'Everything I Need, I Get From You': new book explores the power of fangirls : It's Been a Minute Fangirls often don't get taken seriously in pop culture. But in her new book, Everything I Need, I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It, culture reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany explores just how much fangirls have shaped online life. She talks with guest host B.A. Parker about how fans used Tumblr to transform internet culture, how being a One Direction fan enriched her own life and why fandom is more complicated than we might think.

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Fangirls rule the internet in 'Everything I Need, I Get From You'

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B A PARKER, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm B.A. Parker. I take great pride in being a fangirl on the internet. To obsess over something with other nerds is the ultimate joy. My very first fangirl obsession was this R&B boy band called Immature. They were three 13-year-old boys in flowy clothes on a beach, promising never to lie to me...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER LIE")

IMMATURE: (Singing) I will never lie again.

PARKER: ...All while one was wearing a very fashionable eyepatch. The internet was still in its early form back then. I couldn't really share that love online yet. Later, when I fell in love with NSYNC, I'd have to wait 30 minutes for a GeoCities fan site to download.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO STRINGS ATTACHED")

NSYNC: (Singing) But if you want it, here's my heart. No strings attached.

PARKER: But from there, online fandom only grew in size and fervor, and fangirls reshaped the internet itself. Kaitlyn Tiffany's new book is all about that history and influence. It's called "Everything I Need, I Get From You: How Fangirls Created The Internet As We Know It." Kaitlyn's a fangirl, too, of One Direction - you know Harry, Liam, Niall, Louis and Zayn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORY OF MY LIFE")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) The story of my life, I give her hope. I spend her love until...

PARKER: Kaitlyn and I talked about fan mobilization, how Tumblr transformed internet fan culture and what the One Direction, or 1D, fandom says about the power of fangirls online. Here's our chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

PARKER: I am curious. Like, what made you want to write a book about fandom? Like, why was this, like, the book for you?

KAITLYN TIFFANY: As I became a culture reporter at The Verge, started writing more and more about fandom and, you know, lots of other internet culture topics, as well. But it was a really interesting time to be learning about the internet and about how to be a journalist because it was also the midpoint of Gamergate. So that was, like, a pretty rough-and-tumble education in just, like, how internet movements can go totally sideways...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Instantly they dived into, find where she lives, find where all these people live. What are we going to do about her? Can we hack her email? Like, instantly. It's like you're just constantly surrounded by nothing but hate.

TIFFANY: ...Also how people who get involved in those movements justify them to themselves and how captivating the narratives around them can be, and how important subcultures become to people's sense of identity and worldview and their sense of morality. After Gamergate, that kind of went pretty seamlessly into the rise of MAGA and the alt-right and incels and all of these different kind of, like, fringe, politically-disturbing subcultures. There was a real, like, urgency to understand - and that were, you know, majority made up of young men who seemed to have kind of been, like, formed by the internet and to have, like, personalities and politics and senses of humor and senses of truth and reality that were shaped by growing up online. So as a person who was spending a lot of time in fandom, it was kind of like, well, I also see, on the other side of the internet, like, these subcultures primarily made up of young women or, you know, other groups that we aren't seeing in the alt-right necessarily...

PARKER: Yeah.

TIFFANY: ...Who are, you know, making these huge seismic changes to internet culture and to the way that we respond to news events and the way we talk about the things we care about and the way we try to get attention for causes that we believe in. And that was going sort of underexamined while everybody was trying to figure out, like, uh-oh, how did the internet break all of the boys' brains (laughter)?

PARKER: Yeah, no, I find that so interesting because - I want to talk about the Tumblr of it all because, like, I find that I was on Tumblr at maybe the right time, in my early 20s, where I was kind of - not, like, indoctrinated, but I had found...

TIFFANY: (Laughter).

PARKER: ...I had found my little niche corner of a fandom that kind of, you know, taught me the world of - the language of misogynoir and, you know, leftist politics and the whole other side of, like - the polar opposite of, like, what broke these boys' brains was the side of Tumblr that kind of, like, built me up and taught me, like, the language to, like, defend the mistreated Black girls on TV shows, like...

TIFFANY: Totally.

PARKER: ...Having that kind of language. And it really shaped how the internet operates today. And it doesn't get taken seriously enough for it, in my opinion. But you talked about this a little bit just now, but can you talk a bit more about Tumblr's influence on the growth of modern fandom?

TIFFANY: Yeah, it's really remarkable, I think, looking back, like, at how much of kind of the millennial political and cultural worldview, like, came from Tumblr. That's, like, where, like, Occupy Wall Street really took off - in internet culture. And, like, a lot of conversations around representation - and the term problematic I feel like wasn't used outside of academic discourse until Tumblr.

PARKER: Oh, for sure. Your fave is problematic. Yeah.

TIFFANY: Yeah, yeah. Like, a lot of those things - and obviously, like, Tumblr is known for kind of becoming a parody of itself and, like, some of those conversations getting - like, going over the top and becoming, like, puritanical. But I think part of the reason that Tumblr became the fandom platform, which is kind of a coincidence of timing because some of the really popular fan fiction websites, including LiveJournal - was a big home for fan fiction - had started banning certain types of fan fiction stories, like, especially ones involving real people - so, like, pop stars.

PARKER: (Laughter).

TIFFANY: So a lot of fans who had already been involved in fandom on the internet sort of migrated to Tumblr and made their new home there. At the time, like, Tumblr was really unique in the tools that it provided to users and tools that were really useful for fans because they both wanted to have, like, writing tools but also visual tools. And Tumblr is, like, where GIFsets were invented. Like, that's a unique visual form of Tumblr. So I think Tumblr is kind of the perfect mix between public and private because if you have an interest, you can go there, you can find the community that's interested in the thing you're interested in and you can, like, work your way into it over time. But it's not the type of place that's, like, super easy to just, like, drive by, you know?

PARKER: You have to, like, really invest and find your people.

TIFFANY: Totally. And there is, you know, culture of anonymity or, you know, using pseudonyms or even if you went by your real full name, there's a culture of, like, delete your blog, start over completely, who cares? Like, try on a completely different fandom or a different subculture or a different aesthetic or a different identity. So I think it felt a lot safer.

PARKER: Yeah. So the book has all of these great examples of how different fandoms influence how the internet evolved. You have, like - this, like, Grateful Dead fan group was one and, like, the very first kind of forums on the web, and young women contributed to thousands of boy band fan pages in the '90s. Like, I was very invested in certain GeoCities websites about 'N Sync...

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: ...When I was 11. But this book is, like, heavily informed by your own One Direction fandom and how 1D fans had, like, molded different parts of the internet to their own use. And so what was important about using the One Direction fandom as the focal point of your book?

TIFFANY: Well, so I was personally involved in the One Direction fandom, so it was both that, like, I was naturally more interested in One Direction fans and, like, already knew, like, a lot of things that they have gotten up to that would be hopefully interesting to other people. But also, like, fandom is so specific, and there's so much context around, like, the little divisions and each separate event in every single one that I think, like, it just wouldn't have worked for me to say, well, you know, K-pop fandom is the one everyone's talking - that's what everyone's talking about now. I'm going to write about that. Because I would have had to just, like, completely just parachute in.

Like, the book is focused on fans shaping internet culture. But I think there's also sections in there that are more about what role, like, fandom plays in contemporary life in general. And it was really important for me to touch on my personal experiences in order to make that sort of less abstract and less, like, speculative or academic.

PARKER: Funnily enough, one of my friends mentioned that she had one of the bigger One Direction Tumblrs when she was a teenager.

TIFFANY: Oh, my God, amazing.

PARKER: But then she deleted everything. But I just wanted to read this to you because I was like, I'm reading this book - I was telling her, like, I'm reading this book, and it's all about, like, all these specific fandom moments. And she wrote, like, I wish I didn't delete all my blogs, LMAO. When I was fully in the 1D Tumblr scene, I would have willingly submitted myself to be studied by sociologists and neurologists alike...

TIFFANY: (Laughter).

PARKER: ...Because being given an inkling of social power in that hive mind environment, running on a steady engine of teenage girl hormones, it was absolutely an insane time.

TIFFANY: Oh, my God. Wait, that's incredible. I would love to have spoken to her because that is so true. Like, people would kind of establish their own little, like, fiefdoms in Tumblr fandom.

PARKER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

PARKER: Coming up, why fandom is always a little more complicated than you might think. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

PARKER: I was so fascinated by the discussion of the Black Harries and how now, as a fan, we want more than just music from our pop stars but we also want representation. And they were selected to represent them, and now the fans want to recoup on their investment.

TIFFANY: Yeah. Yeah, there was - so Allyson Gross, who is a fandom researcher who wrote her dissertation about Harry Styles, wrote, like, a really amazing paper back in 2017 or 2018 about Black Harry Styles fans who, you know, really wanted him to participate in Black Lives Matter and express his support of it on stage, which they felt, you know, was particularly a reasonable request because he was so outspoken about supporting the LGBTQ community and about supporting women and sort of, like, making these pronouncements at the beginning of his concerts about it being an inclusive space and, like, wanting everybody to really feel like themselves at his shows. Black Harries - that's the kind of title that the group has taken on - the way that Allyson Gross presented it in her paper, it was kind of, like, almost, like, a populist political movement. Like...

PARKER: Yes.

TIFFANY: ...You know, fans feel like we found this person. We selected this person. We believe in him. We, like, believe that he basically does represent us. We are just trying to make sure that he is actively representing us. And, like, as his fans, as the people who have, like, created, basically, the meaning of his career and his art, like, we should also be creating his political meaning. And, you know, Harry Styles did eventually, you know, start publicly talking about Black Lives Matter and eventually went to some marches in the summer of 2020. But I think it is still kind of a fraught conversation within the fandom because, you know, there are white fans who are very defensive about, well, he's a pop star and not a politician and Black fans who are saying, like, no, like, we're a part of this fandom. This is part of - basically part of what he has implicitly promised by explaining that the purpose of his art and his persona is to make his fans feel included. So this is part of that.

PARKER: A fandom can be viewed as this monolith, especially with One Direction, as, like, these cishet (ph) teenage white girls. And you are very intentional about including, you know, queer fans, Black fans, cishet male fans - love that - and even women in their 40s, and - why like, why was it so important to showcase these, quote-unquote, "perceived outliers"?

TIFFANY: Yeah, I thought - so I spoke to, for the book, Jessica Pruett, who is a researcher who wrote - has written a couple of papers, actually, about lesbians in One Direction fandom, specifically. And I felt like she explained it so well because first of all, obviously, like, I think it's important to just tell the truth of the story. And it's not just - it's, like, all these different people are in fandoms, so, like, as a journalist, it's just my kind of, like, literal responsibility to reflect that. But she also explained it as kind of, like, if fandom isn't just about being, like, a screaming, hormonal teenage girl who wants to, like, make out with the boys in the band, like, if there are all of these different groups that, like, don't conform to that in the fandom, then that is, like, useful to know because that helps you understand that, like, all fandom is more complicated than just, oh, I - like, Harry is so cute. I love him, I want to kiss him, or whatever, you know? Showing the range of life experiences that can be kind of refracted through fandom and can find structure through fandom is helpful in understanding. Even, like, for me, obviously I was, like, a little bit more of, like, the, the trope of a One Direction fan, even though I was probably, like, slightly older than most people...

PARKER: Yeah.

TIFFANY: ...Would expect. But I was a teen. I was 19. I, like, lived in a suburb. I, like, thought the boys were cute, and that was certainly part of it. But, like, I think - personally, I think that my story with fandom is much more complicated than just thinking Harry Styles was cute, and I think that's true for everyone. And that was, like, what was so fun about talking to fans, is that, like, you literally ask them one question, and they have so many interesting things to say that are really unique, more than just, like, oh, my God, he's so cute. Like, nobody - I feel like basically nobody even said that.

PARKER: (Laughter).

TIFFANY: Or if they did, it's like, it's reflective - it's, like, as an aside, like, yeah, and they were cute, you know?

PARKER: OK. This is something - in my whole, like, fangirl life, it's this thing that I've been trying to reconcile, and it's still hard for me, that there's this looming contradiction with being a fangirl where it's empowering for the fangirl to, you know, love this person or thing. But because there's - it's a very hive-minded, like, quote-unquote, "us versus them" enterprise...

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: ...The enemy tends to be other girls. There's an example that you put in the book that kind of blew my mind - I knew nothing about it - was Babygate (ph)?

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: And I had - like, if you don't mind explaining, like, what that moment was about because I think that really encapsulates this kind of blinding allegiance almost to a fault.

TIFFANY: Yeah, totally. A pretty famous, like, fandom conspiracy theory in - that came out of One Direction in the 2010s was Larry Stylinson, which started out as sort of - as a ship, like, you know, wouldn't it be great if these guys were in love? Some people thought they really were in love. And it wasn't a ridiculous theory because they were kind of always, like, falling all over each other. They were very, like, rambunctious, affectionate boys. And in that way, it was totally harmless.

But, you know, as the years went on, as, like, Harry Styles had various girlfriends who were in the public eye, as - you know, as it became clear, like, they were kind of drifting apart and sort of trying to make an effort to say, no, we're not in love, some fans really doubled down on this story that they were being forcibly closeted by management. So the kind of, like, logical assumptions that came out of insisting on that belief got a little bit dark because it was, like, any - now, any woman who's seen with Harry Styles is, like, a paid plant and a gold digger, and, like, all of these terrible misogynistic tropes.

PARKER: Jeez.

TIFFANY: And then, you know, Louis Tomlinson - later he had a fling with this makeup artist from Los Angeles, and she got pregnant pretty much immediately. It was, like, she staged this. Let me chart out her menstrual cycle and prove that she's lying.

PARKER: Wait, what?

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: OK.

TIFFANY: Then it was, like, the baby's a doll. And then later, once it became clear that the baby was not a doll because it could walk and talk, it was, you know, it's a paid actor or it's someone else's baby. Like, it's not - it's still not Louis's baby. And there's always kind of this, like, moral superiority that people could cling to because if you argued with them, if you said what you're doing is dangerous and wrong, it would be it's homophobic to say that. And then sort of, like, counterintuitively, some of the arguments in favor of Babygate were quite homophobic in themselves because it would become, like, oh, well, here's proof that Louis is gay. Look at the way he's holding his wrist or something, you know?

PARKER: Oh.

TIFFANY: But something I was surprised about when I was researching Babygate was - like, when I was, like, actually talking to people who were involved, I realized that it was actually extremely painful for people in the fandom because friendships were ended over this. It, like, really divided the fandom in half. And then the denial of reality was sort of kind of a poison, and people could take any denial and flip it to be the opposite of what it was. Everything was in code. Everything was symbolism. Everything fit into the narrative, even if it seemed not to, which is, I think, pretty familiar if you've looked at any internet conspiracy theories.

PARKER: Oh, for sure. Like, even right now, this - you know, this kind of formula of conspiracy - just, like, fans see, like, a rich, famous man, and they villainize their female partner, or...

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: Or the idea of, like, what even is truth?

TIFFANY: Yeah.

PARKER: Like, has that percolated out of fandom into wider online life?

TIFFANY: Yeah, I think it's, like, a characteristic, unfortunately, of, like, really intense online community - is that there comes to be, like, these sort of incentive structures where whoever can notice something that no one else has noticed - whether it's, like, a secret symbol or secret gesture that you can slow down and zoom in on - obviously, we saw this recently with the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. Like, there becomes an incentive to be the person who finds these things, and it is, like, this kind of big participatory puzzle. And I think that can be really exciting for people. And then the way that I've seen specifically, like, fandom conspiracy thinking reach out into broader internet discourse is this sort of, like, wedding the theory to, like, an ostensibly progressive social cause.

So with Babygate, it was, we're fighting homophobia because we're going to, like, free these boys from their secret life and this, like, horrible prison that they've been forced into. And then with - we saw recently with the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp story, this is, like, a misogynistic smear campaign that's being framed as, no, we're actually - like, we are supporting #MeToo by drawing attention to male victims of abuse or by tearing apart the story of this woman who is lying because she's actually the one who is damaging the credibility of real victims or something. That, like, moral conviction that excuses all kinds of misogynistic vitriol or invasion of privacy - that I think it was really born from Tumblr conspiracy thinking.

PARKER: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

PARKER: Up next, how fandom can both be empowering and exploitative. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

PARKER: I think, from the inside and from the outside, like, I feel like fangirls are equal parts ridiculed and exploited for their labor. And so I think that there is a way that - I think a lot of young fans kind of know that now. But I don't know if they knew that then. Like, how did the internet during the One Direction era kind of highlight the ways in which that - you know, fan girls were being kind of exploited but also ridiculed?

TIFFANY: Yeah. I think because, like, One Direction was - I think that they've been called, like, the internet's first boy band. They found global success at the same time that young people were joining social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram for the first time. So I think it was sort of a dual learning experience for fans who are already kind of - like, they're prompted by the amount of time that they're spending on this to sort of think about why they're doing that. And I think a lot of them do think about that deeply. And so you've got these sort of, like, twin venues of exploitation. You're like, I understand that I am making money for Twitter by sitting here all day long tweeting about Harry Styles. And I also understand that I'm making money for the entertainment industry by sitting here, you know, waiting to be let into Ticketmaster so that I can spend $600 on concert tickets or whatever.

And I think, like, obviously, everybody is - everybody who uses the internet or, like, purchases things (laughter) is participating in the same systems. But maybe, like, it's a little bit less in their face. And you don't have to think about it quite as much. So I think, like, fans are pretty aware of those things. And they have kind of a give and take or, like, love and hate relationship with both industries. Like, fans kind of openly resent and distrust the entertainment industry because, one, they know they're being exploited. But, two, they think that they understand the band and its meaning better than the people who are in charge of the tours and the music videos and whatever else, which is why fans - One Direction fans tried to buy One Direction out of their recording contract.

PARKER: Wait, they tried to buy...

TIFFANY: (Laughter).

PARKER: ...1D out of their contract?

TIFFANY: Yeah. A couple of times, there was, like, campaigns that were basically like, well, there are millions of us. So if we each gave $5, we would have $80 million (laughter). We can just, you know, set One Direction free.

PARKER: I can see the vision.

TIFFANY: Yeah. Yeah, I respect the vision, too. And then similarly with social media, like, fans have this, like, love-hate relationship with platforms, too, because they, like, understand more about them. They, like, have way more direct conflict with the rules than the regular Twitter user. Like, you see fan accounts get suspended and banned all the time for various reasons, like probably - often because they're, like, harassing people or telling them to, like, off themselves, but also because they will be, like, tweeting things they don't own the copyright to. Or, like, they're always kind of bending the rules and, like, facing consequences, which is why the phrase, like, One Direction ruined my life is, like, a popular fan joke. Like, they're kind of referring to this, like, ridiculous situation they've been placed in.

PARKER: Why are we, as fan girls, so desperate to have our lives ruined?

TIFFANY: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I guess there's, like, probably, like, sort of like a highfalutin, like, religious metaphor about the, like, (laughter) thrills of devotion and, like, surrender that I could get into. But I also think, like, part of the reason that people started calling themselves, like, One Direction trash or saying, One Direction ruined my life or writing, like, really kind of creepy fanfic in which Harry Styles is, like, murdering you or whatever...

PARKER: (Laughter).

TIFFANY: I think part of that is like - (laughter). Like, fans are aware, as we were talking about before, that fandom has been thoroughly commodified. And I think part of it is, like, kind of wiggling away from that and be like - and being like, no. Like, I'm - if you're going to make my fandom into this thing you can sell back to me, like, how about I do something freaking weird? Like, let me see you sell back to me my fan fiction about Liam Payne cutting my collarbone out of my body. Like, good luck with that.

PARKER: (Laughter).

TIFFANY: You know (laughter)? And then similarly with calling yourself trash or saying One Direction ruined my life - like, that's just a way of kind of, like, I guess, reclaiming the, like, edginess or at least the, like, subversion of fandom and being like, yeah, we're freaks. Like, we're doing something weird (laughter). And, like, that's part of why it's fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PARKER: Kaitlyn, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with me.

TIFFANY: Yeah. Of course. Thank you so much for reading. And this is really a good time.

PARKER: Thanks again to Kaitlyn Tiffany. Her book, "Everything I Need, I Get From You," is out now. All right. This episode was produced by Liam McBain and edited by Jessica Mendoza and Quinn O'Toole. We had engineering help from Stu Rushfield. Of course, come back here for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday. For that, we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. Record yourself and email the file to us at ibam@npr.org. That's ibam@npr.org. All right. Until Friday, thanks for listening. I'm B.A. Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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