How Fans Created the Voice of the Internet

When the internet culture reporter first met Kaitlyn Tiffany A direction, the British-Irish boy band, she was home for the summer after her freshman year at university. She was sad and fed up with herself; she’d struggled to fit into the festivities at her school. “Most Saturday nights,” she writes, “I’d put on something ugly, have two beers in a fraternity outhouse, wait for someone to say something that could give me a seizure, and then leave.” Tiffany was grumbling around the house when her younger sisters persuaded her to watch ‘This Is Us’, a One Direction documentary. Her first impressions – dull songs, “too much shiny brown hair” – were soon overtaken by a strange sense of enchantment. The boys were crazy; they were sweet. One of them touchingly pictured a fan, now grown, telling her daughter about the band’s terrible dance moves. Finding “1D,” Tiffany writes, was like connecting to something pure and comforting and somehow out of time — like being pulled off the crosswalk a second before the bus plows through.

But “Everything I need, I get from youTiffany’s new work of narrative nonfiction isn’t about One Direction. “As much as I love them,” she writes, “the boys aren’t that interesting.” Instead, the book — which is wistful, winning, and unexpectedly funny — tries to explain why Tiffany “and millions of others needed something like One Direction as much as we did” and “how the things we did in response to that need.” changed the online world for just about everyone.” The book’s initial temptation may lie in the second proposition, at least to me fandom is beginning to feel like a phenomenon akin to cryptocurrency or economic populism — a history-making force we’d be foolish to ignore, after all, fans aren’t. only the driving force behind the entertainment industry, with its endless conveyor belt of franchise offers and increasingly granular marketing categories.They also influence politics (such as when K-pop groupies flood police tips during Black Lives Matter protests) and influence the news (such as when Johnny Depp loses the credibility of are alleged victims of abuse† One of Tiffany’s most provocative arguments is that fans have drafted the manual from the Internet. Their slang has become the vernacular of the web, she writes, and their engagement strategies — riffs, amplifications, dog piles — sustain both its creativity and its fury.

One Direction provides a good case study. The five heartthrobs came together in a reality show in 2010 — the pinnacle of Tumblr’s popularity, and a time when teens began to sign up for Twitter in droves. The girls who adored the band, called Directioners, were fluent in the tropes of the social internet: irony, surrealism, group humor. By interviewing and describing these girls, Tiffany returns to the teenybopper stereotype, a punch bag for critics since Adorno. “No one is ready to see self-criticism or sarcasm on the part of fans,” she writes. But her subjects, far from frenetic or mindless, are prolific, even disruptive, obscuring the objects of their affection with a mannered strangeness. The book distinguishes between ‘mimetic’ fandom – the passive variety, which ‘celebrate the canon exactly as it is’ – and ‘transformational’ fandom, which often looks like ‘playful disrespect’ and can obscure or overwrite the source material. . Directioners, Tiffany argues, are projection artists, and she highlights their outré handiwork: deep-fried memes, “cracking with yellow-white noise and faded like the edges of a CGI ghost”; a physical shrine where Harry Styles, the group’s breakout star, had once vomited on the side of the road. In a gripping chapter, Tiffany makes a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to find the shrine on his own. But the creator, confused by how many people considered her marker to be “crazy or evil” — she’d only wanted to arouse the lust and boredom that would lead one to remember vomit — had it removed. The sign, she tells Tiffany, “was more of a joke about my life” than Harry’s.

Indeed, the deeper the book dives, the more casual the singers end up feeling. They are raw material, trellises to the fantasies of the self that are woven around them. (The band’s relentless emptiness is beginning to seem like a hallmark, not a bug.) Tiffany acknowledges that fannish enthusiasm isn’t random, that they have a lot to do with marketing. “The word ‘fan’,” she writes, “is now synonymous with consumer loyalty.” But she also cites media scholar Henry Jenkins, who claims that fans “always try to go beyond the basic exchange of money.” Sometimes stubbornly unprofitable – tweeting “he’s so sexy I’ll break my back like a glowstick daddy” about Harry Styles probably won’t increase his profits – they can serve as allies for artists looking to transcend advertising. Tiffany cites Bruce Springsteen, who reportedly insisted that he wanted his music “to deliver something you can’t buy.”

That same chaotic energy can make fans annoying and even dangerous. Tiffany runs through Larry Stylinson’s conspiracy theory, who hijacks a time-honored technique of fanfiction — dispatch — to posit a secret relationship between Harry Styles and his bandmate Louis Tomlinson. Encouraged by lyrical, photographic and numerical “cues,” “Larries” rained vitriol on the singers’ friends, closing ranks and terrorizing dissenters. (Some also determined that Tomlinson’s newborn son was a doll.) Such intimidation campaigns “cannot approach the level of Gamergate,” writes Tiffany. But “any form of large-scale harassment relies on some of the same mechanisms – a closely related group identifying an enemy and agreeing on a reinforcement strategy, offering social rewards to members of the group who show the most dedication or creativity, backchanneling for the cohesion of the in-group, who always outsmarts and cools down its hapless victims, all while maintaining a belief of moral superiority.

They are scary things. Yet the social event of fandom can ultimately be less compelling than its individual dimension. Being a fan, for Tiffany, is painfully personal. I loved her musings on why and how people commit to a piece of culture, and whether that commitment changes them. At one point, she describes historian Daniel Cavicchi’s work with Springsteen enthusiasts. Cavicchi was interested in conversion stories: some of his subjects gradually came to their passion, but others were suddenly, irrevocably transformed. Tiffany talks to her own mother, a Springsteen obsessive, who tells what ethnographers might call a “self-surrender story,” in which “indifference or negativity is radically changed.” (“I fell in love and I just never left him,” her mother sighs, recalling a Springsteen performance from the 1980s.) The chapter draws intriguing parallels between fandom and religious experience, teasing the mystical quality of the devotion of fans, how strangely close we can feel to icons we’ve never met. It also explores the link between affinity and biography. For Tiffany’s mother, Springsteen’s concerts punctuated the haze of raising young children; one show even marked the end of her chemotherapy treatments.

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