We’re Group 7 from Prof’s G2 class, and we chose to do an academic research for our project instead! The topic in question is “From fans to ‘super-fans’: How does social media encourage the obsessive behaviour of super-fans?”.
We were interested in this topic as celebrity obsession is almost becoming the norm in most countries, as evidenced by the various television programmes dedicated to celebrity news and the rise in popularity of reality shows. Moreover, the current social media era has introduced a new branch to this celebrity obsession – obsession over well-known online personalities. These individuals are able to gain fame through content creation on online platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, and thus have earned themselves a mass following of adoring fans. Some of which are deemed to be super-fans, defined as individuals who have “an extreme or obsessive admiration for a particular person or thing” (Oxford Dictionaries, w.y.), as they have been documented to display obsessive behaviour and go the extra mile to connect with these online celebrities. As such, we wanted to find out why some fans of lifestyle Youtubers tend to go the extra mile in their adoration of the latter, especially when these online personalities are essentially just average people like us.
We chose lifestyle Youtubers – Youtubers whose content revolve around sharing about their lives through video blogs (or ‘vlogs’ as it is more commonly known) – as their viewers would have an in-depth look into their personal lives since it is made for content. In order to get a more comprehensive view, we selected three well-known lifestyle Youtubers in the UK, the US and Europe, which are Zoella, Jake Paul and Enzo Knol respectively. They all have fans who have displayed obsessive behaviour and hence are suitable candidates to be examined in our project.
Zoe Elizabeth Sugg, best known by her YouTube username Zoella, is a fashion, beauty and lifestyle vlogger and author based in the UK. To date, Zoella has over 12 million YouTube subscribers and has amassed over one billion video views. The majority of her viewers hover at around 18 – 25 years of age. Her debut novel, “Girl Online” broke records of highest first week sales with 78 thousand hard copies sold (Harding, 2016). Zoella also has her own line of beauty products.
As Britain’s most powerful social media celebrity (Baxter-Wright, 2017), Zoella has had her fair share of super-fans. She routinely faced privacy intrusion from fans who showed up at her house after tracking down her home address. As a sufferer of anxiety attacks, Zoella addressed the problem in a YouTube video. Nonetheless, super-fans continued to show up, turning Zoella’s home into an actual tourist stop for tour groups (Brooks, 2016). Zoella and her boyfriend have since moved to a quieter private estate equipped with extensive security measures (Baxter-Wright, 2017). In August 2017, Zoella, her boyfriend and brother launched their merchandise line. The trio made an appearance on the day of the launch of their pop-up store but were forced to leave early when the crowd situation was considered dangerous by local police. The team had to be escorted out (Wood, 2017).
2. Jake Paul
Jake Joseph Paul, most commonly known as Jake Paul, is a 20-year-old YouTuber based in the US. Jake Paul first rose to fame through a now-defunct video application called Vine. Jake Paul had two billion plays on the app and over five million followers, which contributed to his landing of an acting role on Disney Channel (Bizaardvark, 2017). After Vine shut down, Jake Paul moved to YouTube and has since gained nearly 11.5 million subscribers.
Jake Paul has publicly posted his home address online, which inevitably caused his young fans to flock to his house. Fans have been seen loitering outside of the Team 10 house, the residence of which Jake Paul and other YouTubers share. These super-fans loiter in groups outside of the house to compare knowledge of his life, chant his name, take selfies to share on social media and dare each other to go closer towards his property line until they are halted by the security guard (Mic, 2017). The act of ‘pilgriming’ to Jake Paul’s house to get a glimpse of him and his team has somehow become a rite of passage for his fans from all over the US. The ruckus caused by Jake Paul’s stunts and fans waiting outside his house have attracted criticism from his neighbours, to which were met by defensive comments by his fans (Mic, 2017).
3. Enzo Knol
Enzo Erkelens, best known as Enzo Knol, is a famous Dutch lifestyle YouTuber. He first started vlogging in 2011, and since then has consistently uploaded gaming videos and vlogs. Enzo gained national popularity when he uploaded a video of him accidentally breaking his arm while filming (Knol, 2014) as national news media used it as an example to illustrate how dangerous it was to record oneself while doing something. Since then, Enzo has nearly two million subscribers on YouTube and a total of one and a half billion video views. Enzo owns a clothing brand called ‘Knol Power’ and even has his own wax sculpture in Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam (Madame Tussauds, w.y.). With such popularity and a significant fanbase, Enzo has the biggest YouTube channel in the Netherlands (Enzo Knol, w.y.).
There have been multiple cases that show Enzo’s fans displaying obsessive behaviour towards him. In 2014, Enzo held a fan meeting at Utrecht central station which attracted flocks of adoring fans. However, the fan meeting was cut short by the police as it was beginning to get chaotic and dangerous (Duic, 2014). In another case of fan obsession, Enzo was spotted at his friend’s house by a fan and within minutes of the information being shared on social media, the street was swarmed with fans. They were documented to be screaming and crying at the possible sight of Enzo. Again, the police were called to handle the chaos and escort Enzo out of the situation safely (Loo, 2017). The most recent example showing unhealthy fan behaviour would be the period when Enzo and his long-term girlfriend broke up. His girlfriend is a familiar face to Enzo’s viewers as she has been frequently featured in Enzo’s videos over the years. When the news about the break up became public, fans were heartbroken and could be seen commenting their disbelief and sadness over the news on his social media platforms. As Enzo was already considered a national celebrity, the news of the breakup was televised on national media channels and newspapers (Taha, 2017).
Obsession fuelled by social media
Considering the above, it is clear that celebrity obsession does not only entail adoration for traditional celebrities such as those that are established in the entertainment industry. With social media platforms allowing individuals to rise to fame through content creation, these online personalities are able to gain a following of super-fans comparable to that of traditional celebrities. According to several studies among American teenagers, “relatability and attainability are two of the biggest reasons teenagers are impacted by YouTubers” (Westenberg, 2016). As these YouTubers are essentially average individuals like the viewer, this makes them significantly more relatable than traditional mass media celebrities. Thus, the following paragraphs will investigate the contributions of YouTubers’ excessive sharing on social media and celebrity worship of the fans. The section will also examine how the aforementioned factors strengthen the formation of parasocial relationships, all of which have been made possible by social media.
1. Excessive Sharing
With the transparency that social media allows, obsession over online celebrities have been made easier. SNS thrive on information uploaded and shared by users, which cause them to have the tendency to excessively share information online. The reason behind oversharing is psychological, and thus has been exacerbated by social media. Nadkarni and Hoffman (2012) found that many use social media “to satisfy their needs for belonging and self-presentation” and that the content shared “are fulfilling social needs to connect with others, gain acceptance, and present an online version of oneself, either accurate or idealized”. This is especially true for the YouTubers in question, since their living is earned through creating content on SNS and the content has to be relatable enough to keep fans interested. Vlogs that document the YouTubers day-to-day lives are often uploaded as content and enable viewers to keep track of what the YouTuber is doing. Also, it is common to find videos that consist of the YouTubers sharing information that are considered to be private. For example, Zoella and Jake Paul have both uploaded videos of them giving tours of their homes (Deyes, 2016 & Paul, 2017). Moreover, question and answer videos also allow their viewers to know more information about them. Although the information shared may not be of high importance, the combined content uploaded to YouTube and their other SNS accounts provide viewers a more detailed idea of who the YouTuber is.
Consequently, this tendency of YouTubers to excessively share information online provides an avenue for super-fans to fixate over them. Every tweet, picture or video posted on social media regardless of its content removes a layer of privacy for the online personality and allows their fans to feel more connected. This abundance of personal information does more harm than good especially if the YouTubers have fans that tend to go the extra mile in their adoration. This can be particularly seen in the example mentioned above, where fans are seen to be camping outside Zoella’s and Jake Paul’s homes (Cockroft, 2015 & Lorenz, 2017). It is irrefutable that the videos sharing personal information and vlogs containing snippets of the YouTubers’ home environment made it easier for super-fans to track them down. This ties in with the theory of social exchange which emphasizes the “importance to a cost and reward assessment, where a parasocial interaction with a media personality would have a high reward and low-cost exchange” (Ballantine and Martin, 2005). Fans are able to get a lot out of the relationship with minimal effort, as they are constantly being rewarded with the abundance of content that the YouTubers put online. Thus, for super-fans, this over-sharing epidemic feeds their obsessive behaviour and enables them to continue with it.
2. Celebrity Worship
Existing literature on celebrity worship discusses the phenomenon as a spectrum, where on one end the fan is merely passionate and on the other end, the fan’s obsession borders on psychopathological (Sansone & Sansone, 2014). This spectrum can be characterised in three stages (Houran, Lange & McCutcheon, 2002). In the case of YouTube vloggers, fans in the first stage are identified as those who actively seek out information about vloggers, but purely for an entertainment purpose. The majority of YouTube viewers fall into this category. Their interaction with the vloggers are passive and ends when they have finished consuming the content; they recognise the vloggers as a means to satisfy an entertainment need. In the second stage, fans are known to begin to perceive a parasocial relationship with the vlogger, as elaborated in the previous section. An example of such a behaviour can be seen in a fan video addressed to Zoella. In it, a young girl declares that she is not a stalker, but that Zoella is like a sister to her. The fan also believes that Zoella cares about her. Her video closes off with a plea for Zoella to respond by sending her a private video reply. Fans in the third stage are described to have “excessive empathy with the celebrity’s successes and failures, over-identify with the celebrity, and obsessively follow the details of a celebrity’s life” (Houran, Lange & McCutcheon, 2002). This includes stalking the vloggers openly in public as was the case with Enzo, or turning up at Jake Paul’s residence and camping out just to see him (Lorenz, 2017).
With the progression in each stage, the fan feels a greater degree of closeness with the celebrity. This may lead to a sense of entitlement on the fan’s part that he or she should be privy to the celebrity’s private life. This could in part be fuelled by the prevalence of fan pages and teams dedicated to the vloggers. In relevance to fan pages, social platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram enable fans to engage with vlogger-related content endlessly if they want to, due to the platforms’ infinite scroll function. It arguably allows fans to immerse themselves with no indication that they should stop consuming the media, potentially trapping them if they do not have the self-discipline to stop the scrolling on their own. Further, established vloggers have incredibly unified fan bases that refer to themselves by their team names. For instance, Jake Paul’s fans call themselves Jake Paulers and have anthems written by the vlogger himself. Zoella’s fans identify as Sugglets, with multiple quizzes online that people can take to determine how true a fan they are. Enzo’s fans call themselves Knolpowers. These names serve to fuel the fandom as fans are able to connect with one another online and validate each other’s behaviour through social influence, thus potentially escalating fans further up the celebrity worship scale and normalising stage 2 or 3 behaviours.
3. Parasocial Relationship
The combination of the two factors explained above contributes to the formation of relationships formed between the fan and YouTuber through constant interaction. This is known as a parasocial relationship, defined as essentially “imagined relationships that tend to be experienced as real” between a fan and mass media figure (Roberts, 2007). Though parasocial relationships are often used to describe connections that fans form with traditional celebrities, it is unsurprising to see that those relationships are also being created with online personalities given the latter’s rise in popularity. Recent studies have found that “people in digital environments may come to know more people parasocially than directly through interpersonal contact” (Chen, 2014). With social media, it is significantly easier for fans to form relationships with their online idols. Interactions between the YouTubers and their fans can be commonly seen by how YouTubers interact with them through their various SNS, usually by replying fans’ tweets and comments. Furthermore, online personalities are known to organize meet-and-greet events that give their viewers the opportunity to see them up close and personal. All three of the YouTubers have organized fan meetings, which often attract fans in large volumes. Thus, this elucidates how fans are now able to connect with their idols on a more personal scale than before.
Through frequent exposure with these online personalities, the viewers “come to feel that they know [them] from their appearance, gestures, conversations, and conduct, despite having had no direct communication with them” (Sylvia Caryle, w.y.). Social media-based parasocial relationships are more salient as these online personalities consistently share content of themselves on the Internet, which provides fans with an avenue to fixate on. As mentioned earlier through the explanation of the social exchange theory, the content put out by the vloggers serve as rewards to the viewers and hence keeps them interested. This constant provision of content coupled with the frequent interaction that the fans get from the YouTubers strengthens the parasocial relationships formed. Hence, this separates social media-based parasocial relationships from traditional celebrity-fan relationships considering how social media has allowed for the former to appear less one-sided. With the distance between the online personality and the fan becoming seemingly closer due to social media, it is inevitable that some fans start to develop obsessive behaviours towards their subject of obsession.
1. Influence of Youtubers on fans
A study conducted by The University of Twente (2016) found that YouTubers do have significant influence on their fans, whether positive or negative. This is especially so for the younger fans. Examples of positive influence are evidenced through the good feedback received on YouTube videos that talk about problems not commonly shared in public. For example, Zoella openly discusses her problem of suffering from panic attacks in videos and shares her experiences with her viewers. After noting the positive reception garnered from such videos, she started a collaboration with Mind, a charity which helps people with mental health problems. Together, they strive to raise awareness on mental health and make the world a safer environment that permits issues of mental health to be a discussable topic (Audley, 2014). Be that as it may, the more impressionable fan base is susceptible to copying the bad behaviour that some YouTubers portray in their videos. YouTubers such as Jake Paul who produce controversial videos involving dangerous stunts promote recklessness and pose as bad examples to their fans. As it has been acknowledged that fans view YouTubers as their role model and attach value to the statements they make, YouTubers thus need to be highly careful of what they share on social media (University of Twente, 2016).
Considering the above, YouTubers can use their SNS to educate their fans on the correct behaviour. For example, YouTuber Julien Solomita uploaded a video telling his fans to not invade his privacy after encountering a fan outside of his house. He discouraged such behaviour and proposed other alternatives to those who want to meet him, such as at organised fan meetings. This approach should also be adopted by other YouTubers so that their fans are able to distinguish between socially appropriate and incorrect behaviour.
Furthermore, YouTubers do have an influence on the opinion of their followers about brands and products. The most used way of ‘advertising’ is through popular YouTubers. The reason for this is because they are seen as authentic when reviewing a product or brand (Influencer Marketing, 2012). Followers do believe that the recommendations or negative opinions of the YouTubers are honest and more credible than marketer-sponsored information provided by the brand itself. YouTubers are viewed as more honest and transparent to their followers. Firstly, they use particular hashtags like #ad or #spon to indicate when the content or product is sponsored. Secondly, because they perceive YouTubers as equals, followers feel more related to them; YouTubers are seen as people who are only creating unique content on the internet. Their popularity is gained because of their personalities, unique talents and creativity, which followers also strive to achieve (Bentley, Earls & O’Brien, 2011). The intimate stories about their personal lives make them seem even more trustworthy and approachable.
In essence, YouTubers do have significant influence on their followers regarding both behaviour and opinions as detailed above. However, as this influence can be both positive and negative, YouTubers need to display correct behaviour since impressionable followers are prone to follow the behaviour of popular YouTubers. It is therefore essential that YouTubers are aware of the influence they have on their followers and act or produce content responsibly with this in mind.
Based on the above, things must be done in order to prevent fans from taking their adoration of these online personalities to unhealthy levels.
Firstly, not all vloggers are positive role models like Zoella who inspire and advocate meaningful causes (Doyle, 2016). Secondly, the physical safety of children may be compromised as well due to the normalisation of over-sharing private information. Excessively revealing personal details such as their home location or daily activities could make them easy targets for online predators (Doyle, 2016). To give an example, 71% of schoolchildren publicly share their school and hometown (Helliwell, 2017) and 17% stated that they have ever been contacted online by a stranger, which made them uncomfortable and scared (KidsHealth, w.y.). Lastly, a staggering 95% of teens have been exposed to cruel behaviour on social media, such as live streaming of violent acts on platforms such as Facebook (Helliwell, 2017).
These exemplify the fact that parents and schools have an integral part to play in teaching children about social media. At the most basic level, parents may choose to restrict the kind of content their children have access to at home through YouTube’s privacy and settings page. This is commonly employed by schools although its effectiveness has been challenged (The Atlantic, 2016). Instead of simply filtering content for their children, parents can opt to educate their children to spur behavioural changes. Websites such as ParentInfo or Internet Safe Training provide tips on how parents can approach abstract concepts as such “positive” and “negative” online behaviour and content to teach their children to be more discerning netizens. By using education in tandem with monitoring, children can be independent in their online activities and understand the risks that come with certain behaviours. Schools are often second homes to children and educators can thus be another channel through which children learn how to use the Internet, and especially SNS, in a more safe and responsible way. Cyber safety courses that are integrated into the curriculum have to be updated to keep in line with the ever-evolving online world as well. Children ought to be taught from a young age how to identify negative behaviours as well as how to respond to them when they encounter the negative behaviours online. For instance, should a child see a violent act being carried out on a live streaming platform, they should be taught to report it immediately instead of being helpless viewers.
Children have to be taught that the online world is merely a part of their real life instead of it being their entire life. With that knowledge, they should be discerning in their actions online as they may have repercussions in real life.
To conclude, the project explains how social media has fuelled the obsessive behaviour of fans towards online celebrities. Social media has allowed average individuals to rise to fame through content creation, and those who rose to fame are able to gain a following of super-fans. The analysis reveals that given how social media has created a glass window into the lives of its users especially for online personalities, fans are able to get a detailed overview of who the latter really is. Social media can be likened to a form of tracking device on their idols due to the YouTubers’ excessive sharing of content and constant updates. In connection with the social exchange theory, the excessive sharing of content by YouTubers gives fans a reward of the interaction with minimal effort, as they are constantly being rewarded with the abundance of content that the YouTubers put online. Fans may form feelings of familiarity and affection towards them and form relationships with these online idols. With social media bridging the gap between the fans and the YouTubers, social media-based parasocial relationships are less one-sided as it has allowed the connection to be closer.
The analysis points out that YouTubers do have an influence on not only the behaviour of the followers, but also on the opinions of them. Followers perceive YouTubers to be more honest and trustworthy than a brand-produced advertisement. Teenagers admire YouTubers, and it is therefore important that the YouTubers are aware of the significant influence they have on the behaviour and opinions of their followers. At the same time, it is important that the parents make the teenagers aware of how to interact on social media platforms. In summary, the project underlines the fact that social networking sites are merely mediums for users. It must thus be acknowledged that because these sites can be used either positively or negatively, online personalities and fans alike must utilise these platforms wisely.
Thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed our project 🙂
Peace and love,
G2, Group 7 (Myra, Irdina, Sophie, Daphne and Quynh Huong)