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One Direction fangirls created the internet as we know it

Why mainstream culture is so quick to dismiss teenage fandoms, and why they shouldn’t.

A group of One Direction fans stands behind a barricade holding up cutouts that represent a number one, a letter D, and a heart. Another sign reads, “Can I lick your eyeball?”
Can she lick your eyeball, though?
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

You’ve seen the images: grainy black-and-white shots of teenagers, mostly girls, crying, screaming, flailing their arms across blockades as police officers try in vain to hold them back. In photos, they look pained, ecstatic, desperate, devoted. The term that came to describe the phenomenon alluded to the irrationality of it all: Beatlemania.

Fifty years later, another British boy band landed in America with a fervor that appeared quite similar: One Direction. In that time, the nature of fandom evolved dramatically thanks to the internet, which enabled people to come together who only shared one thing in common, people to whom it was the most important thing in their lives. Beyond that, though, the fans who populated the internet also played a key role in creating it: the conventions, the language, the mob mindset, the memes.

Macmillan

That’s the subject of Kaitlyn Tiffany’s debut nonfiction book, Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, which acts as an ethnography of stan culture through the lens of a One Direction superfan. Tiffany (who, disclosure, was previously a reporter at Vox) provides nuanced analysis of an often-overlooked force in internet history, one dominated by the kind of young women whom the rest of the world dismissed as little more than brainless teenyboppers. We recently chatted over the phone about the experience of writing the book, fandom’s fraught relationship with capitalism, and what the act of screaming for your fave can do.

“There are no girls on the internet” was a common axiom on 2000s-era message boards, but clearly that is not and was never the case. What were women doing on the early internet, and why were they less visible?

There was obviously a gender gap in the early days of the web, but it started closing much earlier than people think. Around 2000 is when researchers started noticing that women, and especially younger women, weren’t using it in the transactional or goal-oriented ways that men were using it for work or promotion, but as a social tool. The internet was a lot more like the telephone, which became a domestic communication tool. With the rise of social media and interaction-based platforms, women were the early adopters, and particularly fans were the early adopters to basically everything that’s been created.

Why were Tumblr and Twitter in particular so fruitful for fandoms?

People forget about this now, but Tumblr was pretty unprecedented as a visual tool. GIFs that were invented on Tumblr became part of the cornerstone of fandom. It was also a counterpart to public-facing platforms like Facebook, which is not where you’d go to publish your slash fic [fanfiction about same-sex romance] under your real name for your parents and grandparents to see. Tumblr had this very secluded feeling and gave fans a lot of tools that they didn’t have on other websites.

With Twitter, it’s the opposite. It was this vacant space that fans were among the first to, like, homestead. That was where you would do the public-facing part of fandom, your favorite picture of Rihanna and a link to her song so that people will buy it, and so that she’d become the most famous woman in the world, which is what you want, because you love her. Fans were like the first people to really try to game the trending hashtags, kind of like spam networks. They intuitively understood that if we’re all following each other and amplifying each other’s content about Justin Bieber or whatever, we can break the site.

Uniformed police hold back a mob of fans.
Beatlemania in action.
Bettmann Archive

The first chapter, called “Screaming,” delves into the almost religious-like ecstasy that fangirls feel toward their idols, and why that feeling is often dismissed as teen hysteria or marketing manipulation. Why haven’t we been able to capture a fuller picture of this extremely common phenomenon?

One of the main things that people find embarrassing about fandom in general and about fangirls specifically is that they appear outwardly to have really been duped by the most obvious expressions of capitalism and the shiniest, silliest trinkets presented by the entertainment industry to young, susceptible people. They spend all that money and time to be lulled into this sameness.

I don’t want to go too far in the direction of saying that fans are actually resisting capitalism or progressive or revolutionary, because that’s not necessarily true either. But I think being a fan can encourage you to spend your time in ways that are “unproductive.”

Even if you are buying the box of One Direction Valentines and falling for the chemically engineered hook, you’re also thinking about, “Why am I happy listening to this? Why do I enjoy being around other people who like listening to this? Why is it so entertaining for me to see these pop stars refracted in these extreme fanfiction scenarios? What does it say about what I’m looking for in my life? What kind of world would I prefer to live in?” There’s obviously limits to how useful that is. But I’ve definitely been at a Harry Styles concert and been like, “Why do I feel so different from the last time I was at a Harry Styles concert?” I think it’s good for people to mark times in their lives and think about questions they wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about in a daily context.

You do such a thorough job of showing how fans are often incredibly self-aware, as opposed to the irrational sheeplike followers they’re often portrayed to be (“One Direction ruined my life,” e.g.). Why is it that outside observers can understand the layers of irony used by, say, 4chan posters, but not fangirls’ self-deprecation?

Part of it is just misogyny. Screaming girls seem like they couldn’t possibly be funny or smart or self-deprecating about what they’re experiencing. It’s also that if you’re a regular user of the internet, the parts of fandom that you’re most likely to be experiencing are not necessarily the good parts. You’re seeing a journalist get mobbed on Twitter, you’re not seeing the memes on Tumblr. There’s a lack of curiosity, which is on the part of a regular person is fine, but there was this really intense urgency to understand the boys of 4chan and the darker parts of the internet around the 2016 election, and that curiosity didn’t extend to the other enormous cultural phenomenon that was shaping the web at the time because it wasn’t as scary and bleak.

Speaking of that toxic side, a chunk of the book is devoted to the infamous theory that two of the members of One Direction, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, are secretly in love. How big of an effect did that have on the fandom?

I was surprised at how painful of a topic it was for a lot of people still. It really did drive a wedge between the two sides of the fandom. A lot of people who were involved in pushing [the theory] at the beginning and then spreading misogynistic vitriol about Louis’s girlfriend — berating other fans and telling them that they were homophobic if they didn’t believe that Louis and Harry were in love — were really young, and now they have to look back on what was a really positive experience for them at first and reckon with their own behavior. They were following the older women in the fandom who were driving it, putting out theories and mapping Louis’s child’s mother’s menstrual cycle. It sucks that they got teenagers involved who now have to grapple with what they participated in. It wasn’t a part of my fandom experience until I went looking for it, and I was like, “Wow, this is crazy that people believe this!” But it was actually really fraught and really serious. People’s friendships ended, and people did things they really regretted. It was pretty sad.

From the time that One Direction started in 2011 to the time they broke up in 2016, mainstream attitudes toward pop culture and pop music became a lot more celebratory. How did it affect the way we talk about fangirls?

There was a lot of blogosphere and Twitter discussion of, “You can’t dislike this thing if girls like it because girls are brilliant and the future,” which was sort of complicated to watch. A lot of the people who were saying that were only saying it to get people to buy things. There was a little bit of an overcorrection, where we felt that we were so mean to these girls that now we need to talk about them as if they are saints and geniuses, when really all they ever wanted was to be talked about as though they were people, or to be left alone. There was a cynical turn where it went from “fandom is a pathology” to “fangirls are heroes and everything they do is great.” You’re referring to a group of millions of people: Some of them are going to be great and some of them are going to be scary, and it isn’t useful to generalize in either direction.

The book is full of fun little vignettes of One Direction fangirls — there’s the girl who literally screamed her lungs out at a concert, the girl who made a shrine at the roadside spot where Harry Styles once vomited — but which one was your favorite?

The most exhilarating experience for me was when I was looking for the woman who scattered the thousands of tiny pictures of Pregnant Harry Styles all over the state of Utah. I found an email address for her and she responded and agreed to speak anonymously. She was really nonplussed; she didn’t understand why it was interesting to me and she definitely thought I was cringe for following up about something that’s so clearly a bit that she was doing. I asked why she felt like she had to spend years of her life carrying around little bags of Pregnant Harry Styles, and she said she liked to tuck them into library books so that in 20 years someone will find this picture of Pregnant Harry Styles and be like, “Why in the world is this here?”

Pregnant Harry Styles.
Reddit

You write that you undertook this project somewhat as a defense of yourself as a One Direction fangirl. What did you love about the band, and how do you look back on your place in the fandom now?

I have younger sisters who were really into One Direction, and we happened to go see the One Direction documentary when I was in college. College was not a good fit for me. I did not thrive in that environment; I was very homesick, really lonely. I had a lot of friends that I didn’t like being around, so I spent so much time inside on the internet, on Tumblr — so much time that I regularly got emails from the college being like, “You are going to surpass your allotted internet usage,” which is difficult to do just through browsing!

The One Direction community was so lively, there was so much One Direction content to talk about all the time. It was also a way to maintain relationships with my sisters and my high school friends who were into it because I’d call them and it would be fun rather than me talking about how much I hate my life. It’s been a grounding thing. The day that the Niall Horan album came out was literally the day that New York City started lockdown, and so I just stomped around the park listening to it, trying to self-soothe. Since I was in college, it’s been this zone that I can revisit to think about, like, what sorts of things do I have in common with the 19-year-old version of myself? What do I care about now that I didn’t care about then?

To draw on some recent One Direction news, what do you think about the Liam Payne interview?

I read the quotes and I feel like they weren’t that bad! It was like, “We all used to get on each other’s nerves and Zayn is a bad person but I support him.” He really didn’t say anything that people didn’t already know. Poor Liam. He’s a crypto guy now, and he put four Christmas songs on his debut solo album. He’s just sad. I feel bad for all of them because none of them are anywhere near as great as One Direction.

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