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Identity in Communities and Networks

Online fandoms provide a space for young people to build an identity that they cannot express in real life

Abstract: Growing up and navigating teenage life can be hard for most young people. Trends and interests change each day and it can be difficult to find people and space in real life to discuss niche interests and feel accepted. This is where online fan communities can be helpful for teens to express their interests without shame and build an identity and form friendships.

Keywords: Twitter fandom, online friendship, bedroom analogy

Traditionally, communities exist in the physical world, be it the town one lives in or the school one attends. These are examples of communities people may be a part of in real life. Within these communities each person has an identity and role, in schools, this may be as a student, teacher or groundskeeper. Donath (1996), makes an interesting observation in reference to the advancement of the use of technology. What was once used as a space for academics and scholars to share data, has evolved into a community forum where any type of information is found and shared. In this technologically advanced society, being a member of an online community is very common and just as valid and genuine as any real-life community. Being a part of online fan communities, also known as ‘fandoms’, provide a space for young people to build and take on an identity that they can not express in real life. Lacasa et al. (2017) describe fans as people who feel a positive emotional relationship with a celebrity or text and fandoms are organized around the celebrity or text. By focusing on the organisation of online Twitter fandoms, I will demonstrate how participating and being a part of a fandom aid young people in building an identity through forming unlikely friendships and establishing a safe space online.

To elaborate further into the concept of identity, I will reference Erving Goffman’s model of identity. Crossman (2019), summarises Goffman’s idea of presenting ourselves to others as a type of stage play, in which we are the main actors portraying a character to others. Crossman goes on to say that there are a frontstage and backstage in which individuals can relax and no longer worry about how others perceive them. For fans the idea of putting on an act in front of others and hiding their true interests correlates with Goffman’s theory and their backstage identities can be conveyed online in trusted communities, as I will elaborate on further in this paper.

In this section, I will discuss how a Twitter fandom is structured as a community with the members of this community having unique roles that create their online identity.

Twitter is a popular social media site in which users create accounts to post ‘tweets’ which are comprised of a combination of text, images, video and audio. The contents of these tweets can be whatever the user desire. Users may follow other users if they wish to regularly view their tweets and vice versa. In my chosen stream I will focus on how fandoms use Twitter.

Within a fandom, fans may take on many roles that are central to the function of an online community. In a Twitter fandom organized around Korean celebrities, the roles of translator, information updater and fan-artist, among others, are chosen by individuals based on skills or desires that one has. To elaborate on one of these roles, a translator will gather information and current news regarding their idol, which is commonly in Korean language and willingly translates this information into another language to share with fans that do not know Korean. These roles become part of a fan’s online identity and are how a fan presents themselves online.

The structure of a fandom can be considered hierarchal, with the figurehead being the celebrity and fans are broken up into different roles beneath. These roles, as mentioned before, are one’s online identity, an information updater is seen as trustworthy and knowledgeable, therefore their position and importance within the community is respected and looked up to by other fans. Lacasa et al. (2017) believe that new fans are guided by other more experienced fans. This type of experience refers to the length of time one has been a member of the community and how many followers their account has. Online, the number of followers an account has leads people to believe that this user is trustworthy as so many other people believe so too.

These traits demonstrate how an online fandom is a community where people with similar interests and feelings towards a celebrity or text converge and meet. Chambers (2013) refers to research by Parks (2011), in which a community can be identified if members engage in collective action, share info, rituals and provide a sense of belonging and attachment. This applies to Twitter fandoms, as the members collectively discuss their idols by trending hashtags, sharing info amongst one another and engage in reoccurring rituals, such as virtually celebrating an idols birthday. By being a part of fandom, young people can create an online identity that is used to contribute to an online community.

In this section, I will discuss how young people can form bonds and relationships with others within a fandom. 

To be a fan can hold negative connotations in the eye of the general public. Mainstream media often portrays fans as crazed and obsessed with celebrities. Due to this, young fans feel that the positive emotional connection felt for celebrities is frowned upon and should not be expressed in public. In high school, I too thought that my interests were strange and shameful, I could not find anyone who had the same feelings of admiration for a foreign idol. I felt that I needed to hide this part of myself or risk being ridiculed by my peers. This is where online fan communities can create a place where fans can express their thoughts and feelings for an artist without being met with disdain, but with solidarity and understanding. A space where like-minded people can gather and interact is perfect for friendships to be formed.    

Obiegbu et al. (2019) explain that fandoms are formed when fans seek out other fans that engage in their activities and share a collective admiration for their idol. The process of seeking other fans online and bonding over a shared interest is inevitable in an online community. It is much easier to approach others online in a fan community, as there is already an established link and shared interest. Lacasa et al. (2017), references Marshall and Redmond (2016) when expressing how social networks have made it easier for people to establish online relationships and host a space where members can seek and offer emotional support. The accessibility and convenience of Twitter as a smartphone app makes connecting with and talking with online friends easier as they are only a message away. Hood et al. (2018) research finds a link between loneliness and seeking friendships through alternate means, such as online. Young people may feel alone and unable to connect with the people around them but there is a whole community of like-minded individuals who are open and willing to share their love for an idol and welcome new fans as friends and comrades. Online communities and fandoms are a great place for young people to establish friendships and make connections that do not happen easily in real life. The existence of a shared interest gives individuals an easy path into a conversation which can eventuate into friendship. Participating in an online fandom connects individuals and facilitates friendships.

In this section, I will discuss how young people create a safe space online to share personal thoughts or struggles that deviate from fandom activities

As discussed in the previous section, once young people form friendships online, their online identities become known to others. The friendships formed online are then allowed into an individual’s online space, to share and view the content one creates to put online. Twitter contains many settings to personalize an account and various privacy and security settings. On the outside, a user shares their display name, a profile picture of their choice, a header image and short biography that can be viewed on one’s page. As for privacy, Twitter allows users to have a public account that anyone may view or a private account where only approved followers may view and engage with their tweets. Many users utilize their accounts as an online diary where not only tweets regarding their idol is involved but also personal thoughts and struggles. These thoughts may never make it out in real life, but in the safe space of online communities, young people may find it easier to articulate their struggles to online friends.

Hodkinson (2015), applies the bedroom analogy that emerged in the 1990s into a modern social media approach. The bedroom analogy attempts to conceptualise a teen’s online space as a reflection of their bedroom. How they decorate this bedroom and who they allow into it are aspects that are mirrored online. The online safe space I have described earlier is an example of this. A Twitter user’s profile picture and username are the decorations in the bedroom and the privacy settings chosen to allow young people to decide who is permitted inside their bedroom.

The bedroom analogy aids in understanding how a young person builds their online identity as one’s room can reveal a lot about a person. By establishing a safe space filled with what they love and who they trust, users can feel comfortable in their chosen community. Sharing thoughts that may never be articulated in real life and allowing others to read and offer comfort and advice. Young people may use their Twitter accounts to feel safe and accepted in a way that they may not feel in real life.

By taking part in an online fan community as a fan, young people can build an identity, form friendships and create a safe space online to express their thoughts. Fandoms are structured like a community and fans can choose a role within this community. These roles become a part of their online identity and give individuals a sense of belonging and mutual understanding among other fans. Young people can then use these identities to form friendships over a shared interest and mutual positive emotions felt towards celebrities.  Interests that are often frowned upon in real life are the norm online and young people do not have to feel as if they have nowhere to express this part of their identity. By forming friendships online young people build a safe space where they can choose what others see and allow users they trust to engage with them online. The safe space built online is where a young person may express troubles to those that they trust and allow into their online bedroom.

The topics discussed in this paper are relating to the best-case scenarios in joining an online fandom. This paper does not delve into the dark side of online fandoms that involve cyberbullying but would be a great topic for further research.  This discussion could be further improved by conducting my own research or surveys. These surveys would be hosted on Twitter to gain further insight into why users feel safe and accepted in a fandom.

Fandoms are an online community and its members share a mutual understanding for one another as fans of a celebrity or piece of media. This environment facilitates the building of an identity that cannot always be expressed in real life. Doing this allows unlikely friendships to form and a space where thoughts can be shared with trusted others. Being part of a fandom, a young person can express themselves freely and form bonds that would not happen in real life.

References:

Chambers, D. (2013). Social Media and Personal Relationships: Online Intimacies and Networked Friendship. Palgrave Macmillan Limited.       http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/detail.action?docID=1138349#

Crossman, A. (2019, July 1). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-presentation-of-self-in-everyday-life-3026754

Donath, J. S. (1996). Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. P. Kollock & M. A. Smith (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace. Routledge. https://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.html

Hodkinson, P. (2015). Bedrooms and beyond: Youth, identity and privacy on social network sites. New Media & Society, 19(2), 272-288. https://doi-org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1177%2F1461444815605454

Hood, M., Creed, P. A., & Mills, B. J. (2018). Loneliness and online friendships in emerging adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 133, 96-102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.03.045

Lacasa, P., de la Fuente, J., Garcia-Pernia, M., & Cortes, S. (2017). Teenagers, fandom and identity, Persona Studies, 3(2), 51-65. https://doi.org/10.21153/ps2017vol3no2art648

Obiegbu, C. J., Larsen, G., Ellis, N., & Daragh, O. (2019). Co-constructing loyalty in an era of digital music fandom, European Journal of Marketing, 53(3), 463-482. http://dx.doi.org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1108/EJM-10-2017-0754

6 replies on “Online fandoms provide a space for young people to build an identity that they cannot express in real life”

Karise Cheong, and interesting read. I do agree that these online fans like communities are spaces where its members feel like they belong and because they feel like they belong they are able to express their identity or their true selves.

You do make the argument that it is something that cannot be expressed in offline environments (real life) which can be a valid point but have you considered why it is so?

When we think offline communities, for example, a soccer team, it is a community where one is free to express one’s true self. Perhaps not everyone can find these spaces in offline environments and why they go online?

Have a look at my paper where I do draw on that element of community and fan culture, perhaps it might provide some other aspect to your paper. https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/teens-in-social-networking-spaces-and-what-community-means/

But I look forward to you point of view on my questions.

Hi Tyrone,
Thank you for taking the time to read my paper and leaving such a great comment! I appreciate it!

To address your question, as my paper focuses on fan communities and participation in these communities, fan culture and idols are often stigmatised in society and viewed negatively, especially by older adults. Mainstream media enjoys grouping the word “fan” with “crazed” or “obsessed”, only reporting on the acts and attitudes of select individuals, while ignoring the dedication and wholehearted interest of the majority. As well as finding and becoming friends with other fans close by and in real life being quite difficult, it is not easy to express a fan identity in real life.

I hope this expands on your question and why I believe it is hard to express fan identity in real life, resulting in finding online communities to engage with.

Hi Karise!

I love reading your paper. It was well argued. It is definitely true how online fandoms on Twitter provided us fans the opportunity to be our true, fangirl selves online that we cannot express in real life, due to the common stigma that being a fan means that you’re obsessed with a celebrity (Also, I feel the same way too! I can only express it during [livestream] concerts but not when I’m out and about 🙁 )

If you’re interested in reading on how fan accounts on Twitter utilise the platform’s affordances to create a sense of community online, check out my paper in this link. https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/09/sense-of-community-in-todays-twitter-fan-culture/

Kind regards,
Pamela Getalado

Hi Pamela!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my paper and leave a comment for me!

I’m glad that you enjoyed reading my paper and I’ve seen we have some similar points between our papers. It’s true that it is hard to be a fangirl in real life, especially when concerts are rarely held in my city and finding other fans is a feat in itself. That is why Twitter is so amazing for us fans to connect with others and build relationships. I’m glad we both have found a community to belong in online and a place to be our fangirl selves.

Thank you again!

Hi Karise,

What an interesting topic! Your paper is very insightful and I enjoy reading it 🙂

I agree that online fan communities can help young people to build an identity and form friendships. I had a fan account on Instagram before and it was fun interacting with other fans^ Interesting, that there is a hierarchal relationship in an online fandom, fans have different roles such as translator, information updater, and fan-artist, as you mentioned.

You mentioned information updaters in online fan communities are respected and looked up to by other fans, and the number of followers in their accounts can lead other fans to believe that they are trustworthy. Do you think that competitiveness also exists in online fandom, like information updaters competing in having more followers in their accounts to see their posts and updates of the celebrity?

Would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Agnes

Hi Agnes!

Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear that you have also experienced this sense of community with your own fan account. It is a great feeling to find other people who share the same interests as yourself.

To answer your question, I do believe that there is a sense of competition among some large updater accounts. Some may think to have more followers makes them superior to smaller accounts but I believe in the end that these things should not matter and fans should focus on loving and enjoying supporting their favourite idols.

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