Sorry, Wall Street: Fangirls Run The Economy

From the box office to book publishing, stans are making their influence felt.

Fans of Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and BTS play an outsized impact on the fangirl economy.

A sea of girls bedazzled in sequins, silver clothes, and cowboy-inspired accoutrements, awaiting Beyoncé’s entrance. Tickets for the Kansas City Chiefs game surging as Swifties flooded the stands, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pop star in her box. Thousands of fans flocking to an abandoned bus stop in Gangneung, South Korea, where BTS captured its Spring Day album cover. Welcome to the fangirl economy.

In recent years, cultural critics have described the Internet as an “attention economy,” referring to the hot, volatile business of converting views and clicks into dollars. But last summer, we watched fandom burst to the forefront, and the truth became undeniable: We’ve exited the attention economy and entered something less transient.

“The attention economy is the brief focus on nearly any subject as algorithms focus on engagement,” says Jamie Cohen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of media studies at City University of New York’s Queens College. “This, of course, results in the temporary uplift into mainstream media and a short marketable trend. On the other hand, the fangirl economy is far more powerful because a small group of passionate users is far more valuable than millions of flash-in-the-pan trend followers.”

On some level, fans’ economic impact isn’t new. In 2016, for instance, Red Lobster sales spiked after Beyoncé name-dropped the restaurant in the lyrics of “Formation.” But last summer’s double-header of Swift’s Eras tour and Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour marked a turning point. These weren’t just high-grossing tours; they were full-on stan tours, complete with unofficial dress codes (sequins and colors inspired by different album covers for Taylor; silver, black, and cowboy chic for Beyoncé) and community-building activities (Swifties swapped beaded bracelets outside of venues; the Beyhive rated each city’s performance in Beyoncé’s viral mute challenge).

Fans attend the first stop of Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour in Stockholm, Sweden.The Washington Post/Getty Images
The Washington Post/Getty Images
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All that fan passion yielded more than just ticket sales: Swift’s three-night stretch in Houston resulted in the city’s highest hotel revenue week of 2023, Axios reported; a special report for the California Center for Jobs confirmed that her SoFi Stadium shows brought in an estimated $320 million in tourism revenues, taxes, and extra jobs for Los Angeles County alone. As for the Renaissance tour, visitors to Houston shows spent $18.2 million at area hotels alone, and Danske Bank economists believe the kickoff show in Stockholm contributed to higher inflation in Sweden.

“A digital standom is charged with energy, so you only need a small amount of push into the marketplace to create a vast consumer response or even a civic mobilization,” says Cohen. “The tighter knit the passionate standom, the more they are ready to act either with their wallet or with their feet.”

The trend extends beyond musical superstars. Many authors are getting their first break into publishing by gaining steam on fandom sites like Archive of Our Own, and fan fiction is now being developed into film — Anne Hathaway’s upcoming film, Amazon Prime’s The Idea of You, is based on a fic that may have been inspired by One Direction, and Netflix’s hit series Heartstopper is based on the webtoon (digital comics popularized largely through the app Webtoon) of the same name.

More than just supporting their faves economically, fangirls have the power to shift marketing strategies, product creation, and narratives in their favor. Take the way that the Brit Awards changed its rules after initially denying Rina Sawayama entry to the competition because she was not a U.K. citizen, though she has lived there for 26 years. Fans got #SawayamaIsBritish trending on Twitter in 2021, ultimately convincing the organization to change its criteria to include long-term residents.

Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine in The Idea of You.Courtesy of Prime

On BookTok and BookTwt, a single video or tweet within the community can spark mass interest for a new piece of literature or upcoming artist. “Fanfiction on a wider basis is having more commercial success, with stories adapted for publication or even giving those writers a platform and the confidence in their storytelling skills to pursue a career as an author,” says Bethany Reekles, author of the Kissing Booth book series, which was adapted as a Jacob Elordi-starring Netflix franchise. “Fandom-driven literature on platforms like Wattpad often become major hit film adaptations.”

It’s a far cry from the one-off viral moment of the chocolate-covered strawberries, for instance, that then disappears into the fold of Internet history. YouTube’s global head of creators, Kim Larson, says that one-and-done virality is also less valued in this day and age. “It’s great to get that pop, [but] we can certainly look back and see ‘Wow, that doesn’t sustain,’” she tells Bustle. “And I think that’s what creators want, ... that sustained connection, that sustained business.”

That’s what fangirls will give you, if you can win them over. Of course, not all fangirls or stans are women, but much of the identity of standom is wrapped up in young queer folks and particularly teenage girls.

“Standom, to me, is about loving and supporting a star wholeheartedly and believing the best in them, sometimes even despite lower moments or them not deserving it,” says video producer and creator Joelle Park, whose “eating like K-pop stars” series has amassed more than 20 million views on YouTube. “Standom gives the sense of community and inner circle between members, [even though] it’s sometimes competitive between stans to prove greater devotion to the celebrity.”

Joelle Park’s TikTok videos tap into the community in K-pop fandoms.

This isn’t entirely good. The publishing industry in particular has come under fire for practices reminiscent of “fast fashion,” turning out books that appeal to social media trends.

Fandoms can also turn on you. “I’ve also seen the potential of people’s novels diminish or lose popularity because of nuanced situations or negative actions of the author, especially in an online space,” says Nicole Nwosu, whose Wattpad novel The Bad Boy and the Tomboy has amassed more than 100 million reads on the platform.

As Cohen says, “You can make mistakes in the attention economy when it comes to criticism or marketing. In the fangirl economy, brands, marketers, and even journalists have to be aware of the collective power of fangirl and standom economies because they can exert power in strange ways.”

In the fangirl economy, brands, marketers, and even journalists have to be aware of the collective power of fangirl and standom economies because they can exert power in strange ways.

In December 2023, for example, fantasy author Cait Corrain lost her book deal after it was revealed that she was creating fake accounts on Goodreads to boost her own reviews and lower those of her peers — the latest example of people review-bombing books for any number of vendettas, sometimes even before it has been released. Meanwhile, the fans of the Harry Styles fanfic series After sent hate comments en masse to the film adaptation producers after trailers for the final installment, After Everything, were released; growing frustration over the creative direction of the movie boiled over when the trailers included what appeared to be recycled shots of the lead, Josephine Langford. The movie became the lowest-grossing of the series — grossing $10.6 million compared with the first installment, which earned $69.5 million.

But it also means that more people garnering attention for their craft understand the importance of fandom. Increasingly, more young public figures are bringing their own experiences with digital fandom to the table. Nwosu, for example, was a part of various fandoms growing up, namely the 5 Seconds of Summer, Halsey, and Zayn Malik online fan contingents. Reekles was a part of the SuperWhoLock Tumblr fandom, a fictional alternate universe in which the characters and plots of the television shows Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock inhabit the same universe.

Since she doesn’t have access to her sales numbers, Reekles instead measures her success by her ability to build a community of people who bond over her work. “Those kinds of people are still massively underestimating the power of fandom and the community it gives — the sense of belonging, friendship, and self-assurance that keeps us all coming back for more,” she says.