In participatory culture, whose input matters most?
The how and why of standom maintenance.
I’ve talked about the ways that fandom is managed and manipulated, but I’ve been short of actual examples (save for the BDSM Build-a-Bears adventure) because there’s so much, and much of it is dated and requires lengthy context.
But while the 1D fandom is running on steam and memories, the solo fandoms remain ripe for the picking, bringing over the norms and expectations of the band fandom. And Sony has over a decade of practice marketing and massaging the fandom into docility. Rob Stringer, Sony Music Entertainment CEO, has boasted of the investment Sony has made in data mining and analytics. With their proprietary tools, they are uniquely positioned to, “drive sales and marketing efficiency, monitor customer behaviour and guide creative decisions.”
So of course the meddling and stirring of the pot haven’t stopped, it just takes a few breaks now and then. And we’re in the middle of an album rollout, so this is a high activity season.
One of the habits picked up by fans has been to dig into the archives of various performing rights organizations (PROs), looking for new song registrations. PROs collect and distribute royalties collected from broadcasting and public performances to songwriters and publishers. That means that when a song is registered, it probably will be available to the public, and broadcast soon enough.
This is not a sure thing, as fandom learned, we know of multiple songs registered in 2016 that were never released. Still, most of the time the updates indicate upcoming singles and potential album tracks.
It was while doing one of these checks that the track “Halfway Home,” which listed Louis Tomlinson as a writer, had been registered. Because it was first found on April 1 and there was no performer attached, there were fears that it was a joke. Within two weeks, the records were updated, and multiple other PROs sites were listing the title. It was a real song, and Twitter fandom responded by trending it.
April 13th, the very same day, the official account promoting Harry Styles’ new album went ahead and tweeted the phrase. Sure, it’s not exactly the same, but an added space between words doesn’t do much to stand apart.
This whipped up a lot of frenzy among fans, in particular the Larry shipper subfandom. The tweet has more engagement than the others on the account, and the responses are heavily weighted towards celebration and connections to Tomlinson, as if this confirmed a connection between the two, was signaling messages to them, the believers.
If there was a message, I suspect it was more along the lines of, “pay attention to me.” If the account’s purpose was to tease lyrics and one of them matched a competitor’s project, it would only be smart to take advantage. And it worked, of course.
It may seem paranoid of me, to suggest all this thought and planning behind every social network interaction and its outcome. But I’ve paid attention as the Sony/HSHQ marketing team has been telling on themselves by showing off their strategies.
Just two days after the tweet, Manos Xanthogeorgis, the marketing muscle behind HSHQ was kind enough to share with Billboard, “We know that the fans will take every piece and dissect it so we put a lot of thought and intention in the details.”
The You are Home campaign is still mid-rollout, so it can be difficult to take a proper look at mid-motion, but we’ve also got last album’s digital campaign to look at. While the current effort is album promotion, the Eroda campaign of 2019 was for a single release, inventing a place where the music video would take place.
Eroda was treated as a real place, a fake travel agency was created, dedicated solely to Eroda. There were travel ads and sponsoring posts across social media, targeting users with pixels, and in the real world, travel brochures were created and planted in bookstores, all alluding to this fictional land of wonder. There was a steady stream of content keeping people engaged, and giving them more Play-Doh to add to their toy boxes.
Because of the virtual world the Eroda campaign referred to, it caught the eye of Alternate-Reality Game (ARG) fans. Believing it was a new game or something else impressive, they created an infrastructure based on unpacking the mystery, including crowdsourced documentation, Reddit forums, and Discord servers for theories.
The Discord became heated quickly when Styles fans joined in, causing massive culture clashes. Andy Baio was part of the Discord and saw many ARG fans digging their heels in as more connections were revealed. It had gone so far as to Styles fans and theorizing being banished to other channels, but the harries ultimately won out, taking over the server when the music video dropped. Baio said the ARG enthusiasts were, “desperate for any explanation beyond Harry Styles,” he even noted that many, “tried to debunk solid proof.”1
Xanthogeorgis helmed the Eroda campaign as well, saying, “Everything we tweeted had its purpose and there was a lot of thought behind it.” He also explained that the marketing campaigns may seem global, but they will be appealing and, “live within niche audience segments and these segments are unrelated to geographic location.”
The importance placed on these subfandoms seems to confirm that fandom at large is observed on different levels, treated, and targeted differently. “We read everything,” says Xenthogeorgis, confirming long-held suspicions that fandom is being monitored, at least when convenient.
This is the type of reveal that seems banal and obvious, yet provides so much context into previous marketing efforts and strategies. The fandom narratives and mythologies have edged into the mainstream because of the industry’s involvement and feedback. This is unusual, at least currently, but we may see more of it in the future.
Jonathan Gray, who wrote the essential book on media paratexts,2 has pointed out that audience and fan-created paratexts, “commonly lack the capital and infrastructure to circulate,” and that holds true here as well. If 1DHQ hadn’t already spent years giving air, acknowledging, and referencing fan theories, they likely wouldn’t still have to draw comparisons to 1D to mobilize the fandom.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe they don’t have to draw comparisons and stir the pot, but they seem to enjoy doing so. It’s why there’s still an audience for this content, seven years beyond the band’s dissolution. But while the fandom engine has kept the plot rolling, it’s impossible not to place some responsibility on the industry, HQ, and whoever else is behind the wheel.
One of the revelations that was both satisfying and paranoia-inducing was that while building the Eroda campaign, there were multiple dead-end rabbit holes constructed and intentionally busted links. It makes me wonder how often they’ve used such methods, and whether the “Milkshake Tweet” of 2017 is one of the occasions.
What did it mean? My take was then, and still is, that it was an intended strategy to engage fans before his first release of music, that’s what the timing suggested, at least. The link went nowhere at first, and it was only 40 minutes in that it began redirecting to a porn site. That’s when it was deleted and never acknowledged.
If the Tweet had come from Niall Horan, or Liam Payne, fans would be excited, as all interactions between the alumni are seen as positives, but it wouldn’t have gained as much traction as this interaction did.3
Styles and Tomlinson had not interacted on Twitter for years, despite the number of fans who enjoy/ed and believe/d in a relationship between them and clung to decades-old Twitter banter. But it wasn’t just about the shippers: band fans at the time were frustrated at the enforced division between band members, this type of surprise was enough to revive the waning interest of many, and squash some pessimism.
Of course, not all fans were happy with this. It would be all too simple for that to be the case. Harries, the segment of fans who believed Styles was above all his band members, particularly above Tomlinson, so he must have been hacked, right? Likely by a shipper, because who else would even have a motive? Their theory gained traction after the link was co-opted, allowing an appropriate out-group to take the blame.
Be as vague as possible, never confirm, never deny; in a modern-day Schrodinger’s cat situation, all versions of a human brand are true as long as none are debunked. Was it marketing? Was it hacking? Was it a secret message? It could be all three, it could be none. A perfect way to keep fans’ pet theories alive.
Keeping people speculating has been a PR trick for ages, but participatory culture has turned it into something much more easily gamed and exploited, involving much deeper levels of devotion and emotion, with potentially undesirable outcomes.
Keeping in mind, of course, that some of the clues made no sense at all in an effort to encourage superfans to poke around every corner. “Beautiful pictures and beautiful narration of nothing,” Xanthogeorgis laughed about the pretty, but intentionally vapid Eroda [creative].
Billboard Pro, Dec 6 2019
It’s things like this, along with the gung-ho brand managers’ attitude toward making people “fall in love” with their brands that have me questioning whether a threshold has been crossed in how fandoms are treated and managed. It’s difficult to imagine that something that works so well would ever cease.
As much as I hammer on Xenthogeorgis specifically, it’s because he’s been vocal about his process. He should be satisfied, I think, as he expressed hope that people would, “remember how this campaign [made them feel.]”
I won’t be forgetting any of the campaigns anytime soon.
If nothing else, that should say something about how strongly we hold on to our preconceived notions and felt knowledge.
Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, 2010, Jonathan Gray
I suspect that if it had been Zayn Malik retweeting the fandom meltdown might have been even bigger, as they had a public falling out and many nostalgic “Zouis” fans remain. Perhaps it’s being saved for another album release.