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Why Angry Taylor Swift Fans Lash Out Online

Fandom is all about community — even when it gets toxic

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

Last week, I made a huge mistake. I tweeted something negative about Taylor Swift’s new single.

It was only 10 minutes or so before the Swifties found me. I counted them — 50 total Twitter users, 45 of whom identified themselves as fans in their bios, handles, banner photos, or profile photos. That isn’t a huge number as Twitter warfare goes, but at the time it felt like an army, a massive swarm of pastel-clad, smiling blondes descending upon me.

Some accused me of being bitter. One sarcastically thanked me for promoting the song. Another told me I couldn’t even “make the front page” (of what, I’m unsure) while Taylor’s song shot to number one on the charts. (I will concede that Taylor Swift’s career is doing better than mine.) Several accused me of being sexist, and others were genuinely funny, like the one from the Taylor Swift fan, also known as a Swifty, who said, “Sis she’s been with the same man for 3 years. Your last date was a stained futon and ramen.” (I’ve been in a relationship for nine years and, blessedly, no longer have a futon — just a couch that I really hate.)

The tweets were generally harmless, but they were a nuisance, like walking through a cloud of gnats at the park. And, I thought, I couldn’t relate at all to the people who sent them. Why did they define their entire Twitter presence by this one pop star? Why were they so upset that I, a self-professed fan, didn’t like her newest song? What compelled them to flock to their idol’s defense — a conventionally attractive, blonde, white woman worth an approximate $400 million who certainly doesn’t need defending from anonymous Twitter hordes?

It isn’t that Taylor Swift fans are unhinged lunatics, although you could argue they’re a little sensitive. Their behavior is human, built on a very natural desire to belong and feel understood.

Because what these fans missed is that my disappointment in “ME!” stemmed from my own years-long love of Taylor Swift. Though I’ve never considered myself a Swifty, her music has resonated with me since she released Fearless in 2008. A song as obnoxious and headache-inducing as “ME!” is a blight on her canon.

It isn’t that Taylor Swift fans are unhinged lunatics, although you could argue they’re a little sensitive. Their behavior is human, built on a very natural desire to belong and feel understood. Even after spending several days reading studies and talking to researchers about fan behavior, I can’t quite shake my irritation at the event — I’d rather not be swarmed by anyone — though I get it now. Fandom, and the online swarming behavior often associated with it, exists to strengthen interpersonal bonds and make participants feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves. It’s not so different from any other clique or community, though when fans converge on critics, or others they view as threats, it can certainly appear that it is.

For fandoms, the community is as important, or even more important, than the object of the fandom itself. That sense of community is one of the driving forces behind fandom. It’s also the main difference between fandom participants and fanship participants.

Research conducted in 2010 found that fandom and fanship are two distinct, but related, modes of being. Fanship is more related to the object than the community, and delineates how much interest and attachment a fan has for the object, such as Taylor Swift. Fandom, on the other hand, is about how close to the community that has sprung up around the object a fan feels, and how important that community is to them.

So while I consider myself a Game of Thrones fan — I watch the show every week, I identify with the characters, and I consume content related to the show — I’m not a participant of the Game of Thrones fandom, for whom the show and surrounding community is important to their sense of self.

For fans, feeling part of a cohesive community can be really healthy. “Feeling a sense of connection with a fan interest and belonging to a group of fans is also related to better psychological well-being,” says Stephen Reysen, an associate professor of psychology and special education at Texas A&M University. “Having a supportive social network is often related to better psychological health.”

His 2013 study looked at the psychological impact of belonging to the furry community and found that furries who engaged in the community, self-identified as furries, and accepted their furry affiliation, had a greater sense of well-being than those who didn’t. The strength and support gleaned from being part of a community helps participants cope with the alienation that members of stigmatized groups, such as furries or those who practice BDSM, often experience. A 2017 study supports these findings. It found that participating in the Harry Potter fandom helped members feel more secure in their sense of self.

Fandom participants often find strong and long-lasting friendships in fan communities, according to Gayle Stever, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at SUNY Empire State College and author of the book The Psychology of Celebrity. “The bonds that are formed are lifelong and strong, and most often end up having little to do with the original artist who brought them together at all,” she says.

Participants often turn their obsessions into careers, she adds, noting that “a man who organized the very first official Star Trek fan club (back in the 1970s) has gone on to a very successful career in publishing and entertainment.” This may be attributable, in part, to the mentoring that happens within many fandoms, as a 2017 study discovered by analyzing thousands of fan fiction comments and reviews. The study found that the overwhelming majority of the fan fiction reviews were positive or offered constructive criticism, and that fan groups provided distinct and significant psychological and social support to their members.

To fans, though, it might not feel like bullying but like supporting and defending their community and the object of their fandom against a perceived threat.

Stevers, who has been studying fandoms since the 1980s, noted that she finds the most energetic fan behavior to be performative. “On the Michael Jackson tour in 1989, I went to my very first concert expecting to see frenzied behavior in the crowd and was shocked to see people acting normally,” she says. “As soon as the newsperson and camera were gone, they calmly went back to their conversations… I see a great deal of this behavior as performance behavior, whether for a media camera or for each other.”

Such frenzied behavior has transformed online, in part, into hyperactive bullying and harassment of critics and outsiders. This dynamic has been particularly apparent in recent weeks, as stars like Ariana Grande, Olivia Munn, and Lizzo have either weaponized their fandoms or — at best — disregarded their power when lashing out at critics.

To fans, though, it might not feel like bullying but like supporting and defending their community and the object of their fandom against a perceived threat.

“When individuals feel a tight attachment to an in-group, they are particularly wary of any attacks on members of their community, especially when they are anonymous and when they are targeting an anonymous or unknown outsider,” says Nick Brody, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound who has studied cyberbullying. “Thus, they are likely swift in their response to attacks.”

Reysen agrees, saying that “fans who are highly identified with the group feel successes and failures of the fan object as though they were happening to them … When a group is threatened they often band together to fight off the threat.”

When I tweet about how much I disliked Taylor Swift’s “ME!” it makes the Taylor Swift fandom feel as if they’re under attack, and they respond in kind. And honestly, I get it. When people complain about my favorite Game of Thrones character, for example, (it’s Sansa), I bristle, as if that person were somehow insulting me by extension. Of course, that usually isn’t true, but it sometimes takes a minute before I remind myself that the things that I appreciate and enjoy don’t make up who I am.

But if I were a member of the Game of Thrones fandom, spending lots of money on Game of Thrones-related objects and events, and forming relationships with others based on that fandom, I, too, might react aggressively to people’s insults.

It’s easy to forget, when confronted by an angry Swifty with a penchant for cyberbullying, that they’re looking for the same thing I am: respect and companionship from a community, wherever we may find it. And although I won’t be sending any wolf emoji to the Sansa haters who plague the internet, I’m always down for a conversation about how she’s the real Game of Thrones MVP.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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