Among a random selection of 10 comments on a recent Taylor Swift Instagram post, two are collections of heart emojis, three declare their love, with variations in spelling and length (‘Lolololoveeeeee’), one announces that ‘I drew Taylor!!’ and another disturbingly and impenetrably explains that it is ‘so good to be sweet’. One girl tells Taylor ‘You should’ve invited me @taylorswift’ to the perfectly lit scene. It’s safe to assume that Taylor does not know these people.
These declarations are striking because they are so intimate, yet entirely public. And the intended audience will likely never see them, let alone respond. If we tell someone we love them while making eye contact, or tell someone we drew them while making eye contact, we will be taken seriously. To tell a stranger these things would generally mark us as insane or dangerous or both. It does not follow that these commenters are insane or dangerous, but it is worthwhile asking what they want.
A quick dive into a particular sort of celebrity’s Twitter mentions (say, those of Ariana Grande, One Direction’s Niall, or Kylie Jenner) surfaces countless adoring accounts, often with an avatar of that celebrity’s portrait, a bio asserting devotion and, sometimes, inscribed with the confidence of a tattoo, the dates on which their idol replied to or (gasp!) followed them.
On social media friends and the famous surround us on an equal plane. We see videos and images of both singing along at concerts, teasing siblings, sharing baby photos and, in the icons, we recognise ourselves. If I can understand Nicki Minaj, surely she would understand me. Or we see the sprawling Calabasas mansions and upholstered interiors of private jets and identify our own outsized ambitions. But the recognition is not mutual. If devoting yourself to a celebrity’s online presence is insane, it is because of the relationship’s asymmetry.
This celebrity rapture is not unique to our age (groupies have been sending fan mail and descending into hysteria at concerts for some time), and this online zealotry is not new – in 2010, it was reported that 3 per cent of Twitter’s server infrastructure was dedicated to Justin Bieber. But as we have increasingly assimilated the internet into our lives, comments and replies have become the primary space for this devout performance.
These avowals are not exclusive to world-crushing pop stars and reality TV princesses. When Gillian Jacobs or Alison Brie of Community fame (a surreal sitcom that had perpetually low ratings and a perpetually rabid fan-base) post a portrait or selfie they are inundated with praise. Recently, Jacobs posted a shot that prompted a guy called Sander to explain, ‘I love you for the acting you have done, but you look good too.’ Victor responded to the same tweet with this dizzily punctuated pickup line: ‘Your eyes are so incredible, God when he reached into his basket of eye balls, gave you his best one of a kind eye balls!’ [sic, obviously]
It seems that Victor and Sander think Gillian, seeing their prose, will want to know them. They do not grasp that because the recipient knows nothing of them aside from these bewildering tweets, they come across as maniacs. What fans crave most is to be individually acknowledged, so the rhetoric of desire accelerates in prayerful competition, heightening in the hope of transcending the constant buzz of worship.
Yes, a fair number of these messages are sexist and creepy. But many are sent by apparently well-meaning, genuine fans, reaching out to heroes, hoping to be noticed. It is easy to dismiss or condemn this performed fervor as trivial or deluded, but those accumulating in enormous worshipful groups are also seeking community.
To use a term coined by Lauren Berlant, the social media space in which these commenters participate is perhaps a type of ‘intimate public sphere’. According to Berlant, intimate publics, as she calls them,
provide the feeling of immediacy and solidarity by establishing in the public sphere an affective register of belonging to inhabit when there are few adequate normative institutions to fall back on, rest in, or return to.
The allure of the famous on social media has to do with a passionate sense of belonging that may not be available elsewhere. The fans and their deities provide a kind of home for one another. But these fan communities generate a paradox. The Kardashians, for instance, are interesting because they are the objects of such widespread adulation, yet the size of the community makes meaningful contact with an object of adulation impossible.
Any reply is merely one among thousands. In January, Dutch footballer Demy de Zeeuw, who boasts 8 million Instagram followers, posted a video showing notifications cascading down his lock-screen like a waterfall.
So if what passes between a fan and their idol can be classified as a relationship, what is the form of exchange? What do these social media behemoths offer the most dedicated? If I tell Kim Kardashian that she is a Queen and that I love her, what is my best-case scenario?
Counterintuitively, the point might be that the desire will always go unfulfilled. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, in his book Going Sane, writes:
the sane have a sense that anything they want is either going to frustrate them because it isn’t quite what they really want; or it is going to horrify them because it is more nearly what they want, and so they will be unable to enjoy it. The sane, in other words, are ironic rather than fanatical in their pleasure-seeking.
What does sanity look like online? We never get what we want but, on social media, we can’t expect to. Even if Kim responds she won’t reciprocate my feeling. So the desire will never be extinguished. If this process can be reduced to one emotion, it is tantalisation. Justin Bieber will not sleep with me but conversely he will not reject me. What might happen in between?
Thinking about the hordes who straightforwardly declare their love for those they’ve never met tells us something about what it means to be a modern person. Today’s preferred methods of communication tend to mitigate the risk of outright rejection. A Facebook post points to no-one in particular and so cannot be rebuffed as direct address can. Politicians who use Twitter successfully, like Donald Trump, exploit this ambiguity. Trump’s campaign is a polemic of feeling rather than argument, and the brevity of Twitter matches the medium to the message. It offers the drama of speech and the intimacy of conversation without the accountability of either.
These new forms of exchange occur on our phone – the whole world in our pocket, along with our partner, boss, dentist, mother – adding felt drama to the everyday. It is not that privacy no longer exists, but that the words ‘private’ and ‘public’ no longer mean what they once did, and our language and thinking are yet to catch up.
As Phillips suggests, there is no irony among the fanatical. Whatever else they are, these fandoms may be 2016’s greatest source of sincerity (they may make us question sincerity’s value). And some comforts pursued here aren’t so different from those sought in any relationship: the need for recognition, an affirmation of the self, the desire to be influenced and be an influence.
Of course there is a thrill in the prospect that Taylor Swift, living her implausibly glamorous life, might scroll and glimpse my avatar, that my name or tribute to her might enter her world. Longing can be at once pathetic and lovely. We are all sustained by the place where we wish to belong and what is yet to happen there. Just don’t be creepy.