How Fans Created the Voice of the Internet

When internet culture reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany first met A direction, the British-Irish boy band, stayed home for the summer after his freshman year in college. She was sad and tired of herself; she’d struggled to adjust to the festive social scene at her school. “Most Saturday nights,” she writes, “I’d put on something nasty, have two beers in a frat house and wait for someone to say something I might get angry about, then walk away.” Tiffany was hanging around the house when her younger sisters convinced her to watch “This Is Us”, a One Direction documentary. Her first impressions—bland songs, “too much shiny brown hair”—were soon overtaken by a strange sense of enchantment. The boys were fools; they were sweet. One of them poignantly imagined a grown-up fan telling her daughter about the band’s terrible dance moves. Finding “1D,” writes Tiffany, was like connecting to something pure and soothing and somehow out of time, like “being pulled off a crosswalk a second before the bus passes.”

But”Everything I need I get from youTiffany’s new non-fiction work is not about One Direction. “As much as I love them,” she writes, boys “aren’t that interesting.” Instead, the book, which is wistful, endearing and unexpectedly funny, sets out to explain why Tiffany “and millions of others needed something like One Direction as much as we do” and “how the things we’ve done in response to that need has changed the online world for almost everyone.” The book’s initial appeal may lie in the second proposition. To me, at least, fandom has begun to seem like a phenomenon akin to cryptocurrency or economic populism, a history-shaping force we’d be foolish to ignore. After all, fans don’t drive only the entertainment industry, with its endless conveyor belt of franchise offerings and ever more finely blended marketing categories. Politics also affect (as when K-pop groupies flood police tip lines during Black Lives Matter protests) and influencing the news (like when Johnny Depp attacks the credibility of his alleged victims of abuse). One of Tiffany’s most provocative arguments is that fans of her have written the Internet’s how-to manual. Their lingo has become the vernacular of the Web, she writes, and their engagement strategies—riffing, amplifying, dog-hoarding—sustain both her creativity and her wrath.

Fans wait to enter a One Direction concert. The band’s relentless emptiness beckons devotees, known as Directioners, to give it an excess of meaning.Photograph by Scott Barbour/Getty

One Direction is a good case study. The five heartthrobs met on a reality show in 2010, the height of Tumblr’s popularity and a time when teenagers were starting to join Twitter en masse. The girls who adored the band, called the Directioners, were fluent in the tropes of the social Internet: irony, surrealism, group humor. Interviewing and describing these girls, Tiffany revisits the stereotype of the teenybopper, a punching bag for critics since Adorno. “No one is ready to see self-criticism or sarcasm in fans,” she writes. But her subjects, far from frantic or mindless, are productive, even disruptive, overshadowing the objects of their affections with a strange strangeness. The book distinguishes between “mimetic” fandom – the passive variety, which “celebrates ‘canon’ exactly as it is” – and “transformational” fandom, which often feels like “playful disrespect” and may deface or overwrite its material original. The directors, says Tiffany, are artists of projection, and she highlights their offbeat handiwork: fried memes, “popping with yellow-white noise and fuzzy like the edges of a CGI ghost”; a physical sanctuary where Harry Styles, the breakout star of the group, once threw up by the side of the road. In one poignant chapter, Tiffany makes a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to find sanctuary herself. But her creator, confused by how many people interpreted her branding as “crazy or mischievous”—he just wanted to convey the lust and boredom that would lead someone to memorialize vomiting—had removed it. The sign, she tells Tiffany, “was more of a joke about my life” than Harry’s.

In fact, the deeper the book dives, the more secondary the singers end up feeling. They are raw materials, trellises for the fantasies of the self that weave around them. (The band’s unrelenting hollowness ends up feeling like a feature, not a bug.) Tiffany acknowledges that fans’ enthusiasms aren’t accidental, 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 says fans are “always trying to go beyond just exchanging money.” Sometimes stubbornly unprofitable—tweeting “he’s so sexy break my back like a glowing daddy” about Harry Styles isn’t likely to boost his bottom line—they can serve as allies for artists hoping to transcend publicity. Tiffany quotes Bruce Springsteen, who she reportedly insisted that he wanted his music to “offer something you can’t buy.”

This same chaotic energy can make fans annoying, even dangerous. Tiffany looks back on the conspiracy theory of Larry Stylinson, who hijacks an ancient fan fiction technique – shipping – to postulate a secret relationship between Harry Styles and his bandmate Louis Tomlinson. Buoyed by lyrical, photographic and numerical ‘hints’, ‘Larries’ rained vitriol on singers’ girlfriends, closing ranks and terrorizing dissenters. (Some have even determined that Tomlinson’s newborn son was a doll.) Such harassment campaigns may “not come close to Gamergate level,” Tiffany writes. But “any kind of large-scale harassment relies on some of the same mechanisms: a closely related group identifying an enemy and agreeing on an amplification strategy, providing social rewards to group members who show the most dedication or creativity, backchanneling to maintain the cohesive in-group, outsmarting and chilling his unfortunate victims, all while maintaining a belief in moral superiority.

It’s scary stuff. Yet the fandom’s social event may finally be less compelling than its individual dimension. Being a fan for Tiffany is painfully personal. I loved her reflections on why and how people commit to a piece of culture and if 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 mother about her, a Springsteen obsession, who tells what ethnographers might call a “story of self-surrender,” in which “indifference or negativity is radically altered.” (“I fell in love and 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 fan devotion, how much strange we can feel close to icons we have never met. Also explore the link between affinity and biography. For Tiffany’s mother, Springsteen concerts punctuated the growth blur of young children; one show even marked the end of her chemotherapy treatments.

The directors brandish dolls by Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, between whom, some believe, there is a secret relationship.Photograph by Neil Hall/Reuters/Alamy