Love the Internet? Hate It? Thank a Fan

Hang around on the internet for any amount of time and you’ll come across a fan—or more likely than not, hundreds or thousands of fans all at once. We’re talking Barbz, Swifties, the Navy, the Beyhive, the Army, Selenators, Beliebers, etc. If you’re not among these fandoms (or their rival fandoms), bumping up against them on your favorite social network can feel a bit like an avalanche burying you alive: out of nowhere, a sudden online entombment of excitement, sharpness, and alienating jokes. 

The Atlantic staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany’s, Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, out this week, serves as a guide to moments like this and many more. Tiffany, herself a One Direction fan, takes fandoms seriously, and in doing so, finds something far more interesting and strange than most popular coverage of them allows. The ardor fans have for their faves, she posits, has fueled the social internet, shaping its voice and patterns and, in some cases, what is or is not a popular function on this platform or that one. 

Tiffany’s goal was, in part, to replace the“inchoate image” of “a screaming, hysterical fangirl who’s falling to the ground and overcome with emotion” with “more specific images of different fans who were using fandom for different purposes,” she told me recently over the phone. Below we talk about the upsides of fandom and its darker sides, from Larry Stylinson conspiracy theories to those around Depp and Amber Heard.

(One note before we get into the Q&A. I did not have the presence of mind to ask Tiffany, a Directioner, to define the complicated concept of “Larry Stylinson,” so here is the absolute shortest explanation I can manage: A portion of the Directioner fandom, known as Larries, believes that two of its five members, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, are in a secret relationship but are forced to pretend to be straight to satisfy the media and the band’s management. The decade-old fan theory, which is untrue, has brought 1D ranks together, it’s driven them apart, and it’s expressed itself in some aggressive online trolling of Briana Jungwirth, the mother of Tomlinson’s child. The latter situation is known as Babygate.) 

Vanity Fair: Why was One Direction the right lens for exploring fandom on the internet? 

Kaitlyn Tiffany: First of all, it was easier to do something through One Direction because that was the experience I had personally. That’s fun for selfish reasons but also helpful for practical reasons, because a lot of stuff on Tumblr in particular erodes or becomes difficult to find over the years. So it was helpful to have something that I had been immersed in at the time, and could try to reconstruct it through finding people who had archived things and stuff like that. 

So that was the practical reason. And then the other reason is that I think pop music fandom is probably the kind of fandom that is most visible to the most people on the internet. I think maybe aside from, like, Marvel fandom, which I have zero curiosity about, I thought picking a pop music fandom would also be important for that reason. 

And then thirdly, the One Direction fandom, to me, it felt like a really rich example of pop music fandom on the internet because of sheer timing. That fandom started to form basically right when Tumblr was becoming a major platform, and when young people were first joining Twitter in really big numbers. One Direction fans could really cleanly personify this idea in contemporary fandom that because you’re doing so much work promoting the star you love and like interacting with them behind the scenes, you feel like you have kind of a creator’s hand in their career and a responsibility for them. 

What are some of the hallmarks of how a fandom, Directioners or otherwise, created Twitter or created Tumblr?

At the beginning of Twitter, it was basically like this vacant space and people weren’t really sure how to use it or what it was for. So there were a few groups, I think, that started to make use of the platform early. One that I talked about in the book was “weird Twitter.” So like your @drils basically who were perfecting this type of internet humor and vernacular. Then I talked a little bit about Black Twitter, which was a huge cultural force at the beginning of Twitter that was actually written about a lot. I didn’t realize this until I was doing research for the book that there was a lot of writing about, like, what is Black Twitter? Why when I log on to Twitter at night is my entire feed Black Twitter? Writers eventually figured out that it was because the Black Twitter community was really following each other back and amplifying each other’s stuff, like, somewhat intentionally, somewhat unintentionally. 

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