K-pop’s fandom platforms are changing what it means to be an idol

Fandom has changed a lot since I was a kid. As a tween, I had no hope of interacting with celebrities I adored, such as Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. Now, not only have I talked to some of my social media celebrity favorites, but I’ve even fought a few.

The technology of fandom is also changing. Parasocial relationships — a largely one-sided relationship between a fan and a public figure they feel connected to because of social media — are everywhere online. And the companies behind some of K-pop’s biggest acts are pioneering a new way to monetize it. They have developed online platforms to make K-pop fans feel like they have instant access to their idol favorites. That access helps shape the way these fans interact with the idol as a form of friendship and how they interact with other fans.

In fact, before the rise of social media accounts and business-run platforms, most fans of Korean artists were locked into direct engagement through fan cafes — a kind of digital fan club where fans often had to prove they knew a particular artist before being granted access to artists. Initially hosted on platforms such as social networking sites DAUMThese fan cafes allowed fans to connect directly with idols, and they could become even more intimate when connected with the official paid fan club memberships.

While the DAUM fan cafes are still active for many idols, there has been a shift in the past two years, especially for Anglophone fandoms. Instead, several companies have created new social apps for their artists, bypassing third-party platforms like Twitter or Facebook entirely. Three main platforms now stand out: NCSoft’s Universe is used by a wide variety of groups operated by companies outside the big four of Korean pop music and includes features such as a “private messaging” service, exclusive music, and mildly controversial AI-generated voice calls with idols. HYBE’s Weverse is home to mega groups like BTS and TXT and is structured more like the DAUM fan cafes. Finally, there’s SM’s LYSN, which features the truly innovative Bubble app that has found a way to give K-pop groups all the benefits of Twitter DMs, without a lot of the hassle.

SM is a K-pop producing powerhouse behind groups like TVXQ and the cyberpunk girl group Aespa. The platform, LYSN, was first launched in 2018 as an ‘interest-based fan community’. It was a relative failure before the introduction of the Bubble in 2020 idol instant messaging service, which kicked the win into the stratosphere. The different versions of Bubble allow fans to contact their favorite idols through partial private messaging, paid on a subscription basis. The app is designed to look like a one-on-one chat window, but the reality is more of a huge group chat, with the idol messages coming in for thousands of fans at once and see answers as they come in.

Areum Jeong, assistant professor of humanities at the Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, says the apps offer fans a real opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their current favorite idols.

“Fans are fully aware that it is technically a group chat where the idol will receive messages from thousands of fans, although fans will not be able to see the messages from other fans,” says Jeong. “Still, fans love to receive messages where the idol shares his/her daily life and thoughts. And sometimes it can feel like you’re receiving a personal, private message from the idol, as the interface gives the illusion of a 1:1 chat, and some idols send messages that cater to intimate feelings.

That faux intimacy can be a powerful force for fans who use these platforms regularly. “I like using Weverse because I like seeing member interactions in a seemingly authentic way,” says Leigh, a fan of idol group Seventeen who connects with the group through Weverse. “It’s nice to see members in basically a glorified group chat that occasionally feels like I’m an observer, but most of the time I feel like I’m there.”

Part of the appeal is that fans can feel like they are seeing a different, more personal side to the idol they follow on less direct platforms like Twitter or Instagram. For Nicole Santero, a PhD student currently researching the culture of BTS’s huge ARMY international fan base (and who the @ResearchBTS Twitter account), it’s all about the connections fans can make in their interactions with the artists.

“The relationship between BTS and ARMY never feels one-sided. What stood out about Weverse is how BTS is so active and often responds directly to fans in the app,” said Santero. “That makes Weverse even more appealing, and there is certainly a greater intimacy and connection between artists and fans formed through these kinds of interactions. Knowing that BTS may be able to see your posts makes the experience even more meaningful.”

These company-run apps don’t just give fans the opportunity to receive solace from the artist. For some fans, the appeal of providing support when an artist has a health problem is a scandal, or simply when they’re bored during their rare downtime.

For Maxim, an Australian Stray Kids fan who has been using the Bubble app for half a year, it’s a mix of good and bad times. “The Great Hyunjin Incident of ’21 was a bit of a tumultuous time for that entire band/fandom, and I admit I sent a little message of encouragement to Felix,” he said, referring to group member Felix. “Other times I’ve responded to messages when Felix asks for recommendations and try to sneak my taste into his calendar. Again, there’s really no way of knowing if he ever sees it. Would he even look? Yuri on the ice or Sk8 the infinity?” (I think he probably would.)

Unlike previous celebrity fan clubs, there’s no guarantee that what happens on company-run apps will stay on those apps. Due to the medium to low quality of in-app translation services to translate from Korean to English, there are even: translation accounts for many of the artists on these platforms who focus solely on Weverse/LYSN and Bubble/Universe. If an idol’s fan base is small or poorly organized outside of the company-run platform, they may have fewer translation accounts. However, that doesn’t stop fans from sharing memes, artist-uploaded selfies, and clips from live streams everywhere they can.

There can be a hard edge to that intimacy. “Because more fans than ever consider themselves active consumers, they can be unreasonable or even hostile,” says Jeong. Fans of rookie idol group Enhypen have been dealing with a broken fandom following a member who may be saying the n-word, and much of the conflict between fans stems from interactions on Weverse. Fans on the platform tried to hide violent and racist messages from the artist using an in-app fan communication feature and eventually attacked black fans who spoke out about the incident and then the harassment they faced. Within hours of the initial wave of harassment, black fans of the group took to Twitter and TikTok to share what they saw and how people were talking about them — especially in light of the group’s continued silence, their management, and Weverse moderation. . The app they used to connect with other fans and the idols themselves was no longer the safe place it had been.

Yet none of these tasks would have been easy 10 years ago, and most would have been downright impossible 10 years before that. These platforms offer a whole new way for celebrities and their fans to interact with each other, building on conventional social media platforms but increasingly different from them. And for better or for worse, it changes what it means to be a fan — or an idol — online.