This is not a story about the friendships I’ve made through fandom, but rather friendships that don’t exist.
I like to think, were I ever to give a crash course of stan Twitter to the uninitiated, that it might resemble the cafeteria montage that permeates so many great American high school movies.
K-pop Twitter is arguably the most overreaching of the fandoms, bleeding into many sects of normie/local twitter since they tend to appear in any viral thread you can find. It was they who popularized the fancam — which before meant a completely different thing but now is used to refer to any cleverly-edited video montage of a person you might stan.
Then you’ve got the cinephiles, followed by Film Twitter, who would eat the former for breakfast. There’s MCU twt, an abbreviation used to refer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those fans, it would seem, are trapped in a unique kind of purgatory where Avengers discourse and slander of problematic actors is a constant. Then there’s Star Wars twt, heinously deprived of content, and yet somehow going viral every 20 seconds by recycling the same tweet about cinematography in The Last Jedi.
Pop Diva Twitter is split into factions, the major heavy hitters being the Swifties, Barbz, and whatever Ariana stans call themselves. Then there’s DILF twitter — pick any “serious” actor over the age of 35 and they probably stan them — and by “stan” I of course mean “believe without a shadow of a doubt that they will eventually get married and have lots of sex and babies.”
There are so many disparate fandoms, sometimes too many to keep track of — yet all are united by one common thread: the parasocial obsession.
The term “parasocial” is quickly becoming a buzzword in more self-aware tribes on social media. In layman’s terms, it defines a one-sided relationship, typically between a celebrity and their fans.
I, embarrassingly, have been stanning on social media before the very word “stanning” was a fixture in anyone’s vocabulary (unless you want to count Eminem, who unofficially coined the term), but I had never even heard of a parasocial relationship until recently. The first time I did come across it, used in a tweet to derogate the stans of a certain Chilean-American Star Wars actor (if you know, you know), I didn’t think it applied to me. It couldn’t. I am, after all, going to turn [redacted] this year. I am working, slowly but surely, on removing myself from the toxic embrace of standom as a whole. I’m healthy...ish. It’s not like I’m looking up flight schedules to keep tabs on my faves, or bidding on dubious listings of water bottles used by them on eBay.
Though I have, unfortunately, indulged in the odd scenario where I pretend that I know certain famous people in real life. That we’re besties. And for a long time, too.
I want to preface this by saying that I am an only child... as if that would make any of this less weird. I also have a pretty nuclear-powered imagination. Growing up, imaginary friends simply would not cut it for me. I never even entertained the thought of a monster under my bed. Pretending my toys had secret lives and would come alive when I left the room was too far-fetched, as many times as I had seen Toy Story. Plus, how would that benefit me? I needed something that I, as a fledgling narcissist with BIG theatre kid energy, could plop myself right at the center of.
What started with me projecting onto fictional characters (something I’m told a lot of people do and is now called kinning) quickly progressed into uncharted territory when I became old enough to have celebrity crushes my own age. Freddie Highmore (in his Spiderwick Chronicles era, not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or, God forbid, Bates Motel), Logan Lerman, and Ben Barnes (I know there is a pattern here, shut up) were my first victims. Then came my blip of an emo phase — I call it a blip because I only really stanned Paramore... but boy, did I stan. Hayley Williams and I were close enough in age that I could both emulate her and imagine a day where we were best friends living next door to one another in Tennessee. Just saying that out loud makes me cringe, but there we are.
Things kicked into a higher gear when I turned 16 and One Direction blew the hell up and I got my very own computer. Through this fandom, and the introduction of Tumblr, I discovered fanfiction, and realized I could actually create scenarios in which I was the fully-realized girl I wanted to be, kicking it with Harry and Zayn, eating carrots with whoever the fandom thought was obsessed with carrots… and people would read it. I only published one or two (and deleted them all, so don’t bother looking, weirdos), but kept the most personal ones close to the chest. I was just happy that I could nurture the weirdly-pressing need I had to… I don’t know… pretend I was part of that world?
Now before you ask: yes, I did have friends in real life. But it wasn’t until college that I started to really feel like I had the friend group I deserved, friends that didn’t make me feel so crappy (more on that later). I was out spending so much time with them that I almost forgot about the imaginary besties I had created for myself.
I was, to be honest, very close to breaking free of my own personal purgatory and achieving some sense of normalcy before the pandemic. But with lockdown, and the subsequent upload of our lives to the internet, I found myself right back in the thick of it again. With no job, no prospects, and that stimulus money rolling in on a consistent basis, I was free to frolic on Twitter with my oomfs and my moots (terms of endearment for followers and mutuals, respectively). I could catch up on my K-pop groups, keep tabs on all the good Star Wars discourse, finish some top-tier fics (they’re better than most novels I’ve read before you start clowning me) — and, most importantly, dive back into the scenarios I had spent so much time building in my head when I was younger, just with tweaks based on whatever real person I was stanning at the time. And new rules, to keep things from getting too weird:
Any scenario would take place in the future, most likely so I could say I was “manifesting” and not being a total nutcase. Another very important criterion, a rule I never break: every scenario is platonic in nature. Even I have limits.
Armed with this new ethical code, I was free to let my imagination run wild again. I pictured throwing dinner parties with the likes of Riz Ahmed, going shopping with Anya Taylor Joy, making films with Daniel Kaluuya and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. All this was fueled by my transition to film Twitter, where I found so many people who shared the same impulse. But again, this is not about the friends I made through social media (narcissist here, remember?), but my quest to understand whether my behavior is normal, or a habit I should break at my earliest convenience. And to understand that, I had to go back to the person I was when this all started.
But first, let’s pivot to blame the internet for a second. I’m tired of discussing myself.
We notice now how easy it is to cultivate a parasocial relationship online now, don’t we? The gap between celeb personas and their fans has narrowed exponentially over the past decade, with a lot of personalities capitalizing on this in an effort to create more intimacy between fans. This could not be more true than in K-pop, where idols address their fandoms like they would their significant others, and entertainment companies release random selfies of group members with each physical copy of a CD — and encourage fans to collect them all to complete their set. Fans are constantly fed, whether by quarterly comebacks, Real World-style reality shows that follow their favorite groups for months at a time, or the constant barrage of V Lives, selfies, and Instagram updates.
Even without the perks of K-pop stan, social media dissolves the line between bystander and participant anyway. Instagram and Twitter make it far too easy, and more personal, camera roll-esque photos have become readily accessible, to the point where “[Insert celebrity here] as your boyfriend” threads are still clogging up my timeline. It’s the same for YouTubers. Their steady roll-out of day-in-the-life vlogs have deluded entire swaths of stans into thinking they’re actually a part of those people’s lives.
I critique this system like I haven’t enjoyed every bit of it in the very regressive year of 2020. In fact, there are things that I still enjoy, and will continue to even as we return to “real life.” Besides, all the merch, social media, and fanfiction I consume, and all the fantasies I perpetrate, are just a symptom of a larger problem. My dependency on the internet for one, maybe even my lust for fame — but more importantly, my dissatisfaction with myself as a person.
I always felt like I was too much for everybody. A lifetime of suppressing your emotions, bottling up outbursts, and scaring people away with your intensity (even despite your best efforts) will do that. Looking back I know I was toning myself down in my mental scenarios, into someone more chill, more mature, less out-there and emotional. Someone more likeable, someone everyone wanted to be around. A cool girl, perhaps, as overused as that term is becoming.
But even if the me in my head wasn’t such a cool girl, the imaginary besties in my head would never have judged me for it. They were friends I could control, friends who understood me — and yes, I realized, friends who would never rub me the wrong way or push my buttons, who would always reciprocate and empathize with my emotions, who literally could not betray me... because they were programmed not to. And honestly, I don’t know how to solve that problem. It stems, I’m sure, from a whole other tangle of personal issues, emotional baggage, and self-rejection — just repackaged in a delusional “pick me” complex.
I fear I’m always going to have one foot in that world of parasocial interaction. I can attend all the therapy sessions I want, but the way society is built — and, honestly, the way I myself am built — I don’t see true freedom from that in the cards. Fortunately, I have discovered I am one of probably billions of people who experience this!
We all saw the British people wailing in the streets of London over the death of Prince Phillip, right? Parasocial relationship. People in ancient Rome used to collect sweat from Gladiator fights. Really gross, but also parasocial in nature.
Apparently, some parasocial relationships are a way of people showing their appreciation to their personas of choice for getting them through hard times. I think that’s kinda sweet, and it’s equally heart-warming when some personalities acknowledge how their fanbases have uplifted them in turn. I always like to think about the relationship BTS has with their (non-toxic!) group of fans. Some of the members literally cry expressing their love to ARMY, most of whom they’ve never even seen — and honestly, how are we supposed to pretend they’re not our best friends after seeing that?
I look at the relationship I have — if I can even call it that — with the personalities I stan more like the dynamic you might have with a penpal… that might never actually get your letters. You are aware of each other’s existence, and can appreciate each other from a distance — they can even have a really positive influence on your life. But you’ve gotta live with the fact that you may never personally know each other. And that’s okay. Just… don’t start collecting their sweat or anything.