Social Media's Contribution to Normalized Stan Culture
BY AVNI MISHRA '23
On February 2, 2020, the top global trending hashtag on Twitter was #AWKJSJFKSJFLA, a nonsensical keyboard smash of letters. Fans of the popular K-pop group BTS trended the tag in anticipation of BTS’s music release announcement. In recent years, stan communities have grown immensely, dominating trending pages and amassing thousands of followers. However, these communities, present on nearly every social media platform, have also been entangled in numerous controversies—from mass cancelling, or halting support for celebrities, to promoting parasocial relationships, or unhealthy relationships where one party is emotionally dependent on another who is unaware of the other’s existence...like a bad YA love story, but worse. Nevertheless, some argue that stan communities’ benefits outweigh their thorny reputations. But just how did these communities grow to become so popular? With the rise of social media, fans gained access to large scale connections that created and normalized stan communities, ultimately breeding toxicity and unrealistic expectations that can harm both the stan and artist.
What does “stan” even mean? The word’s creation can be traced back to rapper Enimem’s 2000 song of the same name. His song told the story of a fan named Stan, who felt so enraged at being ignored by a celebrity that he drove himself and his girlfriend off of a bridge. Adopting the connotation of an insane fan, the word “stan” itself is a combination of “stalker” and “fan.”
Today, however, the word does not carry nearly as much weight. While a fan who might go to such extremes can still be called a stan, the definition has expanded to include fans with unwavering dedication to an artist. These stans keep up with an artist’s every release and contribute to stan communities by creating fan edits, fanart, and fan accounts.
Though overzealous fans have existed throughout history, social media has transformed current stan culture into a larger phenomenon than ever before. By looking up an artist’s name, a new fan can find hundreds of stan accounts, opening communication between users of shared interests, creating strong bonds that keep stans returning. In this way, stans can find accepting and caring support systems which they may not have in real life. It can also benefit the artist, providing them with a loyal fanbase that they can rely on to support their projects and generate free promotion by sharing content with friends, family, and the internet.
However, these seemingly positive benefits can quickly turn sour. A stan’s dedication can also manifest as attacking those who do not support the same people they do. These fan wars have caused media critics to lose their jobs, social media users to have their addresses leaked, and celebrities to be shamed off the internet. With the frequent occurrence of these online battles, it’s not difficult to see how these drawbacks can tarnish an otherwise congenial community’s reputation.
Furthermore, the appeal of these family-like communities can easily propagate obsessions. The stan may depend on these communities emotionally, despite never meeting the members in real life. Pair this with the echo chamber that is social media algorithms, and stans who are separated from these systems can experience isolation. This dependence is also reflected on the celebrity. If the stans’ happiness hinges on the content the celebrity produces, the celebrity feels constant pressure to provide for their fanbase, forgoing their own mental health in the process.
In other instances, instead of dependence, the stan can start to feel entitlement over the celebrity, which stems from engaging in a parasocial relationship. These one-sided obsessions can make it easy for individuals to demand more from the object of their affection, like in normal relationships. In the case of stan culture and celebrities, stans have stalked and threatened violence on their favorite celebrities. The ubiquity of stan culture has normalized these stalkerish relationships, pushing stans to further extremes for attention from their favorite celebrity.
Despite the apparent drama that exists within and as a result of stan communities, they still continue to thrive and expand in the social media age. Since the pandemic began, people worldwide have turned to finding entertainment in celebrities and then raving about them online. It’s no wonder that these communities have only garnered more attention and participants. To combat stan communities’ problems, stans need to recognize their place as fans by finding healthier outlets of their dedication. By acknowledging the distance between the fan and the celebrity, fans can break down these parasocial relationships and stop placing emotional dependency on stars who do not even know their name.