“I watched your Jeju island video! It looked like a very relaxing time. Thank you for your vlogs, they’re so much fun!”
I recently sent this message to someone who probably won’t ever see it, and absolutely will never reply directly to it. Yet it made me smile, it brought me happiness, and I do it most days. Before you ask, no, I’m not stalking anyone. It’s through an app that offers Direct Message-style conversation with K-pop idols, and it’s just one example of a growing number of apps that are connecting us to others, many of whom would normally be inaccessible, in very different ways.
Why would anyone invest time and money in a one-sided conversation? Is this illusion of intimacy the ultimate in fandom, or saddening evidence of loneliness only encouraged by addictive online services and the coronavirus pandemic? I think I’m close enough to the subject to offer some insight and help you understand, but in order to really dig deep into why apps like these are gaining popularity, I also asked some experts.
If you’re not a fan of K-pop or Japanese idols, you probably haven’t heard of DearU’s Bubble with Stars, which is the app I use, or other similar apps like Universe and Weverse. For around $4 per star per month, I receive around a dozen messages a day from former global girl group IZ*ONE members Kang Hyewon and Kim Minju.
Their messages mostly detail the minutiae of life, like what they had for dinner, how work went, and what the weather is like in Seoul, while also revealing more of their personalities through jokes and comments. You could be forgiven for mistaking this feed for Twitter or Instagram, except these apps are not open to the general public. In fact, most of the apps repeatedly warn against sharing the posts made by artists outside of the app on other social networks, under penalty of permanent bans. That’s why we aren’t showing you actual message examples here.
Instead, it’s all presented like a messaging app directly connecting you with an idol. You see a scrollable stream of individual messages and images, some of which are even personalized, like “Andy, what are you doing today?” You can type out replies to messages and add emojis and stickers. It’s just like messaging with your friends.
If the artist is engaged with the app and really understands how to use it, the illusion of directly messaging with them is utterly convincing. But it is still an illusion. The artist is not actually messaging you directly and when you reply, they will probably never read that message. And sorry, but on Bubble, you will never get a real, personal reply sent only to you. Although it may look and feel like a personal exchange, it’s absolutely not.
None of this is a secret to users. According to Bubbles’ developer, messages are sent by the idol, but they are not notified of any replies and cannot then send messages to one subscriber. However, replies are stored in a global inbox that can be accessed by the idol, giving a glimmer of hope a message may be read at some point. I know all this, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m also acutely aware that for those who aren’t fans, it must seem completely ridiculous. But there’s more to it than you think.
I expect there’s a good chance you are questioning why someone would want to have an entirely one-sided “conversation,” and actually pay for the privilege. Every time I send a reply through Bubble, the same question enters my mind. What do I get out of it? I talked about how relatively mundane the chat messages are, and this is actually part of the appeal, but it’s also connected to what it means to be a fan.
For me, I love the way the artists I follow reference things only a fan really understands, let you in on little jokes, and shares surprisingly personal aspects of their lives. She shares the good parts of her day, and I can reply by saying how good she was in her music show, or in her latest video. It’s friendly, supportive, and heartwarming. It’s common to receive messages of encouragement too, and because they are often personalized it feels surprisingly special. There are even times where you distinctly get the feeling the artist has read at least some of the replies, due to comments about the conversation made by other fans on Twitter.
The closeness that comes from using these apps is a strong aspect of idol fandom, and to get more perspective, I connected with Nathanial Vibar, a 26-year-old nurse and a fan of Japanese idol group Sakurazaka46, over Twitter to better understand why he sends replies through that group’s messaging app.
“This is our only way of giving back some of the happiness they bring into our lives,” he told me. “You do it because you want them to know that there’s always someone out there supporting them and watching them grow.”
This mutual exchange of support for happiness is a common thread in idol fandom, but also of fandom generally. Why do we cheer for bands at concerts? We’re expressing how happy they make us, even if we never expect them to spot us individually in the crowd and recognize us. Having an app where you express support to an artist, regardless of whether they see the note or not, accomplishes the same thing in a digital venue.
Nathanial gave me an example of what this looks like day-to-day for him. “A few weeks ago it was an important anniversary for the group, and [a member of the group] asked in the app for replies from fans,” Nathanial says. “On that day in particular, I was feeling very sentimental, so I ended up sending her a very nicely worded message about how seeing her up on stage makes me happy. Even though I might not ever hear back from her, the chance that she might see the message and it brings a smile to her face gives me a warm feeling.”
Reading fun messages and sending supportive replies explains the surface-level appeal of these apps, but could there be a deeper meaning? I put the question of what it means to have one-sided conversations like these to Rebecca Lockwood, Positive Psychology and Master Neuro-linguistic Programming Coach, who didn’t pull any punches about her opinion on why someone may do this.
“The need to feel significant in life can create the desire to connect with idols and people that we look up to,” she wrote via email. “The need for connection and to feel important can drive people to different kinds of behaviors and actions to try to fulfill it. It is an attempt to fill a need that is empty.”
Put this way it doesn’t sound like much fun, yet in my own experience, it is fun. Insight and Innovation Executive Natasha Kingdon from the LAB Group, a digital agency specializing in human behavior, believes there are benefits to this type of relationship.
“Research has found that forming connections with stars, even through one-sided relationships, can help those with low self-esteem find a support network or kinship that they can not find elsewhere,” she explained via email. “This need to fit in can be attributed to social identity theory, where affiliation with a group actually boosts self-esteem. The benefits of being part of a group (in this case a fandom) creates positivity and confidence in who they are, even without proper responses. The messages that are sent to the K-pop idol are almost secondary to the benefits that come out of being part of the group.”
In my experience, K-pop fans are always welcoming and friendly. Positivity is almost as much a part of K-pop fandom as the idols themselves. K-pop groups also tend to organize themselves very effectively, and the group will usually give fans a collective name, further emphasizing the tribal aspect. For example fans on IZ*ONE are known as WIZ*ONE, fans of the group Twice are known as Once, and BTS has its Army. However, Kingdon explained how it could also go a lot deeper than simply wanting to be part of something.
“In a COVID world, there is less face-to-face interaction in real life than ever before. This is especially the case with single-bubble households across the world. With workplaces previously being a reliably social aspect of people’s days, new work-from-home policies becoming the norm has meant any form of interaction, virtual or non-human, is still beneficial.”
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on my own the last 18 months, at least compared to 2019 and before, so this does make some sense. However, it’s definitely not the only reason I send these messages. Being a supportive fan, as Nathanial described, is just as important to me. For fans who do seek a genuine sense of connection, some apps make it possible to go that step further.
While Bubble, Universe, and others like it all digitally connect you to a real person, you don’t get any back-and-forth conversation. But you can if you replace the real person with finely tuned Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Chatbots and other A.I. creations offer a sense of connection for users who can’t, or don’t want to, connect with real people.
Take Xiaoice, a massively popular A.I.-powered chatbot with an estimated user base of 660 million people. When Sixth Tone spoke to people who regularly converse with Xiaoice, some described themselves as “introverted and with low self-esteem,” echoing Kingdon’s words, but all also talked about how Xiaoice provides comfort and companionship they cannot get from anyone else.
This need to connect, possibly when the ability to do so isn’t an option in real life, is also a big draw of Gatebox, a smart home product along the lines of Google Home and Google Nest. It’s due to Azuma Hikari, an A.I. character who lives inside the device. In addition to being virtually in your home, she can also communicate with you by message app. Like Xiaoice, the conversation is light and friendly, but with an intimacy people may not find elsewhere. “I wanted to create something I could love,” Gatebox CEO Minori Takechi said about the character.
To me, sending one-sided messages to an idol and sending messages to a chatbot aren’t all that different, and they aren’t if we listen to the psychologists, either. That both apps generate an emotional response, just like social media, does raise concerns over the effect they have on our mental health though. Internal research from Facebook recently revealed how Instagram has harmed body image for teenage girls in particular, and the harmful effects of infinite scrolling and social media are well documented. Unfortunately, Kingdon suggests similar issues may arise from the use of messaging apps like Bubble with Stars and Xiaoice.
“Messages that come through could be interpreted as small rewards, which in turn release small amounts of dopamine. This creates an ‘addiction’ to the phone messages and dopamine, creating a ‘ludic loop.’ A ludic loop is when you repeat the same activity because your brain knows occasionally it will generate dopamine – the reward,” Kingdon explains. “This can create unhealthy habits of expectancy and phone and app dependency, as well as being used as a substitute for face-to-face interactions which have been shown to have many positive benefits for mental health.”
If chatbots and idol apps are fueled by a cocktail of pandemic loneliness, celebrity worship, and the addictive properties of social media, should we be concerned? Well, only if we focus on the negatives. In an essay for ThoughtCo, psychologist Cynthia Vinney wrote that parasocial relationships, the term given to one-sided connections with someone, are normal and psychologically healthy, and can lead to better real-life social interactions. A 2008 University of Buffalo study showed parasocial relationships can actually help improve self-esteem.
The last 18 months have changed our relationship with technology in many ways, whether it’s upgrading computer systems for home working, getting to grips with Zoom calls, or streaming movies rather than watching them in the theater. I see apps like Bubble with Stars and the parasocial relationships they propagate as a continuation of this, just one that’s little understood.
Yes, they are definitely the ultimate expression of fandom. But they also seem to help people cope with loneliness and low self-esteem. For me, I like getting messages from Minju and Hyewon. They are always fun, positive, and supportive, always make me smile or laugh, and are never confrontational or emotionally upsetting like social media can be. With those benefits, suddenly the time and money involved seem like a wise investment.
And yes, before you ask, I will send a Bubble message to both the idols telling them about writing this article.
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