Aube Paul was an impressionable 16-year-old when she dipped her toes in the treacherous waters of Twitter. Beyond the surface of innocuous thoughts and attempted humor lies a deep-rooted community of individuals dedicated to various media entities, “Stan Twitter.”
Stans — a portmanteau of “stalker fan” which originated from a 2000 Eminem song — devote their internet existence to anything from pop stars to Timothée Chalamet and everything in between.
“It really gets you, especially if you’re really vulnerable,” Paul, 22, said. “I went through some really rough times and I found K-pop as my escape.”
‘It’s Your Escape from Reality’: What is ‘Stan Twitter’?
Baby Boomers sent fan mail. Gen Xers and Millennials called in to MTV. But fans growing up in the digital era have unlimited, unfiltered access to their icons. While the enigma of celebrity was once an elusive facade, social media has removed barriers between a star and their fans.
In turn, fan bases have become more extreme, ready to fight at all times for their favorite celebrities.
Stan Twitter is sink-or-swim. Paul, a junior majoring in computer science, said her time within the community felt like a 40-hour workweek at its peak. With more than 10,000 followers on her account dedicated to K-pop group Day6, she’s swimming with the sharks.
“It’s a sense of belonging,” Paul said. “Shoot, we talk about normal things you would in any clique. And people want to be a part of that — it’s your escape from reality.”
To some, stan culture is a natural evolution of celebrity idolization. To others, it represents the deprivation wrought by social media.
Thea Strand, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Loyola, said while celebrity culture isn’t a new phenomenon, the parasocial relationships formed within social media contribute to a heightened reality.
“If you go back a generation or two and you think about what young people were doing and engaging with celebrities, you would read interviews or maybe watch them on TV — if you heard them talk directly at all, and not just as a character or persona,” Strand said.
“Social media gives them that direct platform to talk to fans and gives fans that direct line of communication back.”
Paul described Stan Twitter as a series of “you had to be there” moments with a language divergent from spoken English. There’s “uwu,” “=w=” — a cat with whiskers — “so true bestie,” “naur” — originating from the Australian way to say “no” — and more stan vernacular.
While youth lingo tends to leave 86-year-olds scratching their heads, the lexicon of a stan would seem foreign even with less digitally-versed members of Gen Z.
‘We’re Literally the Archives’
A Loyola senior — who asked to be referred to as R.L. due to fear of judgment and wanting to keep her account a “guilty pleasure” — said she has engaged with the movie and book sides of Twitter for the last few years.
Her account’s theme changes with her interests, focusing not on being ride-or-die with a certain actor but morphing with her passions. It once revolved around “Game of Thrones” but right now, it’s all about “Star Wars” — namely, lead actor Adam Driver.
Contrasting Paul’s massive following, R.L. spends her days within a quieter community, captivating just a few hundred followers. She sees her engagement as more of a pastime, racking up roughly an hour a day on social media.
R.L. has devoted much of her time to interacting with aspiring authors, reading stories — both fan fiction and original works — while providing feedback.
“Most of us are nerds,” she said. “We’re literally the archives. If you want to know anything super specific about this character or this movie, we’re the best ones to talk to because we’ve probably gone down a deep rabbit hole of this stuff before.”
She recalled following an author writing an Adam Driver fan fiction story. After posting chapters weekly, the author, Ali Hazelwood, pulled the work and remodeled it into a novel — now a New York Times bestseller, “The Love Hypothesis.” The first name of Adam is the same, but the rest has been reformatted from its niche origins to the mainstream.
From interacting with her as “mutuals” — people who follow each other back on Twitter — to seeing an empty spot for Hazelwood’s book with a “sold out” placard at the train station, R.L. described it as a unique experience of the digital realm.
The phenomenon of knowing hundreds, thousands, even millions of people through online means, while knowing none in true life, has blossomed with the rise of social media.
Strand described groups of people who come together around a shared community as “communities of practice.” While these groups typically existed in secular spaces, the expansion of digital access and lack of virtual boundaries has blown up this concept, she said.
‘It’s Power That I Don’t Want to Have’
Paul’s time as a My Day — a stan of Day6 — isn’t a secret, but she said she doesn’t advertise her devotion to the community to her family or friends. Due to a fear of not only judgment, but doxxing, she keeps her account handle to herself, and shares no personal details to her followers.
She essentially lives a “Hannah Montana” double life, maintaining a massive Twitter following online while blending in with the “locals” — a term for non-stans coined within the community — on the daily.
Yet as far as actually calling others “locals,” Paul said, “that’s where the toxicity starts.”
“If you see a post that says ‘locals,’ you stay away from it unless you want to cause drama,” she said.
As an elder stan — given the community’s proclivity for a younger crowd — her influence runs rampant. Aware of the “big sister” role she possesses, Paul said she maintains a positive image, attempting to guide her followers away from the toxicity.
“I try to not do much with it at all because of the influence,” Paul said. “Because anyone could just have a power trip. You see big celebrities and stuff, and they can tweet anything and then people will be like, ‘Yeah, I’m with you.’ I just get nervous, it’s too much. It’s power that I don’t want to have.”
Beneath the bright waters of fan cams and supportive Twitter trends lies a cult of personality. K-pop “idols” — how pop stars are referred to in the industry — are forced into a well-oiled machine of puritanically perceived perfection, Paul said. Stan Twitter adopts those values in return, she said.
Although she attempts to steer her followers in positive, healthy directions, Paul said the puritanical values indoctrinated within stans “messes you up.”
The Downfalls of Devotion
R.L. described immature stans without apt life experience as the bad apples who create the negative perception the general public often has of stan communities.
“When people see Stan Twitter and they s— on it, it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s a select, very small group of people that’s making the drama, making all the controversy,’” R.L. said.
R.L. has found a solution to handling minors on the app — she blocks them.
Paul said the problem goes deeper. To her, the community’s toxicity traces back to its core.
“What a lot of people think that they get wrong is that they’re actually right,” Paul contrasted.
While R.L. weeds out minors from following her page, she said she does her best to protect them from ill-intentioned adults.
R.L. said some accounts exist solely to prey on vulnerable, naive fans — accounts she regularly reports, but she said it doesn’t usually lead to the accounts being removed. She often reaches out to mutual acquaintances to report suspicious accounts in an attempt to keep the community safe.
Paul said she’s become disillusioned by the community since the dawn of the pandemic, claiming it’s taken a turn for the worse. Although she’s struggling to escape the grind, Paul’s working on cutting down, currently averaging 15 hours a week on Twitter.
“I’m 22, I’m getting too old from this,” she laughed.
Both she and R.L. said stan communities have severe issues of racism, both with defending their icons and even when it comes to in-fighting other stans, that they would like to see addressed.
Members of stan Twitter often develop a hyper-loyal devotion to their icon. When Nicki Minaj lambasted the Met Gala’s vaccine requirement on Twitter and spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines causing male testicles to grow abnormally, the backlash from the general public was severe.
Even more severe was the whiplash in her own fandom, the Barbz. A community often associated with left-leaning politics suddenly were attacking CNN’s Don Lemon and retweeting Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson. Anti-vaccine protesters flew flags with Minaj on them. Right-wing talking head Candace Owens celebrated Minaj for “speaking truth.”
In the face of cult-like fandom, R.L. has a different approach. Driven by the fact she “doesn’t know them personally” — although she’d love to know Chris Evans in person, she said — R.L. keeps her stanning at the surface level.
“My loyalty lies with common sense,” she said. “If you’re getting super invested like that, are you really enjoying it?”