In her Fans to the Front column, Brittany Spanos dives into what’s happening in fan culture on the Internet.
Tragedy often has a bittersweet way of connecting communities who are bound by the shared experience, but members of one of the groups impacted by this week’s Manchester bombing already saw each other as a family, spread far and wide across the world.
“We were devastated,” 17-year-old Ariana Grande fan Justin D.* tells Rolling Stone. The Toronto teen runs a well-followed fan account called Ariana Grande Today and several of his friends from Twitter were in attendance at the show and survived the traumatic incident. “Most importantly, we were thinking of Ariana and her team. They’re the reason we’re a family. It’s really important that we all stick together.”
Justin recalls the confusion that followed the first tweets and news posts on an incident at the arena following Grande’s concert. At first, fans were relieved to know the pop star was safe, assuming all was well and the bomb was contained. Then, news of the fatalities spread. “We didn’t know who it was,” he says. “It could be one of our friends on the Internet. It could’ve been anyone.”
For members of Internet-based fan communities, concerts and artist events are sometimes the only way for long-distance friendships to manifest themselves in real life. Survey any show with a mostly teen- or young-adult audience, and many pairs and groups of friends will cite Twitter, Tumblr and various other social media platforms as the place where they met the people they’re attending with.
In the same way these sorts of platforms have created a virtual home for Grande’s young supporters, they also served as a saving grace in the day following the bombing, when lost fans were still being located. Justin’s account was one of many that used their large follower counts to the advantage of those looking for their loved ones by reposting photos and pleas by parents and friend. “I would see a bunch of replies that they’re at the Holiday Inn or some hotel,” he explains. “I heard that a bunch of hotels and other centers were bringing in kids who were lost to make sure they were safe.”
The Arianator fandom found other ways to rally and give support to the victims, their families and the traumatized survivors. In Manchester the following the day, pink balloons were released into the air as a show of solidarity. That same day, Justin helped promote a digital moment of silence where fans and supporters went quiet on Twitter for 25 minutes.
Before Grande’s team announced that her next seven shows would be canceled, fans were preemptively supportive and understanding of her decision to take some time away. Many of those who were in attendance at the Manchester show have also taken their own breaks from running fan accounts and engaging with social media to recover from the experience. As their own show of support for one another, some fans have organized meet-ups in the cities where the tour dates would’ve happened. “We need to stick together and be there for each other,” reads the graphic announcing a meet-up in London where participating fans are encouraged to bring speakers, blankets, green balloons and a parent or guardian if they’re under the age of 14. The location is private and only available if the host is messaged directly, showing a heightened awareness of security.
“I think it’s time for us to open our eyes and be more aware and cautious of what’s happening,” Justin adds. He recalls the incident where Voice contestant Christina Grimmie was shot by a man during a post-concert meet-and-greet after he had become obsessed with her social-media presence.
“That was terrifying, especially for her fans,” Justin explains. Even after the incident at Grimmie’s Orlando show, many venues began increasing security measures since the shooter had been able to enter the venue with two handguns. “I definitely felt what they felt when that happened last year.”
For artists like Grande with fans who are often under the age of 18, the Manchester bombing may lead to a heightened sense of fear from parents who may have previously let their kids attend large arena concerts with only their friends and little to no adult supervision. As safe as venues can be, the bomb in Manchester was detonated from outside, demonstrating how difficult incidents such as these can be to track and prevent. “This can happen at any time,” Justin adds. “Kids should make sure they’re safe because other than the experience at the shows, that’s more important.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy