You’ve seen the images: grainy black-and-white images of teenagers, mostly girls, crying, screaming, waving their arms over blockades as police officers try in vain to stop them. In photos they look pained, ecstatic, desperate, devoted. The term that came to describe the phenomenon hinted at the irrationality of it all: Beatlemania.
Fifty years later, another British boy band landed in America with a fervor very similar: One Direction. At that time, the nature of fandom evolved dramatically thanks to the internet, which allowed people to come together who had only one thing in common, people for whom it mattered most in their lives. But beyond that, the fans that populated the internet also played a key role in its creation: the conventions, the language, the mafia mentality, the memes.
That’s the subject of Kaitlyn Tiffany’s debut nonfiction book, Everything I Need, I Get From You: How Fangirls Made The Internet As We Know It, which acts as an ethnography of stan culture through the lens of a One Direction superfan. Tiffany (who was reportedly a previous reporter for Vox) offers a nuanced analysis of a force often overlooked in Internet history, a force dominated by the kind of young women the rest of the world dismisses as not. more than mindless teenagers. We recently spoke on the phone about the experience of writing the book, fandom’s fraught relationship with capitalism, and what yelling for your favorite can do.
“There are no girls on the Internet” was a common axiom on message boards from the 2000s, but it clearly isn’t and never was. What did women do on the early internet and why were they less visible?
There was clearly a gender gap in the early days of the web, but it started closing much earlier than people think. Around 2000, researchers noted that women, especially younger women, did not use it in the transaction-oriented or goal-oriented way that men used it for work or promotion, but as a social tool. The Internet was much more like the telephone, which became a household means of communication. With the rise of social media and interaction-based platforms, women have been the early adopters, and especially fans have been the early adopters of basically everything created.
Why were Tumblr and Twitter especially prolific for fandoms?
People are forgetting this now, but Tumblr was quite unprecedented as a visual aid. GIFs invented on Tumblr became part of the cornerstone of fandom. It was also a counterpart to public platforms like Facebook where you wouldn’t go to publish your slash fic [fanfiction about same-sex romance] under your real name for your parents and grandparents to see. Tumblr had a very secluded feel to it and gave fans a lot of tools that they didn’t have on other websites.
With Twitter it is exactly the other way around. It was this empty space where fans were among the first to, like, visit homestead. That was where you would do the public part of fandom, your favorite picture of Rihanna and a link to her song so people would buy it, and she would become the most famous woman in the world, and that’s what you want, because you like loves her. Fans were like the first people to actually try to play the trending hashtags, a bit like spam networks. They intuitively understood that if we all follow each other and reinforce each other’s content about Justin Bieber or whatever, we could break the site.
The first chapter, called “Screaming”, delves into the almost religious-esque ecstasy fangirls feel towards their idols, and why that feeling is often dismissed as teenage hysteria or marketing manipulation. Why haven’t we been able to get a more complete picture of this common phenomenon?
One of the main things people find embarrassing about fandom in general, and about fangirls in particular, is that outwardly they seem really cheated by the most obvious expressions of capitalism and the shiniest, dumbest trinkets thrown around by the public. entertainment industry are presented to young, sensitive people. They spend all that money and time to be lulled into this loneliness.
I don’t want to go too far in saying that fans are actually opposing capitalism or progressive or revolutionary, because that’s not necessarily true either. But I think being a fan can encourage you to spend your time in ways that are “unproductive.”
Even if you buy the One Direction Valentines box and fall for the chemically engineered hook, you also think, “Why do I like listening to this? Why do I like being around other people who like listening to this?” “Why am I so amused to see these pop stars broken in these extreme fanfiction scenarios? What does it say about what I’m looking for in my life? What kind of world would I most like to live in?” There are limits to how useful that is, of course, but I’ve definitely been to a Harry Styles concert and thought, “Why do I feel so different from the last time I was at a Harry Styles concert?” I think it’s is good for people to mark moments in their lives and think about questions that they wouldn’t necessarily think about in a day-to-day context.
You show so thoroughly how fans are often incredibly self-aware, unlike the irrational sheepish followers they’re often portrayed (“One Direction ruined my life,” for example). How come outside observers can understand the irony of, say, 4chan posters, but not the self-contempt of fangirls?
Some of it is just misogyny. Screaming girls seem impossibly funny or smart or self-deprecating about what they’re going through. Also, if you’re a regular user of the internet, the parts of fandom you’re likely to experience aren’t necessarily the good parts. You see a journalist being harassed on Twitter, you don’t see the memes on Tumblr. There is a lack of curiosity, which is fine on the part of an ordinary person, but there was a very intense urgency to understand the guys from 4chan and the darker parts of the internet around the 2016 election, and that curiosity didn’t extend to the other huge cultural phenomenon that made up the web at the time, because it wasn’t as scary and bleak.
Speaking of that toxic side, part of the book is devoted to the… infamous theory that two of the members of One Direction, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, are secretly in love. What effect did that have on the fandom?
I was amazed at how painful a subject was for many people still. It really drove a wedge between the two sides of the fandom. Many people involved in pushing [the theory] initially and then spread misogynistic vitriol on Louis’ girlfriend – berating other fans and telling them they were homophobic if they didn’t believe that Louis and Harry were in love – were very young, and now they have to look back on what was there in the first place a very positive experience for them and take their own behavior into account. They followed the older women in the fandom who ran it, formulating theories and mapping the menstrual cycle of Louis’ child’s mother. It sucks that there are teenagers involved who now have to struggle with what they participated in. It wasn’t part of my fandom experience until I went looking for it, and I was like, “Wow, this is crazy that people believe this!” But it was actually very charged and very serious. People’s friendships ended and people did things that they really regretted. It was pretty sad.
From the moment One Direction started out in 2011 to the moment they split up in 2016, mainstream attitudes towards pop culture and pop music became a lot more festive. How did it affect the way we talk about fangirls?
There was a lot of discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter about “You can’t hate this if girls like it because girls are brilliant and the future” which was kind of complicated to look at. A lot of the people who said that just said it to get people to buy things. There was a bit of an overcorrection where we felt like we were so mean to these girls that we now have to talk about them like they’re saints and geniuses when all they ever wanted was to be talked about like they were people were, or be left alone. There was a cynical turn where it went from “fandom is a pathology” to “fangirls are heroes and everything they do is amazing.” You’re talking about a group of millions of people: some will be awesome and some will be scary, and there’s no point in generalizing either way.
The book is full of fun little vignettes of One Direction fangirls – there’s the girl who literally screamed her lungs out at a concert, the girl who made a shrine on the roadside spot where Harry Styles once vomited – but which one was your favorite ?
The most exciting experience for me was when I was looking for the woman who created the thousands of tiny photos of Pregnant Harry Styles anywhere in the state of Utah. I found an email address for her and she responded and agreed to speak anonymously. She was really stunned; she didn’t understand why it was interesting to me and she definitely thought i was cringing because i was following up on something so obvious a bit she was doing. I asked why she felt like she had to carry years of her life with little bags of Pregnant Harry Styles, and she said she likes to put them in library books so that in 20 years someone will find this picture of Pregnant Harry Styles and like:” Why in the world is this here?”
You write that you kind of undertook this project as a defense of yourself as a One Direction fangirl. What did you love about the band, and how do you look back on your place in the fandom now?
I have younger sisters who really liked One Direction, and we happened to go to the One Direction documentary when I was in college. College didn’t suit me. I didn’t thrive in that environment; I was very homesick, really lonely. I had a lot of friends I didn’t like to be around, so I spent so much time indoors on the internet, on Tumblr – so much time that I got regular emails from college saying, “You’re going to get your allotted internet usage,” which is hard to browse alone!
The One Direction community was so vibrant, there was so much One Direction content to talk about all the time. It was also a way to maintain relationships with my sisters and my high school friends who loved it because I would call them and it would be fun instead of talking about how much I hate my life. It has been grounding. The day the Niall Horan album came out was literally the day New York City went into lockdown, so I just stomped around the park listening to it, trying to calm myself down. Since I was in college, it’s this zone that I can revisit to think about, what kind of things do I have in common with the 19-year-old version of myself? What can I care about now that I didn’t care about then?
To draw on some recent One Direction newswhat do you think of the interview with liam payne?
I’ve read the quotes and I feel like they weren’t that bad! It was like, “We all got on each other’s nerves and Zayn is a bad person, but I support him.” He really didn’t say anything that people didn’t already know. Poor Liam. He’s a crypto man now, and he said… four Christmas songs on his debut solo album. He’s just sad. I feel sorry for all of them because none of them are as good as One Direction.
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