May 3, 2018

Exploring an online friend community that unites
fans all over the country one concert at a time

Words by Molly Spillman | Illustration by Sophia Delciappo

Ya’el Courtney, a junior studying neuro-science, stops into a coffee shop in downtown Columbus on a cold winter day. It’s January 2016, and in just a few hours, she’ll be seeing Vespertine, one of her favorite bands, live in concert. She looks across the shop and catches a glimpse at the back of a head. It’s a girl with pink hair. Courtney’s heart rate increases as she pulls out her phone and scrolls through her Twitter direct messages. She has seen this pink hair before — not in person though — on her fan Twitter account dedicated to all her favorite bands. Courtney sends a direct message to a fellow fan online:

“Hey, I see a girl with pink hair, and I know you have pink hair. Is that you?”

The girl with the pink hair turns around. Courtney had just met her first internet friend.

Internet friendships have rapidly grown since the explosion of social media but are not a new concept for the online communities. In the 1990s, bloggers met up at restaurants and cafes in big cities. In 2004, MySpace and Facebook users hosted meetups. A YouTube convention called VidCon debuted in 2010, popularizing meeting friends with similar interests in an organized event. In 2015, a Pew Research Center study found 57 percent of teenagers have made a friend online. Now, in 2018, online friendships are a concept many teenagers have grown up around and now consider a normal practice when using social media.

For some, these digital relationships stay trapped in laptop screens and phone applications. A mere 20 percent of teenagers actually meet up with their online friends, according to the same Pew Research Center study. For Courtney, however, her internet friends were an escape for her when her home life crumbled at age 15. Without a support group to lean on, she found comfort in music fandoms, subgroups of fans collectively interested in the same topic, person or group, based on sites like Tumblr and Twitter. On the internet, Courtney could openly talk to people she had never even met about lighter topics, such as her favorite ands and music, or more sensitive subjects surrounding mental health.

“Having a supportive community that understands that depression is real and awful things are real was so important,” Courtney says. “You develop a strong trust without ever meeting these people at all.”

After years of a problematic home life and years of moving around through family and friends’ homes, she found herself based in Northeast Ohio at age 17. With little to no contact with her immediate family and no support system to guide her through her formative teenage years, Courtney was completely independent and found comfort and acceptance in not only music, but fan bases of her favorite bands. This need of connection led Courtney to connect with fans of bands like Vespertine, Twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons through her love of music she shared with her Twitter and Tumblr followers. James Ponder, an assistant professor in Kent State’s School of Communications Studies, argues this desire for inclusion and relationship is nothing new. and relationship is nothing new.

“It’s something that people have always done, I would say,” Ponder says. “If we go back in history, penpals are the same type of thing. People always seek opportunities to talk about stuff, interact with other people, share in things that they love and connect with other people through that.”

While Courtney navigated her newfound independence at age 15 through music fandoms, a similar story played out over 500 miles away in Nashville, Tennessee. Texting group chats filled with Twitter and Tumblr friends daily, Skyping fans for hours from other sides of the U.S. and meeting up with internet friends at concerts is something junior Brookelynn Weaver knows all too well.

“I had friends at school but was very insecure and never really felt like I fit in with them, and these girls had the same interests as me and always made me feel better about myself,” Weaver says. “It was never something that I did consciously. It just became a very common and normal part of my life.”

Her online friendships provided a safety net while she dealt with family struggles; however, Weaver’s network gave her security as she left Nashville to pursue a fashion merchandising degree at Kent State. While balancing classes and extracurriculars, Weaver began traveling to see her favorite bands in cities across the country, not with long-time high school friends, but with friends she had only talked to online. Weekend trips to Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles became commonplace, and her relationships with these online friends transformed into deep emotional connections. Weaver’s tradition became seeing LANY, one of her favorite bands, with her online friend Moira.

“We would book a fun Airbnb, go thrifting wherever we were, find good places to eat, then we would go to a LANY show,” Weaver says. “It just became our thing. While we were technically there to see the band, our little trips became so much more than that.”

What is so unique about these fandoms is their anonymity to attributes such as age, gender and other personal details. Some users go weeks or months without disclosing this information until they meet in person. To this community, that information just isn’t necessary or important. This inherent blindness is an attribute some would find risky, but Courtney believes it strengthened many of her online friendships.

“I don’t know what people are; I just know they are fans and they are accepting,” Courtney says. “I could meet someone in person, and they could be 13 years old, but if they were my friend online, acted mature and went through the same things as me, who cares? I think the internet really makes you blind to that sort of stuff.”

The same invisibility that many fans love is an aspect Ponder discusses as a blessing and a curse.

“The interesting part about social media, particularly in terms of our environment, is that it provides so many opportunities for people who have similar interests to connect with one another,” Ponder says. “It can turn negative, too. The anonymity provided by the internet lets people do all sorts of fun things. You can build relationships, or you can tear people down, or you can even lie to people.”

For Courtney, many of her meetups happen after months of knowing the fan and occur in large groups. Coming from a family who opposed social media and internet relationships, she surprisingly didn’t have many hesitations joining the online community and recalls never having a dangerous encounter. “Of course there are people you don’t click with,” she says, “but it’s never unsafe.”

When Weaver studied away in New York City in the fall 2017 semester, her weekend concert meet-ups turned into a semester of constant in-person hangouts and adventures with her core online friend group who lived closeby. This group not only helped her adjust to living in a new city, but offered support academically and personally. Security with these friends had been established after years of video chatting and social media messaging. Weaver had no need to worry about safety. To her, these are her offline friends.

“Had they not been around me, I know that I would have had a very different experience,” Weaver says. “I feel so lucky to have found a group of people who love and accept every part of me, regardless of the fact that it was through the internet.”

Supporters within music fandoms often find it easy to foster in-person relationships because meetups offline can happen so frequently and in a very emotionally powerful way. For music fans, concerts are cathartic and help them cope with issues happening in their life. This experience bridges the gap between online and offline and gives fans a chance to unite at an event both parties bond over. Because Courtney’s connection to these bands happened during dark times riddled with mental illness and personal struggles, she relates to concerts as an emotional and uplifting celebration.

One of her favorite bands, Twenty One Pilots, strives to make music that speaks to those struggling with mental illness and provides a safe space in person for fans to support one another’s hardships. Because of this atmosphere, the Twenty One Pilots fandom is the first base Courtney found herself heavily involved in. “That’s how I got super into traveling for Twenty One Pilots and meeting friends,” she says. “It’s a celebration with your friends that you’re still alive. You get to meet people from all over the world and learn their stories.”

Ponder explains these relationships aren’t just for people going through mental illness or trauma, but people feeling a range of different emotions. Not everyone who makes connections online has gone through something as poignant as Courtney, but many young adults can think back to memories during their teenage years and relate to feelings of isolation, being misunderstood and feeling out of place.

“A reason why people use social media a lot of times is to connect with other people,” Ponder says. “[Some] major reasons people use media is for companionship, for loneliness or to pass the time. All of those serve as opportunities to fill gaps in people’s lives.”

Courtney’s online friend network has developed into one of her biggest support systems, growing roots all across the United States. Ponder describes this system as a “safety net,” providing her with training-wheel-like security when navigating sometimes traumatic and stressful situations. Her love of music has made meeting up with online friends at these concerts a huge part of her life over the past three years since moving to Ohio. She tallies on a computer spreadsheet at least 50 concerts and seeing upwards of 100 bands live, all while helping her cope with her everyday struggles.

“I live a very stressful life, and I still struggle with mental illness to some extent, but I want to meet others who are struggling and help them,” Courtney says. “I’m never at a concert worrying about my homework. Ever. I’m never worrying about an exam. Music completely takes away everything else.”

For Weaver and Courtney, online friendships are more than just a like or a follow. Unity found within band fandoms has brought solace and peace to their often not-so-glamorous lives while giving them an outlet to share things they love and are passionate about with others. This bond is something neither can deny is special, providing security, comfort, stability and happiness through their journeys as teenagers and young adults. Above all, Courtney explains, these online friends are people to stand with you at the edge of the front row barricade, crying and dancing together while screaming the lyrics to a band loved by everyone in the crowd.

“When you’re in the front of the pit and you’ve camped out, you know everyone there die-hard loves it,” Courtney says. “You automatically know you’re accepted. You’re going to look weird if you don’t scream the lyrics. Some of them you fall away from, and some of them you meet again. Even if it’s by accident, you’ll never know when you’ll see them at another concert.”