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The BTS Army and the Transformative Power of Fandom As Activism

After shutting down a Dallas Police Department app and donating more than $1 million to the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s clear that K-pop fans are a legitimate force to be reckoned with. But this shouldn’t exactly be a surprise—fervent fan bases have always been particularly equipped to force change.

Ringer illustration

Last Saturday night, the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement received its largest payment from a celebrity thus far—$1 million from the seven-piece K-pop group BTS. That amount was eclipsed within 48 hours. Not by any major celebrity—but by BTS’s own global fandom. The next morning, the so-called BTS Army began to organize and fundraise, led by the fan-formed One in an Army charity project. That afternoon, their hashtag #MatchAMillion was trending on Twitter, and by that evening, hundreds of thousands of fans had donated. By Monday morning, BTS’s fans had surpassed the celebrity check by some $200,000.

A week before, fans waylaid racist hashtags, including #WhiteLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, with a seemingly endless ream of K-pop fancams (fan-made cut-and-stitch videos of their idols). This followed the Army’s successful attempt to overflow the iWatch Dallas app after the Dallas Police Department put out a call on Twitter for citizens to share videos of “illegal activity from the protests.” Then, the app’s landing page was swarmed by thousands of one-star reviews, accompanied with Black Lives Matter hashtags. Soon after, the Army had crashed the app.

Organizing, mobilizing, and fundraising within the K-pop community—specifically from the BTS Army—is no new feat. In fact, it’s become second nature for many fandoms within the past few decades. But it’s only within the past couple of weeks that the phenomenon has received the reporting and coverage it deserves. (This may be due to the magnitude of the Army’s efforts. As of Sunday, they’d raised $1,758,000 for charities and causes in 2020, compared to last year’s $250,462, according to a press release.)

That fandoms could be so instrumental in online activism isn’t surprising. The effort it takes to make a music video break the record for the all-time most-viewed YouTube video within 24 hours—as BTS fans did for “Boy With Luv”—isn’t dissimilar to the tactics employed to break the record for the largest celebrity charity donation. The values inherent in fandoms have increasingly become the basis for political action, since the function of fandom has changed significantly from its passively hysterical, Beatlemania beginnings. Today, fans are empowered enough to not only stand alongside their idols—the result of several historical and technological changes—but even guide them, enacting change from a bottom-up, participatory stance. For at least the past half century, the conversion rate between fan enthusiasm and fan mobilization has been diminishing.

“It’s always hard to pinpoint when anything begins within a dispersed, grassroots, network,” says Henry Jenkins, author of 1992’s revolutionary Textual Poachers. But we could conceivably situate the beginnings of fan activism with the Star Trek fans of the 1960s. In Textual Poachers, Jenkins details how the television show’s fan base transformed its ardor for Star Trek into a campaign to persuade NBC to save the show after the network threatened to pull it from its slot in 1968. Fans carried torches and banners through the streets of Burbank, California, and parked themselves outside of NBC’s doors. Their efforts to save a TV show from cancellation resembled the demonstrations of a typical protest. Looking back at the black-and-white photos of the Star Trek fans, you’d hardly be able to distinguish the images from faded photos of social justice protesters.

Traditionally, the purpose of activism has been to challenge systemic hegemonies and corporate structures; from its beginnings, fan activism has functioned similarly—even if for nonpolitical ends. While NBC erased the show from its network in 1969, the rallying efforts of Star Trek’s fans were widely influential, and proved that fan enthusiasm could be a potential tool for effecting change—even if this first instance was unsuccessful.

Subsequent save-the-show campaigns built on the Star Trek fandom’s protest model. Then, when the internet arrived, “fans were early to embrace networked communication because they were in effect already a virtual community of people brought together around common interests without regard to geographic location,” writes Jenkins. As an ahistorical space without geographical limits, the internet enabled fandoms to build worlds of their own. In the 1990s, forums and fandoms flourished. Baseball fans found their people on; Weezer fans (or Weezer boarders, as they referred to themselves) found theirs in AOL chat rooms. With the rise of the web, and the globalization and technological changes it carried, hierarchies were challenged and bureaucracies were decentralized. At this time, fans were able to organize with enough mass and force to demand the attention of culture’s gatekeepers. They were using the internet “as a vehicle for collective problem solving, public deliberation and grassroots creativity,” Jenkins wrote in 2006’s Convergence Culture. As a result, fans began to dictate and cocreate and consult with TV producers. This was famously the case with Xena: Warrior Princess. Toward the end of the show’s first season, a bridge was formed between its producers and the (mostly LGBTQ) internet fandom it inspired. In 1995, lesbian producer Liz Friedman was hired, and pointed the rest of the team toward the rapidly growing online fandom, most of whom regularly shared their own slash fiction. Once the show’s producers realized how much of a significant role lesbians played in Xena fandom, the direction of the show changed—and subsequently, became a lot more gay.

The rise of emboldened, participatory fandoms came with the rise of an increasingly participatory internet—what’s known as Web 2.0. Rather than being scaffolded by users who consumed content passively, this new web enabled the rise of user-generated content and design. Fan websites were built, and fandoms became better organized overall. “By the early 2000s, we started to see the emergence of movements, such as the Harry Potter Alliance, which specifically directed the infrastructure of fandom towards social change movements—in this case, primarily around human rights issues,” writes Jenkins. Established in 2005, the Harry Potter Alliance had more than 100,000 members at its peak. Much like the BTS Army today, its members were encouraged to support several causes: The Alliance’s objective was to help educate “young supporters around issues, such as Fair Trade and Fair Wages, through analogies to Rowling’s fantasy world,” says Jenkins. Andrew Slack, the alliance’s cofounder, cleverly used the Hogwarts world as leverage for Harry Potter fans to take social action in the real world—in 2010, they raised over $123,000 for relief efforts following the Haiti earthquake.

Two years after the Harry Potter Alliance formed, a website that hosted the meeting point of fandom and activism emerged—Tumblr. In retrospect, it’s clear that Tumblr played a huge role in bringing marginalized fandoms (and their concerns) to the center. Users from marginalized backgrounds were able to use tagged posts to create strong networks of influence, both from within and outside their respective fandoms. They’d often challenge the dominant narrative of their chosen object of worship, while vying to see themselves (e.g., queer people, people of color) reflected in it.

LGBTQ fans of One Direction, for example, who did not see themselves acknowledged by the pop boys they adored, sought to change that through organizing efforts, which began on Tumblr. In 2013, a queer fan named Li launched Rainbow Direction, an initiative whose aim was not only to create safe, accommodating spaces at One Direction shows, but to also provide educational resources for other young fans who were beginning to grapple with their sexual identities. As the campaign grew, more and more fans showed up to concerts equipped with rainbow flags, which they waved in the air—until, eventually, the boys waved them back.

Ultimately, Tumblr helped to move fandoms past a solely white, cisheteronormative perspective. Nicole Hill, who runs Black TARDIS—a blog for Black and other Doctor Who fans of color to discuss the show from a queer, Black, and female perspective—also first found other fans she could relate to on Tumblr. “It allowed me to seek out and find my community within the larger Doctor Who fandom, which I felt excluded from,” she says. “Tumblr bred creativity and intellectual curiosity surrounding media we consumed, and helped legitimize or normalize community building around shared love for fictional stories and people.” But outside of Tumblr, Hill has felt a divide within the Whovian community. “There were very strong messages I got as a Black fan entering the fandom, that there wasn’t space for me or my opinion,” she says. “Whovians disagree on a lot, but the opinions of certain fans (largely middle-aged, white, male fans) tend to hold more weight than others, and therefore become the general consensus.”

Black Girls Create, an intersectional hub for Black creators and critical fandom, has also tried to combat this while advocating for the increased representation of Black women in media. “I think the biggest divide we’re seeing in the Whovian community is the argument of ‘real Whovians’ and what that means and who this show belongs to,” a spokesperson for the site told The Ringer. “No one’s opinions about this show are more valid than anyone else’s, but at the same time, Whovians of color will not allow their perspectives to be silenced or their humanity to be ignored.”

In the middle of the nationwide protests after George Floyd’s killing, Teen Vogue published an op-ed on some of the anti-Black behavior within the BTS Army. The fans, and the group itself, attempted to rectify this by policing anyone in the Army who exhibited this kind of behavior, while working through contradictions within the community. One hopes that white Whovians will soon take a leaf out of the BTS Army’s book. As social media has evolved, and fans have evolved alongside it, the BTS Army stands as fan activism’s greatest success yet. Nicole Santero, a PhD student who runs Research BTS—a side project that aims to tell a bigger story about BTS and the fandom’s global impact through different types of data, analytics, and insights—has outlined the ways in which the BTS Army, in particular, is so impressively organized. “They have a set of systems and structures that make them effective and efficient at mobilizing,” she says. “And thanks to processes already in place, new fans are taught by others and quickly learn how to navigate their way through the fandom.”

No matter the size of the Army, each member can intuitively figure out how they can best contribute to the fandom’s overall goals. Fans across the globe, who come from vastly diverse backgrounds, are encouraged to be as engaged as possible, and to participate in fan projects and campaigns. And, although the group sings and speaks mainly in Korean, fans take it upon themselves to promote and translate materials, “allowing BTS’s music and message to cross boundaries and connect with people around the world in a way we’ve never seen before,” Santero says.

Buttressed by the advances of fandom within the past few decades—diversity, empowerment, cocreation, and participation—the BTS Army is made up of lawyers, scholars, academic tutors, graphic designers, authors, artists, marketing professionals, and very online teenagers, all of whom contribute to the overall organizational structure of the Army. As a result, they’re on equal footing with, or perhaps even surpass, BTS themselves, in terms of drawing light on charity causes (the Army’s donation compared to the group’s might suggest the latter).

“Fandoms will continue to transform different aspects of society, but none have shown that they can potentially influence the world the way BTS Army has,” Santero says. Now that fanaticism and activism go hand in hand around the world, struggles for social change are being filtered through popular culture and the common vernacular, as they offer us glimpses of the world we could have. “At this point, activists are using images, language, and practices from fandom whether they see themselves as fans or not,” Jenkins says.

While there’s certainly an impulse for people to laugh and pass this off as nothing more than “crazy nerd energy,” systems can be challenged and changed only in the face of constant public pressure—something that these fandoms are more accustomed to than most. Enormous fan collectives like the BTS Army are built on activist tendencies, which, when engaged, make them effective creators of change. As the last week has shown, the passion in being a fan—among a sea of other ultra-passionate fans—can easily be translated into fighting sociopolitical issues. Fandoms will increasingly continue to influence aspects of society as they’re pushed more toward the cultural center. It’d be a mistake to underestimate their power.

Emma Madden has written about music, music fandom, and other pop culture for Pitchfork, The Guardian, and GQ. She lives in Brighton, U.K., and thinks that doggies are great.