Journalist Kaitlyn Tiffany was 19 when she first watched 1D: This is us† a documentary about the British boy band One Direction. Tiffany was unimpressed by the look; the five guys were a bit boring, she thought, and every song sounded the same.
But just a few months later she was there singing the lyrics to “my life story‘ as if the world depended on it. Tiffany switched to One Direction’s online subculture because she found a community that, like her, enjoyed supporting their favorite artists. Over time, Tiffany came to look at these spaces as a reporter rather than a contestant, asking how and why fans flocked to the internet.
“In the early days of social media, women made up a larger proportion of Twitter and Tumblr users,” Tiffany said. Fast company† “And I think fandom is just an obvious way to use those sites.”
We spoke to Tiffany, now a staff writer at The Atlantic Oceanabout her new book, Everything I Need, I Get From You: How Fangirls Made The Internet As We Know It† and why she believes that online fandoms have created today’s internet culture.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You talk in the book about discovering One Direction in college and, shortly after, joining this online community of die-hard fans. How did that interest lead you to write a book?
There’s obviously a lot of really great academic work out there on fandom, especially in long form – book form – but I didn’t feel like there was some kind of mainstream, popular press statement about how much the story of fandom and the story of social media and the internet really got along. intertwined. I was working on the proposal and pitching the book in 2019, so I feel like there was a lot of talk about the way we live online at the time.
Fandom is the air you breathe on the internet, even when you’re not on it. It’s still kind of an emotional balance of Twitter, it’s still the way people react, fanning or anti-fanning to political events, news events, cultural phenomena. And One Direction was one way of doing that, because fandom as a subject in general would have been way too broad.
Despite what people may assume, your book isn’t really about One Direction, or even Twitter and Tumbler for that matter. If you could sum it up, how should we think about the connection between a boy band obsession and the power of the fangirl online?
There’s a reason that when a new internet technology is created, the first people to start moving to that platform are the people who have a hard time expressing themselves offline, or there’s no good way to do what they want to do offline. That’s why the porn industry is an early adopter of the Internet. That is also the reason why right-wing extremists have always been very good at using the internet.
But less obscure, that’s also why fans are very good at using the internet and have always been drawn to the internet and show a creator’s hand in helping platforms grow and develop new features as they are the most enthusiastic users of these platforms. There isn’t really a great way to show fandom offline, other than attending a concert, of course, which, especially in the case of One Direction, isn’t always possible, if at all.
So much of your work is about how the internet is centered around fandom. If fans want a platform, like Twitter or Tumbler, to function a certain way, that platform will likely adapt. Are fans synonymous with consumer loyalty? And where does that kind of loyalty go as social media continues to adapt?
i think the word fan is now used by brands to denote anyone who buys or buys for something or expresses any need for something, which is quite frustrating. You see fan-related brands like Ticketmaster really deliberately adopting the language of fandom to sell stuff to fans and make more money out of it. That’s, I think, part of the reason fans can report that kind of language and wring out and start calling themselves weirder things, like “One Direction Trash.”
You also write in your book about the importance of cultural memory. Still, sites like Tumblr are notoriously bad at archiving material. Are fandoms delicate in that sense? Is there a risk that fans’ work and dedication will eventually be lost?
Fandoms are actually a bit more stable than some other forms of internet usage or other forms of internet history because fans tend to archive or self-history themselves constantly. There’s some sort of oral tradition in fandom, reciting “Remember when?” back to each other. Who remembers this weird meme? Who remembers the time when we stole airport security footage to see Harry Styles at the Australian airport? Just talking about these things is archiving them, which is a point I was trying to make in the book when I was looking for the shrine to Harry Styles’ vomit.
You bring up two main One Direction conspiracy theories in your book, commonly known as “Larry Stylinson” and “Babygate,” both of which state that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are secretly in love. It was interesting to read how you compared the depth of belief in these theories to, say, QAnon followers. Do we have to worry?
It would be irresponsible to say that it is the same as QAnon in that the people who believe in Babygate do not commit violence. They’re not actively trying to recruit thousands or millions of other Americans, they just want to be left alone.
There is a spectrum of how substantial these conspiracy theories are. Clearly, the trial of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp showed just how far a fandom conspiracy theory can go in influencing popular discourse surrounding a fan object or based conspiracy theory. I think that was pretty alarming.
Step back, where does the fangirl go?
Once you get past the stereotype of what a One Direction fan was, namely a white straight teenage American or British girl, you start to think about all the other groups of people who are part of the One Direction fandom who asked to be seen within that fandom. I specifically touch the LGBTQ community because they were really organized with the “Rainbow Direction” project. That project was aimed at visibility within fandom.
And then I also talk quite a bit about Black Harry Styles fans calling themselves “Black Harries” and their efforts to get him to join Black Lives Matter and acknowledge their presence within fandom, and to back off against white fans who are very territorial about their own space within the fandom.
I think we’ll see more of that and more of different fandoms asking to be seen as something other than a monolith. Currently, the American popular press will refer to K-pop fans as one group, which is certainly not correct [and it’s] not very helpful for understanding fandom to just say “all Gen Z K-pop fans”. I think hopefully we’ll see people speak in more specific ways about the people who participate in fandom.
Your book traces the common phenomena of screaming fangirls throughout music history. From the Beatles to Justin Bieber and now One Direction, screaming fans are a given. At the same time, this contributed to the fangirl’s reputation as delusional. What have you learned about the cultural significance of the screaming fangirl?
This screaming fan trope is clearly not imprecise – like I’ve been to One Direction concerts where you can’t hear the music because everyone is just screaming.
In historical fandom, there was an expectation of silence for girls and women most of the time. And even now there are so few situations in modern life where you are allowed to get out of hand like that. And I think people pursue that sense of control in many ways.