This post is the second in the series of music and international communication. The first one discussed The Music Industry, Fan Engagement, and the Pandemic with the St. John’s University alumnus Kadijat Salawudeen.
This blog post, by Hadice Koç, Rumeysa Koç, and Lingyu Feng of Northwestern University continues the conversation by highlighting the complexities of global fandom as digital communities, one of the topics of the ICM820 course of the International Communication Master’s program at St. John’s.
The BTS ARMY fandom has made headlines for raising millions of dollars in charity, supporting BTS on various charts worldwide, and even being named a Top Rank Sustainable Global Group by the UN.
BTS is a 7-member group from South Korea, active since 2013. Their fandom is called ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth. It is estimated that the size of ARMY is 30 to 40 million people.
The fandom is very diverse in terms of age, gender and nationality. According to the 2020 ARMY Census with over 400,000 responses, fans are from over 100 countries and territories. 51% of ARMY are younger than 18, while 49% are 18 or older. Twitter audience demographics for BTS show that 60% are female and 40% male.
According to Brandwatch, BTS is one of the most influential accounts on Twitter. Similarly, an ARMY digital community is predominantly on Twitter. Twitter ARMY is able to organize effectively and quickly despite being dispersed across the globe. However, the community is horizontal and self-governing without a central coordinating organization. Its level of organization despite a lack of sole leadership highlights its significance and sustainability.
Therefore, we conducted research to evaluate the Twitter ARMY community and to better understand the community’s culture and organizational structure. The evaluations indicate that Twitter ARMY is a strong community due to its participatory and autonomous nature on Twitter, transculturalism, free work, shared values, and multidimensionality.
Twitter as a platform
ARMY communities exist on a multitude of social media platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, and Reddit. Through our research, we found Twitter not only allows for diverse communication but also helps ARMY connect with each other in an efficient and collaborative way. Twitter ARMY’s goals are to support BTS however they can by spreading the band’s message and music to as many people as possible and support one another. The tactics they use to achieve their goals are to use hashtags, provide updates, establish fanbase projects, document moments of BTS & ARMY history, and reiterate why the community strives to support BTS. Twitter’s hashtag feature allows ARMYs to trend worldwide and connect with one another, which stimulates community activities to strengthen their teamwork at the same time.
Not only does the community have instrumental functions, but artistic and entertainment aspects too. Through Twitter, community members can enjoy the fan art, memes, and music discussions. It is also a participatory community that encourages fans to contribute their thoughts and create their own works.
Despite being large and culturally diverse, ARMY is a fan community that transcends national or ethnic identities. They have created a transcultural fan identity “through their identification with the experiences and critical messages expressed by BTS through their music regardless of age or gender”.
Social media has been a significant tool for creating and maintaining this fan identity as they not only interact with BTS, but with other members of the community. At the same time, however, ARMY Twitter members bring in their own cultural identities, which enriches community discussions. They actively try to find solutions to coexist with their diverse backgrounds through rational discussions and debates.
ARMY Twitter further strengthens their bonds with one another through free work. One example of free work is steaming guides, which are developed by groups of community members who study and test algorithms of streaming platforms to find the best streaming practices.
Another form of free work is content translation. There are several fan accounts within the community that are dedicated to translating BTS content, such as their Twitter posts or video content.
There are also several sub-communities that have developed fan-oriented services, such as ARMY Academy that provides free tutoring, ARMY Job Board that posts job listings around the world, and ARMY Help Center that provides free mental health services to other ARMYs.
ARMY is a community of taste, and BTS is their common denominator. The community regards BTS as their main shared value and interest so that they can build an online community across borders.
Although ARMY exists because of BTS, its Twitter presence is an autonomous community that self-governs and functions by itself. The Twitter community has built its structure and large ecosystem on its own. ARMY builds and maintains a strong community by aligning its shared values with BTS’s, such as making the world better together. They regularly highlight the importance of teamwork and reinforce their self-created rules. They have certain internally-created practices and values that are determined by the community and apply to how the community functions.
While aspects of ARMY Twitter’s success are organic, they also benefit from the corporate side without being interfered by it. For example, BTS’s agency regularly provides updates about various activities which ARMY Twitter uses as cues to act accordingly. The community has a duality in which it is organically organized and acts independently while also benefiting from the corporation.
The ARMY Twitter community is multidimensional in that it is not only a fan community but also a shared space for various interests and a place of mobilization and activism.
The community can branch out to discuss other topics in addition to BTS. Members are able to bond and foster connections in the community by bringing in different interests. They can openly communicate even if it does not fit with the general norm.
The community is also a place of mobilization for specific goals, such as charting BTS’s music. It is also a space for activism and charitable actions. For example, “ARMYs have organized and engaged in more than 600 fan-driven campaigns, donating more than $2M despite BTS never asking them directly to participate in any of these efforts” (Armed in ARMY). The most prominent example is when ARMY Twitter raised $1M in 24 hours using the ARMY made MatchAMillion hashtag for the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020.
So how does the ARMY Twitter community build and maintain a strong digital community on Twitter? Although fans come from diverse backgrounds, they connect through their shared interest in BTS, but they are not limited to it. They can create clusters or sub-groups based on other interests to maintain the larger community. ARMY Twitter reinforces a sense of community by encouraging one another to participate in community activities. The community also goes beyond just fan activities by mobilizing and participating in charities. They appreciate the differences in their identities and promote cultural competency. Community members contribute in several ways, such as through free work. It is a rich participatory community that goes beyond being a fan. As stated in a study about ARMYs, “the bonds that many form with each other within ARMY often transcend [their common interest in BTS]”.