The night that Beyoncé premiered Lemonade, Tamara Granger threw a party. True to the theme, she served lemonade kamikazes, lemon pepper chicken, and lemon pound cake. Her husband and neighbors sat around speechless as they watched, only occasionally interrupting the silence to yell profanities at Jay Z. She did it up big, and for good reason: The 28-year-old office assistant had been preparing for this night for much of her adult life.
Granger, as you may have guessed, is a member of the BeyHive. Since the early aughts, she has spent her free time on Beyoncé online forums digging for photos, concert footage, and hints concerning the icon’s notoriously secret projects. She became well acquainted with the singer’s process. And as anticipation for Beyoncé’s next project grew, suggestions of a Super Bowl performance and mentions of Bill Gates flittered through TheBeyHive.com, a massive fan forum named for and by the singer’s most dedicated fans (and which, for some reason, is being flagged by Google as a phishing site). Photos of the artist jumping off a building in New York while wearing a dress and black hoodie appeared, as did images of her sitting on a stage in front of theater curtains. These later turned out to be images from the filming of her “Pray You Catch Me” video. (The board is also where Granger first learned that Beyoncé’s new collaboration with Topshop would be called Ivy Park.)
“We get a little bit of information, but not too much,” Granger told me, alluding to the former and current choreographers, dancers, venue managers, and contractors who sprinkle Beyoncé tips like magic fairy dust across the site. “They were like, ‘Just be prepared. Have your money ready. Have your iTunes account ready. Have Tidal ready.’ And we were.”
Considering that Beyoncé gives interviews so rarely that even the New York Times Fashion & Style section noticed, it’s significant that the BeyHive is privy to so much inside information. When promoting her work, the artist doesn’t bother with press releases, let alone Twitter. The forum’s small exclusives are the embodiment of what the internet can do: The same way that Reddit’s massive audience sometimes haphazardly joins arms to try to catch a terrorist or try to solve murder mysteries, the BeyHive (pronounced BEE-hive) coalesces to sniff out the singer’s next move.
The BeyHive is massive — more than 17,000 members strong, and that’s just the active participants on the forum, not the hangers-on (one must apply for access to the group). But the club’s intense organization and tactical offense suggest it is a well-oiled machine. So how does such a huge, entirely remote body move with such precision, and what technology does it use to do so?
Before you understand how it works, you have to understand its origin.
A Hive Is Born
Beyoncé’s loyal followers began congregating during the late 1990s on sites like Destiny’s Child Connection, Brown Queens Sugar, and DC3 Forever. Just before Destiny’s Child split up at the end of 2005, those fans migrated to BeyonceWorld.net. As the singer’s solo career took off, the community ballooned to about 10,000 members, and eventually Beyoncé’s own camp took notice. She often tipped her hat to the BeyonceWorld community on her website, and even invited a few of its moderators to a private listening party before the release of 4. But that relationship began to chill when, according to a handful of former BW members, problems with the site’s seemingly Beyoncé-agnostic webmaster, Rick (no last name was given, or likely known, in all the retellings I heard), began surfacing. There were also support issues: The server crashed anytime Beyoncé did a televised performance, forcing members to spill out into less protected venues like Instagram and Twitter. Then, when Rick or another webmaster — no one has ever been able to tell for sure — posted some unflattering concert photos that highlighted Beyoncé’s groin area that were quickly picked up by gossip news sites, things officially turned sour.
“That actually caused a huge rift [with Beyoncé’s camp], because prior to that she was actually pretty close with that website,” Jess Kemper, a fan who frequented the site then, told me. “So they burned a major bridge there and made it harder for everyone else. There’s still a working relationship, but it’s a little more cautious now.”
Fans protested, but BeyonceWorld webmasters refused to take the images down. So Kemper, along with two other BW frequenters, Cody L. and Michelle Naylor, decided to launch their own fan site. After a few test runs to see if BW members would be willing to abandon years of archives, they launched TheBeyHive.com. In an attempt to squash a fan exodus, Rick created filters to prevent people from posting the URL or the name of the site in the BW forum. His efforts were futile. The BeyHive was forming, and it couldn’t be stopped.
When Kemper, Cody L., and Naylor launched the site in 2012, “BeyHive” was still a little-known term. But that soon changed after Beyoncé hired a few people to redesign her website, one of whom announced on Twitter that he was working with the singer on her site and asked fans for feedback.
“Immediately her fan base began circling and talking,” said that same designer, who asked not to be named to avoid association with the BeyHive. (Similarly, other sources in this piece asked that we not use their full names to prevent online harassment.) “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it so I just talked back to them.”
The BeyHive was already well established when Beyoncé decided she wanted to have a section of her new site dedicated to fans, and she turned to the designer for help deciding what to call it. When the designer floated the name “BeyEntourage” to his new Beyoncé-loving Twitter followers, they were less than excited. So he decided to use what was already working. “I brought her the name BeyHive and she was like, ‘That’s hilarious, let’s use that,’” he said.
Once the BeyHive collectively noticed that that same designer had direct access to Beyoncé, they began communicating with him regularly. After the new website premiered in 2012, his mentions were flooded with thanks whenever he updated the site with new photos. His follower count rose to the tens of thousands. They made his name trend on Twitter for his birthday. He was constantly inundated with DMs from fans pleading for him to tell Beyoncé that they existed.
“She would talk to them through me,” he said. “It was very sweet. But I had this one moment when I realized: When so many people are nice to you, what happens when they’re angry?”
He soon found out. During times of “Beyhydration” (rhymes with dehydration) — a term the group uses to describe dry periods in the singer’s output — his followers became aggressive. Sometimes hundreds of insults and demands would flow into his mentions like a ticker.
“They were like, ‘Hey, white slave, what the fuck, what are they paying you for? Snap to it. You work for us,’” he said. “Then something would come out and they’d be like, ‘Hey, thanks, we love you.’ I felt like they were hitting me, then kissing me.” He eventually deleted his Twitter account.
Though it may seem like the BeyHive’s campaigns are approached haphazardly, their ability to band together and make an impact online is thanks to a natural hierarchy that begins at the forum and eventually spreads to other platforms. TheBeyHive.com is a reliable source for information, in part, because its community is small compared to the rest of the internet. Moderators often pause member registration before and during “eras” — periods when Beyoncé has debuted a new album or an aesthetic — to prevent trolls, media members, and noncommittal fans from flooding the site. (Run independently of advertisers and under the supervision of Kemper, Cody L., and Naylor, it also has its occasional hiccups. Currently they’re trying to figure out why Google is warning visitors that it’s a phishing site.) That information eventually gets out to the Beyoncé fans on other platforms. Twitter’s quick-to-react base is led by accounts like @Bey_Legion (130,000 followers), run by a 22-year-old film student in Egypt who live-tweets concerts and holds frequent Lemonade “listening parties.” There’s a slew of obsessively updated Instagram accounts that act as photo feeds for the pop star, the most responsive of which is @beylite (1 million followers). On Tumblr, the beyhive, thequeenbey, and fuckyeahbeyonceknowles offer stories of dedicated fans, GIF tomes, and Photoshop creations that, for instance, show Pope Francis holding up the Lemonade album in exaltation. A seemingly endless number of groups, large and small, are dedicated to Beyoncé on Facebook, many of them skewing toward international crowds.
Ask a BeyHive member how they function and they’ll usually refer you to a 2010 Tumblr post written by Lauren Agnew titled “Know Your Bees.” Frustrated by the tendency for the media to clump together Beyoncé fans as one hater-silencing swarm, Agnew wrote a bee-themed guide to the hive’s personality types, which Beyoncé republished for her website’s debut. “Digger bees” (referred to elsewhere as “worker bees”) are the group’s amateur journalists, scouring the internet for new information on Beyoncé and — in the case of some forum moderators — communicating with sources they’ve cultivated over the years. (Naylor says she falls into this category, and was once able to triangulate the exact location of the “If I Were a Boy” video shoot happening in Harlem based on a tip in the forum. She drove there after work, waited for a few hours, and eventually got a photo of Beyoncé exiting the building.) Honeybees, Beyoncé’s most peaceful fans, typically focus on praising the artist rather than seeking out her critics (a.k.a. “wasps”). Yellowjackets are seasonal Beyoncé fans, and members look down upon them for their lack of loyalty. And killer bees attack. (Beyoncé’s site tellingly left out that description).
Agnew’s categories don’t cover all the elements of the hive. The Chart Hive, as they call it, contains members who monitor Beyoncé’s standing on the Billboard Hot 100 and other ranking systems, especially in comparison to other major pop stars. They encourage fans to purchase her singles and albums, and even dream up their own marketing plans for upcoming releases, including strategies of when to tweet an iTunes link or release music on Tidal. For every Formation World Tour show so far, those infatuated by her live performances have arranged for Periscope-viewing events. A fan will drop a link into the tour thread and maybe tweet it out, and then members will watch along together. Though it’s never the whole show, fans want to keep tabs on any subtle changes throughout the tour.
“We like to listen to Beyoncé’s speeches, what she’s saying, anything new that she adds,” Agnew said.
Regardless of whether the bee metaphor speak to you, the categories are helpful for understanding the way the hive processes and responds to information at the initial stages on message boards. The worker or digger bees feed the forum’s most popular threads with information about Beyoncé and often break small snippets of news that are whisked away and trumpeted on other social media platforms. The honeybees flood comment sections and their own fan pages with their awe. And the killer bees take stock of whom they should target.
Moderators don’t come in and ask the troops to “drag” a hater, as they call it — it usually happens through conversation. Which brings us to the “car fax”: Upset forum members might ask the digger bees to give them a full overview of a detractor’s career, which arms the incensed fans with all the necessary information for confrontation when they head out to various social media platforms. Granger, a self-described killer bee who uses her Twitter account for this purpose, says the fact that social media has given Beyoncé’s critics such a prominent platform compels her to offer a defense.
“She’s not going to say anything,” she said. “So we decided we will. We just got stronger and more vocal. Now we have a platform where we can say how we feel.”
At the same time, there’s an unspoken code about whom to engage with and whom to ignore. For instance, Granger felt it necessary to address Rachel Roy’s “good hair” comment because the designer picked a fight. On the other hand, Granger and her fellow bees refuse to acknowledge the recent shade thrown by Azealia Banks. (Even if, inevitably, others are less discretionary.)
“Of course they want to be on the news, and how you going to get on the news?” Granger said. “Say something about Beyoncé because they know the BeyHive gonna come. You want promotion? Eff you, pay me. I PayPal. Put the money in and we’ll give you all the promo you want.”
The forum’s moderators will only rarely step in to warn members about certain topics or attempt to control the chatter. Usually they’re just there to ensure that members don’t fight among themselves and trolls don’t post fake threads or antagonize the BeyHive with comparisons to other artists. One of the only exceptions in the history of the forum was “the elevator incident,” when TMZ published a video of Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, hitting Jay Z in a Standard Hotel elevator the night of the 2014 Met Gala. Cody L. was worried that fans might begin fighting among themselves over whether to skewer Jay Z for hurting Beyoncé or defend him because he’s her husband.
“I remember putting out a post at that time, and I said, ‘Listen, I know this is going to be discussed, it happened, it’s going to be all over the news. Everyone can discuss it, but just be respectful,’” he said.
Mostly, Cody L. and his fellow cofounders know that, just like policing content on the internet, regulating what people say on the BeyHive is nearly impossible. If it doesn’t happen on his forum, it’ll end up on social media anyway. “Everyone has their own personality,” he said. “It’s not some militant, mindless, robotic thing.” At times, even he marvels at the power of what he’s helped create.
“That’s got to be such an amazing feeling, a scary feeling, to be an artist knowing if someone says something about you, there are a million people who are going to shut shit down,” he said. “She probably can’t even process it.”