by David Perry
January 04, 2019
No, I didn't join a cult. But I did find out what it would be like if the internet was the nicest place on earth, if Twitter was a platform in which people flooded each other with love, encouraged each of us to feel accepted and to accept ourselves, shared their favorite music... but also didn't mind if their jam was your jam. All of this took place when I fell into the grip of the online supporters of the Korean pop band BTS.
As a Jewish political reporter focusing on violence and oppression, this is not my internet. On my internet, neo-nazis threaten my life, left-wingers call me a neoliberal shill, and everyone complains that I watch the wrong TV shows. But now that I've gotten to know the ARMY — (Adorable Representative MC for Youth) — as BTS fans call themselves, I don't want to go back to my old internet.
This all happened by chance. An unknown Facebook account DM'd my professional page; a hello, some emoji, a picture of a woman, and then was de-activated. It was probably a spam or porn account, and nothing unusual, except that one of the emoji featured a weird anthropomorphic heart with a face, arms, and legs. So I screen-capped the messages and tweeted the image.
Within minutes, I was informed that the heart was actually Tata, one of the eight cute figures that function as a sort of avatar for each member of the band. Tata is the leader. So, mystery solved.
Except that BTS fans, and there are millions on Twitter, kept coming by to tell me about Tata, to suggest I check out the band, to laugh with delight at my confusion, and to share increasingly cute gifs and emoji. They seemed so kind. They kept apologizing for bothering me, but wanted me to know that the band did good work, preached a message of self-love, and performed righteously great music. It was a lot nicer than arguing about the 2020 Democratic Primary. (In related news, I'm suggesting Tata / Chimmy — a dog who likes hot beverages and wears a yellow parka — as my preferred 2020 candidates.)
Online fandoms can be tricky communities to navigate from the outside. They tend to revel in inclusivity, in-jokes, and often demand admiration of whatever it is they are stanning. ARMY was nothing like that. They respectfully offered links of different kinds of music and performances I might enjoy, inquired after my musical tastes (I play Irish rock and bluegrass), and tried to match that to BTS. Others let me know that they were lawyers, or worked in higher education, or at any rate were not just tween pop fans, but they loved BTS too. They wanted me to know that it would be ok if I, a middle-aged academic and journalist, joined ARMY.
Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people shared BTS' speech to the UN with me. At the UN, in a speech which has been viewed millions of times on various platforms, the young men presented a message of radical self-love even while acknowledging the challenges of overcoming one's fears and insecurities.
Some Twitter fans came out to me about their own mental health challenges with which BTS had helped them. I shared an essay I had written about my battles with suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression. Some read it to the end, screen-capturing lines that moved them, and engaged me around the essay's content. As a writer, there's really nothing more I could want. Finally, reluctantly, I turned on some of their music, afraid it would ruin the spell.
Readers — BTS is super-famous for a reason. Their music is slick, professional, perfectly-executed pop. A lot of their songs have good kick and drive. I was walking through downtown Chicago when I hit play and the music carried me through the chilly winter's twilight as I made my way to my hotel.
The next day, the new Democratic majority in the House took office. President Trump staged a fake press conference. Alt-Right accounts tried to convince the country that Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez was untrustworthy because she liked to dance in college. And Twitter went back to business as usual. But every few minutes, I get another glimpse of Tata, Chimmy, or someone "purpling" me with love. There's no going back now. I guess I'm ARMY.
David Perry is a freelance journalist covering politics, history, disability, and education. He is also the Senior Academic Advisor to the History Department of the University of Minnesota. You can find him @LollardFish and thismess.net