Rabid fans have always populated pop culture—who can forget the flocks of devotees who howled outside the windows of MTV’s Total Request Live? But in today’s social network age, they’d rather sprint to timelines than sidewalks for a bite of star interaction. Online, especially on Twitter, follows, direct messages, tweets and re-tweets from celebs hold far more significance than a wrinkled autograph. “For a lot of these fans, they’ll never be in a greenroom. They’ll never go to a meet and greet. They’ll never be backstage,” says Tatiana Simonian, Twitter’s Head of Music. “Twitter is the next best thing. When Rihanna’s @-replying a fan and re-tweeting them, that may be the only time the fan is able to have a response from Rihanna in their life. And that’s an amazing gift.”
It’s also a gift that keeps on giving. For artists, digital pied piper lines present them with not only a never-ending buffet of flattery, but a young and restless no-cost street team willing to promote in all hours and all countries, in exchange for a salute worthy of screen-grabbing. It’s a win-win for both sides. When Rihanna revealed the cover art to her seventh album, Unapologetic, on October 11, her diehards tweeted for joy at the sight of the hashtag “#Navy” scribbled across her stomach—a stamp of appreciation. “I feel like, if she’s doing all this for us, what can I do for her?” says Airy, citing Rihanna’s individualism as a motive for reverence. “I want to put pictures on my wall. I want to do all her hairstyles to make her feel like she’s loved. Because it feels good when you see people inspired by you. Some people call it obsessed. I call it dedication.”
There’s an ugly side effect of digital fidelity. During the 2012 Billboard Music Awards, John Legend’s fiancée, model Chrissy Teigen, tweeted during Chris Brown’s performance: “Why sing when you can dance.” Within seconds, an annihilation attempt from Team Breezy launched, catapulting tweets best read in a villain’s voice: “You fucking with the wrong Team #TeamBreezy don’t fuck with us you will commit suicide,” from @_MechanicalBoy. And, “I wish you’d set yo ug’lass down somewhere with that droopy ass face .. EVERYBODY THAT’S LIGHTSKINNED AINT CUTE,” from @ImMrsBreezy.
Scare tactics were also deployed in September after Nicki Minaj’s Mitt Romney endorsement joke on Lil Wayne’s mixtape track “Mercy.” BET’s former 106 & Park host Rocsi Diaz got flogged on Twitter just for mentioning the lyric during an episode. ShaVonté Samuel, a giggly, four-eyed 16-year-old from South Carolina who runs @iTSBARBiE_B_TCH and wants to be buried beneath a pink tombstone with an obituary highlighting her Team Minaj membership, tweeted to Rocsi: “Ya Fucked Up Big Time.”
“She asked the crowd, ‘Do y’all think she’s a Republican? Tweet your thoughts to @106andpark. We were so mad. We went in on Rocsi,” says ShaVonté. “She tried to play our Nicki. She didn’t have to bring that up. She’s not a journalist. Her job is to sit there and say what song’s coming on next.” When asked whether this skews a little Mean Girls, she responds: “If she’s not [supporting] Nicki, don’t talk about her. We’re not trying to get people to turn against Nicki, and that’s what Rocsi was doing.”
For the biggest cyber sheep, one small quip can kindle a war, and celebrities seldom rein in their wildest fans. “They go so hard for these people, and it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s great to look up to celebrities, but they’re not putting groceries in your fridge,” says YouTube personality and blogger Kid Fury. “It’s like bullying [in the name of ] someone you don’t know. If you shoot somebody over Chris Brown or Trey Songz, you are going to end up in jail. And they’re going to be in France. A big reason Stanning is so popular now is because certain celebrities enable it.”