How Fans Created the Voice of the Internet

When the Internet-culture reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany first encountered One Direction, the British-Irish boy band, she was home for the summer after her freshman year at college. She was sad and sick of herself; she’d struggled to fit into her school’s hard-partying social scene. “Most Saturday nights,” she writes, “I would put on something ugly, drink two beers in a fraternity annex and wait for someone to say something I could throw a fit about, then leave.” Tiffany was moping around the house when her younger sisters cajoled her into watching “This Is Us,” a One Direction documentary. Her first impressions—bland songs, “too much shiny brown hair”—were soon overtaken by a weird sense of enchantment. The boys were goofy; they were sweet. One of them touchingly imagined a fan, now grown, telling her daughter about the band’s terrible dance moves. Finding “1D,” Tiffany writes, was like connecting to something pure and reassuring and somehow outside of time—like “being yanked out of the crosswalk a second before the bus plows through.”

But “Everything I Need I Get From You,” Tiffany’s new work of narrative nonfiction, is not about One Direction. “As much as I love them,” she writes, the boys “are not so interesting.” Instead, the book—which is wistful, winning, and unexpectedly funny—sets out to explain why Tiffany “and millions of others needed something like One Direction as badly as we did,” and “how the things we did in response to that need changed the online world for just about everybody.” The book’s initial lure may lie in the second proposition. For me, at least, fandom has started to feel like a phenomenon akin to cryptocurrency or economic populism—a history-shaping force that we’d be foolish to ignore. After all, fans don’t just drive the entertainment industry, with its endless conveyor belt of franchise offerings and ever more finely spliced ​​marketing categories. They also affect politics (as when K-pop groupies flood police tip lines during Black Lives Matter protests) and influence the news (as when Johnny Depp stops attacking the credibility of his alleged abuse victims). One of Tiffany’s most provocative arguments is that fans have drafted the Internet’s operating manual. Their slang has become the Web’s vernacular, she writes, and their engagement strategies—riffing, amplifying, dog-piling—sustain both its creativity and its wrath.

Fans wait to enter a One Direction concert. The band’s relentless blankness invites devotees, known as Directioners, to bestow on it a surfeit of meaning.Photograph by Scott Barbour / Getty

One Direction makes for a good case study. The five heartthrobs came together on a reality show, in 2010—the height of Tumblr’s popularity, and a time when teenagers were beginning to sign up for Twitter en masse. The girls who worshiped the band, called Directioners, were fluent in the tropes of the social Internet: irony, surrealism, in-group humor. Interviewing and describing these girls, Tiffany revisits the teenybopper stereotype, a punching bag for critics since Adorno. “Nobody is primed to see self-criticism or sarcasm in fans,” she writes. But her subjects, far from frantic or mindless, are productive, even disruptive, obscuring the objects of their affection with a mannered strangeness. The book distinguishes between “mimetic” fandom—the passive variety, which “celebrates the ‘canon’ exactly as it is”—and “transformational” fandom, which often looks like “playful disrespect,” and can deface or overwrite its source material. Directioners, Tiffany argues, are projection artists, and she highlights their outré handiwork: deep-fried memes, “crackling with yellow-white noise and blurred like the edges of a CGI ghost”; a physical shrine where Harry Styles, the group’s breakout star, once vomited on the side of the road. In an affecting chapter, Tiffany makes a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to find the shrine herself. But its creator, confused by how many people construed her marker as “crazy or malicious”—she’d only wanted to send up the lust and boredom that would lead someone to memorialize puke—had taken it down. The sign, she tells Tiffany, “was more a joke about my life” than about Harry’s.

Indeed, the deeper the book plunges, the more incidental the singers end up feeling. They’re raw material, trellises for the fantasies of self being woven around them. (The band’s relentless blankness comes to seem a feature, not a bug.) Tiffany acknowledges that fannish enthusiasms aren’t random, that they have a lot to do with marketing. “The word ‘fan,'” she writes, “is now synonymous with consumer loyalty.” But she also quotes the media scholar Henry Jenkins, who asserts that fans are “always trying to push beyond the basic exchange of money.” At times stubbornly unprofitable—tweeting “he’s so sexy break my back like a glowstick daddy” about Harry Styles isn’t likely to boost his bottom line—they can serve as allies to artists hoping to transcend the commercial. Tiffany quotes Bruce Springsteen, who reportedly insisted that he wanted his music “to deliver something you can’t buy.”

This same chaotic energy can make fans annoying, even dangerous. Tiffany runs through the Larry Stylinson conspiracy theory, which hijacks a time-honored technique of fan fiction—shipping—to posit a secret relationship between Harry Styles and his bandmate Louis Tomlinson. Emboldened by lyrical, photographic, and numerical “clues,” “Larries” rained vitriol on the singers’ girlfriends, closing ranks and terrorizing dissenters. (Some also determined that Tomlinson’s newborn son was a doll.) Such harassment campaigns may “not approach the level of Gamergate,” Tiffany writes. But “any kind of harassment at scale relies on some of the same mechanisms—a tightly connected group identifying an enemy and agreeing on an amplification strategy, providing social rewards to members of the group who display the most dedication or creativity, backchanneling to maintain the cohesion of the in-group, which is always outsmarting and out-cooling its hapless victims, all while maintaining a conviction of moral superiority.”

It’s scary stuff. Yet the social event of fandom may finally be less compelling than its individual dimension. Being a fan, for Tiffany, is achingly personal. I loved her musings on why and how people pledge themselves to a piece of culture, and whether that commitment changes them. At one point, she describes the historian Daniel Cavicchi’s work with Springsteen buffs. Cavicchi was interested in conversion narratives: some of his subjects arrived at their passion gradually, but others were suddenly, irrevocably transformed. Tiffany talks to her own mother, a Springsteen obsessive, who recounts what ethnographers might call a “self-surrender story,” in which “indifference or negativity is radically altered.” (“I fell in love and I just never left him,” her mom sighs, recalling a Springsteen performance from the eighties.) The chapter draws intriguing parallels between fandom and religious experience, teasing out the mystical quality of fans’ devotion, how oddly close we can feel to icons we’ve never met. It also explores the link between affinity and biography. For Tiffany’s mother, Springsteen concerts punctuated the blur of raising young children; one show even marked the end of her chemotherapy treatments.

Directioners brandish dolls of Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson—between whom, some believe, a secret relationship exists.Photograph by Neil Hall / Reuters / Alamy

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