Numlock Sunday: Kaitlyn Tiffany on how fangirls forged the internet
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Kaitlyn Tiffany, the author of the new book Everything I Need I Get From You, out this week.
The book is a deep dive into the nature of fandom, and how fangirls have been instrumental in the design, growth and evolution of the internet and social media. It’s a great look that combines digital culture and pop culture.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You are the author of the brand new book Everything I Need I Get From You. It is all about the intersection of fandom and internet culture, and how they each feed one another. What got you interested in this topic?
I was part of fandom myself, which is very obvious in the book and not a secret. I spent a lot of time on Tumblr when I was 19 and 20 and 21. Then I moved to New York to start working in journalism, and I started working at a tech website that was getting into internet culture coverage. It was sort of the only thing I felt I could contribute; I didn't know anything about tech, and as soon as they were talking about expanding their cultural coverage, I was like, "well, I can do Tumblr, that's tech, right?" That was how I started reporting on fandom professionally.
Later on, I knew that I wanted to do a book about fandom because there was a lot of academic work about fandom already, but there hadn't really been, I felt, a satisfying, non-academic popular press explanation of how fandom and internet culture were intertwined. It just made sense to do it through the lens of One Direction, because that was where my personal experience was, and it's really hard to parachute into a fandom that you aren't a part of at the length and level of detail that I wanted to do.
I love that you took it from the point of One Direction because I feel like boy bands have this habit of really dominating an entire conversation on fandom for a while. You can almost follow different eras with them, and the era where One Direction was phenomenally popular was a super transformational one for the internet as a whole. Do you want to kind of talk about One Direction, their run, and their role in the internet's fandom history?
One of the academics I talked to for the book, Allison McCracken, I actually asked her, "When did fandom start on Tumblr? How did Tumblr become the fandom platform?" And she said it's three things that happened all the same time: Harry Potter, Glee and One Direction. Those three fandoms were huge in the early days of Tumblr, and I think really Glee and One Direction in particular, really solidified the visual culture of fandom, the tradition of making really elaborate gif sets and also of shipping. Shipping was huge. Anybody who doesn't know what that is, it's fan fiction, imaginative relationship pairings between characters.
I want to get into that a little bit later, too, cause that's a huge part of this, but yeah, go on.
Totally. That was huge with Glee fandom and it was also big with One Direction fandom. Numerous famous pairings in One Direction fandom. Then with Twitter, I think One Direction just kind of coincidentally came along at the same moment when teenagers and younger than teenagers were joining Twitter. Those were really the first big years of Twitter having a youth culture. I think it was the combination of those two things, and then also sort of an underlooked part of the One Direction history, I think, is how much the YouTube algorithm was driving people to One Direction. I heard that from so many people that I interviewed who started out as just watching whatever pop music videos, and getting recommended the One Direction videos.
Then, crucially with One Direction, there was just so much content that it was really easy to fall down a rabbit hole, if you will. Once you got done watching all their music videos, with another pop star, you'd be like, "Oh, well that was fun, but there's nothing else to look at right now. I guess I'll have to wait." But One Direction was constantly putting out behind-the-scenes stuff on YouTube in a way that was on a much quicker pace, I think, than other pop stars were up to that point.
Part of their allure was that they were just really rambunctious and irreverent to the idea of marketing, and it felt really immediate and genuine and authentic, which was something people really craved, the ability to connect directly or feel like they were connecting directly with celebrities at that time.
The book is just so phenomenal. I thought it was really interesting because one of the bigger ideas now is parasocial relationships where fans feel that they have a specific relationship to an artist of various different degrees of fame. It felt like they were just some of the first folks to really monetize that and capitalize on that and really engage with their fans to almost encourage that at times, at least at the pop star level.
I think it's hard to know, too, how much of that was actually deliberate and how much of that was just the fact that they were also teenagers and also just kind of wanted to be on Twitter and on social media. I think it was genuinely fun for them — maybe not for their whole career, I think there's definitely a point where it became less fun for them — but at the beginning I think they were just so shocked to be famous that they were like, yeah, let's record to front-facing camera video diaries all the time. Why not? And respond to people's tweets. And tweet about what kind of cereal we're eating for breakfast and whatever. Why wouldn't we? Everyone loves it.
I loved how you really tie the development and the creation of internet culture to dominant musical acts at the time. I love the part that you wrote about the Grateful Dead and the early, early internet. Do you want to talk a little bit about the old days so to speak and what role music played in forming how internet subcultures form?
Obviously that part of the book was not from firsthand experience, it was from historical research because that was before I was allowed to use the internet or even knew what the internet was. I actually have the book right behind me, The Virtual Community, which is the history of the WELL, which is really fascinating and talks a lot about Grateful Dead fans in the early forums, the kind where you had to pay to use them because they had to pay for server space. The most enthusiastic participants in these early forums in California were Grateful Dead fans. One of the early operators of the WELL even said, "I think that they were kind of single-handedly keeping us afloat, keeping us in the black."
I thought that was really interesting. Grateful Dead fans were huge in early online bulletin board culture and when I was doing the research for the book, it was really remarkable to see just how every step of the way, each time some new platform or some new use of the internet was created, the first people to really eagerly use it would be fans and often music fans in particular. I don't know exactly why that is, but it was pretty consistent. There was Nancy Baym, who is a researcher, an academic, and has a really great book called Playing To The Crowd that has a lot of that history in it, and I cite quite a bit in the book.
I just like how the very structure of the internet at times is like you just mentioned, informed directly by the music nerds and obsessed fans that immediately rush to it and really bear out its potential.
And platforms will create or kind of take shape around fandom and ultimately end up creating features or having to respond to fandom like Twitter. It's funny to go back and kind of read the news coverage of how Twitter was dealing with fans in its early years in 2009, 2010, because they were completely baffled by its energy.
There's an odd tension there, because these are extremely enthusiastic and frequent users of their product. But they're also people who tend to be kind of breaking the rules or breaking the features. They're trying to game the trending topics. They're circulating content to which they do not own copyright. They are sometimes harassing people. I feel like Twitter was caught on its heels and had to really figure out how do we keep fans on the platform, but also make sure that it doesn't become completely unusable for anybody who doesn't want to participate in fandom.
It definitely gets things very real for platforms very quickly. You can tell even with BTS and Army, and there was an early story with Twitter that Justin Bieber, an apocryphal story I should say, was responsible for 3 percent of their traffic for a good while there. It's just so interesting that fandom is so intense that even servers have trouble with it sometimes.
Yeah, totally. I think the Justin Bieber story was funny to me because journalists who were writing about it kept saying there are specific servers in Twitter headquarters for Justin Bieber tweets. And I was like, how would that work?
There's just one server that's got the song “Baby” on it. It's in charge of playing that for anybody who listens.
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
I do want to talk a little bit about how you mentioned that they played trending topics, they played the algorithm. You had some amazing stuff in there about how One Direction fans attempted to play the Billboard charts and attempted to do whatever was necessary to do that.
Obviously Numlock is a newsletter that loves data and the stories that inform it. I love that part where it was all about the lengths that a fandom will go to to specifically exploit algorithms designed to rank what music is popular at the time. Can you talk about that?
That was based on reporting that I did when I was at The Verge and I was just scrolling through my Tumblr feed being like, I’ve got to find something to write about. I came across fans who were posting about gifting iTunes singles, which was something that was really interesting to me.
The purposes of it were several, but it was whenever there's a new One Direction song coming out — or at the time I think it was Harry Styles' first solo single — in order to boost the sales in hopes of getting him better chart performance, and also in order to engage in a spirit of community, people would sign up to gift the iTunes single to someone else because you can only buy it once yourself, but you can gift it and that also counts as a sale.
But you can only gift to people who live in your country. So they made this elaborate system for pairing people up in a spreadsheet. Oh we got 30 people willing to give away iTunes singles in Brazil, do we have 30 people who will accept the gift? All of that stuff. That was very elaborate. I was really intrigued by that.
Then once I was asking people about that, they started to tell me about the other things they were doing to boost the single, which I just thought were so interesting. There are the kind of obvious ones of getting everybody in the fandom to just blast radio requests on Twitter and whatever, or Shazam the song over and over so that's recommended in Shazam.
Then the really interesting one was that in order to boost the song's positioning on American Billboard charts, people who did not live in the US would download VPNs and basically fake their Spotify streams so they would appear to be American Spotify streams. I think a couple of other reporters asked Spotify and Apple Music and other streaming platforms about their awareness of that kind of behavior. They definitely did not give straight answers on whether that would work. The Billboard charts similarly were kind of vague about how they determine inauthentic activity. I thought that was a fun story. I mean, obviously the number of fans who were participating was not high enough to really make a difference.
Also just the basic math of how many times a person would even be able to stream the song in a day, it just didn't add up to the point where you were going to really make a dent, but it was really just funny and fun to see people trying. I thought it was really interesting that that became kind of a ritual of waiting for a single to come out, preparing to put this giant machine in action.
In the final edits of the book when it was read by a lawyer at FSG, she asked me to rephrase that section a little bit, because it read too much like an instruction manual on how to do those things. And I was like, "I don't know if these things are illegal, but okay."
For those who are interested, the book is called The Anarchist Cookbook For Fans.
How to Blow Up A Spotify Code.
Again, it's a really incredible book, folks should check it out. I would like to read my favorite two sentences from it.
One Direction fans' relationship with the entertainment industry is adversarial, but mostly because they think they could run it better. Literally. In 2015, there were two separate fan efforts to buy One Direction out of their record label contract.
What on earth is happening there?
Yeah, I can't say that I was personally involved in that effort, but I think that's part of the fun thing about fandom, that there are things that people walk around their daily lives accepting as impossible and unrealistic. And then fans are so on the very edge between reality and fantasy that it would occur to them, well, there are millions of us, logically, and if each of us gave a few dollars, we would have many, many millions of dollars, and we could just intercede in One Direction's career. I mean, I don't have any understanding of how their contract works and I'm sure that these fans didn't either, but you can see how they got there.
That's incredible. I love how you talk about some of the mechanics of fandom. You talk about how they grow fandom and how some of the platforms can encourage fandom.
I also just really like how you really dive into some of the nature of obsession. We talk about conspiracy theories in fandom a lot, but in this specific case, there were a ton circling around this. It's not the first time. We're all familiar with Paul is Dead of the Beatles and whatnot, but why do you think fandom lends itself so inextricably to conspiracy theories and things like that?
I think part of it is that if you are paying such close attention to something over such an extended period of time, you're going to start to notice things that seem to be important or seem to be overlooked, and pull them out. Especially in internet fandom, and especially on Tumblr, there is sort of an incentive to be the one to notice something that other fans didn't notice yet. You saw that a lot in the conspiracy theories around One Direction, which just to clarify, started with this theory that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, two members of the band, were secretly gay and secretly in love and secretly being forcibly closeted by their management. When it started out, a lot of people were really into it and it was fun and totally harmless.
Then later it took a little bit of a darker turn, just because of the extent that people went to defend it, which involved a lot of misogynistic vitriol around the women that either one of them were dating at the time. Most darkly when Louis Tomlinson became a father, a lot of fans became convinced at first that the baby was a doll, and then later that it was either a hired actor or the child of the stepfather of the woman who Tomlinson had been dating and who was his co-parent. That obviously was over a line for some people. It didn't feel over a line for others. Once you cross that line, you can go down some interesting routes.
But to return to the question of why fandom lends itself to that, I think fandom is also in opposition to mainstream media a lot of the time. The Larry Stylinson community was very defensive about any kind of media attention and with internet fandom in particular and with One Direction even more so. There is just so much to look at and to wade through and so much evidence and proof that you can find.
This is something people bring up when they talk about all kinds of internet conspiracy theorizing, including QAnon or whatever else. Not that I think that there are really a lot of powerful similarities between Larry Stylinson and QAnon, but part of why people get involved in that is because it feels like anybody can participate. Anybody can find something. Anybody could be the one to have an important discovery and kind of get clout within the community. I think that's part of it, and, yeah, I mean maybe fandom also does tend to attract people who are missing some other forms of affirmation or stimulation in their life and they can dedicate a lot of time to thinking about that stuff.
Even the title of the book, Everything I Need I Get From You, is a fairly direct articulation.
I also want to talk a little bit about getting to the more innocuous side of some of that. The fan fiction component just really can't be ignored. Fan fiction obviously has a fairly long history, particularly obviously about fictional characters. It seems unique that particularly with One Direction, this was a situation where people and fans were writing fan fiction about actual human beings, to an extent that also now exists in other fandoms, but this felt like a kind of significant change in what fan fiction had been. Can you expand a little bit on that?
Yeah. Real person fan fiction, or RPF, has always been a part of fandom, but it was a much more secretive part of fandom for a long time. There was a pretty powerful taboo against it, I would say, because a lot of fans were sort of rightfully concerned that outside eyes looking in on fandom are going to judge whatever they're doing as unhealthy and pathological. That writing about real people would attract a lot of negative attention.
There was real person fan fiction, notably in the Beatles fandom, but a lot of that was disseminated only via letters. Later, real person fan fiction would've been disseminated mostly in private email list servs. It was pretty uncommon for it to just be published for broad consumption, especially in the early aughts, because platforms like fanfiction.net and then later LiveJournal put a lot of content moderation guidelines and limitations on that kind of writing and prohibited some of it.
Part of the reason that One Direction was a turning point for real person fic was just that Tumblr was a turning point for real person fic. That was where a lot of fans went when they left other fan fiction writing platforms because of the limitations. They all arrived on Tumblr, and that's another reason why it became the fandom platform. I think that's another reason why the Larry Stylinson story is kind of sad, because people who were writing about Larry Stylinson in their fiction, I think a lot of them kind of felt you guys have ruined this by turning it into a conspiracy theory that embarrasses the whole fandom and makes it look like what we're doing is the same thing as what you're doing.
It has also gone somewhat mainstream, in as much as fan fiction can be mainstream. Dream SMP, that's fairly large and it's about real people. If you looked at the AO3 top fan works from last year, you do see BTS show up on that, and those are real actual human beings. I don't know, it just seemed like it's gone rather mainstream, even if it was fairly taboo at one point.
Yeah, totally. I, for a while, was following a lot of shipping blogs for women from the US Women's National Team soccer players. And that was really interesting to see. I didn't realize that people did RPF slash fic about sports stars.
Just kind of backing out a little bit, what's something that you really learned about fandom that you didn't know going into reporting out the book?
It was just really fun and interesting to talk to fans about what they got out of fandom. I found it really striking just how interesting and different they all were. Not that that was surprising in itself, but it was surprising how easy it was to get there. Part of what I talk about in the beginning of the book is this trope or this image that people have of a screaming fangirl, and that image is obviously based in reality. People do go to the concerts and scream.
But it was really interesting to me and exciting that you can approach someone who ostensibly is that and ask them one question and they will tell you so many interesting things about like, what fandom means to them, their positive and negative experiences, how their relationship to fandom has changed as they've gotten older. And all that was super interesting. That part was really fun to hear about girls who, like me, cared about this thing a lot eight, nine years ago, but still are thinking through their relationship to it now as adults.
What would you say your relationship is to it now?
I mean, it's definitely different than it was when I was on Tumblr all the time. One Direction doesn't exist anymore, so it's different for that reason, too. But I still get really excited about whatever Harry Styles is doing, whatever Niall Horan is doing. He's actually my favorite member of One Direction. That's a way of kind of breaking up monotony of being an adult, or I guess, just a way of thinking about how my own identity has changed. I mean, I was working on the book during the pandemic, so I did a lot of just sitting in my apartment, kind of reliving being 19 and being on the internet all the time, looking at One Direction.
That definitely got a little weird at times, but it was also really fun.
That's amazing. The book is really fun. I enjoyed every word of it. It's called Everything I Need I Get From You. Kaitlyn, where can folks find you and where can folks find the book?
I'm on Twitter @kait_tiffany. I'm also on The Atlantic under my author page, and the book you can find pretty much anywhere I think. I mean, I usually share the bookshop.org link because I think they're cool. And I have not used Amazon in five years. So don't use Amazon. Don't tell Amazon I said that.
Or if you want maybe access it through a VPN and then just stream it constantly to get it up the charts.
Yeah, exactly. That'd be great.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.