Has Stan Culture Gone Too Far?

by NEW YORK DIGITAL NEWS


Last month, in the heat of the Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion beef, TMZ reported that the cemetery where Megan’s mother Holly Thomas is buried had to bolster security after the location was doxxed on social media by one of Nicki’s fans, collectively known as “Barbz.” Nicki had nothing to do with the threat, but the brazenness was nonetheless regarded as a low point for stan culture and led many to ponder if that depth of celebrity stan-dom was a mental illness in itself. 

Stan culture is a matter of obsessive fandom: fans crying over Playboi Carti snippets, streaming Nicki’s songs to the top of the charts as they sleep, and compulsively purchasing whatever Ye or Travis Scott put up for sale. But the rise of social media has also given music fans a digital battlefield to defend their favorite artists. People who criticize many of today’s biggest acts run the risk of being doxxed and harassed, displaying behavior that can’t simply be attributed to the quality of someone’s music. 

Stan culture, the pop culture manifestation of parasocial behavior, isn’t new. Eminem’s “Stan,” about a homicidally obsessive fan came out in 2000. But, notably, Eminem didn’t mention the internet once in the song. Live streaming has given fans more access than ever to artists who routinely go on sites like Instagram Live and Twitch to engage their fans. Artists like Tee Grizzley have GTA servers where they run amok of the GTA universe with their supporters. Artists like Kenny Beats and former Brockhampton member Don Mclennon run Discord servers where they interact with fans and share music-making insights. These kinds of interactions bolster an artist from a poster on a fan’s wall to someone they could conceivably interact with, strengthening the parasocial bond. 

That dynamic also occurs on X, where Nicki Minaj’s Barbz celebrate having their tweets liked and quote-tweeted by the Queens rapper. That’s especially true in the heat of discourse surrounding Megan’s ”Hiss” and Nicki’s “Big Foot” records, where her most ardent supporters vied to prove that they’re wartime stans. These frenzied interactions have become so prevalent that some stans might become public figures in their own right in the upcoming documentary film Stans, about superfans and appropriately executive produced by Eminem.

Professors Sally Theran and Azadeh Aalai tell Rolling Stone that studies are still being done on the intersection of obsessive fandom, social media, and music. Theran is a Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College and a licensed clinical psychologist. She says that parasocial relationships are one-sided, and take place in the imagination of a fan of a public figure. “You might have imaginary conversations with [your fave] in your head,” she says. “You might imagine what kind of advice they would give. You might imagine what it would be like to have them as a friend.”

Parasocial relationships aren’t inherently bad. In 2009, author and then-Arizona State University professor Jimmy Sanderson released a study of activity on boy band New Kids On The Block’s official website that explored the “relational maintenance” between the group and their fans. The study showed that “audience members shared how NKOTB had shaped their moral character as well as NKOTB had served as a crucial support mechanism for them during difficult experiences they had endured during their lifetime.” Though Donald Glover’s Swarm showcased the horrific downside of a fan obsessing over an artist loosely based on Beyonce, Theran says that Queen B is a similarly positive figure for her fanbase. “She’s so self-actualized. She’s such a powerhouse. She has created everything that she has accomplished,” Theran says. “You can imagine if you’re a 14-year-old if you think about who you want to be and then you start to internalize some of Beyonce’s characteristics, that could be really helpful and powerful.”

Azadeh Aalai is an author, associate psychology professor at Queensborough Community College, and an adjunct psychology professor at NYU. She says that the figures most likely to draw parasocial relationships are adroit at stimulating a sense of connection with fans. Aalai credits Taylor Swift’s intimate lyrics with stirring a “strong and loyal fanbase.” She also notes that the lack of “polish” in Britney Spears’ social media presence “elevates their perception that she’s being very authentic and that creates the sense that they really know her, and that can elevate that emotional attachment that you develop. That’s one of the hallmark properties of developing a larger parasocial relationship.”

The people most susceptible to parasocial relationships are typically younger (and more impressionable), and/or have a dearth of personal relationships. Both professors say that the isolation of COVID-19 quarantine intensified parasocial behavior in ways that researchers are still parsing. “Social media use, and more generally, our use of technology did increase, especially in the beginning phases of the pandemic when people were largely socially distancing and things like that. So that could have kind of heightened this intensity of the connection,” says. Theran adds that, “a lot of people look to public figures for connection if they’re lonely or feel more isolated. It can be really helpful for them to have that kind of imaginary relationship [where] they get some of their needs met. It can’t substitute for a real relationship in person, but it can be, I would think of as supplemental.”

Is the cure to male loneliness obsessive stan-dom? Probably not, but some people are clinging to whatever will get them by in a post-quarantine isolation epidemic. Many people secluded themselves during the COVID-19 quarantine and never re-adjusted to the outside world — and some can’t for health reasons. A recent Atlantic story explored how people are replacing real-life interactions with more screen time. Streamers, Tiktokers, and podcasters aren’t the industry’s rising forces for no reason; they’re benefitting from a generation of people spending an alarming amount of time alone. New York Mayor Eric Adams is attempting to sue social media companies for conceivably “fueling the nationwide youth mental health crisis.” 

So, will there be an official diagnosis to address obsessive fandom in the next DSM, the standard mental illness index used by American mental health professionals? Both professors say that the studies are still too early to say. 

“I could see something along the lines of obsessive-compulsive disorder being in the DSM as a provisional diagnosis, which is kind of where most diagnoses start,” Theran says. “So for example, binge eating disorder is now a diagnosis in the DSM, but before this, it was provisional. I do think there’s a difference between your average person who’s super engaged with a media figure, and then someone else who takes it to extremes. What we look for is a pattern of behavior that’s disruptive or interfering with your quality of life. And for most people with parasocial interactions, it’s not interfering with their life.”

“I don’t anticipate anything like that anytime soon being in the DSM,” Aalai says. “There would have to be a lot of research to justify something like that. To the extent that you would be pathologizing or identifying a specific disorder related to that. I still think that’s going to be more on the fringes in terms of problematic parasocial relationships. I don’t think the parasocial relationship on its own is going to trigger negative things, unless you’re talking about a really, really problematic public figure.”

Theran says that the prevalence of Instagram and Twitter has increased the perception of access to public figures. “It’s very challenging for people to disentangle themselves from their favorite celebrity’s social media, and to recognize that often it’s run by a professional,” she says. “It’s not actually the person that they’re interested in engaging with them.” But, sometimes it is an artist posting on their account, and the interactivity of an Instagram Live or Twitter Q&A has only intensified the parasocial dynamic. 

Aalai says that social media, especially X, created a community for people in parasocial relationships with the same public figures. “The parasocial relationship is between the user and the public figure, but it could further be reinforced or expanded by the larger community that are also fans of that same person,” Aalai says. That’s not always a bad thing; it can be beneficial for people experiencing loneliness to meet like-minded people who are fans of the same artist. And those fans banding together to raise awareness about their faves’ releases is a positive. But when stans are defending the figures they appreciate, they can treat their timelines like digital war zones. 

Nowadays, rap beef isn’t just about artists at odds, it’s about dueling fanbases, which we’ve seen in battles between Nicki and Cardi B, Drake and Kanye, and others that dominate X timeliness and Subreddits. Recently, a Taylor Swift fan declared a “Swiftie Emergency” and urged fellow stans to stream Beyonce’s “Texas Hold Em” to keep supposed Swift nemesis Kanye West from having a Billboard No.1. Kanye had to address the fuss in a since-deleted Instagram post, telling Swifties “I am not your enemy, ummm, I’m not your friend either, though, LOL.”

Aalai says the worst examples of parasocial relationships manifest from fans who have what she calls “underlying vulnerabilities.” On the extreme end, she references former President Donald Trump inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6th, 2021. She also references fans of Kurt Cobain who died by suicide in the same manner as him in 1994. “The majority of Nirvana fans aren’t doing that,” she says. “That’s a very specific segment of his followers that are already emotionally unstable that are going to be compelled to engage in that kind of copycat behavior.”

There are less dire, but still troubling, examples in the entertainment world. The Barbz are infamous for harassing rival artists and doxxing those who criticize the legendary rapper. Last November, she took to her Instagram Story to tell her fans: “Dear Barbz, be sure to never threaten anyone on my behalf, whether on the internet or in person. Whether in jest or not. I don’t [and] never have condoned that.”

Aalai notes that “a lot of times you find that [the problematic behavior is] not necessarily being directly encouraged by the public figure themselves. It could just be fan bases taking it upon themselves to engage in those behaviors, and maybe even to use their fandom as a cover for more problematic or antisocial kind of behaviors.” She says “You could make the argument though that a lot of these kinds of behaviors are being normalized on social media platforms,” citing male fans of artists who harass women accusing their male fave of violence. But, she says, it’s just hard to draw conclusions because I don’t know if we have the research yet to back up those specific anecdotes.”

Both professors agree that parasocial relationships aren’t inherently problematic, and can have benefits depending on who the figure is that’s being idolized. But they slightly differ on how to characterize the extreme fan willing to dox and harass on behalf of their fave. Theran says, “This group of people are pretty much a separate category from people who invest in parasocial relationships.” Aalai says that it’s essentially a corrupted version of parasocial behavior fueled by underlying issues: “I would say the concern about it becoming overly obsessive or problematic would probably also be accompanied by underlying vulnerabilities for mental illnesses and things like that.”

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Parasocial relationships, violent stan-dom, and the attention-seeking nature of social media are amalgamating to make music fandom a minefield. Beef between artists turns into social media pissing contests between fanbases. Anyone levying a legitimate critique of an artist is ripe to be harassed. That’s why Theran says that public figures should be responsible about how they engage and galvanize their stans, citing Taylor Swift telling her fans not to harass her exes. 

“I think having this kind of fandom is incredibly powerful, and it’s up to the individual how they build that power,” she says. “I think history will reflect poorly on those who weaponize it in a destructive way.”



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