CLIQUE TALK: One Direction fans are the true masters of the Internet
The date is 28 October 2014. One Direction have currently sold 13 million albums in the five years since their questionable first steps in the British TV talent show “X Factor. Now Liam, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Louis, all between 20 and 23, are getting ready to release their new single – “Steal My Girl” – on YouTube. Fans all over the world have been gearing up for the last few days. Twitter is swarming with messages and action plans, unfathomable for those not in the loop. Their objective hasn’t changed: obliterate the record number of views in 24 hours. The pressure is almost unbearable, but they’re ready.
I sit stupefied before this furious activity on the social networks. Suddenly, everything clicks. The true threat to humanity in the 21st century is not the Lizard People or the Illuminati, but an all-powerful and frighteningly real lobby that will destroy us all. This movement is made up of all the fans of the world’s most adored boy bands, such as One Direction. I decide make my own inquiries, determined to understand. Who are the “Directioners”? What networks do they use?
THE TRUE MASTERS OF THE INTERNET
This whole thing is actually Eli’s fault. Eli is not a girl, but a monkey, and it’s because of him I have dived daily into this dream-like, but quite unnerving parallel universe.
The music video is met with resounding success as soon as it is released. “Steal My Girl” seduces the fans. It has to be said that it’s deliciously naïve. Filmed in the desert, the lads flirt for the camera. Smiles galore, dancers and balloons are all captured with cool in mind (it’s 40 degrees in the shade, but let’s keep our jackets on). In these sorts of videos, a cute little thing with a skinny waist is expected, it’s almost a ritual. They could even have picked a baby. But no, it’s a monkey. Meet Eli, with a pair of flashy, red Ray-Bans perched atop its nose. The animal rather takes to Louis, and offers him its hand. A little later, there’s even the suggestion of a kiss.
PETA was on the lookout, however. After watching the clip a few days earlier, the American animal rights association thought it could spy mistreatment. So when – OMG – the video was blocked, suddenly made inaccessible, the culprit was quickly identified. In just a few minutes, a resistance formed. A large, and mainly adolescent group started the hashtag #DontDeleteStealmyGirl and a wave of 140-character indignation hit Twitter. The fans demanded the video’s return. Many Tweeters took a sarcastic approach, such as @alexia4568, who asked to be “mistreated like the monkey”. The video was quickly put back up to general relief, even if the Directioners didn’t break the record.
Did they beat YouTube? Not for sure. Behind this story lurk obvious financial interests which go beyond the fans. Nevertheless, their ability to rally so quickly shocks me. It’s hard to estimate the number of Directioners, but there are several hundred thousand of them. Another event confirms my theories. The same day, they crashed Google during a “Hangout” – a chatroom with the band members – which saw too many people online at once. I also found out that Twitter was struggling to cope a few months earlier. The hyperactive fans were too enthusiastic for one social network. Fan communities are all over the Internet. The most renowned are probably the “Beliebers” (fans of Justin Bieber), the “Swifties” from Taylor Swift and the “Monsters” from Lady Gaga, (without forgetting the Selenators, the KatyCats, and oh so many others). These groups come in every flavour, and have varying degrees of power. Here, however, there is not a shred of doubt. In the world of fan bases, the Directioners hold sway.
A BIT TOO NORMAL
“We’re the first fans to be involved in marketing.” WHAM! While interviewing two Directioners, I was ready for almost anything, but not that. Is that what a fan is nowadays? A concentrated pool of lucidity? It’s 11 November in Paris, and I met the two girls currently sitting at my table by chance. I stumbled across a website where they were talking about the time they met their idols after an exhausting day hunting all over London.
I have an image in my head. An image of love-struck teenagers, for whom nativity and poster-spattered walls are a given. I see them as around 15, tense with excitement for each new photo posted on Instagram, praying that someday one of the five band members will follow them on Twitter. According to Lisa, 15, (another Directioner I emailed), it’s the Holy Grail: “you can send them private messages!” My other mental images included choreographies and expressions of blissful love, like in this video.
I’m totally wrong, and it serves me right. Pauline and Marie are respectively 19 and 23, both wearing a little makeup, jeans and a blouse. Both have light, brown hair, turquoise-blue eyes, and the older one has some killer comebacks. She just got back from a year studying in London. The other one seems a little more childish, but also calmer. While fiddling with her long, brown hair, she tells me she’s at university just outside Paris, and she works part-time at a music venue. In a word, these two girls are n-o-r-m-a-l, and even quite nice. They’re nothing like the girls in the nerve-racking documentary on Channel 4 in 2013, which clearly selected the craziest fans (and simultaneously sparked the anger of the Directioners and their idols).
They list the number of times they’ve seen One Direction play. Nine for Pauline, five for Marie, both over around two years. Even that seems normal, coming from them. “I see them more as journeys,” Pauline adds pensively.
I’m in the company of veterans. According to them, the average age of a Directioner is between 12 and 18, and they specify that they’re mostly girls. As fans from the very beginning, they have the advantage of perspective. Yes, they’re big fans of “the love songs”, but that doesn’t stop them being skilled in the art of self-deprecation. They both admit to worshiping the band members, and they find it hilarious. All five are included in this cult: Zayn, “who looks like Aladdin”, Louis with his delicate features, Liam, Niall and Harry, the leader. “He’s so cute!”
The girls don’t make a big fuss about it though. They’re aware that when you’re around 20, being a massive boy band fan can “seem odd”, and actually asked me to change their names for the interview. One of them has created a “fanfic” – a fictional work inspired by the boys’ lives – but they both want to step back from the “75% of younger fans” who “can sometimes be a bit hysterical.” They would never, unlike some fans, spend hours about the “Larry” theory. Or Narry, or Zarry. Or even Ziam. Come again…?
“‘Larry’ has been the centre of a huge conspiracy since the start of the X-Factor” explains Marie, who sees I’m lost. Many fans have proclaimed that Louis and Harry (‘Larry’) are madly in love, but terribly unhappy. They say the boys are hiding themselves. Wanting them to own up, they encourage the supposedly star-crossed lovers by posting hundreds of drawings and videos aimed at making them come out. Ever since, the two haven’t been seen next to each other. You see? The true conspiracy theory is probably not what you were thinking…
ESPIONAGE AND A SECRET LANGUAGE
Pauline and Marie are snipers. They know everything, immediately. Possibly the world’s most qualified Internet spies, they specialise in geo-localisation networks. They prefer Twitter and Instagram to Facebook as the first two are directly updated by the band members themselves. One of them tells me how, in just a few hours, they managed to track down the One Direction studio next to a motorway in the middle of the beautiful English countryside. In their hurry to post the photo on Instagram, one of the band’s friends forgot to deactivate the photo’s geo-localisation. One second was all it took. By the time they deleted the image, the information was already in the hands of the fans. In the end, the girls decided against going to the studio. Too far, too dangerous.
When the Directioners want to make themselves heard, flaunt their satisfaction or even complain, they join forces on the Internet. To get their message across, they have a fearsome weapon: the mass tweet. They create hashtags which appear on the side of Twitter users’ screens, indicating which subjects are trending the most. These key words are clear for the fans, but illegible for those who haven’t mastered the basics of being a Directioner. Here’s an example: one of the latest hashtags read #GetwellsoonLiam, as Liam was ill and his fans wanted to wish him a speedy recovery. “I once trended a hashtag”, says Pauline, who pines for the golden age when this happened daily. “The French fans were a little more organised back then. We all agreed to tweet the same thing at a certain time, and it worked!” I hold back from telling her that it still has its effect on me…
RELATIONS WITH THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
The girls have already guessed the next question. “They don’t have to lift a finger, we do all the work for them.” By “they” the girls mean the industry’s publicity gurus. Marie has a source account, one of the Twitter accounts closely followed by the fans, which compiles all available information about the One Direction. Hers is one of the oldest on the network. She goes on to say that “Many of the source accounts are connected to Sony, or rather Rise Up – the online agency which looks after One Direction.” The agency contacts the source accounts ang politely asks them to take care of some of the band’s promotion. In exchange, the fans receive modest remuneration such as queue-jumping passes for gigs and free albums. “Behind most of these accounts are young girls who spend all day taking turns in between classes to find information to tweet to their followers,” says Emilie, from Rise Up. “This is our way of empowering their work, and of thanking them for the constant representation and exposure they provide to the artists.”
Meeting the band and free tickets are never part of the deal, however. It’s a shame: “on their last tour, the agencies pushed it a bit far,” says Marie. “VIP tickets were being sold for around 190 euros!” But the small gifts suit the two girls. “It’s a win-win relationship.” Pauline and Marie would never criticise the web-marketing teams. Recently, the Directioners were nominated at the American Music Awards in the “biggest fans” category. To win they had to tweet a particular hashtag so they could be counted. Needless to say, the Directioners won the award. “I don’t care about it,” says Pauline, “but hey, it’s something we HAVE to do.” She continues: “they make it clear that the more you do, the more likely it is you’ll see them.” “If the album “Four” sells well, the boys might even come and visit us,” says Marie. “When they need us, they send us a message.” “It’s a bit sad I suppose,” admits Pauline.
“We all know each other”. Marie tells me that amongst the source accounts, the most diligent Directioners organise themselves and tell the others what to do. This type of Twitter account is rarely management by just one person. Three or four fans will often share the workload. One will post photos, while the other finds the gossip. “I know more people on Twitter than in real life,” says Marie. The online community is both close-knit and international. “Everyone speaks English,” says Pauline. According to Nilesh Kumar, who manages a Facebook fan page with over 16,000 followers, “As soon as we see something unfair about One Direction online, we know that there are millions of us to oppose it. The Directioners are a huge, global family,”
The girls don’t really want to make these virtual friends a reality. Although they do make exceptions. For the release of “More Than This”, some of the Directioners met up in Paris. They created several groups scattered across the capital, filmed a video and sent it to the band’s managers. They did it to please One Direction, but also in the hope that their tour would make it over to Paris faster. The Directioners have also taken the concept of “projects” from the Justin Bieber fan base. Before a gig, the fans organise a mass movement to surprise the band. Marie and Pauline told me how, in April 2013 at Bercy in Paris, they cooked up the “Kiss You Project.” First on Twitter, then four hours before the gig while standing in front of the venue, the girls rallied the fans, giving them precise instructions. During the concert, the plan came together. On their signal, when the band played “Kiss You”, thousands of people all held up signs with lips painted on them. “We’re on the DVD, and in the Yearbook,” say the two girls. “They even tweeted about it!”
At the end of the interview, I’m left pensive. Seeking out these fan girls, wanting to see something other than a faceless crowd of groupies, and finding a pretext to make fun of the magazine “Le Point” ended up teaching me a thing or two. But something’s bothering me. So far, the Directioners are 15 on average, and this whole lobby theory isn’t for real, it’s just about the music. So what happens when they find a passion for something else? Try to imagine their energy, their ability to organise themselves, their mass power used to aid a political or social cause. Pauline can’t see it. “If they tweeted about other stuff, I don’t think it would work. If it’s about music, yeah, why not? But they’re not interested in anything else.” Perhaps not for now. But wait and see what happens when this generation grows up…
Photo ©John Wright