"Are we friends or opponents?" Chinese idol fans' relationship changes from online to off-line

Qing Xiao

University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

Yuhang Zheng

University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—We examine how relationships between Chinese idol fans change in the hybrid online–off-line space, challenging assumptions about the harmony of fan relationships and highlighting these relationships' high fluidity. Based on imaginary relationships with other fans, both competitive and cooperative, Chinese fans intentionally control their online and off-line fan identities, which are closely related to their fan activities in different spaces. Fans of the same idol cooperate online to enhance their idol's status in the entertainment industry, while off-line, they compete for their idol's attention.

[0.2] Keywords—Chinese fandom; Space; Tongdan

Xiao, Qing, and Yuhang Zheng. 2023. "'Are We Friends or Opponents?' Chinese Idol Fans' Relationship Changes from Online to Off-line." In "Chinese Fandoms," edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fans are always separated into online and off-line fans (A. J. Baker 2009; Booth and Kelly 2013; Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017; Woods and Ludvigsen 2021), where in reality some fans claim both identities in mixed spaces. Many East Asian pop fans are fans who are active in online social media and who attend off-line concerts; they change their identities as their space changes (Chen 2018; Saraswati and Nurbaity 2021; Sun 2020; Swan 2018). When they transition from online to off-line spaces, the relationship between these fans also changes, affecting the power relationship within fandom (Botorić 2021; Woods and Ludvigsen 2021).

[1.2] Idol culture originated in Japan, where the entertainment industry introduced idol groups built upon meticulously crafted personas and mainstream entertainment systems to garner passionate adoration from fans (Galbraith and Karlin 2012). This highly manufactured system spread to South Korea in the form of K-pop and gained popularity in other Asian countries. We focus on the emotional relationship between Chinese idols and their fans, as well as the role of space in mediating this connection.

[1.3] We conducted twelve interviews with idol fans and participated in five on-site activities to observe their relationships. We found that fans always want to separate their online and off-line identities and do not want other fans to know who they are. In online spaces, they are friends battling opponents to protect their idols; at off-line sites, however, they become opponents to each other, scrambling for their idol's attention and love.

[1.4] We conclude that the segmentation of space is crucial in fan relations. Fans flexibly change their relationships with other fans by coordinating public and private spheres to gain more attention from or defend their idols. Even fans of the same idol are vastly compartmentalized, thus challenging the assumptions of homogeneity and internal loyalty within fan groups from traditional fan studies (Hills 2017; Kim 2014; Swan 2018).

2. Community, space, and future fandom research

[2.1] As Anna Lee Swan (2018, 549–50) states, "physically dispersed, but affectively connected, K-pop fans around the world have formed a dynamic community that imagines itself as transcending national boundaries...necessitat[ing] a consideration of the specificity of space and place within which identities are constantly being reshaped and reproduced." Space encompassing both virtual and physical environments provides opportunities for fans to express rather than internalize their emotions (Booth 2023). It represents a means for fans to transform their external surroundings, merging their emotions with reality (Jenkins 2013; Saraswati and Nurbaity 2021). Fans can personalize their private space with items related to their interests, while in shared spaces, they can connect with like-minded individuals to communicate, create, and share their thoughts and emotions (Peck-Suzuki 2016). Social media platforms for fans of popular culture provide an extensive forum for interaction where fans can follow their favorite topics and engage with others in lively discussions (Booth 2017; Saraswati and Nurbaity 2021). Fan studies scholars have released a wealth of literature exploring the impact of online spaces on fandom (Booth 2017, 2023; Chalk 2022; Wu 2021). In turn, some fan communities, such as sports (Pope and Williams 2011) and theme park fans (C. A. Baker 2016), are most impacted by off-line environments.

[2.2] Fan research typically focuses on a singular topic, such as social media or face-to-face events, and often fails to address how the coexistence of online and off-line spaces can create differences or identity changes within fan communities. Even studies that do examine both spaces tend to highlight their shared influence on fan emotions and group cohesion (Sun 2020; Woods and Ludvigsen 2021). However, the flexible nature of space fundamentally alters how fans interact with their fandom. Despite many fan activities, like idol performances, being primarily screen-based, such performances are typically filmed in off-line locations, where fans can gather in person to support their idols (Saraswati and Nurbaity 2021).

[2.3] In Chinese fan studies, the impact of online fan activities is staggering. These include highly organized fan support groups, thousands of social media data streams, and enormous amounts of money raised through fan apps (Wu 2021; Yin 2020; Zhang and Negus 2020). A significant number of these activities occurs on Chinese social media (E. N. Wang and Ge 2022; Yin 2020; Zhang and Negus 2020). Xueyin Wu (2021, ΒΆ 0.1) states that "fans have strong, exclusive feelings regarding their idol." We regard this as the most important assumption of Chinese fans. Extensive fan research has shown that on social media, fans' primary task is to unite to defend their idols against challenges from other idols and exclude those idols from competing (Chen 2018; Sun 2020; Wu 2021). We now suggest that in off-line activities, gaining the love of their idol becomes fans' primary goal. During off-line activities, the idol's attention and actual contact become scarce yet valuable resources. In contrast, all of the idol's public activities are easily accessible to fans online, such as by browsing the idol's Weibo account or purchasing their music (Yin 2020; Zhang and Negus 2020). We analyze this fluidity among Chinese fan relationships between online and off-line spaces and reflect on the complexity of Chinese fandom.

[2.4] Fan research has highlighted the emotional connections among fans, emphasizing concepts such as fan unity, loyalty within the group, and group identity (Lively 2012; Peck-Suzuki 2016). Fans' shared love of the same object makes it easy to develop common emotional memories and consumption experiences, forming an affectionate fan community in which members may even involve themselves in each other's lives and become friends, alleviating stresses and potentially providing spiritual or economic support (Hutchins and Tindall 2019). However, violence, verbal abuse, and even physical fights with other fan groups can sometimes enhance the fan experience (C. L. Wang 2018; Woods and Ludvigsen 2021). Radosław Kossakowski and Tomasz Besta (2018) discovered that intergroup conflict among diverse Polish soccer fans led to a heightened alignment with their group identities due to the intensified emotional investment. Because of the extreme exclusivity of fans, conflicts can also arise within fan groups devoted to the same idol, and inferences about the possibility of such conflicts significantly impact fan behavior decisions.

3. Method

[3.1] We actively participated in organizing multiple Chinese idol fandoms. We tracked and personally joined over ten online activities, such as crowdfunding and voting. Additionally, we participated in five off-line events, including seeing idols off at airports and attending off-line performances. Through all these fandom activities across different spaces, we discussed and recorded field notes to determine the fan relationships in mixed spaces. Ultimately, we created a semistructured interview outline to focus on fans' online and off-line identities, their views on both identities, and their experiences.

[3.2] We recruited seven participants during the off-line fan activities and an additional five participants using early interviewees' fan relationship networks. We chose a conversational interview approach without strict time limits; all interviews lasted over an hour. To mitigate the potential biases arising from subjective emotional narratives, we sought to obtain reliable and credible responses by interviewing various respondents for all public events involving multiple fans or larger fan communities after obtaining the participants' consent. In all interviews, we disclosed our identities as researchers.

4. Fans' virtual online personas

[4.1] We found that almost all active off-line fans have a social media account and are very active in their online fan communities. However, they hope to separate their online and off-line fan identities, meaning they do not want both identities to be associated with the same person. Most fans have managed to limit the connection between their fan identities to a small group of friends. The off-line fans contend that their frequent attendance at events and subsequent interaction with idols at a close proximity may trigger envy and hostility among online fans. The off-line fans also express the concern that such sentiments may potentially escalate into personal attacks, with repercussions extending to their online social and personal lives. One example is a fan named Sherley, who due to her role as the head of a fan club was asked by other fans to publicly reveal her online and off-line identities. "Other fans like me who frequently go off-line are also very reluctant to associate their online and off-line identities because of Sherley's experience," one fan stated. "After she publicly disclosed her account, she was repeatedly insulted by online fans after each interaction with the idol off-line."

[4.2] Sherley has also been subjected to targeted online violence several times. "I have a close personal relationship with [the idol], like a friend, because I'm a fan who has been following her since she wasn't popular," Sherley explained. "During the usual off-line activities, [the idol] is more willing to interact with me because of this. So it's actually normal for me to be subjected to online violence and insults from other fans. After all, we all love the same idol; in a way, you could say we are rivals." Another fan who has been following the idol since she wasn't popular added, "In fact, [the idol] doesn't treat me any worse than she treats Sherley, but they [online fans] don't know who I am, so they have no outlet for their frustration. In fact, online fans have long been dissatisfied with fans who can participate in off-line activities, and Sherley has taken the brunt of their anger toward all of us off-line fans, so she has been attacked especially frequently."

[4.3] Sherley is unique among fans because she is the head of the idol's fan club, which can directly communicate with the idol's agency and receive information before other fans. Additionally, the fan club is considered a representative of the fan community and sometimes negotiates with brands and publishers on behalf of all fans. Because of this, the person in charge of the fan club must be highly trustworthy, not just a virtual social media presence, so they are required to publicly reveal their true identity. This means that Sherley's appearance, name, address, and so on must be publicly disclosed to the entire fan community, which leads to online fans monitoring her off-line actions and criticizing her in the name of supervision.

[4.4] In addition to online network violence, Sherley and her partners are concerned about off-line attacks resulting from online community disputes. One time, when Sherley and her partner were waiting for their idol at an airport, an unknown fan attacked them, with Sherley the main target. "Later, this scene was taken by someone and posted to the fan community," the other fan recalled. "Many online fans were looking for the person next to Sherley, but I didn't dare stand up because of Sherley's experience." Because of this, almost all off-line fans avoid associating their off-line with their online identity.

5. Space transformations change fans' relationships

[5.1] Chinese fans categorize their relationships with other fans as tongdan or feitongdan. Tongdan originated among fans of the Japanese idol group Johnny, with roots in the Japanese 同担 (doutan, fans who support the same idol). Feitongdan refers to fans who support different idols. Typically, due to the competitive relationship between idols, fans who love the same idol are expected to be loyal to their own idol. Tongdan are also expected to support their idols to become more successful than others. Based on our interviews, tongdan are often seen to have cooperative and friendly relationships that require mutual support, while feitongdan are seen as having adversarial relationships to make efforts for different idols. These friendly and adversarial relationships are frequently reflected online, which may be attributed to how the idol's participation in the online world is often quite limited. "In fact, compared to a real person, the idol in our online fan community is more like a totem. Everything and everyone revolves around this individual, but the idol themselves cannot subjectively participate," said a fan who frequently attends off-line events. According to our online observations, many idols are asked not to "stare at the fan community" and avoid making excessive comments on fan behavior because, as the fan added, "it makes the idol look like they're not doing anything important, and it looks low-class." Therefore, compared to the act of star-chasing, the online tongdan fan community lacks competition for idols' attention due to the idols' reduced participation in the online environment.

[5.2] When the online fan community transitions to off-line events, the situation changes dramatically. As a physical entity, the idol's subjective involvement increases: when an idol and their fans participate in the same physical space, the idol interacts with some fans but not others. Even if the idol tries to interact with every fan at certain moments, it is impossible to ensure that each fan receives equal or comparable interaction, which can create conflict rooted in an irreconcilable source, as fans' relationships are built on their shared love of the idol. This, as Sherley mentioned, transforms them from fellow hobbyists to rivals.

[5.3] When the relationship among fans turns into a love-hate situation, jealousy spreads within the off-line fan community. Fans who receive more attention from the idol show off their success, while those who receive less feel angry due to the former's behavior. This anger can ultimately lead to disputes within the fan community. These love-hate relationships can also lead to competition during off-line activities. Fans may resort to various means to gain the idol's attention, sometimes even interrupting other fans' conversations with the idol. For instance, one interviewee had a close online friendship with another fan during high school. When they began participating in off-line activities, the situation changed drastically. The interviewee stated, "I was obsessed with saying cheesy pickup every time I went to pick up B [their idol], I would actively tell her cheesy pickup lines, and she quickly remembered me and even gave me a nickname, Cheesy Lover. Although cheesy is not a good adjective for a lover, everyone was jealous of me because she called me her lover." However, envy from other fans led to the breakdown of her relationship with her former friend: "I don't know when it started, but every time I told B cheesy pickup lines, she [the friend] tried to interrupt me. Sometimes she would even try to sneak a look at the lines I prepared for B and say them before me in order to get B's attention." This competition is not just about who can better gain the idol's attention but sometimes also involves preventing others from gaining the idol's attention. The interviewee even said that sometimes B's flights conflicted with her work schedule, and she thought it wouldn't matter to skip them occasionally. However, as soon as she heard that her friend was going, she immediately tried to take leave and go to the airport: "I absolutely cannot let her catch B's attention!"

[5.4] Tongdan are online friends who become off-line opponents, and feitongdan are online enemies who become off-line friends. Anne, an active participant in fan communities, is both active online and in off-line activities with her companions. However, when asked who she participates in activities with, she hesitated and asked, "Can you guarantee that you won't tell my online followers so that the fan community wouldn't know about what I say?" After we promised confidentiality, she told us that she almost always accompanies feitongdan companions. "I have several friends who frequently participate in activities together. They are not fans of my idol. On the contrary, they are fans of my idol's teammates [idols in the same idol group]. Therefore, our idols' schedules overlap significantly, so we can travel together to see our idols in onsite events." Anne admitted to disputes between idol fan communities, but she deliberately avoids them when traveling with her friends. "We really don't like each other's idols, largely because of the competitive relationship between idols. But we are all adults and can hide our emotions. We won't speak ill of each other's idols in front of each other. On the contrary, when the other praises their idol, we will also compliment them and then change the subject. After all, life is not just about chasing stars. This deliberate management has made our friendship particularly long-lasting." Anne further explained this phenomenon:

[5.5] As far as I know, most fans who often chase [idols] off-line will choose to travel with feitongdan companions. This is because there is no competition between them because they don't have the same idol. Traveling together can help [us help] each other and share information. I will help my friend attract the attention of her idol, and she will be happy to share my idol's schedule with me if she knows it. The mutual help between us is selfless. But if we travel with tongdan companions, there is a high possibility that they will keep the new schedule they know to themselves and go to the scene alone so that the idol's entire attention will be on them alone.

[5.6] She also told us that this phenomenon is very common in fan communities, but they all agree not to reveal their online identities to their feitongdan friends: "After all, I often curse their idols on Weibo. Although they certainly know that I will definitely do this, we still hope that this matter will not be exposed. Perhaps we have even engaged in a quarrel with each other on Weibo! Let's keep our off-line friendship off-line and not spread it to the online fan community."

6. Conclusion

[6.1] The shift from online to off-line spaces results in a change in fans' focus from defending their idol from fans of other idols to competing with fans of the same idol. Chinese fans are aware of these relationships with other fans, which can be cooperative or competitive, and act accordingly. Online, fans of the same idol are generally united and even cooperative, as they need to compete with other fan groups for traffic or other resources. However, when fan activities move off-line, fans are keenly aware that their online comrades have become enemies who compete for their idol's direct attention and affection. We thus call for better consideration of the changes in fans' attitudes and behaviors in multiple spaces and how these affect broader fan organizations and social networks.

7. Acknowledgment

An early version of this study was presented at the 2022 Fan Studies Network North America (FSNNA) conference. We thank all the discussants at the Fandom and Space session for their input.

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