Technology is fuelling fandoms into a force beyond entertainment.
Around the world, social media has connected fanbases—whether of hit TV series, movies, books, games or musicians—to those they adore and also, crucially, to each other.
In the US, Taylor Swift has her Swifties, Beyoncé has the Beyhive and Lady Gaga has the Little Monsters. With a single social media post, these fandoms can rise as a group to turbo-charge music sales, defend their heroes against detractors and, increasingly, throw their weight behind causes.
The South Korean pop industry in particular has taken fan engagement to new heights. There are content channels for individual band members, personalized messaging platforms, and—during the pandemic especially—AR- and VR-enhanced streaming concerts.
In return, fans see themselves as a community and will buy and stream songs continuously, on multiple devices, to push their favorite artist up the charts, as well as create and share fan fiction, artwork and compilation videos.
The boy band BTS’ fanbase, called ARMY, exemplifies this breed of digitally savvy, content-sharing fans who are ready to mobilize at any time. When BTS took over The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for a week in October 2020, their fans made it the show’s most social week ever, garnering 10.5 million interactions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—a jump of roughly 1,300%, Billboard reported.
“Social media has overturned the rules of the music industry and elevated the power of the fan, with BTS’ ARMY leading the way,” reporter Eun-Young Jeong wrote in November 2020 in the Wall Street Journal, after the band won the newspaper’s 2020 Music Innovator Award.
And these fandoms are increasingly transcending entertainment. In 2020, ARMY and other K-pop fans used their social media presence to support Black Lives Matter, sabotage a Trump rally by booking seats they never meant to use and raise money to buy helmets and goggles for pro-democracy protesters in Thailand.
Pop culture has always found ways to milk fans’ fervent support, from packaging and re-releasing albums in multiple different formats, to selling merchandise, to curating the perfect personas to extend the fantasies of fans.
Korean pop has shifted this superfan phenomenon into high gear. Most international acts rely on Instagram and other generic social media platforms for fan outreach; K-pop stars do all that, and more.
On top of social media posts, they livestream their musings or host programs on specialized social media channels such as V Live. BTS owner Big Hit, whose October 2020 IPO raised $820 million, hosts its own social media platform, Weverse, for content, press releases and interactions with fans.
For a more intimate experience, there are personalized pay-per-idol platforms such as Bubble, created by SM Entertainment. Here, fans can subscribe to their favorite band members—called ‘idols’—to receive content from these individuals only, as opposed to the entire band.
In May 2020, for example, Baekhyun, a member of boy band EXO—which performs in Korean, Japanese and Mandarin—sent this personalized message on Bubble, as reported by allkpop: “Hello [username]! If I remember correctly, we’ve met before, right? The first time we met, I was really interested in you so I asked for your number, but you have no idea how nervous I was then. I’m honestly really nervous now, contacting you again…” before proceeding to suggest they keep in touch to “share all of our happy things and sad things with each other!”
Fans were bowled over, even though every fan received the same message.
This deep engagement extends amongst fans, too. Fans consider themselves a community and some run fan accounts producing compilation videos and fancams that pull in thousands, sometimes even millions, of views. Others volunteer hours of their time working for translation sites, producing subtitles to make the content more accessible to a non-Korean audience.
This level of reach and organization lets them mobilize quickly around causes, raising money for charity or shining a spotlight on social and political issues.
When BTS and Big Hit donated $1 million to support Black Lives Matter in the US in June 2020, their fans started fund-raising with the hashtag #MatchAMillion—and came close to hitting their goal within a mere 24 hours.
In Thailand this year, pro-democracy protesters activists have waved LED signs and light sticks, as if they were at K-pop concerts. In October, after police used water canons to disperse protesters, fans of the girl group Girls’ Generation raised 780,000 baht ($25,000) in nine hours, while other Thai K-pop fandoms raised 4 million baht ($128,000) that week, Reuters reported.
With the money, the Girls’ Generation fans bought helmets and goggles for protestors and organized deliveries to protest locations. The biggest portion of the donation went to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group of pro bono lawyers assisting arrested protesters.
This mass mobilization has helped dispel the stereotype of K-pop fans as flighty or un-serious. “Although they are K-pop fans,” Thai Korean studies researcher Chayanit Choedthammatorn told Reuters, “they are Thai citizens first.”
Fandoms may have coalesced around idols, but they are taking on a life of their own around causes they espouse—online, and en masse.
Main image: photography by Chaz McGregor, courtesy of Unsplash