In stan culture, the anonymity on social media collide with celebrity worship, spawning a toxic environment that rewards obsessive and violent behaviour.
“Halsey Is Very Sorry for Accidentally Calling for Another 9/11” is a headline that I never would have imagined reading in 2020. In yet another entry in the Celebrities Can’t Take Criticism canon, the pop star tweeted in late January, “can the basement that they run p*tchfork out of just collapse already.”
Pitchfork is based at One World Trade Center. Yikes.
Given Halsey’s reaction, you would think that they absolutely panned her new record, Manic. On the contrary, critic Rawiya Kameir, former deputy editor of the FADER and current contributing editor for Pitchfork, rated it a 6.5 out of 10. “Some of the album’s most compelling moments are overpowered by the tedium of modern pop,” she writes a completely measured and valid criticism. Halsey was likely reacting to the overtly provocative caption in Pitchfork’s tweet sharing Kameir’s review, but the review itself is nowhere as insulting or negative as Twitter made it out to be.
I’m not gonna lie, on a surface level, this story is as hilarious as it is absurd. To Halsey’s credit, she quickly apologized and deleted the tweet when she realized her mistake. She was being hyperbolic, shitposting melodramatically on Twitter to vent like any reasonable person. However, her initial comment is concerning when examined within the larger context of pop stars and their stans taking things too far on social media. I don’t fault her for venting, but I can’t help but notice the pattern of reactive toxicity that’s become a signature within online fandoms over the last decade, especially due to the rise of stan culture.
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To be clear, I think fandoms are wonderful and necessary. Beautiful things happen when we bond with other people over our shared love and appreciation for art. In some cases, we can even find a sense of community and belonging that we lack in our daily lives. The problem is when aggressive stan behaviour poisons the sanctuary of fandom, encouraging the performance of an outrageous persona rather than uplifting an artist and celebrating their work.
While online fandoms have existed since the birth of the Internet, stan culture as we know it first began primarily on Tumblr. Before Halsey herself became the pop star that she is today, she was mostly known for her Tumblr presence in the early 2010s. She was an active part of the One Direction fandom with nearly 10,000 followers on her now-private account, gaining notoriety after her parody cover of Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” went viral. Tumblr’s focus on visual media, like GIFs, fan art, and videos, made it the ideal platform for fandoms to thrive — personally, I met some of my favourite people today simply by creating and reblogging Lady Gaga and Britney Spears content.
Having grown up in predominantly cishet and white settings, I’d always felt like an outsider in my real-life communities. At the time, there wasn’t anyone in my life that shared my passion for pop culture the way my mutuals on Tumblr did. Connecting with them alleviated some of that loneliness and helped me feel more comfortable being myself. But as Instagram and Twitter both took off, and especially once celebrities started using social media to interact with fans, stans began migrating to those platforms in the hopes of their fave noticing them.
This is where things began going downhill. Especially in the case of Twitter, social media has always incentivized exaggeration and hyperbole, its algorithms favoring outrageous content in the interest of driving clicks and views. It’s therefore completely normal amongst stans for them to comment “choke me mom” or “hit me with a truck” while vying for the attention of their idols. No wonder Halsey, former Tumblr fangirl, accidentally wished for the collapse of One Trade Center in response to what she perceived as a negative review of her album. That kind of hyperbole is simply part of her language.
The popularity contest of social media often brings out the worst in people. Stans will do anything, no matter how degrading or invasive, to gain notoriety within their fandom or ensure their fave is perceived as superior. At a meet-and-greet last fall, a stan had Charli XCX sign a literal douche, while another had her pose with his late mother’s ashes. I remember in 2014, stans found Lana Del Rey’s apartment in New York City, and waited outside her door for days to take selfies with her (a surefire way to be recognized within the fandom). She eventually relocated to Malibu, California, where two fans were later arrested for camping out in her garage.
Being a fan is one thing, but stans take their passion to a more dangerous level in a way that often crosses boundaries. As writer Haaniyah Angus points out, stan culture encourages a parasocial relationship where extreme behaviour like harassment has become increasingly normalized and can even be treated as a sport. For stans, their identity and self-esteem are directly tied to the success of their idol. Celebrities themselves benefit from having a rabidly passionate fanbase, often weaponizing their stans against critics and detractors to placate their own ego while boosting their sales. It’s a co-dependent, ego-driven cycle that will only cause more harm if left unchecked.
In stan culture, the anonymity and lack of regulations on social media collide with celebrity worship, spawning a toxic environment that rewards obsessive and violent behaviour. The misplaced and normalized aggression and the constant popularity contest have given rise to a poisonous subculture of fandom where violence is acceptable if it’s done in the name of a celebrity you love. It’s tragic that what used to be a safe haven for so many has turned into something utterly alarming and sometimes traumatizing. I can only hope that something changes this in the next decade.
Roslyn Talusan is a Canadian freelance culture writer and anti-rape activist. Represented by The Bent Agency, she’s working on a memoir documenting her experience with workplace sexual violence. Her writing aims to critique media and dismantle societal beliefs that uphold rape culture. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.