11/28/2021

In Online Stan Spaces, The Unspoken Rule of Anonymity Empowers Women in Pakistan

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

An anonymous profile anywhere else on the internet would not be taken seriously but in Stan spaces on social media – part of the Stan Culture, it is not just the norm but what is expected of you. To understand ‘Stan Culture’, if you ask for perceptions, people would assume it is prepubescent or teenage girls fangirling over a particular artist or band. However, for those deep into the fray of the culture itself, we know it is anything but that.

NPR writes in 2019, “In the last 10 years, social media has reconfigured how we gain access to our favourite musicians. […] [The] oversaturation and constant sense of connection has created a small social phenomenon known as “standom.” It adds, “The word used to be synonymous with overzealous or obsessed. But nearly 20 years [after its first use in 2000 in Eminem’s song “Stan”], it’s become a badge of honour for fans committed enough to show up and go all out for their favourite star on the Internet.”

If I were to describe what Stan circles are like, it would be this; party lines are drawn according to what artist or group you like. You slowly connect with other fans of the same thing and a community is built. These communities are not limited to artists or bands but extend to fans of a fantasy show like Doctor Who to even fans of a particular game like PUBG.

Being an active member of the BTS ARMY on Twitter – a Stan community for the South Korean boy band BTS, I personally would not want the various professional connections that follow me on my real Twitter profile to see me retweet 15 consecutive tweets about the left dimple of Kim Nam-joon – the lead member of BTS. But I know the BTS ARMY community enjoys these tweets, and this is why I maintain a separate anonymous Twitter profile for all my Stan content.

BTS fans have a world of their own. You might not even know about the band, but if you are on social media, especially on Twitter, you probably know about the BTS ARMY, who are often jokingly referred to as the people who run the website considering, on any given day, a few BTS related hashtags are bound to be on the trending panel. 

Fans from all over the world convene on social media to rally together for their beloved Korean band. I personally know and am friends with fans hailing from the United States, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Lebanon, Norway and many others from around the world. This fanbase does not come from just one demographic, instead represents diverse groups. You would find middle-aged mothers managing anonymous stan accounts to girls as young as 15 years old fangirling over the boyband. There are no restrictions of race, class, gender, religion, and hence no surprises to the demographics of those who are BTS fans. 

Building a community     

Twitter had always felt like a safe space for me, but as more people began to join the social networking website and the more followers I seemed to get, the more exposed I felt. I could no longer use my personal profile as my personal diary. The decision of making an anonymous Stan account after this realisation felt almost natural. I could have a place to obsess over my favourite band with those who appreciate it and also get my personal diary back. 

In the Stan community, your timeline is yours and yours alone. You can share hundreds of pictures and videos about your favourite artists and not only is no one annoyed but it is celebrated. However, in the midst of all the tweets and captions about your ‘favs’, you can also talk about life beyond your fandom, and find that the same people who only connect with you through the pictures and videos of artists you share liking for are also there to comfort you and lend you support when you tweet or write a caption about things going on in your personal life.      

What starts out as connection over a shared interest in an artist, sometimes blossoms into deep and meaningful bonds that you might never have experienced before.

As more and more people use social media for various purposes depending on their interests or work requirements, it is increasingly being monitored, putting the safety of a lot of people at risk. Non-state actors like the social media companies are constantly data mining users’ online activity, and lawmakers are introducing draconian laws which limit citizens’ freedom of expression on the internet. As a result, there are not too many safe spaces left even in the digital world that was supposed to democratise voices. 

Because of the many restrictions that internet users in Pakistan need to be mindful of, I have found myself feeling suffocated on my personal accounts where I connect with friends, family and even colleagues. I do not have the same freedom to express my views and opinions, or to even talk about my personal life and struggles without inviting unsolicited advice and judgement.

With the sense of discomfort while occupying online spaces and having security at stake, there is not much room for a person to feel safe in sharing their thoughts on the internet without feeling like there is a bullseye on their back. While perpetrators of violence do not discriminate between who they target, the impact varies with who is being targeted. This is especially true for those who are already on the fringes of society in Pakistan and have little to no legal protections; the minority groups. Whether they are a gender, religious or sexual minority in Pakistan, the idea of living a free life even on social media where they have the liberty to express their beliefs is next to impossible. In instances like this, anonymity gives a certain level of security to coexist on online platforms without putting personal details, and in extension physical safety, at risk. The awareness that you control what you put out on the internet and no one can misuse an anonymised set of information against you or your identity, acts like a safety net to express thoughts without the fear of harassment.

A corner just for you

Despite the crackdown on speech, there is a corner of the internet where these restrictions are somewhat eased – Stan spaces, albeit through anonymity. Here everyone is the same in their love for the artists they look up to, and to provide a sense of community for each other. Despite the similarity in support, everyone is different from each other at the same time with the lives they lead outside of the Stan community.

With a profile picture of their favourite celebrity and the username pledging their loyalty to them, these Stans live out their life as an anonymous individual only known as just another member. The reason why so many of us choose to remain anonymous is simple; to keep up appearances. No one wants their colleagues or potential employers to see their devotion to the pinky toe of Park Jimin – another member of the boyband BTS. In the process, they find a supportive community that actively accepts and helps them as well. 

Personally, I have found Stan Twitter to be a place where I can let loose with a belief that no one will come attacking me for my views because of the community that I am part of. I can talk about my most personal life updates, mental health and goals without any fear of being judged. And like me, millions of others do the same thing.

Thousands of these anonymous BTS ARMY fan accounts are from Pakistan. Even though the band has barely ever acknowledged fans from this region, and the chance of a BTS concert in Pakistan seems incredibly unlikely, there is a very close knit fan circle that exists even in our part of the world. While in many places around the world, fans congregate together at concerts and bond over that experience of the band, even without those experiences, Pakistani BTS Stans have built an incredibly tight online community. 

This Stan community is not just about sharing personal updates to the user, in fact, the community and the bystanders have come together for causes more important than a singer’s pinky toes.  For instance, earlier in 2020, a hashtag accusing a young boy of blasphemy based on his tweets started trending on Twitter. Realizing the threat to the person’s life that the contents of the hashtag could pose, people started to amplify #BTSARMYPakistan to drown the hateful hashtag out. Those who had never even heard of BTS took part in the trend in an attempt to save a life that was being threatened. Of course, the BTS ARMY helps. 

However, like in every community every person’s values are different that they adhere to, this is also evident in the BTS Stan community. While a lot of fans did help by boosting the counter hashtag, there were a lot of people who were upset by the fact that ‘locals’ (Stan term for non-fans) were hijacking a BTS specific hashtag for a ‘crime’. They thought that using a hashtag related to their favourite band for a social campaign was sullying their image. Hence, to counter this and to further discourage the use of the BTS hashtag, the Stans used the original hashtag accusing the person of blasphemy, so now not only the people accusing the person were trending the hateful hashtag, BTS Stan community also took part for their own reasons. While it was very messy, it was also a good reminder that even BTS fans aren’t all the same; everyone has their own set of values and beliefs which they bring to their Stan accounts with them.

Despite this, the community regards compassion over differences most of the days, and acknowledges that everyone is different and deserving of respect. I reached out to multiple people I know who use anonymous Stan accounts on Twitter and Instagram as a way to both be their authentic self through a veil that anonymity provides them, as well as to find a community for themselves, a sense that they find challenging to find on the regular internet. 

A 25-year-old woman from Lahore, who owns an anonymous BTS Stan account with just over a hundred followers on Twitter says, “Some of the people I have gotten to know over a year of being on Stan Twitter are probably better human beings than those I know in real life.” She adds, “On one occasion, two [people] have even helped [me in dealing with] a panic attack.” 

She prefers to remain anonymous to her followers since she thinks it is safer as she talks openly about personal issues such as her sexuality and mental health that she would not want her name to be associated with publicly because of the security concerns. She has however shared her identity with only a select few who are now her friends.

Stan wars

However, where this side of the Stan community empowers its members to have a trusting relationship with each other, on the other side of it, it is as like a regular internet as one can imagine. There is a history of online violence, harassment, and doxxing on Stan Twitter and Instagram for merely getting into fan-wars about favourite artists. Things have gotten ugly and dangerous quite fast as they tend to on the internet with the same old mob mentality we have all witnessed in the real world translating online time and again while scrolling through our timelines. 

Another 20-year-old woman I talked to said that she left Stan Twitter and moved to Instagram because she could not stand the toxicity she witnessed on the former platform. She said, “People did this thing where it was a fancam in the start and then there are disturbing things added [which leave] viewers traumatised.” This proved to be the last straw for her. 

Fancams are video edits fans make of their favorite band member. In late 2019, some people started to ‘infiltrate’ stan spaces where they made video edits which started off as a fancam of a K-pop idol only to lead to a disturbing image of self-harm, pedophilic porn or violence against animals. 

Another 23-year-old woman from Multan confided in me that she does not post her pictures on the internet and chooses to remain anonymous on her Stan Twitter account mostly for her own protection for when fan-wars can get out of hand. “[The trolls] started tagging me and making fun of my age and the [fan projects] I wanted to do”, she said of her experience with trolls. However she felt safe because she knew her identity was a secret and try as they might, the trolls could not get to her family. 

She was trolled for suggesting an idea in a Twitter group chat about writing articles to change the ‘toxic’ image of BTS ARMY since the fandom has repeatedly come under fire for being a non-inclusive space where opinions that differ from the norm are not accepted. She was not only ridiculed for it but was also deleted off the group. While she was still trying to understand what had happened, the fight extended from the DMs to her timeline. However, she says that while in that moment she was distressed, but with time she realised it made no difference to her since her friends rallied around her and supported her. Although her suggestion was dismissed, she kept making efforts on her own to change the ARMY’s image, and says, “Now I can see [the] change, and trolling [that I still face] means nothing.” Even after contributing a lot to the community, she is still wary of revealing her Twitter handle publicly lest it incites trolling against her again.

Even with the possibility of being on the receiving end of mass trolling, fans’ love for their favourite artists still persists through their own safe little communities that they have built for themselves and for others. Yet, many fans who witness this hate or experience it first hand still choose to remain on the platform and part of the communities.

A way to exist

In Pakistan, women are not afforded too many freedoms and being on the internet as yourself is one of the liberties that is routinely denied to them. A lot of families do not allow their daughters to post their identities on social media especially if they are young, and are subjected to a lot of scrutiny. Stan Twitter culture in Pakistan is a way of defying these restrictions and having some sense of freedom in a virtual public space. A lot of people I talked to were mainly women in their early 20s who shared that they were not ‘allowed’ by their families to post pictures of themselves on social media much less have public accounts, and for them Stan twitter was a place they could exist without worrying about the retaliation from their families.

A teenager from Lahore running a page dedicated to BTS called Jamless Jimin-ssi on both Instagram and Twitter with a few thousands followers on the former, shared with me that while her family does not have an issue with her using the internet to express her love for the band, she chooses to remain anonymous because of the potential harassers one can encounter on the internet. “I am afraid of something like this happening in the future which is why I keep filtering my followers”, she told me. “I love making new friends but I do hesitate,” she said in concern for her safety online as a teenager. 

It is no secret that prepubescent and teenage girls are often subjected to unwanted and inappropriate attention on the internet, much like all other women who own an online profile. A study by Spanish researchers on 14-year-old Russian child model Kristina Pimenova’s public Instagram account revealed that 67 percent of comments she received on her pictures were of a sexual nature. Her pictures from when she was 10 years old were studied by researchers which revealed these statistics. The researchers wanted to see if young girls are sexualised on social media websites and found that they indeed are. 

Young girls on the internet are routinely subjected to unwanted and sexualised attention which ends up being a threat to their safety. Earlier this year a video of Roo Powell, a 37-year-old mother of three posing as a 15-year-old on the internet went viral as she showed how within minutes of posting her public Instagram profile depicting her as a minor attracted adult men to her DMs talking to her about sexually explicit acts, asking her or sending her nudes and asking for her to meet them as well. Roo wanted to demonstrate how predators actively preyed on young girls on the internet and how easy it was for them to do so and she did. On Stan twitter, you escape the unwanted male gaze that you often attract as a woman on the internet, only because they have the veil of anonymity.

Another teenage girl who does not have a lot of following told me that she often uses her Stan account on Twitter as a diary of sorts. “Nobody sees my tweets so I use it like a diary”, she said. She told me that she tweets “about anything and everything”, from her daily life to talking about her mental health and self-harm without the fear of “getting into trouble”. She says that she also shares family issues on this account that has helped her in letting her frustration out. According to her, “It’s cathartic for me.”

The freedom to say whatever it is they want without fear of judgement or persecution is something not many women, or even marginalised communities, in Pakistan are afforded in real life and even on the internet. This persecution amplifies when they express their sexual or religious identity, the two aspects that should always, strictly, follow the mainstream narrative. 

An anonymous user told me that her biggest fear is her sexual identity being compromised given the severe repercussions and backlash that people from gender and sexual minority communities face in Pakistan. But the Stan community on both Twitter and Instagram allow her to be expressive and own her identity, even if behind a veil of anonymity. Members of Stan community come from all geographies and cultures but do not follow conservative outlook their respective backgrounds dictate. Instead, they have made a geography of their own on the internet in the shape of the Stan Community.

Most people who I spoke to tell me that their followers are a mix of every ethnicity, nationality and religious beliefs, and all of them are welcome. The collaboration and friendship between Indian, Pakistani, and Bengali fans, for instance, sparks the realisation that people of all of these lands think and believe beyond the political differences of their nations. 

However, while all of these sentiments and solidarity are expressed in anonymity where no one can decipher the gender, age, race or religion of any person, the identities are often revealed to the ones these Stans establish a personal and trusted bond with. This is like any other relationship that is established on the basis of trust, the identities are disclosed with a lot of confidence in DMs where these bonds are forged and strengthened.  

While maintaining a strictly anonymous persona on her feed, a young Stan told me that she has indeed shared her personal account with one of her followers, and they have since then become amazing friends. 

Another one who is currently pursuing a graduate degree told me, “[You] create and find a little space to talk and cheer for people and things you want to keep separate from your professional spheres or judgmental eyes.” The acceptance of other people’s choices and control over their information and identity is very evident in the Stan community, and despite a few wars where some people’s identities were compromised, most have been very supportive and loving towards each other. 

The unsaid rule of not exposing anyone’s identity on public spaces is one that everyone adheres to in these spaces, and it became apparent to me during Ramadan when I joined Muslim Stans group chat on Twitter. Becoming part of this group led us to reveal our identities to each other but no one was scared that it might get compromised. The sense of trust was evident, and it felt like a safe space to be in. 

So even when the friendships were strengthened and people became good friends through these closed spaces, one would never see them using anyone’s real name or identity in their public interactions. This is partly done in an attempt to ensure that if someone were to search up your name on the internet, they would not find your Stan account and be able to associate you with it. With social media checks for job and visa applications now becoming the norm, you wouldn’t want personal details and fandom you share on the internet to be easily found out. 

All precautions to make sure no one’s identity is compromised are maintained by everyone in the community itself. 

A Stan Twitter user told me that she makes her account private whenever she participates in a ‘Selca Day’, a tradition where fans recreate and post pictures of themselves next to those of their favourite idols. Those who follow her are people she trusts but she cannot risk the picture being retweeted and revealing her identity to the public outside of Stan Twitter. 

The sense of community in the Stan spaces enables everyone to protect each other’s anonymity, because where everyone understands that they cannot exist in these spaces publicly, they also acknowledge that everyone’s reasons are different and all are valid, and cannot be questioned by others.

One Stan Twitter member told me, “The anonymous community of K-Pop Twitter in Pakistan can be credited for not only creating a safe space for Stans but [also for being a place] where you decide who you are, without restrictions.” And I think that pretty much encapsulates the allure of Stan Twitter and the relative blanket of security and acceptance it provides you. 

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