It’s Time For Popstars To Take Responsibility For Their Toxic Fandoms
Louis Tomlinson didn't just fail Ash London yesterday. He failed his fans.
Two days ago, radio host Ash London was about to hit play on her pre-recorded interview with One Direction alumnus Louis Tomlinson when her co-host Ash Williams chimed in to clarify exactly which 1D star Tomlinson was.
“Just so we’re clear, because I’m a very visual guy, Ash — he’s the guy with the smaller face with the short brown hair?” Williams asked.
“Kind of, like, ratty facial hair,” London answered.
“He’s not Harry Styles basically,” added co-host Ed Kavalee. “He’s the least popular one.”
London’s comment about his facial hair was an offhand one, but it echoed like a whip crack around the world. It was immediately picked up by Tomlinson’s ever-watching fanbase, and the initial wave of anger that rolled in was white hot:
“I hope that Ash London bitch fucking chokes.”
Nearly all of the comments were levelled at London, not at Kavalee or Williams. As is the way with the internet, London’s words were quickly twisted beyond recognition, and some fans became convinced she — not Kavalee — was the one who had made the crack about Harry Styles.
As if the furore wasn’t already bad enough, Tomlinson himself decided to jump in the ring and tweet this in reply to Ash London’s initial apology:
Probs best to stay on private for a bit longer love ! 🖕
— Louis Tomlinson (@Louis_Tomlinson) December 12, 2017
It was a red flag to an already-raging bull, a barely-concealed encouragement for his fans to go to town — and go to town they did.
Within a few hours, London’s social platforms had been besieged by Tomlinson’s stans, and she was eventually forced off social media due to the amount of threats that she was receiving.
— ash london (@ash_london) December 12, 2017
Music Junkee covered the story when it broke, and our own social media accounts were then mobbed by Tomlinson fans. I had to switch off Twitter for a couple of hours because my notifications looked like this:
The only thing that’s ‘whack’ is u so stfu and get a life
— Just Like Priya ◟̽◞̽ (@PriyaTheActress) December 12, 2017
If you learned how to do your job instead of going on this “support the aussies” y’all are doing you’d disconnect your head from your ass
— Brian (@DancinOnTables_) December 12, 2017
This wasn’t my first brush with Tomlinson stans, either. A bit over a week ago I tweeted that his new song ‘Miss You’ “was not good“. I quickly had to switch off my Twitter notifications because the volume of abuse was draining my phone battery.
So what is it about modern pop fandom that makes these incidences so commonplace?
The Pure Joy And Pure Madness Of Pop Fandom
Pop fandoms can be wonderful places. They can offer support and friendship to people who might not find that in real life, and they can provide a powerful and genuine sense of belonging.
But they can also engender an atmosphere of competitiveness, as fans become desperate to prove they are the Biggest Fan Of All. It’s this environment that drives fans to viciously defend their icon from anyone who says anything remotely negative about them, lest they be deemed a fake fan.
We’ve seen this play out countless times over the last ten years. One notable case was that of All Time Low singer Alex Gaskarth in 2012, who made the mistake of saying that One Direction’s new track ‘Live While We’re Young’ was “horrendous” and “carelessly written”.
The Directioners didn’t muck around, repeatedly telling Gaskarth to kill himself, and that he was the reason his brother committed suicide in high school. New Twitter accounts with handles such as ‘IHATEGASKARTH‘ popped up at the rate of blinking.
Of course, it’s not just One Direction fans. Taylor Swift’s fanbase once took on dance producer Diplo over an (admittedly awful) comment he made about Swift’s “booty”. The pile on was swift and blistering, with fans reportedly sending death threats and saying things like “I wish your kids had Down Syndrome”. Diplo recently spoke at length about how the experience turned him off social media.
“These incidences are definitely typical of mob mentality, and that mentality is being amplified by social media,” says Jonathon Hutchinson, lecturer of Online Communications & Media at Sydney University.
“Generally speaking, individuals tend to follow the mob in terms of how we communicate with each other. It’s easier for most people to agree with how the general sentiment of a conversation is going. Typically, people try to keep the peace and keep the conversation flowing — and in an online environment that becomes amplified significantly.”
Hutchinson notes that this isn’t helped by the anonymity that social media can offer, particularly on a platform like Twitter. “There’s a fairly low risk of being found out for saying something off the cuff,” he says.
Does Anyone Out There Control The Madness?
There are no designated leaders of fandoms — it’s the wild west with guns replaced by Tumblr accounts. So when things get out of control, as they did yesterday, there’s no one to curb bad behaviour.
“If you look at online communications historically, these sorts of fandoms are really good — and they did self-monitor in some regards,” Hutchinson says. “In an internet chat room for example, everyone constructed the norms of how to operate in those spaces. If someone started to operate in a way that wasn’t appropriate for that space then the other users of that space would say ‘Well hang on, you can’t do that here. You should go away.’
“But in this particular incidence, an event has happened that’s attracted a lot of different sorts of people around this one particular moment. So there are a lot of different characteristics and cultures and languages. There’s all sorts of things happening, so the fandom aspect of it is quite confused — there’s no one to say ‘Well this isn’t how we do it here.’
“What happened yesterday is a really excellent example of how things can get out of control very quickly… and when Louis got on himself and fanned that sentiment, it just turned it into a flame war.
“This demographic — post-tweens, teenagers, early-20s — are extremely dedicated to whatever they’re into,” he adds. “Their passion levels run very high, and so you can see in a social media environment everyone can go ‘Hey, direct your hate at this person!’ and they’ll all run towards it. Unfortunately yesterday, it was Ash London that they ran at.”
That doesn’t mean fans don’t call each other out — they do, and frequently. During the Ash London furore yesterday there were some Tomlinson stans who were keen to set themselves apart from their peers:
tbh the way that a lot of fans reacted to the whole ash london/louis tomlinson thing was quite disgusting nd completely disrespectful. the fandom looked like a pack of animals
— samantha (@DUSTINTOZlER) December 13, 2017
But for the most part, finding a voice of dissent among the Tomlinson stans yesterday was a near-hopeless exercise.
So Where The Fuck Was Louis Tomlinson In All This?
A large chunk of the blame for what happened yesterday lies with Louis Tomlinson. Tomlinson has been one of the biggest pop stars on the planet for nearly a decade now, and would know full well how his 31 million Twitter followers would react when he swiped at London. It was the internet equivalent of throwing a lit match onto dry grass and walking away.
If you’re a superstar on the level of Tomlinson, or Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift, you do have a degree of responsibility over how your fandom behaves in situations such as these. Popstars are inextricably linked to their fanbases. It’s why they have names — Directioners, Swifties, Beliebers, Harmonisers, KatyCats — that their artist-of-choice often encourage and speak directly to.
“When you have an online army at your fingertips, ready and willing to verbally tear someone to pieces, you need to seriously think about how your words are going to be interpreted.”
Artists like Taylor Swift and One Direction know how vitally important this fanbase is to the success and continuation of their careers. It’s why Swift spends hours on Tumblr liking her fandom’s posts, and why Louis Tomlinson’s Twitter bio reads just: “We would be nowhere without our incredible fans, we owe it all to you.”
But, as Ben Parker said so succinctly in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. When you have an online army at your fingertips, ready and willing to verbally tear someone to pieces, you need to seriously think about how your words are going to be interpreted. And there was very little room for positive interpretation in what Tomlinson tweeted at Ash London yesterday.
Imagine how different yesterday would have been if Tomlinson, instead of siccing his fans on London, had let them know there were no hard feelings and accepted the radio host’s apology. Or, at least, if he’d said nothing at all.
Yesterday, Louis Tomlinson needed to do better. Let’s hope pop’s other big names learn from his mistake.
Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer for Music Junkee and inthemix. You can join the raging hordes of Tomlinson stans in her Twitter mentions over here.