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As we watch fan communities grow and evolve online, the conversation surrounding the ethics of stanning has become polarised. Here, writer and author Hannah Ewens unpacks why being a hardcore fan isn’t so black and white.

For a while, I ran a stan Twitter account. I did it anonymously partly out of a genuine desire and partly out of a curiosity to see how much time and energy it took to run as an adult with a full-time job, what it was like to engage with other fans through the guise of being part of their mission. A mission in search of information, updates and connection. People were soft and open; they’d retweet me and occasionally DM me about their problems or to say they’d not been able to meet other fans IRL. During that period, I had fans in the DMs of my personal account telling me my album reviews were wrong and an embarrassment and that I knew nothing about music. And that is putting it mildly.

Numerous incidents have recently sparked debates over the morality of stan groups. Fans were part of a backlash against Ariana Grande detractors, K-pop fans defended idols who had committed sexual crimes, Nicki Minaj criticised a writer for a review and stans piled in on the same writer, and when Lizzo questioned the validity of criticism, her stans acted similarly by slating the writer of the review. The scrutiny has been placed on the ethics of stan behaviour. Are stans ruining criticism? Has stan culture gone too far? Are stans toxic? Is it problematic to be a stan?

All the Twitter threads and articles that ask these questions have the same stance. Stan culture is painted as something insidious and unknown, a virus. They fail to recognise the context: that rarely is anything within music fan culture entirely new.

When I decided to write my book Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture I had begun to see similarities between what girls were doing in front of me at shows or online and what I had done 10, 15 years previously. Whether it was crying at signing tables, waiting for hours outside venues, writing fanfiction or cataloguing their favourite artist’s every moment, these patterns have existed as far back as the 50s and 60s.

As well as the more joyous stuff – meet and greets, following around artists to their hotels and venues, documenting their work in zines or blogs – the impulses we’re essentially now cordoning off as potentially problematic have always been acted on. Media and musicians have historically thought fans are too much. Empty death threats to those who seem a menace to an artist or fandom have occurred since the birth of fanning. Girlfriends of boyband members were hated or merely irritants, members themselves hated by fans for not giving them what they wanted, whether that be the right music or attention. There has been in-fighting between fans of the same artists and inter-fandom feuds. Within fandoms, as within any social groups, there are hierarchies of privilege, rogue racists, homophobes and those whose beliefs do not reflect the majority of the fanbase.

“Rarely is anything within music fan culture entirely new”

What is new, then, to warrant these conversations? Fan behaviours have moved from public spaces to online ones. Networks now are semi-permanent and easier for anyone to join and use. The speed at which interactions happen is more intense than ever; you can tweet in an instant. We now see fans and stans as obstinately present, and the anonymous, more colourful or aggressive sides of fan emotions are fully on display. When they act as is deemed inappropriate by people outside of the fanbase, the details are more visible, their behaviours easier to point fingers at en masse.

If we should police stan culture, how do you temper something that’s built inherently into the fibre of not just fandom, but music culture itself? Stan has become shorthand for extreme or dangerous fans, and despite there being very dark sides to fandoms, I don’t think it should be a dirty word. I’ve wondered whether it’s because I so strongly identify as a fan as well as a writer who often works with music, and because my personal and professional passions crossover, that this isn’t black and white to me. If you’ve ever been a fan – experienced the life-changing feeling of being seen and belonging, of feeling part of something bigger than yourself – you’ll be able to remember. You’ll sense there’s more nuance to the conversation than it’s been afforded.

Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture is out 25 July via Quadrille Publishing