How Taylor Swift flipped online fandom on its head for the better
In case you didn’t realize, Taylor Swift’s reputation tour is officially underway. And from what I’ve glimpsed online — and in real life courtesy of a preview at a BBC festival last weekend — it looks to be a dazzling, banger-filled, snake-adorned sequin fest.
But ahead of seeing the show, the one thing I can’t get enough of online are the social media outpourings from fans who have met her backstage after the show in a special intimate venue called the Rep Room.
There’s a breathless quality to their stories, which often spill out over threaded tweets, punctuated with all-caps exclamations and strings of random letters used to convey their speechlessness. They describe their tears, their racing hearts, how very deeply shook they were.
It’s something I’ve seen firsthand.
During a London stop on Swift’s 1989 World Tour, I looked on as Swift’s mother Andrea, who just happened to be walking by, picked two fans out of the crowd. After a long and earnest talk with her, the two teenage girls decked out with homemade t-shirts and signs were handed backstage passes. Weeping, shaking and totally beside themselves, they called their parents to tell them they would be late leaving the gig. I couldn’t even bring myself to be envious, so heartwarming was it to witness.
Complain if you must about the price of tour tickets, but unlike many stars, Swift never charges for meet and greets. Instead, the fans she meets are carefully cherry picked — and there’s a process for this. It’s sometimes a matter of fans creating costumes at her shows that catch the eye of her team (or parents). But more often than not, she tends to recruit online.
With a profile and following as big as Swift’s (she is the seventh most-followed person on Instagram and reputation became the top-selling album of 2017 in the US the week it went on sale), you could imagine her being able to get away with coasting when it comes to interacting with fans.
But not only is she up for engaging with them, she actively seeks them out, going so far as to turn online micro-interactions into real-life encounters that they couldn’t have imagined even in their wildest dreams. It’s an approach that sets her apart from run-of-the-mill, chart-topping musical megastars who are happy to rest on their laurels.
“I’m really in touch with my fans and I know what they like,” said Swift in an ABC interview with Barbara Walters in 2014. “I want to come up with as many ways that we can spend time together and bond because it keeps me normal. It keeps my life feeling manageable.”
Swift flips the typical stan (stalker-fan) relationship on its head by indulging in a practice that has affectionately come to be known as “taylurking”. She’ll pop up in the comments when her fans are live-streaming video on Instagram, reblog them on Tumblr or, out of the blue, send packages to their homes to heal their broken hearts after stealth-following them online for several years.
Seeing her fans online, Swift told Walters, “is the only thing that keeps me not feeling overwhelmed by the abnormality of my life.”
But this topsy-turvy craziness really enters the realms of wonderland when you discover that one of the reasons Swift uses social media this way is to invite her fans to her own freakin’ house (houses, actually — she is, after all, quite well-off by now).
Swift started following Gabby Hoefer, a 20-year old college student from Connecticut, on Tumblr in 2014. The star had reblogged a couple of Hoefer’s posts and even followed her mother’s account, but Hoefer was still shocked when in October 2017 she received an invitation to Swift’s house in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, to preview her new album.
Swift held several of these “secret sessions” in New York, LA, Rhode Island and London, welcoming chosen fans into her home, dancing with them, eating pizza and sharing with them her latest labor of love before putting it out into the world. For Hoefer, the experience was a dream come true.
“I’m honestly not sure how it happened because I hadn’t interacted with her directly for over a year,” Hoefer told me over email. She suspects Swift and her team picked her out well over 12 months before the invitation arrived.
“When we had our individual meet and greet with her, she knew my name right away. She said, ‘You’re Gabby, right?’ and I looked to my mom in complete shock. The fact that the woman I had looked up to for so long took the time to invite me to her home, feed me dinner and know me by name is something that I will never fully be able to comprehend.”
Reputation was the second album Swift held secret sessions for, after a successful first round of house parties just prior the launch of 1989.
“I found them on the internet,” she said of her fans on the BBC’s Graham Norton Show in 2014. “I would go online and look at their Instagram pages, or their Tumblr, or their Twitter or whatever and just watch them for months and months — just sort of cyber-stalk them. And I invited them over and they came.”
When Swift reaches out to fans to issue them with invitations, she does so through her official fan club, Taylor Nation, which usually gets in touch via direct message on Twitter or Tumblr. A DM from Taylor Nation inviting a fan to a Secret Session is the equivalent of one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, but the fan club can be cryptic at times.
When 23-year-old Jehlé Pretorius from South Africa received a DM from Taylor Nation before flying out to see the star perform in Austin, Texas, she freaked out, but she didn’t know that she would definitely be meeting Swift until moments before. Taylor Nation said they would like to meet her, but didn’t explicitly say that Swift would.
Before the show, she and some other fans were escorted to a tent, where they were given merchandise, Pretorious told me over email.
“Scott [Swift’s father] and Andrea came in and all chill was lost,” she said. “We legit started screaming and crying. They are the most beautiful people inside and out. Andrea said she was so happy to meet us and asked us how we were doing and Scott started handing out guitar picks.” They then broke the news to the fans that their daughter wanted to meet them.
“It was an out-of-body experience,” she said. “I went in complete shock and was trying to get myself together so that I could take it all in.”
A common theme discussed in posts about Swift’s interactions with fans is the scale of her generosity in spite of the many pressures she faces and the many demands on her time (she has her critics too — she is often portrayed as disingenuous or as a snake, a symbol she has come to own on this latest tour).
Back in 2015 Taylor Swift favorited tweets I’d mentioned her in on two separate occasions. Both times my phone buzzed constantly for three days as more and more people continued to favorite and reshare the tweets. Going small-scale viral off the back of two favorited tweets gave me a tiny insight into the vast deluge of notifications Swift and other celebrities must be receive at any given moment every day.
The idea of handpicking fans from the hot mess that is social media seems crazy and overwhelming. But for many Swifties, it’s the way the star cuts through the noise to reach out to others personally that really defines their relationship with her.
“The difference between being a fan of Taylor Swift and being one of another celebrity is that Taylor always goes the extra mile for her fans,” Hoefer said. “She spends hours stalking us online, invites us into her home and sends us packages.”
But striking the right balance on social media is a delicate thing, even for celebrities.
Last year, Swift, for reasons she hasn’t discussed at length, went dark on- and offline for several months. This months-long vanishing act was particularly impressive given that there are times she can barely venture outside long enough to take a single gulp of fresh air and feel the sunlight on her face without being papped.
But even in the Taylor heartlands of Tumblr, there was tumbleweed.
As the release date for her new album drew close, Swift deleted everything she’d ever posted on Twitter and Instagram so she could begin again with a clean slate ready for her all-new material. Slowly, slowly, as the marketing effort around reputation ramped up, she returned to the internet. But even at full blast, her presence is not as easy, island breezy as it once was.
At the age of 28, reputation-era Taylor is far more guarded on social media than 1989-era Taylor, who put it all out there — friendships, relationships, no holds barred. There are no more pictures of romantic beach trips and heavily documented gatherings with famous friends at her houses. Now, only on Tumblr does she let herself stray from the carefully curated blanket media social media strategy that is now followed across other platforms.
Of all the social media realms at her fingertips, it is Tumblr where Swift is and always has been her most relatable, relaxed and funny self, as well as where she interacts most intimately with her fans. The platform is far from a private forum, and yet it does have the feeling of a safe space. There’s a sort of bubble where her community hangs out and shows her using a range of creative means — videos, fan art, song covers, comedy — how much they love her.
So far, so Tumblr. But the gratifying thing about being a Swiftie on the platform is that if you catch her eye, you could reap the reward of being recognized with a Swift-sent digital heart emoji — or more.
Swifties helping Swifties
Swift’s fans are thrilled she’s back online and live for the moments she’s active on Tumblr — something they scour her ‘likes’ for evidence of. They don’t resent her for taking some time off either, though.
“Her disappearance was hard, but I understood,” Pretorius told me. “I was happy to see Taylor take the break she needed,” added Hoefer. At least during her absence, fans had each other to turn to. As is often the case with celebrity fans, a community has sprung around Swift and the bond between Swifties is strong.
“Meeting other Swifties online is honestly the best thing of stanning an artist,” said Pretorius. “I know now that I can travel to anywhere in the world and I will have friends there.” Hoefer, too, met some of her best friends online through a shared love of Taylor in high school, and they are still in touch today.
After Pretorius met Swift she said that overwhelmingly people seemed really happy for her. Hoefer, however, said she did experience jealousy from other fans after meeting Swift. “This can be challenging but I try to do what I can to help others so that they can interact with Taylor as well,” she said.
Joelle DeJohn, who met Swift in the Rep Room during the Chicago leg of her tour after Swift screenshotted her Tumblr posts and sent them to her management, is part of a group of Swifties taking things a step further. Before meeting Swift, she’d created a Twitter account with the handle “Rep Give Back”, which raised over $5,000 to send 50 less well-off fans to see Swift on tour and to buy merchandise for an eight-year-old burns victim.
“Taylor told me to ‘keep doing good things’ so after meeting her I knew there was more I could do to help out others,” DeJohn told me. She now helps run a Twitter account to help others catch the eye of Swift’s management so that they too can experience the Rep Room.
“I want everyone to experience the happiness I felt while meeting Taylor,” she said.
Her attitude is something I noticed crop up time and again on my travels through the Taylornet: fans who have met Swift universally seem to want others to enjoy the same experience. They altruistically retweet and reblog posts by other deserving fans who they want Swift to notice — and it works.
For one fan, Miriam, who met Swift last year at the Jingle Bell Ball last December in London after flying from Germany for the occasion, the momentum of tweets around her trip resulted in Swift taking her backstage even though it was against the rules of the venue that evening. So enchanted was she by meeting Swift, she told me in our Twitter exchange, it now has her rooting for others. “I just want everyone else who has been so devoted to have the same experience because we all deserve it,” she said.
According to Miriam, my favorited tweets give me a good chance of being chosen this time around. “I hope you’ll meet her soon too because it really is wonderful,” she said. “You will! I believe in it […] I cross everything I have for you.”
It’s possibly the sweetest sentiment a stranger online has ever expressed to me. And that, I suppose, is the real magic of Swift’s fandom right there.
Author Katie Collins