The psychology of stanning
These days, if you’re infatuated with someone, it’s not three little words you need to say - it’s two: “I stan.”
The phrase was born out of Eminem’s hit song in 2000 Stan, where a superfan goes to extreme and violent measures to prove his devotion to the singer. These days, it’s used to show strong appreciation towards a musician, Love Island star or even fictional character that you adore.
Fandoms are no new phenomenon. For years lots of people have considered them to be excessive and, in some cases, even hysterical. When Frank Sinatra was at the height of his fame, he was given the nickname ‘Swoonatra’, as a nod to the reams of adoring female fans who would swoon and faint at his concerts. Then came Beatlemania, which swept across not just the UK but the whole world.
A question of empathy
It’s hard to really pinpoint how fandoms evolve as quickly and uncontrollably as they they do, but there are some theories. One points to how most of our relationships rely on empathy with people - using our own experiences to relate to how you think other people are feeling. For this reason then, a heightened level of obsession can develop with fictional characters and celebrities, because you know so much more about their lives than most people, and so there are many more avenues to be able to relate to them.
Social psychologist at the University of Derby Dr Ruth Sims says that this might be true, but it goes further than just knowing lots of details about the character or person: “It’s quite complex, some of it is about filling a gap and filling a need if someone has something missing in their life then you can kind of latch on to.”
In other words, if you feel like there’s some sort of connection missing in your life, either romantically, or perhaps you feel as though people don’t understand you or your interests, identifying with people in alternative forums can help.
This then leads to a particularly interesting phenomenon of modern-day fandoms. They create huge communities of people, but because most are developed on the internet, these communities don’t have clear physical parameters and can span across the globe.
'Support and connect'
Dr Sims says that this can have both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, fandoms can help “support and connect individuals”, often providing a space for long-lasting friendships and even romantic relationships to form. On the other hand however, sharing an opinion that is contrary to what the rest of the community believes could lead to people being “ostracised or bullied, with all the negative implications of that on mental health.”
One reason you might be drawn to a fan community is because as people, we prefer people we see as ‘like us’. Dr Sims says that because of this, entering into a fandom can help us discover who we are: “Interests in celebrities or fictional characters often begins during teenage years, when we’re working hard on our own sense of identity, who we are, what we want out of life.
"Learning everything you can about a particular person can help give a focus, and might give you a lifestyle, skills, knowledge that you can aspire to… or they might enable you to ‘live vicariously’ through their own adventures. You know you might never be that similar to them, but by keeping up with what they’re doing, you can imagine what it might be like if that was you living that life.”
Great minds... think like me
In fact, studies have found if you don’t feel as though you ‘belong’ somewhere, this can lead to an increased possibility of developing mental health problems. Fandom communities perhaps then provide more opportunities to avoid this.
Only liking people that are ‘like us’ though is where problems can arise, and it’s described as ‘in-group bias’. Dr Sims says that while people who have lots of friendship groups or are part of lots of different communities tend to be quite open-minded, there’s a danger for people who solely identify with one main group that they can cut themselves off from others, and start thinking that everyone outside that group is wrong.
You can see examples of this when fandoms take a dislike to people they believe to be ‘disrespecting’ the source of their adoration, such as recently when Beyoncé fans responded with uproar after a recent clip showed another woman talking across the popstar to her husband, Jay-Z. She reportedly received countless insults on social media for the ‘slight’, and eventually disabled her Instagram account to avoid it. Beyoncé’s publicist spoke directly to the Beyhive after the incident: "I know your love runs deep but that love has to be given to every human. It will bring no joy to the person you love so much if you spew hate in her name."
According to Dr Sims, there are examples of this in the wider world too, for example in how polarised politics have become in the USA and the UK.
Like having 'two separate lives'
However, Dr Sims admits it’s hard to escape this mindset, as it’s potentially an evolutionary trait. Early humans survived by sticking with their tribe and looking out for their own, and so these things can be quite deeply ingrained.
One really positive thing to come out of fandoms is that they can potentially inspire people’s creativity, in artwork and especially in the world of fanfiction. This is where people write continuations of stories with different endings, often to make two characters who they think should fall in love (or ‘ship’, to use the technical term) find that happy ending. One quite famous example of this is the hit trilogy that began with 50 Shades of Grey. The story was reportedly inspired by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, but was given a more ‘adult’ twist. The end result was hugely successful; in 2012 the trilogy had sold a whopping 31 million copies.
One draw of fanfiction according to Dr Sims is that once you’ve established a connection with a character or a story, you never have to see it end: “You can carry it on forever… so you can live in this kind of other world almost, it’s like having two separate lives."
This deep obsession with celebrities can be extremely beneficial for the people they’re directed at, bolstering their careers and even creating part of the brand. But it can turn quite dark, and have real and lasting effects on these people when the adoration turns to relentless criticism.
The ending of Game of Thrones is a case in point - thousands, if not millions of people were extremely disappointed with the way it ended. And they were extremely vocal about it, prompting some of the cast to give interviews about how upsetting that was for them, and how difficult is to live in the public eye in general.
It's not just criticism either - there have been cases of celebrities being stalked by fans who are obssessed with them. Dr Sims says that in these cases, "the boundaries become very blurred", as people believe they have a genuine relationship with these people by virtue of knowing everything about their public image, even when they've never met.
For Dr Sims, the world of fandom and stanning is essentially a microcosm of the internet as a whole. It certainly has its dark sides, and areas that are potentially scary and dangerous, but it’s also opened up new realms of possibility for people who may once have felt extremely isolated. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to log on and “be there” she says, even if you can’t physically leave the house or have extreme difficulties communicating face-to-face. So, fandoms: we stan.