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The dark side of stan culture

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Since the creation of the internet, online platforms and social media have made it increasingly easy for people to gain a digital following. With the internet providing hours of content and easily available information about digital celebrities and content creators, it’s no surprise that people find themselves increasingly attached to them, leading to the rise of the internet phenomenon known as “stan culture.”

The concept of “stans” is nothing new — in fact, the term was first coined by Eminem all the way back in 2000 as a portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan.” Though the word was initially attributed to obsessive fans of celebrities and entertainers, it has been recently redefined in many online communities to mean someone who is slightly more invested than your average fan.

Lour Drick Valsote ’24, a Daily staffer and YouTuber who makes Stanford-related content and whose channel has gained over 9,000 subscribers, explained in an interview with The Daily, “There’s a scale for how invested audience members are for the content of creators they watch. People who are just fans of a content creator are labeled as stans — which isn’t necessarily fair — while ‘stan culture’ is actually something unhealthy.”

So, what exactly makes stan culture so dangerous?

“You have these people who are usually younger and more impressionable developing parasocial relationships with content creators — it isn’t healthy,” Valsote said. “As much as you may enjoy a content creator, and as much as that content creator shares with their audience, you never get a full picture into what that person is like in real life. There’s a persona that content creators have to put on for their audience, and fans of content creators need to be more aware of that.”

Parasocial relationships involve fans becoming overly attached to the content creators they watch, even going as far as viewing them as their friend despite never actually interacting with them. In less severe cases, these relationships can actually have a positive impact on a content enjoyer — according to a study done by the University at Buffalo, moderate parasocial relationships can lead to improved mood and increased self-esteem.

Issues arise, however, when content enjoyers substitute these relationships for real friendship, becoming emotionally dependent on a content creator. According to Valsote, this dependence becomes unhealthy as the image that creators portray of themselves is often highly inaccurate, especially with regard to their personality off-camera. In essence, you’re creating an intimate one-sided relationship with someone who doesn’t know you — and whom you don’t truly know either.

The conditions of quarantine, Valsote added, likely worsened this issue, as many relationships with content creators filled a void left by a lack of in-person interaction.

“It isn’t as feasible to go out and meet people in real life, which results in people trying to find social interaction through developing unhealthy parasocial relationships with content creators, since they put themselves out on the internet,” Valsote said. “It’s an easy outlet for people to find some semblance of human interaction.” 

This trend can become dangerous for content creators, as fans may cross boundaries as a result of a falsely perceived friendship. These relationships often lead to a sense of entitlement felt among fans, leading to intense backlash against a creator when personal information or content isn’t received. For example, influencer Stephanie Yeboah shared, “I’ve had people I have never spoken to send me voice messages out of the blue asking me why I haven’t responded to their latest messages … I’ve also had people ask for details on people I have shown on my platform, such as friends or family.” Fans feel entitled to details surrounding creators’ personal lives, some going as far as stalking and obsessive messaging to obtain them.

Makenna Turner ’24 is a Stanford- and college-related content creator whose YouTube channel, Keeping Up with Ken, has garnered over 30,000 subscribers and two million views. In an interview with The Daily, she described uncomfortable experiences with fans who overstep on her privacy as a creator.

“Even as a small content creator, I’ve had instances where people have messaged my friends, because they saw we followed each other, asking for my personal contact information, to the point where sometimes I don’t even tag my friends in my Instagram posts — I know that they might be harassed,” Turner said.

In addition to entitlement, fans may feel a sense of ownership over a creator and her or his content. Many content creators feel limited by the demands of their fans, feeling creatively constrained by these expectations. For instance, when YouTuber Bobby Burns switched to vlogging over his usual content, he faced intense backlash from fans who felt obligated to a certain type of content from him.

While stan culture and parasocial relationships can create unhealthy expectations for content creators, it can also lead to mental health issues for fans who become overly dependent on a creator. This social compensation can lead to aggression, media addiction and dependency, dissatisfaction with one’s life and self-esteem issues. The potential for unrealistic expectations learned from parasocial relationships compounds these problems, damaging friendships and causing increased social anxiety.

When these unrealistically high expectations for content creators are unfulfilled, it can create negative effects for both the creator and fans. With the rise of cancel culture, the internet eagerly dramatizes the wrongdoings of creators, whether it’s a Tweet from 10 years ago or a clip taken out of context. For a fan, this culture can feel like a betrayal, as the image you’ve held of someone you admire and look up to has been shattered, leading to increased backlash against a creator. Parasocial relationships have only exacerbated cancel culture further, causing higher expectations for creators and harsher punishments when they inevitably fail to meet them.

Creators are often criticized for the behavior of their stans, with many claiming that they should be obligated to denounce parasocial relationships and set stricter boundaries to prevent obsessive behavior. This criticism begs the question: are content creators responsible for the actions of their fanbase?

This question has been debated heavily, especially when it comes to Dream, a YouTuber who has grown dramatically over quarantine and amassed over 25 million subscribers. He has a large following largely made up of young teens, many of whom have developed parasocial relationships with him. His fanbase is known to be overly defensive of him, going as far as attacking and doxxing other creators who say a negative word against him. To make matters worse, Dream actively encourages stan culture and refuses to set strict boundaries for his fans, leading to a fanbase where many have stalked him and posted uncomfortable things about him. Should his fans be blamed for their actions, or is Dream responsible for not setting these boundaries?

“When you’re a creator and have a fanbase, no matter how large or small, you have power — people see you and look up to you as a figure,” Turner said. “You have to be responsible with that power … and oftentimes many creators take advantage of the people that look up to them. If you have a fanbase that is engaging in toxic activities and doxxing other people you have beef with online, it is your responsibility to discourage that behavior.” 

“If you have fans who are engaging against you and are stalking you, however, that’s the fan’s fault for being creepy,” Turner added. “Individuals should take ownership of actions that dehumanize a creator’s privacy.”

It’s infeasible to prevent stan culture and parasocial relationships entirely — they naturally arise from social media and celebrity culture. We can, however, encourage content creators whose fanbases are especially toxic to set stricter boundaries against developing unhealthy relationships with a creator.

It’s important that we encourage a relationship of gratitude, not fixation, between a fan and creator. As Turner said, “It’s okay to recognize that you appreciate what somebody does and the impact they have on your life, but not take it to an extreme where you obsess over them and the personality that they have online.”

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Maya Nelson is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's summer journalism workshop. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com