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

Part of the Next GenSince I was a child, fandom has evolved a lot. As a teenager, I was unable to get in touch with the celebrities I loved like Britney Spears or Whitney Houston. I've spoken to some of my favorite celebrities on social media and even fought with some.Technology is also changing the face of fandom. Social media has made parasocial relationships, which are largely one-sided relationships between fans and public figures they feel close to, more common online. The companies behind K-pop's biggest acts are experimenting with new ways to monetize them. Online platforms have been created to give K-pop fans direct access to their idols. This access influences the way idol fans interact with each other and the relationships they have with their fellow fans.Now, three platforms stand out: Universe and Weverse.Prior to the advent of social media and company-run platforms, Korean fans were locked into direct engagement via fancafes. These fan clubs required that fans prove their knowledge about a specific artist before they could gain access to them. These fancafes were initially hosted on social networking site DAUM. They allowed fans to get in touch with idols and could be even more intimate if they connected with paid fan club memberships.Although many idol fancafes still exist, there has been a significant shift in their popularity over the past two decades, particularly for English-language fans. Many companies have developed new social apps to support their artists that completely bypass third-party platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Three platforms stand out now: NCSofts Universe, which is used by many groups not affiliated with the Big Four of Korean pop, features exclusive music, private messaging, voice calls with idols and moderately controversial AI-generated voice calling. HYBEs Weverse, which is more like the DAUM fancafes, houses mega-groups such as TXT or BTS. SMs LYSN also includes the innovative Bubble app, which allows K-pop groups to enjoy all the benefits of Twitter DMs without any of the issues.SM is a Kpop-producing powerhouse behind groups such as TVXQ, Aespa and cyberpunk girl group Aespa. Its platform, LYSN was launched in 2018 as an interest-based community. However, it failed to make a profit before 2020's introduction of the Bubble idol instant messaging service. Fans can use the various versions of Bubble to contact their idols via partially private messaging. This is paid for on a monthly basis. Although the app appears to be a one-on-1 chat window, it is actually a large group chat. The idol can send messages to thousands of people at once, and see their replies.You may feel as if you are getting a private, personal message from your idol.Areum Jeong, assistant professor of humanities at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, says the apps offer fans a real chance to strengthen their relationship with their current favorite idols.Jeong says that although it is technically a group chat, idols will be receiving messages from thousands of followers. However, fans can't see other fans' messages. Fans still enjoy messages from idols sharing their daily lives and thoughts. It can sometimes feel as if you are getting a private message from your idol. The interface creates the illusion of a one-to-one chat. Some idols may send messages to express intimate feelings.Fans who frequent these platforms can benefit from the fake-intimacy. Weverse is my favorite platform because it allows me to see member interactions in an authentic way. Leigh, who is a Seventeen fan, connects with the group via Weverse. It's fun to watch members interact in a glorified group chat. Sometimes it feels like I'm an observer, but most of all I feel like I'm a participant.BTS and ARMY have a strong relationship that is never strained.The appeal of this platform is that it allows fans to feel like they are seeing a more intimate side to the idols they follow on social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. Nicole Santero is a PhD student who studies the culture of BTS' huge international fan base ARMY and runs the @ResearchBTS twitter account. It all comes down to the connections fans make with artists.BTS and ARMY have a strong relationship. Santero says that what has made Weverse stand out is the fact that BTS is active and responds to fans directly on the app. This makes Weverse more attractive, as there is a greater intimacy and closeness between fans and artists through these interactions. The experience is made even more meaningful by the possibility that BTS may see your posts.These apps are not just for fans to get comfort from the artist, but also offer a way to connect with them. Some fans find the appeal in being able to support an artist when they are going through a difficult time, such as a scandal or when they're bored.Maxim, an Australian Stray Kids fan, has been using the Bubble app since June. It's been both good and bad. The Great Hyunjin Incident of 21 caused some turmoil for the entire band/fandom. I have to admit that I sent Felix a quick message of encouragement. I have also replied to Felix's messages asking for suggestions and tried to sneak my tastes onto his agenda. There is no way to tell if he sees it. I doubt he would even see Yuri on Ice, Sk8 the Infinity.There is no guarantee that the content of company-run apps will be retained, unlike past fan clubs for celebrities. Due to the low quality of in app translation services that translate Korean to English, many artists have translation accounts on these platforms. These accounts are focused only on Weverse / LYSN or Bubble / Universe. A smaller or less organized fan base may result in fewer translation accounts. Fans can still share memes, artist-uploaded selfies and clips from livestreams wherever they can, however.That intimacy can have a difficult edge. Jeong says that more fans view themselves as active consumers than ever before and can become unreasonable or hostile. Enhypen's rookie idol group has been experiencing a fractured fandom after a member of their group said the n-word. Weverse interactions are a major source of conflict among fans. The platform's users tried to hide racist and violent posts from the artist by using an in-app feature that allowed inter-fan communication. They ended up attacking Black fans who spoke out about the incident, and the harassment they were experiencing. After the initial harassment wave, Black fans took to Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook to share their experiences and to vent about the bullying. They found that the app they used to connect with idols and other fans was not as safe as it had been.These engagements wouldn't have been possible ten years ago. Many would have been impossible ten years earlier. These platforms provide a new way for celebrities to connect with their fans. They are able to build on existing social media platforms, but they are becoming more distinct. It is changing the definition of what it means to be an idol or fan online, for better or worse.