When fandom becomes cultic: the One Direction experience
With fans encouraged to proselytize, clashes are inevitable.
I consider myself a fandom veteran, having jumped into the subculture with both feet at a very young age. It’s always been the kind of hobby you’re not supposed to talk about publicly, especially to non-fandom people. I’ve never considered fandom a covert activity, and would never hide my involvement, but I understood why the rules were there.
This never stopped outsiders from using fans as a resource, it’s been part of fandom management from the start. Without paying attention, too absorbed by our own universe, the use of fandom as a resource has skyrocketed, and not in a good way.
With tech ushering us into a glasshouse, we don’t get to choose who has access to our content. It doesn’t matter how careful fans are not to cross any lines, because the lines don’t exist.
We don’t get to choose not to be exploited or observed, because we’re just another demographic. We don’t have a say if people want to use fanworks for their art installation. We don’t have a say if people want to ‘infiltrate’ fandom and present their results at tech conferences. We don’t have a say whether big name gossip bloggers rely entirely on volunteer run update accounts for content.
Fans have inadvertently become a resource, both for creative content itself, but also as a free marketing tool. In fact, fans are considered better marketers because fans are internally motivated. Jackie Huba coined the term ‘customer evangelists’ to describe these ideal fans. According to her, the fans that are the most devoted, productive and influential make up only one percent of any given fandom.These are the people that need to be hyper-targeted, who will bring the most value and who will be self-motivated to promote your products because of how much they believe in it.
Unfortunately, fandom also has a one percent theory, “in every fandom, on average, 1% of the fans will be a pure, unsalvageable tire fire.” These are the people that will turn entire fandoms toxic if they are in positions of power.
There’s no way to accurately establish how much of an overlap there is between Huba’s evangelizing one-percenters and fandom’s toxic one-percenters. From my experience, in One Direction fandom, the overlap appears to be a complete circle.
There are always fandoms you’re warned about, not because of the fan object itself, but because of the climate. One Direction fandom was always one I was warned about, and it’s the one that broke me.
I wasn’t looking for a new fandom when I took a gander at the One Direction corner of Tumblr, I didn’t even expect it to be particularly active considering the supposed hiatus had already started, and long past their last performance. Yet it was brimming with activity. Fandom factions were separated based on beliefs, detectable hostility, and amusement between each other.
There were those that believed Zayn Malik’s departure was a publicity stunt; those that believed various constellations of intra-band relationships were being covered up; those who believed some, or all of the men were closeted; those who didn’t believe closeting even existed; those who primarily worshipped sisters and/or girlfriends, holding them in higher regard than the band members themselves and focusing their fandom building efforts around them. Those who proudly identified as antis, whose identity has been formed in opposition to others.
And then there were the stuffed bears, my downfall.
The lore goes as follows: at a 2014 concert, a fan threw a rainbow-coloured Build-a-Bear teddy towards the stage. It landed in the hands of the crew, and resurfaced with gaffer-taped bondage gear, leading to the teddy being christened Rainbow Bondage Bear (RBB). It would make appearances at concerts, and the crew would occasionally be spotted with it.
In 2015 something changed. RBB was spotted at the tour opener in Sydney with a new outfit on. The setups got increasingly elaborate as the tour progressed, and a second smaller bear was added, making them a duo.
An ‘official’ Twitter account appeared and was legitimized by Josh Devine, One Direction’s live drummer, following the account.
Each setup was a treasure trove, keeping all sides of fandom occupied trying to decode the meaning behind every minuscule detail—and there were a lot of details. Outfit changes were common enough to suggest there was an entire Build-a-bear wardrobe being brought along to each tour stop. From a wedding dress to a full leather get up to a football uniform. The bears were also provided a host of accessories including transportation and furniture: miniature cars and motorcycles, spinning salon chairs, couches and horses and a unicorn, instruments and an endless supply of Poundland stickers. They would often be posed reading biographies and have framed photos at their feet, at one time displaying a “Certificate of Excellence” issued from Sugar Baby Bear (SBB) to RBB.
The Twitter account remained active after the last tour stop, sharing their continued journey with the band as they entered their US promo cycle, which made it all the more mysterious.
The feedback between fandom and these must-be mascots was too fascinating to ignore. When Jimmy Kimmel joked about a potato joining the line-up, the bears didn’t let it slide, referencing the joke twice.
The updates were unpredictable, which lead to the fandom anxiously awaiting new edits of any kind. Any update, whether it was profile picture, bio, background photo, location— all analyzed and correlated to movements of the band.
Most of the time the bears were a balm to a frenzied fandom in flux, a stress reliever that simultaneously provided a dopamine hit. But there were moments when skepticism reared its head, when the references veered too, too close, making everyone uncomfortable at what it might mean.
Many misgivings were centered around the overwhelming spotlight on LGBT issues.Some would say they knew the references were sincere and meaningful, others believed fans were being queer baited. Because of the commonality of fan baiting in general, it’s not possible to dismiss. While keeping the audience hooked makes business sense, going this far puts a sordid taint on all involved. Some claimed it was a sound engineer or a crew member, who used the bears as a proxy to educate fans about queer issues.
Even if that were the case, there is an ethical line that was crossed. At the final live shows, there was a plugged-in iPhone with a phone number on the front. This information quickly disseminated through all of fandom, and the phone was soon inundated with messages and calls, all visible on the screen, legitimizing the number as a mode of communication.
I know too little to confidently even guess what the purpose of that might be, but I know that many fans used that number as a safety blanket of sorts. Messaging and leaving voicemails, treating it like a direct connection to the band.
Sometimes I wonder if that particular stunt is the reason no one has taken credit for it. Each time someone has been asked the topic has been deflected. Yet someone did provide a global fanbase with a phone number. It didn’t appear out of anywhere, and whatever power trip might have resulted from the response. Considering the close tabs being kept on the fandom, that this would’ve gone by unnoticed is implausible. The number was still active as of May 2021.
If this Build-a-bear shaped rabbit hole wasn’t enough to engulf me, I made the fatal mistake of following fandom blogs that, unknown to me, had been manipulating the fandom for a long, long time. Their takes on the bear situation seemed the most believable—they could frame it conveniently, of course— and their predictions about band matters were shockingly accurate.
All of this was miraculous enough to trigger an awe response. You might call it a peak experience, euphoria, or conversion experience, as these roughly describe the same phenomenon. Daniel Cavicchi who explored Bruce Springsteen fandom identified these feelings as a fan conversion experience. According to him, fan conversion, “is a lasting and profound transition from an ‘old’ viewpoint, dominated by ignorance and disenchantment, to a ‘new’ one, filled with energy and insight.”
This is to say, the conversion in itself isn’t the issue. We’re all capable of getting to that point, my more memorable experiences of this belonging to concerts that had me awestruck, and left me with a post-concert depression as soon as reality crept back in. The big difference between those experiences and the one that sucker punched me in the chest is that this time the situation had been manipulated to elicit that response. And it worked on me.
With my newly minted conviction, I took a dive into the deep end with little hesitation. There was an avalanche of content, especially for someone like me who had years to catch up on.
Conveniently, there was fandom mythology ready to absorb, with some edits over time becoming the new truth and leaving out the relevant context in some retellings. All the moving parts were flattened into easily digestible master posts and gif sets, timelines, treatises. This stage was nearly entirely euphoric because it was so easy to absorb and all so promising. In the cruel world of the music industry, they’d put it on its head.
I came to profoundly believe that One Direction would be returning to the spotlight in no time, with more control and autonomy over their careers. Those near-weekly rumors that Styles was bursting at the seams to storm stages alone were wishful thinking, a red herring. Another red herring might even be the eighteen-month break that had been promised, perhaps it would be cut short with a surprise drop.
When the press claimed they had disbanded and the Styles era was coming, it was easy to dismiss. Simon Cowell was just bitter that he didn’t get his paws on any of their future earnings, because leaving Sony was part of the grand plan.
Fans had long expressed concerns that the band was overworked as it was, and were openly hostile to Cowell, Sony, and Management. Five years, five albums, four world tours; the break was well deserved. With the promise of good things just around the corner, the wait would be worth it, or rather, worth the while.
We had mantras to remind ourselves not to believe everything we saw, an anonymous quote in Billboard was working overtime to keep people calm: “nothing has changed regarding hiatus plans for the group, and all will be revealed in due time from the band members' own mouths.”
Normally Billboard wouldn’t be trusted, nor would an unnamed source but because it aligned with our beliefs, it was sacrosanct. What each of them— three out of four— had said was eighteen months, and that none of them had particular plans.
There was even a fandom-wide book club planned for the alleged duration of the hiatus. This is how confident people were that if nothing else, there was a set end date already.
The intensity of the fandom was new to me, but I assumed it had to do with its massive size. Regular life was bland when the possibility of Big News dropping any second. With time, almost any update was considered Big News, heightening the urge to be plugged in, all the time. A global fanbase meant there was no good time of day to step away, and uninterrupted sleep became a pipe dream. Not even because of notifications, but because my internal clock somehow sensed that a few hours had passed and I needed to get my fix, just in case.
I alienated friends and acquaintances with my zeal. One of them told me on no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to hear any more boyband stuff, which made me stop talking to her entirely. It’s not like I had anything else to discuss: I had stopped listening to other music, and I stopped watching films and television. This was one of the things that alarmed my friends the most, as trivial as it might sound. When you go from 200 films a year to none, something has changed.
I abandoned my stand-up with little thought. I even ended up moving in with a fellow stan, shared lease and all. It’s one of the few things I don’t regret from this episode of my life.
Over time, there were a lot of opportunities for second-guessing. There were defectors who were mocked and shunned, regardless of what their final straw was. Yes, you had to decide for yourself… but how did you Know The Truth, and then turn a blind eye to it? So many people jumped into different fandom factions when they left, fully adopting whatever belief was on that side of the fence. It was inexplicable to us, but these moments were always used to strengthen the commitment and faith of those of us that remained. And yes, it really was about faith.
Harder to deal with were moments reality collided with our expectations. It was always unpleasant, the cognitive dissonance gnawing a hole in on the inside of your chest, sometimes making it hard to breathe. Why would Father John Misty say he’d heard an album if there wasn’t one? Why would a random Twitter user lie about their loud guitarist neighbor only just returning from recording in Jamaica, with yeah, that One Direction guy.
I know how people can believe the opposite of what they’re seeing because I was there. Fully there. The alternative was unthinkable, but it was also completely inevitable. It wasn’t the Billboard announcement that Styles signed with Columbia that cinched it—buried in the middle of the night of the EU referendum.
What couldn’t be ignored was an official commercial. A single release announcement mimicing Adele’s “Hello” teaser. It had been one of those repeated hyperbolic comparisons that kept being made. It was ludicrous, just the promises of a debut on level David Bowie, Queen, Prince. It was laughable, but it was also real.
Just as the first gif sets started to roll in, the fandom leaders pivoted, hard. The scaffolding of belief that we constructed with their help was now being pointed and laughed at. We had all been the emperor with safety blankets woven out of thin air. They didn’t even bother deleting their old contradictory content; it simply needn’t be addressed, whatsoever.
This rude wake-up call would’ve been the perfect time to step away, and some wise souls did. I still had so many questions and concerns about everything else and remained anchored to the group with terrorizing hope, unable to let go. The biggest fear was that we’d been purposefully misled by the powers that be, and worse, that the band was in on it. But at least we could stick together as a group and try to recalibrate as the dust settled.
Instead, the purges started.
I was expelled early on, crossing an invisible line when I expressed displeasure with some lyrics on Styles’ eponymous LP. The finely manicured 70s sleaze image that we had laughed at before was now serious, and not something to be criticized.
Within a few hours, my username was blacklisted and synonymous with ‘sick fucko’ which later evolved into other projections. People I had considered friends were denouncing me publicly, and reaching out to them only confirmed that my contact was unwanted. It wasn’t long until most fandom resources and communities were completely inaccessible to me.
The new rules of engagement were clear; get on board or get out. The fandom was told on no uncertain terms that not buying in meant we were unwelcome ‘cunts’ and were, “literally making things worse for every LGBT artist.”
I was incredibly distraught, confused, and an emotional wreck. I was also profoundly ashamed of feeling that way. This couldn’t be normal. I wanted reconciliation with the group and for us to acknowledge our mistakes and rebuild from there. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t process the disappointment together and adjust. Why people were pretending like everything was normal. We couldn’t have been wrong about everything, could we? Maybe we’d been wrong about the band’s future, but surely we weren’t wrong about their characters? Following multiple solo careers would be more exhausting, but all the more fulfilling if they finally all got treated right. There was nothing indicating that, even from the start.
None of my efforts to make amends worked, and they may have exacerbated the situation, especially as lines were crossed over and over. From, “that would never happen” to, “well it might be happening but it doesn’t mean what you think” to, “actually, it does mean that, but that’s what we always wanted anyway.”
I wasn’t the only reject still hanging around Tumblr not able to get onboard with the new doctrine or disappear. We were polluting fandom with our hateful auras, not wanting to embrace the light. We were reminded of that on a regular basis, the new scapegoats to be ritually sneered at.
I had to turn off Tumblrs anonymous ask feature, and sure enough, sock-puppet accounts appeared instead. Stans are known for their persistence, after all. Like good customer evangelists, they were on a mission.
My inbox was a mix of middle school insults, suicide bait, grandiose accusations, and the occasional ambitious essays, but I wasn’t in actual danger, and nothing had actually happened to me. You couldn’t tell that from my stress levels and near-constant bawling, though. The presence of those emotions once again adding shame to the mix.
I thought that doing research would help, but reading through archives of trade papers was nauseating. If things were going to change, it was never going to be with them. I watched my old group continue to make promises and each time I investigated the veracity of their claims, I hit dust. Every piece of information I tried to share, in good faith, was shot down as a hostile act.
I lost my last bit of respect for the fandom leaders when it became clear how much lying had been going on. The same fandom leaders who frequently laughed off accusations of manipulation had been congregating on a secret blog. Shrugged off as just another clique activity, it’s where they decided what to do with updates or events that were counter mission: censor, ignore, or mock it. It’s where they agreed that they should all keep content on deck to inundate fandom with in times of distress. Edits and gifs, thought stoppers, master lists, anything that might quell doubts and subdue dissent.
We had always been a thorough fandom, seeking out and archiving business news, trademark applications, Companies House filings, but this was all public information. But apparently some felt entitled to more. Like, hacking into emails, chats and socials, contacting staff at restaurants and hotels and venues, creating master posts of questionably sourced information for a hush-hush upper-crust leadership? Shoehorning your way into a peripheral social circle? Using that Travel Agent connection to track all flights? Conning your way onto the friend’s list of private accounts for hidden photos and news?
These were indefensible actions, and they were just the tip of the iceberg. I’m still, slowly, scraping through Tumblr, trying to put together the timeline of all the minuscule bumps that brought us to the brink. And I’m hoping whatever I find might be useful for other fandom situations.
See Jackie Huba & Ben McConnell’s research in “Citizen Marketers” and “Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers Into Fanatics”
Judy Garland, Andy Bell, Divine, English drag acts, Danny LaRue, Liberace, Liza Minelli, Freddie Mercury, George Michael, Bette Davis, Army of Lovers, KD Lang, and more.
Daniel Cavicchi, “Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans”
Styles has to this date not claimed to be queer or part of the LGBT community.
I have never felt so SEEN by a post. (Those 1D years were crazy, and I've definitely pulled away from it post 2015, as you did.) And yet I still have so much nostalgia for 2012-2014 fandom, because when you were in it, it was SO good.