How One Direction prepared young women for the revolution

Rachel O'Leary Carmona

[0.1] AbstractThe One Direction fandom demonstrates the ways in which the online networks common to fandom can play a critical role in the informal training and education of young women. This engagement in fan networks prepares fans to use networked cultures as a positive force, allowing them to agitate for feminist changes to the current political landscape.

[0.2] KeywordsDecentralization; Fan community; Feminism; Mobilizing; Networked; Organizing; Social movements; Twitter

O'Leary Carmona, Rachel. 2020. "How One Direction Prepared Young Women for the Revolution." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Once upon a time in 2010, a small group of girls on Twitter created the phenomenon that is One Direction. Widely considered the first band to break via social media (Tiffany 2016), One Direction set sales records for albums, concert tickets, and merchandise. The One Direction fandom was and remains a decentralized network: it doesn't have one center but rather has many interconnected nodes. Decisions, ideas, and information can come from anywhere and travel throughout the group in any direction. One Direction was, in effect, created when young women organized their peers, who organized more young women, until the band became a worldwide phenomenon.

[1.2] The One Direction fandom is as large as it is notorious; there were around forty million active fans at the height of One Direction's popularity, and One Direction fans (Directioners) are known for their extreme passion and behavior both online and off-line. Although there are many articles highlighting the lengths to which fans would go for just a glimpse of the band, those anecdotes are the least important part of fans' stories. What is much more important is the story of how fans mobilized to showcase their love of a musical group. Today, many One Direction fans are young women in their twenties who own and wield their power through the very online spaces that fueled their fandom. The story of how they popularized and engaged with One Direction online thus runs parallel to how they now mobilize to bring about feminist change as part of their resistance to current regimes of power.

2. Background

[2.1] Online spaces have long been known for their potential both to bring about change and to bring out the worst in people. For example, Facebook has connected millions of people worldwide, but it is also responsible for the spread of fake news and is considered a central site of Russian interference in the 2016 American elections. Reddit is a space where forums share crucial, crowdsourced information, but its seedy underbelly was responsible for Gamergate, a harassment campaign which sought to exclude gamers who did not fit the stereotypical image of young, male, and heterosexual. Twitter has become notorious not only for its ability to mobilize the masses but also as a vehicle for harassment and threats masquerading as free speech.

[2.2] For women, the paradox of online spaces is inherent both in the potential to have the opportunity to build community and exercise leadership and in the potential to entrench and disseminate sexism and misogyny. Sexism pervades not only the ways in which those spaces have been built and maintained but also the internet more broadly, through a general environment of hostility, danger, or even persecution online. But young female digital natives have turned to informal systems online that wield influence over public opinion in new ways. These informal systems often exist under the radar (Males 2018). Rather than engage directly with the tech that reinforces their own oppression, they have instead innovated and evolved, forming decentralized networks (Feldmann 2017).

[2.3] Our lives are increasingly lived in networks. Our friends are one kind of network, our colleagues, a different kind. Movement NetLab, a think tank focused on networked social movements, posits that when we talk about culture wars, we need to think more about network versus network rather than people versus people. The last few years have demonstrated that our opinions are often the aggregation of all the opinions of the people in our networks. These networks have no true central node. Decentralized, self-organizing networks have cores, but they are huge. Similar to the city of Los Angeles, decentralized networks have many centers, and they are all connected to each other. Decisions, ideas, and information can come from anywhere and travel throughout the group in any direction. In decentralized networks, the periphery is constantly stretching outward. As it does so, it brings in new information and members. As network membership grows and members become more closely connected to each other, they also become more likely to take bolder, riskier actions.

[2.4] When people begin to initiate action themselves, without waiting for anyone else to tell them what to do, untapped energy is released. When people collaborate with diverse groups on that action, boundless creativity is unleashed. When people share what they are doing and gain new insights through the reflection that sharing generates, breakthroughs occur. When networks identify leverage points, the system begins to shift dramatically. In a complex communications ecosystem, ideas and actions spread rapidly and many more people get involved (Golan et al. 2016).

3. The One Direction network

[3.1] The One Direction fandom is a perfect example of how online networks function. Online engagement allowed the demands of the Directioners to shape the brand of the band. The grassroots, participatory culture allowed the One Direction fandom to grow to an unprecedented size and strength. Inside the fandom, young women found an outlet for their untapped strength and potential, and they created a vibrant international community capable of large mobilizations and highly coordinated fan actions planned entirely over social media (Buenneke 2015).

[3.2] Directioners played many different roles in the network, from acting as promoters of the band to creating fan fiction and fan art. Some created fundraising drives for charities that the band supported, while older fans provided critical support to younger Directioners facing issues outside of the fandom. In the early days of the fandom, Directioners understood their ability to make an impact on three levels: the first impact they knew they could make was to influence the band's identity. Early on, the fandom realized that the One Direction brand was very responsive to fan discourse on social media. Fan feedback could thus literally change the public behavior or narrative of the group, and often did so. The second impact was to and through the community that the fandom created and the spaces for connection it provided. Most fan activity was about One Direction, but Directioners also supported each other emotionally, socially, and politically through the fandom, instilling confidence in each other and providing crowdsourced problem-solving where needed. The third and least discussed impact was their ability to mobilize a network of support to help propel their cocreated brand forward to commercial success. Over the course of five years, fans supported the band by driving album, concert ticket, and merchandise sales valued at over $1 billion.

[3.3] The story of One Direction is interesting if you are a Directioner, but the story of the fandom should pique the interest of anyone interested in mobilizing collective action via online networks. The internet has given those shut out of the public sphere by virtue of their socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, religion, or ability the opportunity to engage in collective action or exert cultural influence in transformational ways. That is why online networks, including networked social movements, fandoms, and other online communities, are so important: they not only provide opportunities for people to exercise leadership in the public sphere but also provide real opportunities to influence culture via public opinion and profitability.

[3.4] The impacts of fandoms and other online networks can be huge, and businesses and grassroots organizations would do well to understand them. Snapchat learned that the hard way, when they posted an offensive ad featuring Rihanna on their platform in 2018. Upon seeing the ad, Rihanna tweeted that everyone with Snapchat should delete the app, and over the course of two days, Snap—Snapchat's parent company—lost $800 million in value (Stefansky 2018). The lesson? Networked online communities wield immense economic power.

[3.5] Scholars like Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd (2015) have conducted decades of research on participatory culture and the evolution of audiences, advancing the argument that passive audiences no longer exist. Audiences, they suggest, are now active, organized, and transformative. In order to successfully engage modern audiences, you must build the necessary structure for stakeholders to cocreate the brand itself. The One Direction fandom was positioned in such a way that fans could find a place to exercise shared values, build identity, and find purpose, which in turn created the perfect conditions for a super fandom to emerge.

[3.6] This new, online amateurization of the production of culture (Shirky 2008) provides transformational opportunities and accessibility for young women, especially young women from marginalized backgrounds. It means that the ability to participate in creating and critiquing public values and public opinion is no longer controlled by a few; rather, it has been radically democratized such that young women are the cocreators of culture. This participatory culture can influence market conditions that allow or disallow certain art and artists to be successful in our current cultural landscape. With that power, young women can literally breathe life into new realities through the power of their networks.

[3.7] It is worth noting, however, that networks of women advancing positive change is nothing new. In the past, it happened in neighborhoods and faith-based communities, in knitting groups and social clubs. Today, online networks have removed both the geographical obstacles and the opportunity costs of creating community, and digitization allows networks to operate at scale without the inconvenience of leaving home, work, school, or family. A case in point: many influencers within the One Direction fandom never expected to see the band in person, either because of their country of origin or because of their inability to afford concert tickets. Yet they worked tirelessly to support One Direction because of the community and space the fandom provided for self-actualization. This global reach also gives the fandom the power to shape the way that news travels and mobilizations happen across social media.

[3.8] One Direction is certainly not the only online network with which young women engage. Women are power users of all social media platforms and engage in online networking and entrepreneurship. One Directioner Jada Kissi (pers. comm.) learned many of her organizing skills in the One Direction fandom though organizing fan mobilizations and taking part in activations such as fan-driven "follow trains," where Directioners on Twitter would recommend other Directioners to follow certain accounts. These follow trains would trend globally, building network density in addition to network scale. For decentralized networks, density is one of the key measures of successful mobilization and replication. In studying networked social movements, people often juxtapose networks based on their densities and reaches. The One Direction Fandom was wide and deep, which was why leadership and innovation were so prevalent. Today, Jada is a key leader with Platform, a political training and lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring the voices of all who identify as young women; gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and femme folx are heard in the rooms where decisions are made (Platform 2017).

4. Conclusions

[4.1] Social change in America has always been part of our culture. Our country was founded upon principles of protest, and that, alongside our role as a global cultural exporter, has created an order of operations for social change in which popular culture influences the choices, opportunities, and values that are necessary preconditions for social change. Popular culture drives the logic that people use to connect their values and actions with the problems that they see in the world.

[4.2] Fandom in particular has the power to affect culture in ways that are often hidden. Modern fandoms have the structural, group-based, and value-based elements of activism baked into them such that fans are prepared, through their participation in fandom, to drive social change. Whatever the community, it is clear that the skills and knowledge many young women are developing in online networks, where their leadership is valued and legitimate, have created a generation of women who have wrested public opinion and collective action from the gatekeepers who have held that influence out of reach for too long. They may just save us all.

5. References

Buenneke, Katie. 2015. "One Direction is Now a DIY Band." LA Weekly, May 18, 2015.

Feldmann, Derrick. 2017. "Millennials Are Engaging in Political Action Now More Than Ever." Vice, October 11, 2017.

Golan, Gan, Tamara Shapiro, Samantha Corbin, and Kei Williams. 2018. "NetWars: Wielding Decentralized Power." Lecture presented at Fearless Citites North America, New York, NY, July 27–29, 2018.

Jenkins, Henry, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. 2015. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Males, Mike. 2018. "The Big Reason Young People Don't Debate Gun Control the Way Adults Do." Yes!, March 6, 2018.

Platform. 2017. "About." Platform.

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin.

Stefansky, Emma. 2018. "Snapchat Lost $800 Million after Rihanna Criticized Its Offensive Ad." Vanity Fair, March 17, 2018.

Tiffany, Kaitlyn. 2016. "How One Direction Stayed the World's Biggest Band Even after It Stopped Existing." The Verge, December 13, 2016.