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Election week memes turned the 2020 presidential race into K-pop-style fandom

Joe Biden and a bevy of swing states starred in remixes, fanvids, and edits — or “fancams,” if you prefer.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Because the 2020 election saw an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, what would normally have been one tense night of waiting for the results turned into several days of collective waiting on social media.

And you know what that means: memes.

Thanks to the proliferation of TikTok memes and spinoffs dedicated to the election process throughout last week, the term “fancam,” a word popularized by K-pop fans to describe audience concert footage, is suddenly everywhere — even if most people are using it the wrong way.

The idea of the fancam popped up during the long wait for the results of the 2020 presidential election here in the US, as many people got in on making memes fawning over President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, among other notable figures. And people even dedicated many of their memes to the various “battleground” states that gained prominence in the vote-counting process.

Memes about the election, especially the vote count, popped up on November 3, driven largely by TikTok and Twitter users — many of whom used existing videos to illustrate the general mood of anticipation, in particular the way all eyes were glued to a handful of key swing states like Nevada, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

In fact, if you somehow didn’t already know how the vote counting was going, the tone of many of these fan edits and fanvids would immediately tip you off. (Notice how I didn’t call them fancams? That’s because they’re not fancams. More on fancams in a minute.)

Take, for example, this meme clowning on Nevada:

Going kinda slow there, guys? Nevada in particular received the early share of meme attention because of the state’s early announcement that its vote-counting process could take up to 10 days. Cue the onslaught of memes bemoaning Nevada’s slowness:

Elsewhere, in contentious states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, the call for a count was moving at a more frenzied pace. Memes followed accordingly:

In fact, over the course of the week’s extended vote count, just about every state got a fannish shout-out.

Many of the memes that went viral across social media celebrated the 4 million vote lead in the popular vote for Joe Biden. Left-leaning memesters were celebrating a shift in the swing states from red to blue as the votes came in.

In fact, some people got really elaborate with their metaphors:

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The highlight for me was this delightful meme of US swing states as characters from a Japanese shounen anime series:

Alongside the humorous personification of various states, memes also portrayed characters as avatars like mail-in ballots and “the count” — which was literally portrayed as the Count from Sesame Street:

However, an odd and unexpected quirk arose from the conversation around many of these memes as they spread and gained momentum: The general public began calling most of these memes fancams.

It makes sense that as these videos proliferated on mainstream social media, people latched on to the idea that they were fancams. After all, fancams sound vaguely positive, and these are all positive memes meant to celebrate and commemorate the country’s agonizing but memorable shift from red to blue as votes for Biden slowly filtered in. For people who’ve seen K-pop and other fan videos across their social media feeds, the idea that we could have fancams of states and the electoral process itself undoubtedly made perfect sense.

It wasn’t just people on social media who labeled the videos fancams — CNN did it, too, in an article highlighting the many thirst videos TikTokers were making about political analysts.

But there’s just one problem: None of these things are fancams.

So, now you’re probably wondering:

What’s a fancam?

That’s an excellent question, MSNBC political analyst Jacob Soboroff. It seems not a lot of people know, especially considering that almost none of the replies attempting to explain the meme format to Soboroff actually got their explanations correct — even the ones that attempted to present fancams of Soboroff himself to answer his question:

It’s not really anyone’s fault that the definition of a word as insular as fancam has been misunderstood. The word has its origins within fan culture — specifically K-pop “stan” culture. As K-pop has become more and more mainstream thanks to bands like BTS and Blackpink, more people have come into contact with its terminology and been confused about what it means.

But this is why you’re reading this, right? For enlightenment!

So here we go: A fancam is a video that a fan records at a concert that focuses just on their favorite K-pop idol or celebrity.

As I explained in my guide to K-pop fandom, a fancam is a very specific thing: It “allow[s] fans to follow their favorite idol the whole time during a performance, even if the main cameras are on a different part of the stage. That may not sound like a big deal, but fancams are a huge part of K-pop fan culture.” And they’ve spread to become even broader parts of stan culture outside of K-pop.

So, for example, if I want to watch The Untamed’s Wang Yibo’s recent performance of “Versace on the Floor,” I could watch the official performance — or I could watch this fancam, which is clearly filmed from the audience and features very different angles than all the official camerawork.

A fancam is so named to differentiate the fan’s camerawork from the official camerawork of an event. And some fancams are so good they become nigh legendary within their fandoms — like this fancam of Wang Yibo performing “EOEO,” his band’s signature song.

The misuse of the term during election week is what social media experts call “context collapse” and what we in fandom call “fannish drift”: the watering down of an established term and its previously understood meaning as it travels between different parts of the internet, from one social group to another.

But we already have a bunch of more well-established, generalized, and easy-to-remember terms for, like, every other kind of video on the internet. Geez, guys!

So what am I supposed to call all these other videos?

Tl;dr: You can call these election-week meme videos “edits,” “mashups,” or “remixes.”

But if you want to drill down into the whys and hows, read on.

First, take “mashup” — that’s when you take two or more different sources and combine them into a new thing. For one of the most sublime examples of this, there’s “Mouth Sounds” from Neil Cicierega — that’s the guy who’s spent much of the last two decades intermittently dropping incredible albums of pure remixes gleaned from combining internet culture and pop culture.

Then there’s “remix” — that’s when you take an existing video or song and add new elements to it. So those memes you’re seeing of Trump’s notably hyped spiritual adviser, Paula White? Memes like this one set to Eminem?

You can call each of those remixes: they take an existing video and set it to different music.

Then there are memes that take the remixes and turn those into mashups with other video cuts and footage — like this one of Paula White, courtesy of Ava DuVernay.

There’s no specific label for this kind of meme, but you’ll see it referred to as everything from a remix to an edit.

Finally, we have the “fanvid.” Fanvids of the late aughts and early 2010s, with their highly sophisticated editing, heavily influenced the direction that mainstream movie trailers have taken over the last decade. Check out the incredible syncing on this famous Marvel fanvid:

(Then go watch my three favorite fanvids for fun and profit.)

Fanvids also originate from pre-internet fandom and are still everywhere today. When fanvids hit YouTube, they more frequently became ID’d as “fan films” or “fan trailers.” The term fanvid never really filtered into mainstream internet culture and mainly just gets used by older fans.

Enter newer fans on Twitter, namely stan Twitter. These fans, having none of this history and taking the simplest and most straightforward route, tend to simply call everything edits.

You’ll notice that nearly all of these terms are interchangeable. But fancams? Fancams arguably aren’t interchangeable with these other terms. They’re a specific genre of fan creation, so a fancam isn’t the same thing as any old fan video on the internet, the way many other terms for “video of a thing” might be.

So go ahead and call this video compilation of viral political analyst Steve Kornacki a mashup or a remix or a fanvid or a fan trailer — or you can do what the kids do and just call it an edit.

Don’t be swayed by the insistence that things are fancams when they aren’t. For instance, these video compilations of Joe Biden? These are fanvids or edits, not fancams, despite what they say on the tin:

Same with this Kamala Harris montage — extremely fun, but still not a fancam.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some memes that defy easy labels. For instance: This video of Michelle Kwan filming herself in order to make her own version of the election vote memes may almost be a fancam — but is it still a fancam when you turned the camera on yourself? The jury is still out on that one.

So: Are there any actual fancams making the rounds as election season comes to a close?

Hmm. To fit the criteria, you’d need a video of someone performing on a stage, being filmed by a member of the audience, preferably while singing and dancing.

You know what? We’ll take it.