There’s nothing quite like the high of gaining a new interest in something or someone. I’m the type of person who has an obsessive personality; once I find that song, that TV show, that game, I have a tendency to beat it into the ground until I either hate it or find something new to repeat the endless cycle. This personality trait, whether I like it or not, makes me the prime consumer of stan culture— and at the tender age of twelve until around fifteen, I was an active “stan Twitter” junkie. Looking back on it several years and a whole lot of personal growth later, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of stan culture specifically during those primeval years of the concept (2011-2015). What makes the stan tick? What are the positive and negative effects of being an avid social media consumer-centered around one specific person or group? Why do we have stan culture in the first place?
As a disclaimer, by no means am I trying to make sweeping statements about the entirely unique fandoms on the Internet; I am simply recounting my observations from those years and trying to make sense of them.
What is a Stan?
Stan is a relatively new word in the English language. It actually first appeared in 2000 in Eminem’s Stan, a rap song about an overly-obsessive fan of the rapper. It wasn’t until fifteen years later that niche fandoms on Twitter and Tumblr would refer to themselves as “stans” or “stanned” their favorite celebrity— eventually, the term was popularized by Twitter and now can be found in everyday Gen-Z conversation, even finding its way into the Oxford Dictionary in 2017. To stan means to “be an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.” Stan culture can be defined by several communities throughout the Internet that create fandoms centered around a person, group, or entertainment form (books, movies, TV, YouTube series, etc.). These fandoms, also called “standoms”, consist of typically young teenagers and adults who can discuss aspects of their obsession, create art, connect with their favorite celebrities via social media, or simply connect with those of like-minded interests. Stan culture is something that with the help of social media is a totally unique feature of the 21st century. For that reason, a lot of older people, which can and often does include parents of stans, don’t understand it.
The “Internet Friend” Phenomenon
I was fully immersed in stan culture at my lowest of lows in life, and there’s no way to sugarcoat that fact. Rather than facing what was in front of my eyes, I chose instead to redirect that attention onto my phone or my computer. It was easy and gratifying. Like so many other stans at the time, I turned to the attention and fascination with celebrities or shows that I liked in order to fill a gaping hole in my life. That being said, not all of the effects of being a part of those fandoms were negative. For example, I like to think of Stan Twitter as the Tinder of friendships. It was so easy at the time to connect with other people in the fandom who were my age because of our shared interests. At the peak of my stanning, I’d had group messages with people across the country and several international friends. It was healing for us to share our problems and be emotional support for each other, if not simply for the fact that we had zero stakes in the other’s actual life. I recall my parents were skeptical about having “Internet friends” at first, but once I had met a few of them in person with my mom, those fears went away. I’d developed a close group of friends who would travel great lengths to visit each other, and I will always recognize them as real, valid friends regardless of the origins of the friendship. That was easily the most positive outcome of my experiences engaged with stan culture. I could write an entire article about the validity of Internet friendships, but there’s still a lot more to talk about with stan culture.
*Photo courtesy of Margaret Engel, with her amazing incredible Internet friends, November 2015
The Powder Keg that is a “Standom”
Every fandom I was either a part of or was close enough to observe on social media always had recurring themes, despite their differences in subject or demographic. There was fluid but present hierarchy, based on a few factors including the number of followers a stan account had, how much attention they received from whomever they stanned, and their involvement in stan drama. A surefire way to gain notoriety in a fandom was to stir up drama out of thin air, sometimes with other fandoms and sometimes just within that singular fandom. Oftentimes the politics of the fandom could be overwhelming to the point of being just plain toxic. Stan Twitter, specifically, consistently had petty drama regarding “lists” or group messages or even DMs from the celebrity in question. It was exhausting! As many stans and retired stans alike will say, it’s truly a full-time job. Something not talked about in other articles like this one is the level of exclusivity that some fandoms had. It was one thing to simply appreciate a celebrity or group, but sometimes it seemed like being recognized as a true member of a fandom was harder than college applications. And the most ironic part of this phenomenon is that the celebrity(s) in question either didn’t care or actively participated in the stan culture themselves, which even at the time seemed rather icky.
That begs the question of why the hierarchy exists in the first place. The other most common theme among fandoms was that many of the young members around my age group were either clinically diagnosed with some form of mental illness, or often commented on their deteriorating mental health brought on by issues at school and home. Even my own experiences with being part of these fandoms were rooted in my need for a sense of escapism from the real world. Social media, in a sense, felt like a completely separate reality from whatever issues we were all facing in our lives, and we could enter this dreamlike world where all we cared about was our “faves”. It’s no coincidence that the moment my mental health started improving, I participated far less in stan culture until ultimately moving on in 2016. I’ve even spoken to others like me who shared the same experience. This may be another example of causation versus correlation, but there are plenty of studies that indicate the psychological reasons for and effects of stan culture.
In a recent Her Campus article of mine, I discussed the negative aspects of Influencer culture. Many of the celebrities I stanned at the time would today be considered Influencers. The issue with stan culture is that it perpetuates the parasocial relationship, which is a term referring to the phenomenon in which a person puts time, effort, and love towards someone who either doesn’t reciprocate the same energy at all or doesn’t even recognize their existence. This is the relationship that so many Influencers share with their stans. Take Ariana Grande, One Direction, and K-Pop stans, for example. Although these celebrities have an idea of the demography of their fandoms, they couldn’t possibly know each and every fan of theirs. Despite this, they still maintain a superficial “friendship” with their fans in order to not only demonstrate their love and appreciation for their fandom (which is valid!) but also to maintain a brand that keeps the stans and revenue steadily flowing. This was the case for all of the Influencers and celebrities I was exposed to at the time— even those with small, niche fanbases. In a way, the smaller standoms were worse; the more the Influencer interacted with their stans, the more the stan would be drawn into that parasocial relationship, putting as much time and effort into it as possible.
I’m grateful for my experiences as a Twitter stan despite the negative effects it had on my life. It gave me a voice when I felt like I had none in real life, it gave me the validation I was desperately seeking as a young teenage girl, and it gave me the ability to connect with amazing people with whom I otherwise would have never come into contact. It’s so surreal to have known people online during that time and then through social media being able to watch them grow and succeed in their passions and do the things they had dreamed about at that age. But I also recognize the toxic features of stan culture and why so many young people with mental health issues latch onto a fandom. It provides a false sense of security which can be teeming with drama, exclusivity, and parasocial relationships. I say, stan away! But don’t forget to stan yourself along the way.
If you’re interested in reading more about stan culture, here are some articles: