Experts discuss how artists have the power to intervene in dangerous or overzealous behaviors by their most devout fans, known as stans.
Nicki Minaj has been trending again.
Following the release of her No. 1 single “Super Freaky Girl,” Minaj has been embroiled in one online drama to the next, with her overzealous fans — better known as the “Barbz” — battling anyone who shares a conflicting view or opinion on social media.
But the attacks don’t just extend to other rappers and celebrities. Journalists, your average social media user — anyone who seems to speak out of turn about the artist is met with abuse online that ranges from verbal threats to potential doxxing.
Recently, this came to a head with cultural commentator Kimberly Foster. Foster had criticized “Super Freaky Girl” and Minaj’s MTV Video Vanguard Award performance in late August. After tweeting that Minaj is “so clearly a horrible person” earlier this week, she was met with mounds of harassment and threats — including sexual violence, robbery, and kidnapping — and even received a response from the rapper herself. This comes four years after a similar situation occurred with music and cultural journalist Wanna Thompson, who tweeted a critique about Minaj’s music and became the target of online abuse from fans of the rapper as a result.
On the surface, most fandoms are harmless. But they can become dangerous when fans begin to degrade and dehumanize others under the guise of defending their idols. In Minaj’s case, Kadian Pow, a sociology and Black studies lecturer at Birmingham City University England, agreed that the rapper often deploys her fans like a protective shield against her online enemies.
“She frequently retweets their most zealous defenses of her no matter how much vitriol the statements contain about others. This communicates to the fanbase that such behavior is welcomed and encouraged,” Pow said. “Moreover, it communicates that tweets of that nature are the way to get her attention. Attention on the internet is a powerful currency, and people always want more…until they get burned.”
Social media has changed how we interact with our favorite celebrities in the last 10 years. The oversaturation of constant connection between fans and artists has created hyper fans — commonly referred to as “stans” — who are a part of a larger fanbase, whether that be Beyoncé’s Beyhive, Taylor Swift’s Swifties, or, most notably, Nicki Minaj’s Barbz.
“Stan,” which is defined as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity,” first came about in the early 2000s through Eminem’s song of the same name. In it, Eminem treks through the relationship between him and an obsessive, stalker-like fan named Stan, who idolizes the rapper, even changing his appearance to look like him. After failing to gain an answer to any of his fan letters, Stan ultimately kills himself and his girlfriend.
Nas also popularized the term, giving it more context on “Ether,” his now infamous diss track responding to JAY-Z’s “Takeover.”
“You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a stan,” he raps.
Stan describes the most aggressive form of parasocial interaction, which are one-sided relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, and the other party — the persona — is completely unaware of the other’s existence. These are most common with celebrities, organizations (like sports teams), and notable public figures, with hyper fans, often feeling a personal responsibility and duty to defend them, no matter how hysterical it may get at times.
In 2020, a report found that online communities like Instagram and Twitter muddle issues of the “realness” of parasocial interaction, noting how despite the one-sided nature of these interactions, it can have both negative and positive effects and sometimes go beyond the individual to affect a group of people. The negative impact of these interactions includes some untoward effects on genuine relationships and feelings of inferiority when comparing oneself to those one encounters through various forms of media.
Gayle S. Stever, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at SUNY Empire State College, said people often engage in parasocial relations for three reasons: romantic interest, hero/role model attraction, and task attraction.
“When people engage in these parasocial relations with celebrities, they often find community among each other,” she said. “While that may be a good thing, it can also lead to chaos as well.”
Stever doesn’t believe celebrities interacting with their fans is bad but suggests that fans will mimic the behavior they see from the star they follow.
“If the celebrity is philanthropic, if they’re kind, if they reach out in a kind way, and not toxic on social media, then mostly, this is the behavior fans are going to give back,” she said.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell agreed.
Rockwell has spent decades researching mental health, fame, and celebrity. Her work is what inspired her to form Already Famous: Embracing Inner Celebrity, an online wellness group that helps women and girls overcome self-rejection that may come through social media.
Rockwell believes celebrities maintain a great responsibility concerning how their fans interact online, saying: “If we don’t do that, what are we opening the door to? The golden rule still exists. We have to treat people the way we want to be treated.”
She said that the idea of “reflected glory” through the social media lens has opened up the floodgates for fans to engage with the celebrity experience. As a result, Rockwell said the lines have blurred between obsessive, extremely committed fan groups, and a cult, noting how dangerous it is to engage with mob mentality online.
“Fans give up so much of their own unique agency and autonomy in life by overfocusing on a celebrity’s existence,” Rockwell said, adding that social media is like the wild west and has yet to be fully understood. “It is a dangerous place, it is a dangerous world, and we seem to have lost the capacity to have empathy for one another.”
While there aren’t many great examples of the celebrity and fan dynamic, Rockwell said Oprah Winfrey stands out among the rest, partly due to the vulnerability she extends to her audiences.
“Oprah has exemplified this way of being for decades,” she said. “A sense of compassion and caring for other people — that’s what made her famous.”
Rockwell, Stever, and Pow agreed that general fandoms are not the issue here. When the fans begin to have an obsessive, cult-like attitude toward those who disagree with them in the name of defending their favorite artist or entertainer, that’s where issues arise.
Fanbases and standoms offer a powerful source of support. Without them, these people are not stars. That said, there is a limit — and a responsibility — to this dependent relationship.
Pow said that artists need to be careful not to think they can direct the agenda or behavior of those groups and that it’s part of understanding their power.
“The caveat here is when the celebrity has the power to intervene in dangerous or overzealous behaviors. They don’t have to intervene directly, but they can make their displeasure known,” Pow said.
Ultimately, fans are going to stan in whatever way that satisfies their emotional connection to their favorite artist. But that doesn’t mean we cannot encourage celebrities whose fan bases can be incredibly toxic, to set stricter boundaries against developing unhealthy relationships and interactions online. Even Beyonce had to tell her hive to settle down in the past after spewing hateful attacks online. Rather than weaponizing their fan base, other notable figures should try and do the same.
Alexis Oatman is a freelance culture writer and general assignment reporter. The Ohio native and Cleveland-based journalist covers arts and entertainment, beauty, fashion, health, and more. She has contributed to several major publications, including Teen Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, POPSUGAR, Paper Magazine, Essence, TheGrio, and more. Find her on Twitter @iamlexstylz