Is This Just Fan-Tasy?

‘Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It’ by Kaitlyn Tiffany


IF YOU CAN stand it, I’m going to describe a six-second video.” Kaitlyn Tiffany opens her engaging and persuasive book on online fandom with an apology and a question. She’s about to immerse you in the pleasures of Internet culture, and what she’s asking is: Can you come with her? Will you let her remember the in-jokes of the years she spent as a fan, and do you believe that teen girls’ pleasure matters?

For Tiffany, this particular joke, a silly and profane Vine of the boy band One Direction (2010–2015), delivers a dopamine hit so potent that, years later, it can still lift her mood. One Direction’s songs made their listeners feel seen and cared for, and those feelings brought forth a creativity that found its way into culture via Tumblr, Twitter, Slack, memes, Vines, and fanfic. Tiffany, a twenty-eight-year old staff writer for The Atlantic, recalls how much she and others needed One Direction, and claims that “the things we did in response to that need changed the online world for just about everybody who spends their time in it.”

Everything I Need I Get from You is the kind of book you call “well-researched” when you’re trying to say “full of interesting surprises.” It’s an insightful, personal, and important testament to the power of fandom, and to the ways it has shaped Millennial lives and the new world of the Internet. The Directioners and their counterparts and rivals—the Beyhive, Beliebers, Swifties, Rihanna’s Navy—mastered and changed social media, using it to amplify their best qualities, their generosity and community spirit, as well as their darker inclinations. Tiffany argues that she and others used fandom to become more themselves in a shared space where they had creative freedom, power, and control.

The fandom I see when I glance over my teenage daughter’s shoulder at TikTok and Instagram has its roots in a time before social media, when girls and women found each other remotely and IRL through science fiction, romance, riot grrrl zines, or by following the Grateful Dead. In Hunger, Roxane Gay writes about finding community in chat rooms, where her anonymity freed her to connect with others. Teenage girls, a demographic with “boundless affection and plenty of free time,” came to exert a level of influence over online culture that early Internet visionaries failed to predict—and yet girls are seldom acknowledged as agents either in fandom or on the Internet. Stereotypically male fandoms like gamer culture get more attention from critics, who tend to patronize and dismiss the passions of “bedroom culture.” Meanwhile, academic researchers argue that girls are disempowered by fandom’s normativity and endangered by their online anonymity.

Tiffany especially resists the view that music fandom reinforces traditional gender roles. A fangirl, she writes,

exists in contradiction to the dominant culture. She’s not considered normal or sane; her refusal to accept things the way they are is one of her defining characteristics. She is dropping out of the mainstream even while she embraces a thing that is as mainstream as a thing can get. Publicly, the fangirl wastes money and refuses to make her time useful. With the advent of social media, she started publishing thousands of messages to idols who would never read them. The constant, ambient disapproval of the general population can sequester fangirls joyfully, in semiprivate spaces with like-minded and creative groups of fast friends; or dismally, in semiprivate spaces that are still open to scorn.

The joy and humor of fandom is a theme to which Tiffany keeps returning. Teen girls in the 1960s were not just screaming their attraction to the Beatles, she writes. In retrospect, they “also remembered a feeling of identification: they wanted to be, like the Beatles, free. They’d wanted to go on adventures and provoke feelings.” Of girls who go wild at concerts, she writes, “The experience of bodily joy is an invitation to reconsider the conditions that hold you away from it most of the time.” Returning to her home base of One Direction fandom, Tiffany provides examples of the persistence of this kind of norm-defying joy, such as the inspired silliness of erecting a homemade shrine at a place where singer Harry Styles vomited by the side of a road. In one act of guerrilla theater, a young woman handed out, on her own and several other college campuses in Utah and Nevada, thousands of tiny pictures of Styles, altered to appear pregnant. When Tiffany tracks down the anonymous artist, known in fan circles as “the Harry Fairy,” she explains that the pictures are “my little bread-crumb trail.” Talking to the artist by phone in the midst of the pandemic makes Tiffany feel alive to the world’s possibilities, “like I’d been sent to the seaside to put the color back in my cheeks.”

[Tiffany] writes, “The experience of bodily joy is an invitation to reconsider the conditions that hold you away from it most of the time.”

TIFFANY IS SMART about the needs that fandom meets and the ways in which it can be a powerful force for both connection and destruction. On Tumblr, she finds fantasies of dating stars and also of being murdered by them. Fandom has a long history of enabling abusive behavior, she acknowledges: in 1929, Rudy Vallée fans wrote thousands of letters, some containing death threats, to a New York Daily News columnist who had disparaged the singer. This capacity for outrage helped form the discourse of social media eighty years later, Tiffany argues, “and the vitriol of defensive fans is the dominant mode of shouting people down on social platforms.” No matter what the subject of discussion, fans excel at polarization and the pile-on: “When anybody, anywhere, says something critical about Taylor Swift, they know what kind of week they’re in for.”

To be sowing chaos on Stan Twitter, however destructive, is to feel you belong. (A “stan” is a passionate fan; “to stan” is the transitive verb form.) Whether stans and stanning can be a force for political change is still an open question. K-pop’s fan army became famous in the summer of 2020 for their acts of resistance; they spammed the Dallas Police Department’s line for reporting “suspicious activity” at Black Lives Matter demonstrations with clips of their favorite performers. They signed up for thousands of free tickets to a Trump rally they had no plans to attend. This didn’t mean they were politically unified or committed; it just meant that they were skilled and aggressive social media users, which is also true of those responsible for reactionary movements like Gamergate. Fandom gives the skills to become politically empowered on the Internet, Tiffany acknowledges, but not necessarily the stamina or the desire.

In 2019 an anonymous artist, known in fan circles as “the Harry Fairy,” distributed thousands of copies of an image of a pregnant Harry Styles across college campuses. Photo by Maddy La Turner.

Any hope for fandom as a purely positive force melts under Tiffany’s gaze into a puddle of ugly tears in a chapter called “Secrets,” which is about the phenomenon in One Direction fandom called “Larry Stylinson.” Early in 1D’s career, the idea that band members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were secretly in love was inspiration for fan fiction, which has a history of pairing off (“shipping”) fictional characters, sometimes in same-sex relationships (Kirk and Spock being an oft-cited example). Then, writers known as “tinhats” started blurring fact and fiction, and some Harry + Louis shippers, known as “Larries,” began to believe that the two men really were in love and were being kept from each other by dark entertainment-industry forces. Tiffany coolly analyzes the aspects of Tumblr and Twitter that allowed people both to interpret evidence to suit their theory and to subsequently send abusive messages to family members and make death threats against the two men’s girlfriends.

Tiffany ambivalently concedes that fandom can border on addiction. She feels fan culture has been beneficial to her, yet, at twenty-eight, she has her doubts. Songs get her through hard times, but the hard times keep coming, because it sucks to be in your twenties, struggling and alternating between unsatisfying love and no love at all, and about that there’s not much fandom can do. She cites Janice Radway, whose 1984 book Reading the Romance depicted the romance genre both as a means for women to take action against the frustrating conditions of their daily lives and as a distraction from the work of larger structural change. Similarly, one might argue that fandom is both a source of empowerment and the opium of the Millennial masses.

Writing in the midst of the pandemic, when whole lives have moved online with powerful consequences for how people see themselves and each other, Tiffany is ultimately uncertain about fandom’s potential:

The latest innovation of bedroom culture is to be fourteen, sitting in your room, making an Instagram account dedicated to cataloguing the clothes that another girl wore while she was dancing on TikTok, also in her room. The whole web is created in a girl’s image now. What all of this means is still fuzzy—modern mannerisms and language and platforms of communication are styled to make more sense for fan culture and girl culture than for almost anything else, but does that effort translate into power for anyone in particular?

Speaking from my own experiences around fandom and as the mother of a teen daughter, I don’t wholeheartedly look forward to my new fangirl overlords or foresee their energy being channeled into change for the better. But while social media remains a seductive yet baffling presence in many people’s lives, Tiffany offers a compelling look at the joys and dissatisfactions of growing up online.

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