This article focuses on the so-called "BTS A.R.M.Y", the fandom of Korean boyband BTS, as a niched culture on Twitter. It will analyze how the fandom influences BTS' achievements and success through online support.
Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS)
BTS (방탄소년단, Bangtan Sonyeondan) is a Korean boyband that debuted in 2013 under BigHit Entertainment. They consist of seven members: three main rappers and four main vocalists, pictured in the figure below.
In South Korea, when one wants to become part of a boy or girl group, they first need to become a trainee in an entertainment company, who trains such candidates in dancing, singing and rapping before their debut. Most well-known K-Pop (Korean pop) bands emerged from one of the three biggest entertainment companies in South Korea, also known as the "Big Three". BTS, however, did not.
BigHit Entertainment founder and co-CEO Bang Si-hyuk described the immense interest that emerged for BTS after their debut in spite of them not being signed under one of those top three companies, as a result of "sincerity, consistency, and ability to embody the spirit of […] today’s generation". When looking into their fan community online, what Bang mentioned is often also described by fans as the reason why BTS became so big: they speak about the problems today’s youth is facing and they "respect diversity and justice, the rights of the youths and marginalized people"; these seem to be the things fans can identify with (Bruner, 2019). While back in 2013 BigHit Entertainment was an unknown company, they have now dethroned the Big Three with BTS' success.
Becoming the first Korean artists to ever chart in the UK as well as having the highest-ranked and sold Korean album in the US made BTS gain attention for their music in the West. Their subsequent appearances on multiple big American and British talkshows like The Ellen Show and Graham Norton made their overall popularity grow even further. The fact that they have performed sold-out stadium shows in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, goes to show that their popularity is not only an accomplishment in Europe, the US, and East Asia but all over the world.
Who is BTS A.R.M.Y?
Becker (1963) argues that, in order to be part of a group, one needs to follow certain norms, values, and rules. Next to that, if one tries to be part of a group, a certain level of enoughness needs to be reached when it comes to displaying relevant characteristics that show group membership (Blommaert & Varis, 2015). So, who are the fans of BTS and when is one seen as "enough" to be part of their A.R.M.Y?
A.R.M.Y (아미) is an acronym for "Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth". The name was given to the fandom by BTS themselves so that they could address them. With the name, the seven members of the boyband wanted to express that their fans are the voice of youth while also referring to the English meaning of "army". As 방탄, the first part of the boyband’s name translates to "bulletproof/body armor", the connection between A.R.M.Y and BTS is to be interpreted as suggesting that the fans and the band will always be together and protect each other ("Bangtan Boys (BTS) reveal their official fanclub name", 2017). Together, they function as an army.
The A.R.M.Y members point to Twitter as a key infrastructure for this imagined community.
For the question of what makes you "an A.R.M.Y", what gives you enoughness to be seen as part of the group, I interviewed five A.R.M.Y’s from the Twitter community from Romania, Germany, and the United Kingdom over a video call. Being part of the fandom myself, I decided to collect this data in order to be able to give a more general overview of the fandom itself, bring forth some insightful opinions, and use them to support my own observations. All of the interviewees had different stories when it came to how they found out about the boyband and their personal connection with them, but in general, their views about the A.R.M.Y are the same.
Enoughness means that one has enough emblematic identity features to make them seen as "enough" to be part of a group by people that are already members of the niched culture (Maly & Varis, 2016). When I asked a question pertaining to A.R.M.Y identity emblems, all of the interviewees gave me an answer with the same core value: in order to be an A.R.M.Y, "you must simply love and support all seven members on the same level". Further, I observed during the interviews that A.R.M.Y seems to see themselves as a family and that the feeling of connectedness seems to be very strong. Connectedness is an aspect of being social online and refers to how individuals connect with each other, as well as their need for feeling this connection (van Dijck, 2013). That the feeling of being part of an imagined community was also described to me like this: "I feel part of something big, it feels like a family even though I will never know every A.R.M.Y in this world."
This quote is interesting as it echos Anderson's (1983) famous theory about the nation as an imagined community. Anderson stressed that print-capitalism and publication in the vernacular allowed people to imagine themselves as part of one group, one nation: “imagined because the member of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson, 1983). Today, we see that the affordances of digital media allow people to imagine themselves as being part of other, transnational groups. The A.R.M.Y members point to Twitter as a key infrastructure for this imagined community. They mention that "you never feel alone, as there is always another A.R.M.Y to talk to when you need it." It seems that the feeling of being strangers seems to vanish when being part of the same fan community.
"I purple you"
In the K-Pop community, fandoms often claim a colour to be represented by. The colour for BTS’ A.R.M.Y is purple, which has its origin in a speech held at one of BTS’ concerts in 2016 by member Kim Taehyung:
“Do you know what purple means? Purple is the last colour of the rainbow colours. Purple means I will trust and love you for a long time. I just made it up […] I wish I can see you for a long time, just like the meaning of purple” (Navi Yanti, 2017).
Since then, the sentence "I purple you" has been used by the A.R.M.Y as well as by BTS to express their love towards each other. Further, the colour purple as a symbol turned into a transnational phenomenon that is now used for welcoming the band wherever they go. Figure 2 shows multiple landmarks from all over the world turned purple. Not only does their home country go purple for BTS but so does the Empire State Building in New York or Wembley Stadium in London, where BTS played and sold out two nights in a row as the first Korean artist to ever achieve that.
BTS A.R.M.Y as prosumers
Social media has developed vastly over the past couple of years and nowadays it is a normal way to communicate through them and get connected to people. While some use the internet to stay in contact with their family or friends, others join social media to connect to a community they share the same interests with, such as an interest in following a celebrity, a game or a TV show. Twitter has become a common platform for these kinds of communities, also called fandoms.
Through these new emerging media functions, Twitter has been developing into a place of super-diversity(Vertovec, 2006), where fandom communities form niched cultures and come together to follow their favourite artist and meet other fans. Being a user of Twitter since 2010 myself, I observed how Twitter became one of the main social media platforms for fandoms to gather on, where they develop their own norms, traditions and language.
As a niched culture of the K-Pop fandom, A.R.M.Y do often follow the things that are general norms for K-Pop fans, for example The Selca Days or 365 days Threads, an activity where a fan posts a picture of their favorite band member every day for 365 days in a row. But what I found interesting to see is the way BTS A.R.M.Y seem to become prosumers online as well as offline, helping BTS shape their success as well as making their products transnational. The term "prosumer" is used to describe an individual who is a consumer as well as producer of the same product (Miller, 2011). My interviewees mentioned that "supporting BTS on a financial level is definitely not a must, we know this is not always possible for everyone", but as far as I can see, financial support is still an important point in BTS' achievements.
According to Forbes, BTS took home $57 million in pretax income in 2018, putting them at no. 48 of their Forbes Celebrity 100 list, which features the world’s highest-paid entertainers. BTS commodification contributes to South Korea’s overall economy. In 2017, it was reported that one in every thirteen foreign tourists was visiting South Korea due to BTS, as well as that 1.7% of the total Korean consumer goods export are due to BTS product sales. So far, they have had an overall economic impact of 4.9 billion dollars to their home country.
Chart-wise, BTS is known to be on high demand in the South Korean music industry, but also in the western world, where they are able to chart number one albums. In 2019, they had a sold-out stadium world tour, which shows their transnational demand in the music industry. An example of the power A.R.M.Y holds over the music market was seen in November of last year, when A.R.M.Y charted the band's entire discography as a response to the Grammy nominations reveal of 2020, which excluded the boyband from the nominations.
Financial support might not be important to be accepted as part of the fandom but it is still important for the band's overall success. Being able to sell out products ranging from small things like fabric softener to Hyundai cars somewhat shows the power A.R.M.Y holds over the financial situation of BTS. It shows that the fans can help BTS sell their products on a transnational level, as well as give them a reputation that their products sell out, placing them high on demand in the sales market.
As of February 2020, BTS has 23.94 million followers on Twitter and, when it comes to stimulating online traffic, BTS A.R.M.Y is quite well-known for their voting and trending dedication.
Next to financial support, there are indeed also other ways to provide support online to shape BTS’ success. Hou (2019) explained how fan voting became one of the most important fan activities online. Fans seem to be learning how to work algorithms not only in their but also in the artist's favour in order to gain popularity and influence over the most talked about topics online. Trending your favourite artists does not only help them gain popularity online but also, for example, to rank higher in charts. As of February 2020, BTS has 23.9 million followers on Twitter and, when it comes to stimulating online traffic, BTS A.R.M.Y is quite well-known for their voting and trending dedication. They feed the algorithms by encouraging each other to give attention to BTS posts in the form of retweets, likes and comments as well as through mentioning BTS in their own tweets and using hashtags related to them. As Twitter works with the concept of algorithmic populism, the more interaction a Tweet gets the higher its chances are to be turned into a Twitter highlight. This potentially increases its reach outside of the fandom to an ever-larger audience.
Further, nowadays award shows have categories that fans need to vote for on social media in order to make their favourites win. A.R.M.Y is known for often winning those fan-voted awards for BTS. Knowing how to vote for those awards is common fandom knowledge: it mostly involves including an award-related hashtag in a tweet or voting in a poll on Twitter as well as on external websites. This can be done by individuals themselves but also gets organized over so-called "voting accounts", which encourage other fans to vote. Furthermore, fans often teach each other how to correctly vote for awards or trend topics as, in the case of BTS, a lot award-voting and trending happens in Korean, which not every A.R.M.Y speaks. This shows the connectedness of the fans and their willingness to come together from all over the world to support their band's level of transnationality online. Twitter data revealed in December that BTS are #1 among 2019's Twitter top musicians worldwide and own the spot for most-liked Tweet of 2019.
As Sugihartati (2017) points out, with being a prosumer, fans online become "an extension of the global entertainment industry’s power when they exchange information and then share with other fans". Furthermore, in order to be able to spread this information outside of the fandom, it is essential to know how to use algorithms as a tool as they are important for raising the level of attention towards the artists online.
At the same time, fans essentially offer unpaid labour, making them free digital labourers. This means that they not only function as an extension for the global entertainment industry when spreading, but they also turn into an extension of the hegemonizing capitalist power (Sugihartati, 2017). They indirectly produce free promotion for the industry, which then eventually leads to the development of profit for the capitalistic power (Sugihartati, 2017).
According to Sugihartati (2017), most of this free labour happens indirectly. Talking about your favourite artist, voting, streaming, buying their merchandise and other activities related to fandoms are seen as fun activities to do in an individual’s free time, while for entertainment companies fans are unconsciously producing free, unpaid labour in this free time.
"Love Yourself: Speak Yourself"
In November 2017, BTS and their label officially entered a partnership with the Korean Committee for UNICEF affiliated with the United Nations. The campaign they support in collaboration with UNICEF is called #ENDviolence and it aims to support children and teens who experience any kind of violence all over the world. Further, BTS also tries to spread their message of self-love with their own campaign called "LOVE MYSELF". They based their last three-piece album series on the theme of loving oneself, and part of all albums sales went towards their campaign.
BTS A.R.M.Y have a large influence due to the band's commodification and transnationality, which expands with how A.R.M.Y try and spread BTS' message of loving oneself.
When it comes to their music, some of my interviewees mentioned how BTS songs are very different in the sense of the topics that they cover. BTS are known to tackle topics in their songs that are rather uncommon to speak up about in South Korea, and while most songs in the music industry are about love, sex and partying, this is not the case for them. Many of their songs talk about how to achieve self-love in connection to their campaign but there are songs about all kinds of topics, such as mental health issues, capitalism or needing to live up to the standards of your parents from a very young age.
Since the beginning of the campaign, BTS has raised 2.4 billion Korean won for their campaign, and while they contribute themselves with donations, fans all around the world made it their mission to support the campaign and spread the message of loving oneself. While the hashtag of #BTSLoveMyself has been shared over 10 million times on Twitter, you can also see fans actively working on spreading the word and engaging in actions connected to it.
One thing that has stood out for me since I became part of the A.R.M.Y fandom were the donations and charity projects that seem to be constantly going on within the fandom. When I asked my interviewees about it, they agreed with me, saying that they, too, "often get overwhelmed by how much A.R.M.Y tries to spread kindness over them".
Donations and charity events go on all over the year for different causes. Figure 3 shows a map a fan put together which shows, as far as I personally know, a few but not all projects that have been going on over the years. Often it is simply fans raising money for the BTS UNICEF campaign but also, for example, environmental or educational support campaigns. One of my interviewees mentioned that they once saw on Twitter how A.R.M.Y came together to pay the hospital bills of another A.R.M.Y member who could not afford to pay them themselves and that this was something that stood out for them personally.
Another mentioned that they sometimes see how A.R.M.Y on Twitter get upset about the fact that they can not afford to buy an album due to their financial situation and that other A.R.M.Y's then often offer to buy it for them. For me, last year's birthday project for BTS' Leader Kim Namjoon (RM) stood out a lot. As he is known to be a lover of nature, A.R.M.Y came together to raise money and plant trees in his name all over the world. In Seoul, South Korea near the Han river, fans even came together to plant him his own personal little forest made out of 1,250 trees as a present, which they called "BTS RM Forest No. 1" with the idea to plant No. 2 for his birthday in 2020.
As already mentioned, BTS A.R.M.Y have a large influence due to the band's commodification and transnationality, which expands with how A.R.M.Y try and spread BTS' message of loving oneself. The donations made by A.R.M.Y to the cause not only show their prosumer status, but also shape the image that BTS has online.
Is A.R.M.Y just a fandom?
In conclusion, it can be said that A.R.M.Y functions as way more than just a simple fandom. They try to spread BTS' message of "Love Yourself" and at the same time promote BTS’ transnationality. Their level of mobilization is seen in their donations as well as in their voting, trending, and in the band'salbum sales and charting. They are an essential part of BTS’ capitalisation and can overall easily be seen as producing free, unpaid labour for them, which can make them seem like an extension of the band's company. However, despite their work being unpaid, it is considered a normal aspect of the fandom's culture and its dynamics, controbuting to the support of the band. Producing and consuming content, whether it is consciously done or not, allows A.R.M.Y to become prosumers and boost BTS' commodification in the form of financial capital, success as well as digital recognition, which in the end also leads to the growth of their offline and overall acknowledgment.
Overall, it can be said that BTS A.R.M.Y is not just a fandom but, in some way, it is also responsible for the image BTS has online, as well as their success and recognition. Spreading their message and actions of kindness is important for BTS’ overall accomplishments. Also important the free labour the fans produce for them, as they together create the representation of BTS in the capitalist world of fandoms.
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