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    Can China’s Long-Suffering Idol Fans Catch a Break?

    Caught in the crossfire of an official cleanup campaign, the country’s “fan circles” are spinning harder than ever.

    On August 27, Chinese policymakers banned celebrity rankings from all digital platforms. The move was not unexpected. Amid mounting concern that the country’s online celebrity and fandom cultures have spiraled out of control, the lists — which rank idols by fan engagement — were an obvious target. Sensing the shifting winds, Chinese microblogging platform Weibo announced the closure of its popular “star power list” on August 6. Three days later, Weibo said that it would also adjust the ranking algorithms for its agenda-setting “Super Topics” page, another frequent target of manipulation for celebrity-obsessed “fan circles.”

    The stated goal of the current campaign is to put the brakes on the fierce competition among fan circles to raise their favored idols’ social media profiles — and marketing power — by spamming posts, shares, and comments. Instead, the move has had the opposite effect. Fans told me that the time and effort they spend boosting their idols on Weibo has gone up since Weibo announced it was changing its ranking algorithms, as fan circles push their members to test the new system’s rules.

    To understand why, it helps to realize that participating in Chinese fandom culture is no longer simply a hobby, but a form of “data labor.” Although the term was coined to describe the behavior of South Korean idol fans, Chinese scholar Yin Yiyi, an associate professor of media and cultural studies at Beijing Normal University, has argued that data labor practices have become even more extreme since spreading to the Chinese mainland, in part due to their interplay with the country’s fast-growing digital economy. Yin calls it the ‘data-ization’ of fandom: Fans no longer use physical objects such as albums and posters to identify and relate to each other; instead, they immerse themselves in virtual communities and activities, from buying an album online to pressing ‘like’ on their idol’s latest post.

    Notably, the data-ization and virtualization of fandom have rendered a celebrity’s public profile highly vulnerable to online manipulation. This, in turn, has made fandom more technical than ever. Instead of simply buying an album or clamoring for an autograph, fan circles engage in sophisticated, coordinated, and often expensive campaigns to buoy their idols’ name recognition.

    One consequence of this model is over-consumption. It’s common for fans to buy extra digital albums, which they may gift to their friends and relatives, to push their idol up the charts. Some K-pop and J-pop fans even buy in bulk while specifically telling the distributor not to ship the actual albums, posters, or magazines, a practice known as a “no-ship purchase.” A more dramatic example came in April, when a popular idol show was cancelled after short videos circulated online of people dumping bottles of flavored milk and yogurt drinks into irrigation ditches. The bottles were produced by show sponsor Mengniu and were packaged with QR codes that promised fans additional votes on the show. Under pressure to support their favorite contestants, fans bought the QR codes from vendors, who took advantage of the scheme to make some quick cash.

    In short, fandom increasingly involves labor, and fans, many of them young, are showing signs of burnout. Some fans are calling for restrictions on underage users’ social media time, in part so that kids can have a chance to rest. “Who doesn’t want to just lay flat and enjoy celebrity fandom?” one asked me.

    So if fans aren’t enjoying themselves, who is? Although the idols can benefit from a successful fan circle, the biggest winners of the fan economy are social media platforms. As Mel Stanfill argued in her book “Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans,” media interfaces and algorithms are designed to manipulate fan activity in ways that benefit media industry capitalists. This is exactly what is happening on Chinese social media: Charts and rankings, including Weibo’s star power list, were introduced not to measure artists’ achievement, but to convert fans’ labor into the kind of social media engagements that will increase a platform’s advertisement revenue and market value. Fans are not just working to support their idols; they are performing unpaid labor for social media companies.

    Moreover, as online idol fans are usually young and female, and many of them are from less privileged social backgrounds, they are convenient scapegoats whenever the platforms or idols step out of line. Public anger at overconsumption and extreme expressions of fandom is typically directed at “fangirls” — a dismissive, gendered, and not particularly accurate umbrella term — rather than the social media companies that instigate their behavior.

    This is exacerbated by real stories of fans going deep into debt or relentlessly borrowing money from their families to support their idols. However, it is a mistake conclude that fans have no agency. My current research, performed with Wang Jiahe and Wu Fang from Shanghai Jiaotong University, has shown that many fans are aware of the enforced and excessive nature of the data labor they perform. They are tired of the constant cycle of “repost, comment, like, hashtag”; the constant voting competitions; and of the petty fights over their — and their idols’ — behavior. Several of my interviewees talked about how, after performing days or weeks of excessive data labor, the mere sight of their idol can trigger feelings of disgust and exhaustion. This is a sign of fatigue, and of real tension between the fan-laborers and the agencies and social media platforms that rely on them.

    This tension likely isn’t going anywhere, at least as long as the crackdown on online celebrity culture is framed as a campaign against unruly fan circles rather than the rapacious entertainment industry. The very night Weibo announced it would update its algorithms for its Super Topics page, some fan circles began mobilizing members to test the new system, trying to figure out how exactly the updated algorithm worked. As a result, some Super Topics pages received more new posts in one day than they had the entire previous week. With rumors going around that the new algorithm would take into account the hourly activity of Super Topics users to rank idols, fans felt pressure to keep posting every hour, leading some to joke that, while they used to “work” for Weibo, they are now “enslaved” by the platform.

    To scholars, they are data laborers; to platforms they are data agglomerations — but ask fans themselves, and they’ll say they feel increasingly like “chives,” just waiting to be harvested over and over. An analogy that originated among the country’s amateur stock traders, it refers to the endless cycle of cultivation and harvest by more powerful entities in which so many Chinese feel trapped. It may or may not be possible to return the country’s entertainment industry to its original purpose of entertaining people by producing good work, rather than exploiting them. In the short term, more regulations are likely, and streaming and social media platforms alike seem to agree that greater controls are needed on fan behavior. But many fans don’t want to escape idol fandom altogether. They just want it to feel more like fun, and less like hard labor.

    Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Visual elements from Frank Ramspott and Moment/People Visual, reedited by Sixth Tone)