The Odd World of Digital Groupies
Obsessed fans spend hours online trying to talk to their rock gods—and sometimes, the efforts turn toxic. Doree Shafrir goes inside the bizarre world of extreme internet fandom.
For a band that hardly exists anymore, The New Kids on the Block have a shocking number of groupies.
Their last album, aside from a recent reunion effort, dropped in 1994. And their Web site lists only two planned shows, one this month and one in May. Yet tens of thousands of fans spend hours each day actively following, discussing, and most importantly, reaching out to the bandmembers. "I think that if you're a true fan, you'll never put them down or think anything they do is impossible," says a fan who goes by Nala. "I'm a little afraid to admit I spend almost 24/7 on those guys."
“You have to draw the line—nobody else will,” says hip-hop sensation Asher Roth. “Technology isn’t going to draw the line. They would put these people right in your house.”
Nala isn’t a stalker, per se. She’s a digital groupie, a modern-day Penny Lane who uses the Internet as a tool to get as close as electronically possible to the stars she worships.
The New Kids have some of the most devoted digital groupies on the Internet. In a typical day online, 40-year-old New Kids singer Donnie Wahlberg is very active on Twitter, where he has nearly 100,000 followers. He responds (or in Twitterese, "at-replies") to fans who call themselves soldiers in the DDubs Army, “DDubs” being slang for D.W., Wahlberg's initials. He tweets about his performances and about charity events he's doing. New Kids enthusiasts—who call themselves Blockheads—gather in private chat rooms like welovenewkids to talk about the band. There's a downloadable NKOTB Tweetdeck background and a robust community on Ning. The band's Facebook page has over 120,000 fans.
Crazed followers are nothing new for rock stars, of course. But historically, the groupie-idol relationship was a one-way street. Anyone could obsess, but except for the truly “professional” groupies (the ones who’d end up on the bus) the most your average fan could expect was a signed publicity photo.
That’s all changed. As more celebrities maintain an open and accessible online presence, their fans have gained unprecedented access to the stars they worship—and to each other. The result is obsession of Internet-size proportions.
The 24-year-old hip-hop sensation Asher Roth, who got his start on MySpace in college, says he has to toe a careful line between maintaining a robust online presence and keeping fans at a respectful distance. "They want the contact," he says. "They want to feel like they can hang out with you." Roth has a Twitter feed that he maintains ("I do it right from my BlackBerry," he says), a Facebook fan page maintained by his manager, a MySpace page, a Ning community, and a YouTube channel maintained by a friend, where Roth posts what he calls a "behind-the-scenes look at what's going on." It's all in the service of making fans feel like they "know" him—but without getting too close. "You have to draw the line—nobody else will," he says. "Technology isn't going to draw the line either. They would put these people right in your house."
Case in point: Nala, who goes by the handle “Nala Wahlberg,” posts around 50 Tweets a day, some directed at other New Kids groupies, others at the band members themselves. The most hard-core fans spend hours a day playing digital groupie. A few samples from various fans' Twitters sound like this (they're at-replying to the New Kids themselves):
@ jordanknight u really need to learn when to bubbletweet lol how do u tell us ur getting dressed and don't even send a pic a bt nothing lol
@ DonnieWahlberg So Donnie when are you doing the party in Cali? I can't come unless you take me as your date! *hint hint* Twugs and Iloveyou
@ donniewahlberg soo, tonight you talked to me on the phone.. member that?! u told me that u would talk to me on twitter! ;) ILY! ur my hero!
Band members will sometimes send an at-reply to a particular post—getting a reply from Donnie is particularly prized. "There's something special about bands who really care about their fans,” says Nala. A few days ago, Donnie posted: "I was wondering if anyone was in the mood for a TWUG?" (a hug, in Twitterspeak). Ten minutes later, Donnie had at-replied 31 times to different fans, including giving one fan a " backrubTWUG" and another a " feelbettertwug."
These fan communities have their own vocabulary, their own histories and dramas. Social currency is measured by how much time you spend cultivating your online fan presence. “If you're real,” says Nala, “then your whole world should revolve around [the band].”
By that standard, there are plenty of “real” digital groupies. They congregate on forums like RockGroupie.com, swapping stories and soliciting gossip—some of it outlandish—about their favorite stars. Wild speculation is epidemic, and rumors run rampant. In response to a claim that Japanese rock outfit Dir En Grey’s drummer, Shinya, might be gay, another groupie chides, “None of them are gay, and Shinya is screwing most of his fanbase from what I’m told.” Often, entire bands are treated as singular individuals. Buckcherry? “They like older chicks better,” a groupie states definitively.
Allie Lemaire, a 28-year-old New Kids digital groupie from New York's Long Island, says she always looks for evidence that her efforts at reaching out are affecting the band members. "I went to a meet-and-greet,” she says. “Donnie took the time and hugged every single person. It went to Twitter and his thing was to get a million Twitter hugs. It made you think they actually care about you."
That makes sense, says Scott Fox, who launched Bill O'Reilly's Web site and fan community in 2002 and is the author of eRiches 2.0: Next Generation Online Marketing Strategies. "The top thing that fans want is a sense of personal connection with the celebrity," he says. "They like the feeling that they're getting closer to that person, whether true or imagined."
True or imagined? It’s a notion many online groupies don’t allow themselves to consider. But the Internet can create a warped sense of intimacy. Sure, the band members appear to be engaged with their online communities, but their involvement is partially a means to an end. "I remember one time they kept posting, go to TRL and vote for 'Hangin’ Tough'," says Lemaire, referring to the New Kids’ hit song from 1989. "So TRL had to play ‘Hangin' Tough’ one day."
And no matter how many tweets Donnie Wahlberg sends to the New Kids army, the very nature of groupie-ism makes the relationship mostly one-way. Ddubs Army, who began tweeting the New Kids when Donnie got on Twitter, laments that "he's never tweeted me,” even though she’s often “tried to get his attention.”
Which is where the whole endeavor gets a little sad. Groupies have always shared an ultimate goal: sex with the band. Following them from gig to gig is just the pilgrimage—it’s the back of the bus that groupies strive to reach. And the truly committed get there more often than you’d think. Hell, Cynthia Plaster Caster parlayed her groupie status into a career making plaster molds of rock stars’ penises.
But today’s digital groupies spend most of their time peering longingly into a computer monitor, and bandmembers use the Internet’s remoteness to keep them both close—and at arm’s length. Asher Roth, for his part, has no interest in meeting these people in real life, much less having sex with them. "Once you enter into that world, people are going to have those expectations," he says. "I'm very, very selective. You have to be really careful who you at-reply." He never, ever tweets about his location. "My dad will always be like, why don't you say you're at this restaurant right now," he says. "I'm like, people will show up."
In fact, often the digital groupies are just talking to each other, and sometimes the chatter can turn toxic, as Laura Hale, who runs a Fan History wiki, points out. "Back during the early height of Harry Potter movie craziness, I knew of thirtysomething female fans talking about their rape fantasies, with them as the rapist, involving Tom Felton and Daniel Radcliffe," says Hale. " Lord of the Rings fans believed that the actors were sending them secret messages about being secretly involved." Hale also recalled the tale of a Lord of the Rings fan-fiction writer who handed Ian McKellan stories about having sex with other members of the cast—while McKellan was out to lunch with his partner.
Or take what happened last month, when 15-year-old pop star Justin Bieber's appearance at a Long Island mall was canceled after 10,000 fans showed up. An executive at Bieber's record label, Island Def Jam, was arrested for sending out a tweet to more fans telling them to come even after the police had tried to disperse the crowd. Bieber himself is an active Twitterer and sent out several apologetic tweets after the mall fiasco.
"People want more all the time," says Roth, who will relaunch his Web site this month with much more frequently updated content, particularly photos and videos. "You have to constantly update your content. You don't want to go stale but don't want to give these people your lives and turn into The Truman Show."