Dossier 9: Online Fandom

Paradise: life inside a fanbase

What is the view like from inside the world of online fans? I met Oumaima, a BTS stan, when we were both fans of One Direction in 2013. Now she follows the famous lives of the popular K-pop group BTS: Seok-jin, Yoon-gi, Ho-seok, Nam-joon, Ji-min, Tae-hyung, and Jung-kook. In this interview, she attempts to deconstruct the ways fans work from within. We talk about what her online life is like, how she communicates with her idols and their other fans (the BTS A.R.M.Y), and the essence of standom for her.

Guus: What do you like most about being a stan?

Oumaima: It keeps me entertained. It’s like a distraction. It makes me happy. They make me happy. That’s the best part of being a stan.

G: What are your online fandom activities like?

O: Personally, I’ve been in the BTS fandom community and on Twitter for seven years, so I just tweet what I think about and pictures that I like. But there are different kinds of BTS stans, and every BTS account is focused on something else. You have fan accounts that translate BTS tweets from Korean, because they mostly speak Korean. There are accounts like ‘Hourly Jungkook’ which posts a picture of Jung-kook every hour. There are people who focus on gigs. People that not only translate tweets but also other content like videos that they’ll upload to their website. Since I’ve been a fan for so long, I just tweet my thoughts about BTS, but as they’ve been rapidly gaining fans for a while now, the newer fans are actively thinking about what they should tweet. For me, it’s just a diary. I tweet whatever whenever.

G: Do you have a lot of contact with other fans through the diary?

O: Oh yeah, all the time. I follow fans, they follow me. There’s a lot of discourse. Something that really characterises A.R.M.Y Twitter is that there is always one main subject that is central at a time. For example: you can make ‘Spaces’ on Twitter, in which you can talk through your microphone. One girl started a Space called ‘Me singing BTS songs but I am screaming the lyrics’, and she broke the record for most people entering a space. There were like 70,000 people listening to a girl screaming BTS songs. My whole timeline consisted of just tweets about her for two hours. Another time, someone started a discussion on ‘what BTS would be like as high school students’, or ‘what is BTS like in real life’. For hours, that’s the only topic of conversation on my timeline. With these types of discourse you can make a lot of contact. I mostly talk to people when I have urgent questions. Yesterday, we were trying to find out if Jung-kook’s lip piercing is real or fake, and all the tweets I saw were fans discussing the piercing, saying “I need to know, is it real, is it real?”, because, knowing him, he could also just stick it on. So these central subjects keep the fans entertained. 

Tweeting about Jung-kook’s lip piercing.

There are memes that go around a lot, like a video of Jung-kook only looking up and down. But it looked flirty somehow and my whole timeline was making up scenarios imagining why he would look at you like that. There was also a picture of Nam-joon leaning against a post and people were thinking of POVs. That one even got to BTS themselves. For a video, they were dancing in front of a green screen and showing funny pictures and they included that one. They know what’s going on. The A.R.M.Y gets a lot of content from BTS, but we know how to entertain ourselves when we don’t. 

Nam-joon leaning.

G: You mentioned that they included that picture of Nam-joon leaning against a post in a video. Does that mean BTS interacts a lot with fan activity and fans themselves?

O: Not on Twitter. BTS members don’t have individual Instagrams, only the official BTS one, so they kind of use Twitter like you would Instagram. They post pictures and interact with other celebrities, but not fans. For that, they use Weverse. I just got a notification five minutes ago that one of the members replied to someone’s comment. And I just got another one now that RM commented on a fan’s post. Weverse is just a lot of content. If you pay twenty euros a year you can be a member and get even more special content. People also leak it, but you’re not really supposed to. This is where they really interact and joke around. I can see that RM has replied to 23 fans in the past 15 minutes, about changing his profile picture. You have to make an account to be part of Weverse, so they use that to their advantage. Twitter is too open. They used to have something called Fan Café, but it was really hard to get in. You needed a lot of BTS knowledge and to answer questions and level up. I couldn’t get in because all the questions were in Korean and I didn’t know what was going on. That’s where they talked to fans all the time. A member of BTS could make a group chat and the first twenty people that joined would be able to just talk to him as if they were friends. They got rid of Fan Café when they started gaining more English-speaking fans. They wanted a platform where everyone was welcome to interact. K-pop does a lot with interaction anyways, at least in Korea and before corona. They’d have concerts and fan meetings where you can talk to each member for a minute and they’d do music shows and TV shows to promote themselves. 

11 Weverse notifications in 4 minutes.

G: It sounds like they interact a lot and do their own promotion, but you’ve told me that fans also partake in promotion a lot. Can you tell me more about how they do that?

O: When an announcement comes like “BTS is having a comeback” and it’s confirmed by Korean media and their company Hybe, that’s when it starts. Armies make collages of all the goals they want to reach. They make playlists on Spotify to get the best streams. Some fans donate money to other fans in the US so they can buy the single and get it on the Billboard 100. They make thirty-second flashy promotional videos explaining their goals on Spotify, Shazam, and Youtube. Once it’s confirmed BTS will drop something, we know there are certain numbers we want and we will make sure to reach them. You will stream that song, because everyone is streaming that song. You will watch the video, because it’s everywhere. The A.R.M.Y knows the techniques, knows how the industry works, and knows how to get to the top. And we reach the goals like ninety-nine percent of the time, because of this structure. It’s not just “oh, the song is out, stream it :)”, no. It’s “the song is out, and here is a list of things you need to do”. On Spotify, when you want the streams to be counted, you can’t just replay a song over and over, because it will be flagged as a bot. You have to make a playlist that goes: new BTS song, three old BTS songs (the other ones are always BTS songs, we don’t give streams to other groups), new BTS song, three more old songs, etc. That’s how you get your streams. It still surprises me, as an old fan, how much the A.R.M.Y knows and how structured they are. They really are an army.

G: The fans work together really well to get BTS to the top. Do they work together in other ways?

O: Yes, they do. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, BTS donated $1 million to the organisation, and armies worked together to match that in a few hours. They try to do that whenever there’s a crisis in the world. BTS donates a lot of money themselves for art, schools, and hospitals. Just last week, Ji-min donated $100 thousand to polio patients. And their fans take that as an example. There are accounts dedicated to donating, for a lot of different charities. 

G: BTS fans donate a lot of money, and I know they also do other activist things like flooding the Texas abortion line or reserving tickets for Trump’s rally, but can they also work together for things that, in the end, turn out to be less of a noble goal?

O: I would say the fandom is protective of BTS. They have to work extra hard as POC Asian artists in the Western world, trying to prove themselves while singing in another language. When something is directed at them, like xenophobic comments, the fans work together as a force to right this wrong. BTS did a cover of Fix You by Coldplay, and on a German radio station one of the DJs said that they ruined the song, which in itself is fine, but he continued with comments about the corona virus, North Korea, China—he bombarded them with xenophobic shit to the max. A lot of German BTS fans who heard that blew it up and made sure the A.R.M.Y worked together to get the guy fired. And he did get fired. That might be seen as negative, but it comes out of a sense of protection. Sometimes it can be too much. If you say something bad about BTS on Twitter, you’re cancelled in a second. In a video, Shawn Mendes said that the A.R.M.Y stole his fanbase’s name, which is the Mendes Army, and that he had it first. Then he immediately said “Oh, haha, I’m only joking, I love the boys, they love me”. He realised his mistake. The A.R.M.Y would have come and ended his career. The boys have been through so much, which you can’t really tell from the outside. Everyone thinks they just rose to the top with ease. But in Korea, in the beginning, they were nothing. They’re still seen as something fresh and exotic in the Western world, where they gained popularity in 2017, already four years into their careers. During interviews, they never get serious questions about their message, their love yourself campaign, their fight for mental health, their songs. They get questions like “What’s your favourite American Food?” or “Who’s your American celebrity crush?” They’re sick of questions like that. It’s like they’re children. During one interview, they were literally handed toys. Most of them don’t speak English that well, so they also can’t express their thoughts about it. That’s why the fanbase is protective over them, and can get defensive. 

G: Are there any celebrities or fanbases in particular that have a feud with the A.R.M.Y?

O: That’s a touchy subject. Because it’s K-pop, there are people that stan multiple groups. So there’s bound to be fights. I’m just on the happy side, enjoying my life stanning BTS, the seven of them. I don’t want to add fuel to the fire by saying which groups fight. Just listen to the music, focus on your own artists. When I see fan wars, I scroll past it or close Twitter. But there are fights, yes. Sometimes, other K-pop groups get compared to BTS, and the fans just go “No.”. 

Because BTS has such huge success in Korea, where they’ve reached an unreachable level, fans of other groups can be intimidated. They feel like their group doesn’t get a chance. BTS gets everything, all the big awards. I mean, they’re BTS. But they’ve worked for it, it’s natural growth. Their company started out as nothing. 

In the KPOP industry, there’s the Big Three: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment. Three companies that have massive amounts of money. All the groups that debuted with them would succeed, because they had the funds. That made it really difficult for other entertainment companies to produce successful groups. It would be seen as a miracle. When BTS debuted, they were voice recording songs in garages. They almost disbanded because their album wasn’t selling well. They couldn’t get performance times, because the Big Three would buy up all the slots. But their songs were so good, that the public slowly started to notice them, and they got more popular around 2016 (three years after they debuted). They had their first hit in 2015, and since then they’ve been growing bigger and bigger, until they surpassed other groups and their company Hybe surpassed the Big Three, changing the entire industry. Some fans of K-pop groups that debuted with the Big Three still have that superiority complex of stanning the big ones. But the Big Three isn’t even there anymore. Hybe makes more money than them combined. Harvard Business school did a review on the BTS company, and their growth in revenue just goes like this /. As a business major, that was interesting to me.

Hybe (previously called Big Hit Entertainment) revenue from 2013 to 2019, during which it multiplied tenfold.

G: And is there any beef within the A.R.M.Y, or are you just a big loving family?

O: There is definitely beef. When you like BTS, you have to like all seven of them. They see each other as brothers. Tae-hyung said “if you give us love, give the love to all seven”. So, when you’re a BTS stan, you have to be OT7, you have to like them all equally. Of course, you can have a bias, a favourite, that’s fine. But in the BTS fandom, the biggest problem we have are solo stans: people who only stan one member, and shit on the others. There’s a lot of hate towards them, because if you don’t like them all, are you even a BTS fan? Why are you focusing so much on one of them? Talk about the others too. The A.R.M.Y keeps an eye out for people showing behaviour that’s too close to solo stanning, and will call them out. You either like them all, or you unstan. 

G: Is there anything else you would like to say about online fandoms?

O: Is there anything you’d like to know?

G: We covered a lot. Maybe something about shipping1, a part of every fandom?

O: I don’t want to talk about shipping, that’s their private life. I don’t want to assume anything. I don’t think shipping is the core essence of the BTS fandom anyway. What I’d want to mention is the way BTS helps their people—their message, the way they talk about mental health, the whole love yourself campaign. That’s the core essence of being a BTS stan. And helping them achieve what they want to achieve. Being a community, helping other people. Supporting them and their music. Not shipping, that’s just a side detail, it’s not an important part of the BTS experience.

G: So, tell me about their message. What is the essence of stanning BTS?

O: The essence of stanning BTS is really listening to their music and realising the things they’re talking about around mental health. Politics. About love, not just between a man and a woman, but platonic love and friendships. The way you can use them to escape life. They created these mixtapes, each member, and the one that really got to me was Yoon-gi’s. He has social anxiety, and for one concert it got so bad he had to leave and couldn’t perform. In his mixtape, he wrote a track called ‘The Last’, where he talks about his experience, his struggle, speaking to his parents and therapist, and how much shame he felt when he couldn’t perform that one night. I like music like that, a lot of fans like music like that. One of their songs is called ‘Magic Shop’, and they invite you to this imaginary place where you turn something negative into something positive, tricking your brain. Every time I read their lyrics I get chills. I want people to look beyond their English songs—they’re fun and everyone likes them—but they don’t show the true, beautiful lyricism that they are capable of. In their song ‘Paradise’, they sing that it’s okay not to have a dream; some people don’t have life goals, some people just want to survive and live, and we shouldn’t let those people feel bad. People will look at them and go ‘oh they’re cute’ but eventually it’s those songs that will make them stay long term. That is the essence of stanning BTS. Their songs, their lyrics, are just amazing. That’s what I think. Not ships. Not fan wars. Just BTS, themselves, their songs, that’s all you need. 

References

1 Shipping, in any fandom, is when fans imagine two or more people to be romantically or even just platonically involved