Fandom’s not the same as it was.
A rundown of Everything I Need I Get from You, plus fan stories from our two newest team members
It’s part three of our Stan Era, citizens. And on this fine Grammy Sunday, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the power of music in building online communities.
There’s one artist whose fan army cannot be denied, and he’s up for six awards tonight. It’s legendary internet boyfriend Mr. Harry Edward Styles. (Happy belated birthday, Harry!)
When did the world get wild about Harry, and how? One of New_ Public’s OGs, Josh Kramer, is back in the driver’s seat with a book report on the history of online fandom through a One Direction lens, one of my favorite reads from last year. Hope you enjoy. —PM
A Public Spaces Announcement:
Our research team is working on a new project, and they need your help.
They’ve got a couple questions for you in Substack Chat, so head on over in your Substack app on iOS or Android. See you there.
Fan internet is the internet.
You might remember that in the early days of the internet, there was a corner of the web known as “fan internet,” full of unofficial, fan-created websites dedicated to specific celebrities and musicians. Now, says Atlantic writer Kaitlyn Tiffany:
There is no such thing as fan internet, because fan internet is the internet. We don’t see these things happening until they’ve happened: Now every time a pop star or a real housewife or a woman politician makes a quip, it winds up the subject of homemade merch and reaction GIFs.
“Fanning is the dominant mode of online speech,” says Tiffany. Even Target’s Twitter account has “no choice but to stan” BTS. How did it get this way? There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the internet create modern fandom or did fandom create the modern internet?
I suspect that Ben Tarnoff, whose book I reviewed here in September, would favor a market-based answer: the profit incentives for social media shape what content platforms favor and the culture has been changed by that content. But is there more to it than that? In her recent book, Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, Tiffany comes at the question quite differently.
As a professional internet culture critic and reporter, Tiffany dissects some of the unique dynamics of internet fandom and concludes that it is largely misunderstood. Here are some of her topline findings:
A lot of fandom is creative and transformational
There’s an important distinction between “mimetic” fandom focused on maintaining a “canon” exactly, and “transformational” fandom, which Tiffany says “sometimes takes the form of playful disrespect.” For example, detail-perfect cosplay is mimetic, whereas fully exaggerated and degraded “deep-fried” memes are transformational. Neither approach is lazy and rote, and both can require a lot of creativity.
Outsiders do not usually view fandom with generosity or empathy
According to Tiffany, the popular press and outside observers too often take fan culture literally, to a fault. “Nobody is primed to see self-critique or sarcasm in fans,” writes Tiffany. “Seeing them toy with their own image, recognize their own condition, or mess with anyone’s heads contradicts the popular image that has circulated for the last one hundred or so years.”
Minority communities, including women and Black people, have made marked contributions to fandom and the wider internet
There is a well-known negative stereotype of the “screaming fangirl.” But Tiffany challenges that stereotype effectively, observing self-awareness and creative freedom in fangirls instead of selfishness or insularity. Similarly, she highlights Black Twitter’s capacity, especially through fandom, to create “dense clusters of interaction” and “enthusiastic riffing” with mutuals. As writers like Tressie McMillan Cottom have noted, these practices have enriched social media on a large scale.
Fandom goes all the way back
Tiffany also winds back the history of the internet a bit, with an eye on its cultural evolution and not just its technological progress. She smartly links fandom with our understanding of “early adopters” and finds a pattern of fanning and enthusiasm running all the way back to the beginning of the internet.
Interestingly, she looks at Community Memory in 1970s Berkeley, as I did here over a year ago. However, her focus is a bit different. Tiffany notes that this landmark moment in the history of the social internet may owe its success to fans of the Grateful Dead, or Deadheads:
At the time, individual internet users had to pay à la carte for the hours they spent online, and being a member of the WELL — if you used it fanatically — could run up a bill of hundreds of dollars a month. These funds were necessary to keep the service operational, and the Deadheads were therefore crucial to its survival.
However, she notes a gender imbalance in early internet use that didn’t really change until the turn of the century. Fan websites helped close that gap. Thousands of women logged on for the first time to create GeoCities pages for boy bands like *NSYNC and tv shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Though men had been the early adopters of the internet, women were the early adopters of social media,” writes Tiffany.
Fan internet is the internet now
Over a decade later, we have “life hacks going viral in the bathroom,” as Styles sings in “Keep Driving.” As Tiffany writes, “the mannerisms of Stan Twitter became the mannerisms of the whole site — through mutuals creating, as they did, thousands of denser, smaller networks knit together.”
This can be positive, allowing individuals to find community amongst millions of other users, but we all know it has a dark side as well. Regular people can quickly be turned into “the main character” by fans and become bitterly shamed on a huge scale. No one wants to find themselves on the wrong side of the BeyHive, for example. “Fans are unavoidably part of Twitter’s knotty history with abuse and coordinated harm,” writes Tiffany.
Returning to the above conundrum, Tiffany has some interesting insights into the causal relationship between platform design and fandom behavior. She observes that the affordances of each platform definitely shape what people do there, but only to a point. “The commercial apparatus of the internet is only in whether I love One Direction, and not how or why I came to,” she writes.
Yes, the platform wants us to post, and spend more time looking at ads, but that’s not enough of an explanation for why people become full-time stans. There’s an emotional component to fandom that deserves far more attention than we usually give it, argues Tiffany:
Real scrutiny would reveal everything that the internet has made possible: unimpeded creativity, remarkable feats of will, the unexpected easing of loneliness, the goofy precursors to solidarity, but also devastating atomization and division, overstimulation realized as constant anxiety, emotion mutilated into absurdities, attention rendered an addiction, passion funneled into targeted harassment.
Of course, this is what New_ Public is about in many ways, and why we’re dedicating some space to the theme of stanning. Taking the emotions and communities of the internet seriously, and trying to make better places online, are among our most important goals.
I would recommend reading Everything I Need, with the caveat that there really are a lot of specific details about Harry Styles and One Direction. You may find yourself wondering, as I did at times, if you are actually reading a book about a boy band (even though, in the introduction, Tiffany promises that you aren’t). Still, Tiffany has a lot of interesting, and often quite funny, things to say about fandom in this book. If you’re along for the ride it’s a rewarding and thoughtful exploration of the topic. 🌳
A dumpster dive on fan culture references.
Fan communities for secondary works, like AO3 and GIPHY and the Tumblr pages Kaitlyn Tiffany describes in EINIGFY, help us comprehend the zeitgeist in novel ways.
Last week, our friends at Garbage Day shared some delicious internet trash from Meme Insider that measures the cultural weirdness of Avatar through fanfic, song lyrics, and GIFs.
Adam and Ryan, we salute you. Leave your bins out for Garbage Day, citizens. 🗑️
Fan testimonials from our newest team members.
The team at New_ Public is growing! (We’re still hiring btw, check out our listings.)
We interviewed Ricki Friedmann, our new Operations Manager, and Meghan Welsch, our new Program Manager for the Public Spaces Incubator, about their most meaningful music fandoms. (Responses are edited for clarity.)
👩🎤 Rock & Roll & Rabbit Holes
by Ricki Friedmann
I'm a huge Kiss fan, which happened sort of by accident. Until I stumbled across the movie Detroit Rock City while flipping through TV channels as a kid, my musical consumption consisted largely of country-western music. But once I discovered the band with the painted faces and all of the raw energy and theatrics that they evoked, I was hooked.
My first Kiss concert was on Tuesday, November 6 at the United Center in Chicago. I was 14 years old, and none of my friends liked Kiss. So going to an actual concert and sharing space with all these other people who had painstakingly painted their faces before the show, and all of us knowing the words to every song, it really created a strong sense of belonging. Like, “Oh! I'm not the only one in the world who likes this band.”
I just loved the world that Kiss opened up for me; they offered this form of “escapism” from the occasional monotony of everyday life.
I experienced this world largely through the Internet, and also through records and fanzines and stuff, but being at a Kiss concert with my fellow fans was the ultimate experience.
Perhaps because Kiss was no longer in their heyday, I never found any Kiss Tumblrs or anything. But I definitely found random digital communities and threads where people, usually a few decades older than me, would be sharing memories, stories, photos, videos. I definitely had to go down a lot of digital rabbit holes to find information!
There were so many random vintage Kiss things I would search for on eBay, like action figures and comics and all of those things that made that world more real. It's really fun to go on those treasure hunts. To this day, I will always gravitate towards a Kiss pinball machine if I am lucky enough to stumble upon one.
🤘 Everything’s Shakin’ on Shakedown Street
by Meghan Welsch
I'm hesitant to call myself a Deadhead because I can't tell you my favorite version of a song played on a specific date in a specific location, but I love their music.
I was familiar with the Grateful Dead through pop culture and a boss who was a tape-trader in the ‘90s, but I became a real fan probably like ten years ago—after seeing Deadeye, a Grateful Dead cover band in Austin, at their annual Jerry Fest at Threadgill’s. My whole world changed in terms of experiencing music as a community.
Being among Grateful Dead fans is like nothing else I've ever felt—I chase that feeling of being in community at a show surrounded by other people who all know their words.
And then you start to branch out from the shows, and you notice people signaling they’re a fan, and there's this immediate bonding that takes place without even really needing to speak.
I’ve been in Facebook Groups, like Deadheads of Austin, but my favorite act of fandom is vintage treasure hunting. I really like to look for unique Grateful Dead shirts.
There's an abundance not only because they've been a touring band for 50 years, but also because at their shows there’s Shakedown Street, where vendors show up and sell merchandise they've created in many cases only for that day’s show, that tour stop, or that year.
I follow a lot of people who are Grateful Dead shirt vendors, and they’re usually open to trades in true Deadhead fashion, which I think is cool.
What is one hope you have for digital public spaces?
Ricki: Authenticity is the word that comes to mind the most for me. That everyone has equal access to bring their most authentic selves to this space and to experience digital life in a way that is nearly as authentic as real life, and to not have there be such a stark line between the two.
Meghan: I was really inspired by the last newsletter. As a person who loves nostalgia, I feel nostalgic for this moment that I missed. My hope is that we come back to that place of excitement and collaboration, away from the capitalism that overshadows us, to show the beautiful parts of the Internet and how we connect to each other.
And that’s all for now. Back in two weeks. See you at the Rihanna concert. 🏈
Saving up for Beyoncé tickets,
while I never came across a KISS tumblr, one of my first welcomes to tumblr was via a grateful dead fan blog that graciously reblogged me (I think I had posted something about scarlet begonias) and made me feel at home in the deadhead universe. very cool to see such fandoms continue in intergenerational fashion across platforms like WELL and BBSes to web 2.0 social media like tumblr and onward