K-pop’s fandom platforms are changing what it means to be an idol


Fans have changed a lot since they were little. I had no hope of contacting celebrities I loved, like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. Now, I’ve not only talked to some celebrity favorites on social media, but I’ve even struggled with a few.

Fandom technology is also changing. Parasocial relationships — a largely one-sided relationship between a fan and a public figure they feel is close to because of social media — are everywhere online. And the companies behind some of K-pop’s biggest deeds are a new way to make money. They have developed online platforms to help K-pop fans feel they have direct access to their idol favorites. This access helps shape the way these fans interact with the idol in the form of friendship and how they interact with other fans.

Before the rise of social media accounts and company-run platforms, most fans of Korean artists were basically locked in to do directly fancafes – a kind of digital fan club that often required fans to show their knowledge of a particular artist before gaining access to the artists. Originally hosted on platforms such as a social networking site DAUMThese fan coffees allowed fans to be in direct contact with the idols and could become even more intimate when they are connected to official paid fan club memberships.

While the DAUM fan coffee of many idols is still in operation, it has moved away over the past two years, especially for English-speaking fans. In place, several companies have created new social applications for their artists, completely bypassing third-party platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. The three main platforms now stand out: NCSoft’s large universe-driven groups, managed by third-party companies Big Four Korean pop music and includes features such as “private messaging service”, exclusive musicand mildly controversial voice calls created by artificial intelligence with idols. HYBE’s Weverse is home to mega-groups like BTS and TXT, and is more structured than DAUM fan coffees. Finally, there’s SM’s LYSN, which features a truly innovative Bubble app that has found a way to give K-pop groups all the benefits of Twitter DM without many problems.

SM is the powerhouse that produces K-pop behind TVXQ and the cyberpunk girl group Aespa. From its inception, LYSN, for the first time in 2018, an “interest-based fan community” was launched. It was a relative failure before the introduction of the Bubble in 2020 idol instant messaging service that threw gains into the stratosphere. Different versions of Bubble allow fans to contact their favorite idols in part with a private message paid for by subscription. The app is designed to look like a personal chat window, but the reality is more than a massive group chat with an idol messages to thousands of fans at once and see the answers as they arrive.

Areum Jeong, an assistant professor of humanities at the Pittsburgh Institute at the University of Sichuan, says the apps offer fans a real opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their current favorite deities.

“Fans are fully aware that it’s technically a group chat where an idol receives messages from thousands of fans, even though fans can’t see the messages from other fans,” Jeong says. “Nevertheless, fans enjoy receiving messages in which the idol shares their daily lives and thoughts. And sometimes it can feel like you’re getting a personal, private message from an idol because the interface gives the illusion of a 1: 1 chat and some idols send messages that serve intimate emotions. ”

This faux proximity can be a powerful force for fans who use these platforms on a regular basis. “I like Wevere’s use especially because I love seeing members interact in a seemingly authentic way,” says Leigh, a fan of idol group Seventeen who keeps in touch through Wevere. “It’s fun to see members in a basically glorified group discussion where at times it feels like I’m an observer, but most of the time I feel like I’m a participant.”

Part of the appeal is that fans may feel like they’re seeing a different, more personal side to the idol they’re watching on less direct platforms like Twitter or Instagram. Nicole Santero, PhD student, currently researching culture in BTS’s large international fan base ARMY (and running @ResearchBTS Twitter account) are about the connections that fans can make with artists.

“The relationship between BTS and ARMY never seems one-sided. Weverse is distinguished by how BTS is so active and often responds directly to app fans, ”Santero says. “This makes Weverse even more appealing, and there is definitely this greater intimacy and intimacy between artists and fans through this type of interaction. The knowledge that BTS can see your message makes the experience even more meaningful. “

These business apps not only offer fans the opportunity to take comfort from the artist. For some fans, the appeal is to get support when an artist is going through a health problem, a scandal, or simply when they are tired of their rare downtime.

For Maxim, an Australian Stray Kids fan who has been using Bubble for six months, it’s been a mix of good and bad times. “The big Hyunjin event in ’21 was a bit stormy for the whole band / fandom, and I admit I sent a small encouragement message to Felix,” he said, referring to a member of the group, Felix. . “At other times, I’ve responded to messages when Felix asks for recommendations and tries to bring my taste to her agenda. Once again, there really is no way to know if he will ever see it. Would he even look Yuri on the ice or Sk8 Infinity? “(I think he probably would.)

Unlike previous fan clubs of other celebrities, there is no guarantee that what happens in the apps used by the company will remain in those apps. In fact, because the mediocre or poor quality of in-app translation services translate from Korean to English, they have to be translation accounts for many artists on these platforms, focusing exclusively on Weverse / LYSN and Bubble / Universe. If an idol’s fan base is small or poorly organized outside the platform maintained by the company, he or she may have fewer translation accounts. However, this doesn’t stop fans from sharing memes, selfies downloaded by artists, and clips from the live broadcast everywhere.

There may be a hard edge in the vicinity. “As more and more fans see themselves as active consumers, they can be unreasonable or even hostile,” Jeong says. Enhypen fans of the novice idol group have been to deal with a broken fandom following a member possibly by saying an n-word, and much of the conflict between fans is due to interaction on the Weverse site. Platform fans tried to hide violent and racist messages from the artist by using an in-app feature in fan-to-fan communication and ended up attacking black fans by talking about the incident and then the harassment they faced. A few hours after the initial wave of harassment, the group’s black fans took to Twitter and TikTok to share what they saw and how people talked about them – especially as the group, their leadership, and Wevers ’moderation continue. . The app they had used to communicate with other fans and idols was no longer a safe mode.

Yet none of these commitments would have been easy 10 years ago, and most would have been completely impossible 10 years before that. These platforms offer celebrities and their fans a whole new way to interact based on traditional social media platforms, but stand out more and more from them. And for better or worse, it changes what it means to be a fan – or an idol – online.

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