The terrifying face of today’s online fandom

By Mic Wright on July 27th, 2012

I am staring at a frightening artefact: eyes obscured by a black rectangle, it is a black and white photo of Kristen Stewart with the misspelled caption “trust no bicth”. Ah, isn’t spelling a bicth? This image was the final piece of a puzzle that has been coming together in my mind since I wrote a highly critical review of the latest Chris Brown album and brought the full force of “Team Breezy” down upon me.

Team Breezy, not the name of start-up dedicated to supplying custom air fresheners but rather a rabid, inarticulate morass of Chris Brown obsessives, swarms on anyone who criticises their beloved wife-beater. They are the natural evolution of a phenomenon that began with bobby soxers going bat guano-crazy over Sinatra, evolved into screaming girls ripping up theatre seats in mad appreciation of the Beatles and reached disturbing lows with fans snuffing themselves out in empathy with Kurt Cobain.

Why are Twihards so angry that Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson? Because, in their minds, she is no ordinary woman but Bella Swan, who got her soulmate, Edward Cullen. The fact that those actors have real lives and real emotions is an inconvenience the web often has no time for.

The excesses of today’s fanatics – remember, that’s what the word “fan” denotes – are turbocharged by the web. Nutters can feast on more information about their idols than ever before. There’s no need to wait for a weekly bump from Smash Hits or a glimpse of the gormless man meat they crave on Top of the Pops: the realtime web has streamlined obsession. For teens and ever-teens, Twitter offers entire armies of similarly ferocious fans to link up with. Tumblr vibrates with confused sexuality and terrifying teen anger directed at anyone who dares to posit criticism of nominated crushes.

Entire websites can be buried beneath the shared gushing, screaming and snapping of fan armies. Twitter had to change its algorithms to prevent Justin Bieber from dominating the trending topics in perpetuity, and the Canadian pretty boy with the lesbian’s haircut is one of the most dangerous words to mention online, besides “iPad” and “sex”. Facebook groups are war zones where fans and trolls clash like elves and orcs at the battle of Helm’s Deep. Their prize is not the one ring to rule them all but bragging rights in the eternal debate about One Direction’s hairdos and Harry Styles’s fondness for cougars.

Recently, on Twitter, that endless Town Hall Square for debate and dismissive put-downs, a designer at London start-up PeerIndex asked me, in response to my bewilderment at the anger of the Twilight fans (or “Twihards”, as they like to be known): “What is it with this new generation of fan kids? Defensive, threatening… [it’s the] same for Bieber and Chris Brown… what’s happened to us?”

The internet is what happened to us – and to them. Adults have been able to free their demonic inner children online, to spit fire and venom behind the armour of anonymous avatars. Kids go even further. The generation obsessed with Bieber, Brown, Gaga and Twilight have taken fandom to new places because they play out their entire lives online. When you’re a teenager, every event in your life feels so dramatic it could slot into a Roland Emmerich disaster flick. When those daily crises are narrated on social media, the network effect can turn angst into Armageddon.

Look at the example of Jessie Slaughter. She was 11 years old when her attention-seeking on YouTube drew the most frightening kind of scrutiny – the acidic amusement of 4chan. Online gossip, coupled with her own ill-advised responses to the extreme trolling, led to an angry video featuring her father which in turn fuelled a set of memes (see “you done goofed”, “backtraced”, “cyber police” and “consequences will never be the same”).

Slaughter’s desire to be “a scene queen” gestated alongside her love for dreadful electronica meets emo band Blood On The Dance Floor. Where her fandom would once have been confined to anguished letters to magazines, joining a fan club and obsessing over posters, the freedom of the web coupled with extremely lax parenting allowed her to make contact with her idols and to create a comical but dangerous persona for herself on YouTube, one that spoke to an unsettled pre-teen’s desire to be loved more than anything else.

Slaughter’s fanaticism drew deeply unpleasant and often violent sentiment towards her. Justin Bieber fans (“Beliebers”) deluged NBC with death threats this week after its primetime show America’s Got Talent failed to play the popstar’s latest clip. They’ve got previous: in recent months, they sparked a huge flame war with Lady Gaga’s equally intense fan base and when TV star Drake Bell dared to joke about Bieber he received hundreds of threats, including one suggesting he should be stoned to death.

Real world extensions of the Belieber effect are increasingly common. When Bieber posted a photo of himself with Kim Kardashian back in 2010, jokingly calling her his girlfriend, his fans deluged her with angry messages through every available communication channel. Last year, Belieberdom took an even more unsettling turn when a teenager tried to auction her virginity for tickets to a concert. During Bieber’s recent visit to London, his hotel was forced to change its phone number after fans caused a switchboard collapse.

Even Bieber himself has not been free from the consequences of fickle fans. When he dared to adjust his fire-damaged Beatle wig barnet, he lost over 80,000 Twitter followers. Fans posted distraught messages on Twitter and YouTube, as if the pint-sized popstrel had thrown paint over the Mona Lisa or kicked Michaelangelo’s David in his marble balls.

Beliebers are by no means the only collective whose passion for pop overspills into angry threats with tedious regularity. The Chris Brown cheerleaders of Team Breezy are extremely sensitive about any criticism or perceive slight directed at their idol, getting especially angry when, somewhat ironically, anyone mentions his anger issues, or that time he beat and bit his girlfriend.

In fact, Team Breezy are so trigger happy that Brown himself had to ask them to stand down in May after they began sending streams of violent messages to Chrissy Teigen, the Sports Illustrated Model and fiancée of singer John Legend. The model’s crime was to send a single jokey tweet about Brown. It’s also fair to say that the singer’s “calming” statement displayed his trademark tact and humility:

“Team Breezy! Let’s stop sending death threats! I know y’all ‘bout that life but it’s the wrong message! Ur turning haters into victims!”

That word “haters” tells us a lot about the milieu from the most extreme online fans emerge: they are restoring the concept of the “fan” to its purest, most fanatical meaning. Their worldview is Manichaean: you are either with Breezy or against him, a Belieber or a heretical un-Belieber who must be smote with every curse a keyboard can convey.

Of course, fans whose obsession tips over into truly frightening, dangerous and occasionally lethal behaviour are nothing new. A side-effect of modern celebrity has long been the arrival of stalkers and other assorted creeps. In its most extreme form, fandom creates the twisted lyric interpretations of Charles Manson and the killer desire for a connection that took Mark David Chapman to the Dakota Building to kill John Lennon.

What is surprising about this new age of demented digital fandom is that we have not seen more Mark Chapmans enabled by the web. Perhaps, for all its awfulness, the ability to expend their anger in venomous forum post and terrifying tweets provides today’s obsessive fans with a safety valve that previous generations were denied. Rather than being truly threatening, we should, in a way, feel desperately sorry for those fans so unhinged as to feel that attacking their idol’s “enemies” will gain them favour.

There is a psychotic bent to the most extreme Twihards, who tie themselves in knots over the relationship woes of a couple they know only through a film series and the YouTube interviews they pour over like WW2 cryptologists. A 2002 paper, Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods: Unless They Are Celebrities by Maltby, J., Houran, J., Lange, R., Ashe, D., & McCutcheon, L.E. even posited that teen obsession can become Celebrity Worship Syndrome.

The academics defined three categories of celebrity-worshipping individuals: entertainment-social (fans are attracted to a celebrity due to their perceived ability to entertain and then become intensely focused on speaking about them), intense-personal (those with intense and compulsive feelings about a celebrity that lead to over-empathising with them) and borderline pathological (where uncontrollable behaviour and fantasies take over).

Observing the most extreme behaviour of Twihards, Beliebers and Team Breezy, it’s fairly clear that they belong in the latter categories. The fan art, YouTube videos and hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to minutiae like Chris Brown’s smile and Robert Pattinson’s latest haircut are impenetrable to outsiders. These are self-sustaining cults that begin with fans using their famous crushes like little girls play-acting relationships with Barbie and Ken dolls – but they can spiral into something even more intense.

Whether they want it or not, the Bieber, Brown, Stewart and Pattinson have immense power and influence on the lives of millions. When you find yourself idly perusing a celebrity magazine and wondering who the hell cares about all those stories, the answer is: these fans, these fanatics. Millions of them.