Playing for real

BTS, a popular, seven-member Korean boy band, sold out their largest ever concert, attended by some 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, part of the bands’ 2019 “Love Yourself” tour, in 10 minutes. Seen here is the “Purple Ocean” of fans during the tour’s concert in Bangkok, Thailand. Per band folklore, purple became significant in 2016 when, on a stage bathed in purple light, band member “V” exclaimed to fans that he “purpled them,” interpreted to mean “I will love and care for you for a long time.” Credit: Chris Belison (CC BY 3.0).

Kate Ringland can spend hours each day on Twitter “posting tons of nonsense” while engaging with accounts dedicated to the popular Korean boy band BTS. But for Assistant Professor Ringland, a long-time member of ARMY, the official—40 million-strong—fandom of BTS, scrolling through the memes isn’t just for fun. She’s making observations, taking notes, and asking questions, all part of her research to explain and characterize how playful online communities like ARMY enable acts of care and promote social activism.

Contrary to the craziness some might imagine happening in a stereotypical fandom of rabid teen girls, real mental health support occurs in ARMY, Ringland said. With outcomes like those achieved in, for example, a depression support group, online interactions amongst ARMY members have the potential to provide substantial benefit. On Ringland’s Twitter account where she shares content for disabled ARMY members, as many as half a million people have viewed her posts. “That kind of reach is unheard of in other support settings,” she said.

Social media content, like this meme posted by one of the 40 million fans in ARMY, the official fandom of the popular Korean band BTS, often include inspirational quotes from one of the band’s members. Credit: Courtesy of Kate Ringland (public domain).

By studying the ways play-based online communities support marginalized individuals, especially people with disabilities, Ringland hopes to better understand what it means to be social. “There are really positive, important caring activities happening in these online spaces,” Ringland said. “We shouldn’t disregard them.”

—Emily Harwitz