Words by Tom Faber.
Picture a typical fan. What comes to mind? A Trekkie wearing pointy Spock ears at a sci-fi convention? A teenage girl screaming at a One Direction concert? Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, guzzling slushies and haggling over a mint-condition Batman figurine? Or perhaps one avatar in a virtual horde, tearing across Twitter to wage war on a rival fan group?
You might note that none of these images cast fans in a positive light. Despite many formerly maligned fandoms going mainstream over the past decade—think of Marvel, expanding from geeky comic subculture into the biggest film franchise on the planet—such unkind stereotypes remain our automatic reference points. But the essence of fandom is innocent—it’s feeling passionate about something and sharing that with a community. So how did it get such a bad rap?
According to Mark Duffett, professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Chester, “Media fandom is the recognition of a positive, personal, relatively deep, emotional connection with a mediated element of popular culture.” The phenomenon is not new—Hungarian composer Franz Liszt received such frenzied receptions at his performances in the mid-19th century that the phenomenon was dubbed Lisztomania. Admirers would clamor to seize his discarded handkerchiefs and broken piano strings. In the 20th century, significant fandoms formed around Elvis, The Beatles, and sci-fi franchises such as Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars.1 Outside of the arts, sports fandom invokes similarly intense tribalism, and occasional violence, among its devotees.
Commentators often reach for the language of religion when describing this love—we speak of “worship” and “idols.” There is a precedent here, as the word “fan” is an abbreviation of “fanatic” from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of a temple” or “inspired by God.” Just as religion seems inscrutable to many atheists, fandom is often a mystery to nonbelievers. “To people outside it’s like, ‘Why would you be so interested in that thing?’” says Hannah Ewens, author of the book Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture. “It makes people curious and suspicious. Why would you bother giving all your time, resources and love to this thing that doesn’t know you exist?”
After speaking to hundreds of fans for her book, she realized the answer was multifaceted. “It’s about fun, escapism, feeling understood,” she says. “It’s almost like falling in love; you can feel that obsession hook into you.” A fan’s relationship to their hero is described in psychology as “parasocial”—a dynamic where one person extends intimacy and emotional investment while the other is unaware of their existence.2 In some ways, this makes a fan’s love safer than that of a romantic relationship. “The object of fandom isn’t going to hurt you,” says Ewens. “It’s only going to give you positive feelings and be a mirror for how you’re feeling about it.”
It’s almost like falling in love;
you can feel that obsession
hook into you.”
The scope of fandom was dramatically broadened by the arrival of the internet, which enabled enthusiasts to find each other more easily and to join in creative pursuits such as fanfiction and fanart on platforms including LiveJournal, Tumblr and DeviantArt. Many make lifelong friends and receive vital emotional support from these groups. While this community aspect is important, most people emphasize that the central relationship is the individual one, between the fan and the object of their passion. “Being a part of the Lana community didn’t directly change my life,” says a user who goes by Marta, who co-runs the largest Lana Del Rey fan site, “but her music and her message did.”
It used to be that artists had to rely on magazine interviews to communicate with fans, but today they can speak directly via social media. This makes the relationship feel more intimate; where once the stars of the silver screen were untouchable ciphers, today’s idols are just a message away. Superfans have adopted collective names such as Taylor Swift’s “Swifties,” Beyoncé’s “Beyhive,” Justin Bieber’s “Beliebers,” Ariana Grande’s “Arianators,” and Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters.”3 These groups express appreciation through discussion, image sharing or coordinating campaigns to boost their idol’s success. They might listen to new singles on repeat to drive them up the pop charts or mass-buy products the artist sponsors to help them secure more branding deals.4
Whereas offline fan culture is
contemplative and creative… online ‘stan
culture’ is where things start to get toxic.”
However, the centralization of online fandom onto social networks also created the conditions for more volatile communities to emerge. “Whereas offline fan culture is contemplative and creative, fundamentally about warmth and community, online ‘stan culture’ is where things start to get toxic,” says Ewens.
The word “stan” is derived from a 2000 single by Eminem which narrates the story of Stan, a fictitious fan who writes to Eminem repeatedly and, frustrated by the rapper’s lack of response, drives his car off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the trunk. A word first coined to describe an obsessive stalker was gradually claimed by certain groups on Twitter as a badge of belonging and pride.5
By representing fandom as a slippery slope to psychopathy, Eminem is drawing on a reductive stereotype, yet there is genuine cause for concern at the fringes of online fandom. Stan groups see themselves as online guardians of their idol’s reputation. They wage virtual wars on detractors, using social media pile-ons, review bombing (flooding review sites with negative feedback) and doxxing (publishing someone’s private information online). Ariana Grande fans chased her ex Pete Davidson off social media after their breakup. Lady Gaga fans inundated Ed Sheeran with messages, forcing him offline following a perceived slight. And a group of Michael Jackson fan clubs in France launched lawsuits against the two men who accused the star of sexual abuse in the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland. Fortunately, both Gaga and Grande de-escalated the situation by posting online asking their fans to calm down.
Why do stans rally in defense of an artist who doesn’t really need defending? “They’re not fighting for the artist, they’re fighting for themselves,” explains Ewens. “They’ve aligned their identity so closely with this artist—they see themselves almost like an employee or a close friend. An attack on the artist feels like an attack on the fan.” These frenzies have sparked a moral panic about toxic fandom in the media. Yet perhaps they are best understood not in the context of fandom, but in the context of social media. For decades, these communities have existed mostly peacefully in their own communities—first as real-world fan clubs, and then online on bespoke fansites. It has only been in the last five years, as the groups have migrated to social media and stan culture has emerged, that things have gotten ugly.
Unlike on fansites or forums, the organization of information on social media is not democratic. Social networks are designed according to an economic model that monetizes audience engagement and profits by selling data and advertising space. Therefore algorithms prioritize content that is engaged with most frequently—hot takes, loud voices and extreme opinions, for example. When coupled with the fact that social media users often fall into “echo chambers”—meaning they only see content representing one ideological viewpoint—it’s clear that the architecture of social networks pushes online communities toward tribalism and extreme behavior, whether they’re a group based around music, politics or sports.6
The fact that fandoms are labelled “toxic” while other volatile online communities fly under the radar is simply a symptom of how the media has demonized fan culture throughout history. “Fans have long been used as a barometer for social anxieties,” Duffett explains. “In the 1960s, people were worried about promiscuity and latched onto the idea that fans were groupies. In the era of 1980s individualism, media commentators saw extreme fans as stalkers. Today society is concerned about trolling, loss of privacy, and the dark side of collective action. The media simply uses fandom as a way to speak about these things.”
Fan groups are often subjected to demeaning stereotypes because the nature of the phenomenon is surprisingly tricky to pin down. It may seem simple to understand why someone is a Justin Bieber fan, but the inquiry rapidly spirals into unwieldy philosophical questions: Why do we like anything? Why do we feel things? Why do we want to belong to groups? Fan culture is inherently plural and polyvalent. People engage in fandom both individually and as part of vast, complex networks. They define themselves by drawing deeply from the outside world. They fall into wild love affairs that are exciting, nourishing and never need to be requited; these abiding relationships offer one thing that is sure in a world of churning uncertainty.