresses the need for more wholesome fan culture, the last line of the second clip saying, quite rightly, “We expect [a more] mature fandom culture in the future.”
Now, remember. This was 2012.
It has not gotten better.
A search of the term ‘sasaeng,’ especially on Twitter, will reveal an endless collection of a) fan discourse over whether a certain account or fansite (essentially fan-based paparazzi) is a sasaeng, b) callout posts warning against sasaengs, and c) posts by sasaengs either sharing artists’ private schedules, pictures, or selling private information like phone numbers and addresses.
Regarding (c), some people absolutely buy this information, and flock to any possible chance at making contact with their idol, even if the information they receive is incorrect.
Various past instances of such behavior can be seen here, for those curious: “13 Extremely Disturbing Stories Of Sasaengs That Went Too Far”
The particular instance in the tweet below occurred during the first week of May 2019, where ‘fans’ of the group NCT filmed themselves on the group’s private tour bus, claiming that the bus driver let them on.
⚠️ Please, 𝙧𝙚𝙥𝙤𝙧𝙩 and 𝙗𝙡𝙤𝙘𝙠 @/felixlcve for “sasaeng behavior” They were previously @/bubyukhei.
@/felixlcve got on NCT’s tour bus without NCT or NCT management’s consent and also shared NCT hotel information.
They are hiding as a Stay account— pic.twitter.com/Jh7DbsURBx
— STRAY KIDS SAFETY (@StrayKidsSafety) May 6, 2019
These are just some of the incidents I’ve been made aware of. There are surely daily occurrences against these artists (and celebrities in general, let’s not forget) around the world at all times of the day, and… it’s sad. Sad that these fans have such a warped sense of what supporting a celebrity means, of what showing love for an artist means. To them, idols are not people, but objects, achievements, or conquests. K-Pop fans are getting younger and younger with the music scene’s boom in popularity, entering the fandom unsure how to act and clinging to the most enthusiastic of the crowd and, unknowingly, going Way Too Far right off the bat, only to lash out at being addressed regarding their inappropriate behavior.
The Fight Back
It’s not all terrible, of course. Not all fans are sasaengs.
Fans take it on themselves to call out sasaeng behavior—reporting posts and users on Instagram and Twitter, contacting companies directly, etc. That alone gives some hope to the fandom community. Fans additionally take part in spreading awareness and taking part in projects, such as the 2018 #PurpleRibbonARMY project for BTS, to assure the safety of artists in public places like airports during international travel.
And it’s not just the fans who want to break these unhealthy norms plaguing fandom, but the artists themselves, as well.
Firstly, not all K-Pop music or idols 100% subscribe to the status quo. Many tracks take on social issues, including the addictive presence of social media and the internet. Check some of them out here: “8 Times K-Pop Gave Us Meaningful Commentary About Social Media”
As for openly disapproving of sasaeng behaviors, artists have often spoken out. A recent occurrence included Tablo of the hip-hop group Epik High (who I’m listening to as I write this and highly recommend), who posted on Twitter about a picture surfacing on the internet of himself taking out the garbage during their recent 2019 North American tour. He expressed his upset and outrage at the intrusion of his privacy, and has possibly taken down the tweet (as I was unable to find it again).
Artists have also begun to break against the norms of dating bans, or just the taboo of idols dating in general.
2018 saw the full drama of such rebellion in the form of couple HyunA and E’Dawn, formerly of Cube Entertainment. According to an article from Billboard, “[t]he pair departed Cube following a series of public back-and-forths between the company’s management and the duo after they publicized their relationship following the label denying it.” For their full story, click here. Don’t worry, it has a happy end.
And the last point I want to mention that essentially sums up the issues of the idol industry, of the toxic fan communities, of the prevalence of fans who cross every line for the purpose of attention and entitlement, then turn around and expect perfection from their very-human ‘idol,’ is the direct callout in the form of solo artist Heize’s recent song “Dispatch,” named for the popular news agency and paparazzi photo source for Korean celebrities that has a record of exposing secret celebrity couples.
Below, you can find the short film to go with the song. Even without subtitles, it speaks for itself.
I’ll add the lyric video, as well, for those interested.
A Conclusion: My Own Story
I am by no means a perfect fan. There’s no such thing, especially today with the rapid growth of the K-Pop fandom as well as the slippery slope between ‘connection’ and ‘invasion of privacy’ between fan and idol. Enough about everyone, though; this is My Time.
I am 100% sure I started getting into fandom communities because of the internet, and 100% sure I started going on the internet more frequently because of Avatar: The Last Airbender. That’s not to say I wasn’t a fan of things before that. I obsessed over Harry Potter for years, starting from elementary school, but the release of A:TLA’s final season had me running to the internet to catch up with all the episodes. Then I found a fandom community on YouTube… then one on DeviantArt…
And so it began.
The growth of my involvement on the internet was, therefore, primarily fandom-based. It mostly involved finding fan art, then later fan fiction, then getting involved in forums (I distinctly remember being active on one for HerInteractive’s Nancy Drew PC games), etc.
(A full look at my Internet Journey can actually be found on our first journal post of the semester, embarrassing though it may be.)
Fandom-wise, I would say I went through several phases through high school. (Cue the typical teen IT’S NOT A PHASE, MOM sound clip, but nah, I accepted it after a while.)
It started with cartoons. Like, Cartoon Network cartoons. I’d always liked them, but A:TLA kinda jumpstarted this first ‘obsessive phase’ of mine, as my friends would later call them. So I binge-watched Ed, Edd & Eddy and Codename: Kids Next Door. I still love cartoons, nowadays keeping up with ones like Miraculous Ladybug and Steven Universe, but I’m not particularly active in those fandoms.
Then came anime and manga. Sophomore year brought on slew of new friends (most of which I still talk to) and the insistence that I check out their interests. Honestly, that year was a blur of Naruto, Death Note, Ouran High School Host Club, and too many more. There was also that stint of me desperately learning Japanese, but that time period is one that I will now openly admit was Slightly Problematic and One I Have Learned From.
Next came YouTube. I watched a lot of Let’s Players, mostly, or YouTubers who film themselves playing video games, as well as vloggers and cooking channels, all on and off depending on my interest at the time. The two who I have wholeheartedly supported without fail for all these years, though, are JennaMarbles and Julien Solomita. What kept me as a fan of these two were the way they connected with their audience and their down to earth personalities. Their small pack of dogs didn’t hurt, either. Or that I was momentarily ‘in’ one of Julien’s videos when he picked a question of mine during a Q&A.
The next few years—college, now—were a blend of all of the above, plus Homestuck (but we don’t talk about Homestuck) and Undertale. A few years ago, I reconnected with a high school friend who pretty immediately drew me into K-Pop. At first it was the flashiness, the insane production value, and the music itself that drew me in, but it was the sense of community, the ‘connection’ fans had with their idols/artists, and still the music itself that kept me in this mess of a fandom for over two years.
And during those years, a lot of learning took place, because along with entering a fan community that originates from a different culture comes the need to understand the context of said community in said culture. Basically? How to respectfully enjoy the subject of your fandom. How to respectfully learn about the language, about the food, about the music, the people, the society. Appreciate, not appropriate; that’s really the bottom line, in any case of you wanting to learn about a culture that is not your own. As I said in my conversation with Euphie, it took a lot of mental notation, a lot of observation, of (kind of) mimicking, honestly. And after a while, you learn to understand for yourself where that Line is.
In the context of K-Pop, I, as a fan, am not entitled to any part of these artists’ private lives, no matter how much they share over social media, how much of a connection I might feel with them, and how much the industry wants to sell to me the narrative that I am entitled to them.
Such a narrative is, in and of itself, completely unhealthy for fans and artists alike, and is fortunately steadily being removed from the fandom culture. The whole of the fan community is coming to terms with the fact that these artists are real people with real emotions and thoughts, not some dolls molded to fit a fan’s fantasies, kept pure and waiting only for y/n to be with them.
Ah, look at that. Another Urban Dictionary Time.
W h e w. That’s some fanfic speak. There’s a whole discourse about that term alone, but I’m gonna move on before I can really rant about it.
Long story short, tl;dr, in the end:
Fandom is meant for community, inspiration, and connection. To share a common interest that brings people together and promotes creativity in fans at the best of times. There are, as has been seen, the dark elements of fandom, as there are of anything on the internet, and it is really up to members of fandom to educate each other, bring context to new fans, seek out the problematic fans and sasaengs alike, and ensure a safe and positive online environment for all us nerds out there.
Thanks for hearing my spiel. Now Euphie can finally stop bothering me and hop back through that portal of hers.
Have a good one, friend.
–Masooch (& Euphie)
Didn’t get enough of my rambling? Curious for more? Check out any of these links below:
References & Further Readings
[In order of appearance]
“Exploring Consumer Fanaticism: Extraordinary Devotion in the Consumption Context” by Emily Chung, Michael Beverland, Francis Farrelly & Pascale Quester
“Fandom” defined on UrbanDictionary.com
Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins
“Stan” defined on UrbanDictionary.com
“Inside the Inspiring Life and Still Bizarre Death of Singer Christina Grimmie” by Sarah Grossbart of E! Online
“Hallyu (Korean Wave)” via Korea.net
“The Korean Economy – the Miracle on the Hangang River” via Korea.net
“The dark side of Asia’s pop music industry” by Mariko Oi of BBC News
“Sasaeng Fan” defined on UrbanDictionary.com
“Inside the Purple Ribbon Army – the BTS fans trying to protect the K-pop superstars” by Taylor Glasby of Metro
“Psy Signs HyunA & E’Dawn to New Label” by Tamar Herman of Billboard
“Y/N” defined on UrbanDictionary.com
Whew! That indeed was a lot. If you're reading this now, I'm assuming you muscled through all that, to which I applaud you. It's been a wild semester, and I've truly enjoyed working on this project over the past few weeks. Feel free to follow those links I added at the end for more information! Also, shout out to Euphie, who's annoying, but like, she's okay, I guess. (Thanks for hearing me out, Euph. Mutuals 4 life.)