Fandom has changed a lot since I was a kid. As a teenager, I had no hope of coming into contact with celebrities I adored like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. Now, I have not only spoken with some of my favorite celebrities on social media, but I have even struggled with a few.
Fandom technology is also evolving. Parasocial relationships – a largely one-sided relationship between a fan and a public figure they feel close to because of social media – are everywhere online. And the companies behind some of the biggest K-pop groups are inventing a new way to monetize them. They have developed online platforms to help K-pop fans feel like they have direct access to their favorite idols. This access helps shape the way these fans interact with the idol as a form of friendship. and how they engage with other fans.
Before the rise of social media accounts and company-run platforms, most fans of Korean artists were mostly tied to direct engagement through fancafés – a kind of digital fan club that often demanded fans. that they prove their knowledge of a particular artist before having access to the artists. . Initially hosted on platforms such as the social networking site DAUM, these fancafés allowed fans to connect directly with idols, and they could become even more intimate when connected to official paid fan club memberships.
While DAUM fancafés for many idols are still in operation, there has been a change over the past couple of years, especially for English speaking fandoms. In their place, several companies have created new social apps for their artists, bypassing third-party platforms like Twitter or Facebook entirely. Three main platforms now stand out: NCSoft’s universe is used by a wide range of groups managed by companies outside the Big Four of Korean pop music and includes features such as a “private messaging” service, exclusive music and a slightly controversial AI-generated voice. calls with idols. HYBE’s Weverse is home to mega-groups like BTS and TXT and structured more like the DAUM fancafés. Finally, there’s SM’s LYSN, which includes the truly innovative Bubble app that has found a way to give K-pop groups all the benefits of Twitter’s DMs, without much hassle.
SM is a K-pop production powerhouse behind bands like TVXQ and cyberpunk girl group Aespa. Its platform, LYSN, was first launched in 2018 as an “interest-based fan community”. It was a relative failure before the introduction in 2020 of its Bubble idol instant messaging service, which propelled profits into the stratosphere. With the different versions of Bubble, fans can contact their favorite idols via partially private messaging, paid on a subscription basis. The app is designed to look like a one-on-one chat window, but the reality is more like a massive group chat, with the idol messaging thousands of fans at once and seeing them. responses as they arrive.
Areum Jeong, assistant professor of humanities at the Sichuan University-Institute of Pittsburgh, says the apps offer fans a real chance to strengthen their relationship with their current favorite idols.
“Fans are fully aware that this is technically a group chat where the idol will receive messages from thousands of fans, although fans cannot see messages from other fans,” Jeong said. “Even so, fans love to receive messages where the idol shares their daily life and thoughts. And sometimes it might seem like you get a personal and private message from the idol because the interface gives the illusion of a 1: 1 chat, and some idols will send messages that respond to intimate feelings.
This false intimacy can be a powerful force for fans who regularly use these platforms. “I like to use Weverse specifically because I like to see member interactions in a seemingly authentic way,” says Leigh, a fan of idol group Seventeen who connects with the group through Weverse. “It’s fun to see members in a glorified group chat that every once in a while I feel like an observer, but most of the time I feel like I’m participating. ”
Part of the appeal is that fans can feel like they are seeing a different, more personal side of the idol they are following on less direct platforms like Twitter or Instagram. For Nicole Santero, a doctoral student who is currently researching the culture of BTS ARMY’s huge international fan base (and who directs Twitter account @ResearchBTS), these are the connections fans can make in their interactions with artists.
“The relationship between BTS and ARMY never seems one-sided. What stood out at Weverse was how BTS is so active and often responds directly to fans on the app, ”says Santero. “It makes Weverse even more appealing, and there’s definitely this greater intimacy and closeness that forms between artists and fans through these kinds of interactions. Knowing that BTS could potentially see your posts makes the experience even more meaningful.
These company-run apps don’t just offer fans the chance to receive comfort from the artist. For some fans, the appeal is being able to offer their support when an artist is going through a health issue, a scandal, or simply when they are bored of their rare downtime.
For Maxim, an Australian Stray Kids fan who has been using the Bubble app for six months, it was a mix of good times and bad. “The Great Hyunjin Incident of ’21 was a bit of a tumultuous time for this whole group / fandom, and I admit I sent Felix a little encouraging message,” he said, referring to the member of the Felix group. . “Other times, I answered messages when Felix asked me for recommendations and I tried to slip my taste into his diary. Again, there’s really no way to know if he ever sees it. Would he even watch Yuri on ice or Sk8 infinity? (I think he probably would.)
Unlike former celebrity fan clubs, there’s no guarantee that what happens on company-run apps will stay on those apps. In fact, due to the medium to low quality of the in-app translation services for translating from Korean to English, there are translation accounts for many artists on these platforms that focus exclusively on Weverse / LYSN and Bubble / Universe. If an idol’s fan base is small or poorly organized outside of the company’s managed platform, it may have fewer translation accounts. However, that doesn’t stop fans from sharing memes, artist uploaded selfies, and live stream clips wherever they can.
There can be a hard edge to this privacy. “As more fans than ever see themselves as active consumers, they can be unreasonable or even hostile,” Jeong explains. Fans of rookie idol group Enhypen have come across a fractured fandom after a member potentially uttered the n-word, and much of the fan conflict stems from interactions on Weverse. Fans of the platform tried to hide the artist’s violent and racist posts using an in-app feature for fan communication and ended up attacking black fans who spoke out. of the incident and then of the harassment they faced. Hours after the first wave of harassment, black fans of the group took to Twitter and TikTok to share what they were seeing and how people were talking about it – especially in the face of continued silence from the group, their leadership and of moderation from Weverse. . The app they used to connect with other fans and the idols themselves was no longer the safe space it had once been.
Yet none of these engagements would have been easy 10 years ago, and most would have been downright impossible 10 years ago. These platforms offer a whole new way for celebrities and their fans to interact, building on conventional but increasingly separate social media platforms. And for better or worse, it changes what it means to be a fan – or an idol – online.