Illustration by Leanna for Rookie Mag
Anyone who says they can’t remember their first Twitter username is either traumatized to the point of repression or a liar. I, former Twitter user @tweetme_harry, remember it all clearly: with the earliest studio picture of Harry Styles as my icon (you know the one) and “Andrea Styles” as my display name, I spent the better part of 2012 incessantly @-ing said boyband member in an ultimately parasocial form of interpersonal communication. And reader, I was having the time of my life.
Back then the only reason to get Twitter was for the celebrities. I didn’t know anyone who had an account who wasn’t also in some sort of fandom, so most of the people I followed and interacted with were users I’ve never met offline. The people I did know IRL, if their interests were unaligned with mine, remained solely IRL. Twitter was for our niches; if I wanted to see what my friends were up to, I went to Facebook.
In a speed almost nightmarish, parents were beginning to get the hang of the interwebs, specifically Facebook—it is the gateway social network, after all—so it was no longer a safe zone, no longer purely the kids’ party. Gradually we spent less time in this big blue app and transferred wholesale to another big blue app, and, in line with the increased value of individualism and personal branding so characteristic of this decade, Twitter became home to more personal accounts. Fearing that my friends would make fun of my determined affection toward this white boy unaware of my existence but also unwilling to miss out on any internet fun said friends might be having, I decided to make a second account. My first username—bear in mind, this was 2013—was @andreyuh_pawline.
While my Directioner days are far behind me (though I still lovingly mention Twitter user @Harry_Styles from time to time), I remain the bearer of two Twitter accounts: one personal, thankfully with a less embarrassing username now, exclusive for people I meet IRL, e.g. in school; and the trusty stan account, my little corner of Film Twitter, followed by people with similar interests. Followers of one account are unaware of the existence of the other, even when I befriend a fellow film lover in one of my classes or meet up with a Stan Twitter mutual offline.
This isn’t a particularly unique experience. I like to think fandom, at least to some degree, is universal, and (secret) stan accounts are more common than we realize. The day after I pitched this idea, in a twist of fate I’m too romantic to believe is pure coincidence, a freshman reached out to me with a survey for an anthropology class about the number of social media accounts I have and the reasons for each account’s existence.
“I use my other [personal] account to keep track of my friends, peers, and news and public affairs,” says Lei, a 20-year-old student from the Philippines and the owner of two Twitter accounts, one of which is a secret stan account. “I use this [stan] account to tweet and keep track of my interests: mostly movies and television, the odd comic book or K-pop band. The people I follow on this account are those who share the same interests, most of whom I've met on this platform.” She adds that she has more social interactions on the stan account than on her personal, often just retweeting on the latter.
A, a 19-year-old also from the Philippines, says their personal is more formal—“it’s basically my alter ego”—while their stan account is their “free” account. “No one knows me personally so I don’t really care about what my mutuals think. I tweet about my faves.”
The pattern is obvious—I need not conduct interviews but simply draw from my personal experience to know the differences between the personal and the stan accounts. But why must the latter be kept a secret? Why are stan accounts so separated from our real identities? Why is my full name nowhere to be seen there when I unhesitatingly display it on other social networking sites? Why is my Twitter icon a picture of Molly Ringwald and not of myself?
“A lot of people from my school followed my personal, [but] I gave it up because it felt like I was trying to look good to other people, when I could just be having more fun on Stan Twitter where I felt more people understand me,” shares Mary, an 18-year-old from the U.S. who currently only uses her stan account. “I never talk about my interests to people, [and] that’s a lot of what I post here, so it’d be weird for them to suddenly know. I keep that stuff more personal; I guess I just worry about getting made fun of.” While the secrecy of the owner’s personal identity provides them freedom to speak truthfully about their lives IRL, the separation from real life is more often for defense than offense. “When I first set up [my] account, it was half personal, half fandom, and I felt like I embarrassed myself a bit by tweeting incessantly about Glee without realizing. So going forward I just decided to keep it separate,” says Liv, a Stan Twitter user from Australia.
Lei, who made a secret stan account a few years after creating her personal, feels the same way: “The reason I’d made the stan account in the first place was because I felt isolated, insecure, and painfully shy and afraid of judgement—and my secret account seemed [like] a great way to escape from it all.” When asked how she would respond if people she knew IRL found out about the account, she said that a few years back, she would’ve changed her username, blocked people, or even deactivated, though she doubts she’d take the same protective measures now. “What may be a huge concern for you is just an interesting few minutes’ worth of scrolling for them.” That said, however, she still doesn’t openly share the account with anyone unless some semblance of trust has been established.
When I received the freshman’s survey about how many social media accounts I have, I shyly asked the people around me if they had second Twitters, my lame attempt to confirm my hypothesis that secret stan accounts are more prevalent than we realize. As soon as I brought up the topic I grew embarrassed (despite my classmates’ nonchalant confirmation) because it was like I was intruding. Admitting you had one was like admitting to a discomfort in your real life, some cognitive dissonance you can only solve by detaching yourself from the real world. My friends know I love movies, but informing them I have a separate Twitter where all I do is talk about it always feels weird, even though its existence makes total sense. As Lei said, “I used to hit tweet limit [on my personal account] every day just live-tweeting movies/episodes, so I probably annoyed the hell out of [my followers, who are people from school]… I was unbearable.” She didn’t want to sacrifice her friends IRL, hence the separate account. I can understand the separation: I made another account for the same reason as Lei, after all. But again, why the secrecy?
In 1967, sociologist George Herbert Mead came up with the “I” and the “me”: the former is our unorganized responses to the attitudes of others, an impulse to act that is essentially spontaneous, and, for lack of a better phrase, fully ours; the latter is the socialized aspect of ourselves, a set of organized attitudes that we assume as needed and that we learned from others. These two concepts contribute to the idea that our capital-S Self is a social process—social meaning it cannot exist on its own, and process meaning it is never fixed.
Selves, then, thrive on the internet, with social media’s wide breadth and penchant for constant change. In the book Television, Social Media, and Fan Culture, authors Corey Jay Liberman, Michael Plugh, and Brian Geltzieler said that the internet shaped fandom by providing fans with, obviously, the feeling of social solidarity, but also emotional liberation. Sure, I created my first fan account because I wanted to be noticed by some celebrity, but also because I wanted an avenue to unabashedly vent out my teenage devotion, because I knew I couldn’t do so in my existing (offline) social circles. I wasn’t really thinking of gaining followers as much as gaining my capital-S Self. In the lens of Mead, while both the I and the Me exist in individuals at the same time, my former was constantly overpowered by my latter, and through my fan account I was able to, put simply, be myself sans the worry of public humiliation. Because I is an aspect of ourselves devoid of any social influence, the thought that it might be socially unacceptable is inevitable.
Related to this is Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he framed social interaction—and selfhood as a whole—as a theatrical performance, and everyone is an actor. Of course, in keeping up with the analogy, there is the front stage, or our performance with an audience present, and the backstage, where the audience is no longer there and the actors can drop the act. The public and private spheres, in other words. For many, the stan account is their backstage—or at least, their safe space, because the audience is still present, although notably more forgiving—with their real life the relatively more exhausting front stage.
When asked if she feels left out from having no personal account to connect with the people around her, Mary admitted that while she sometimes wishes she could fit in with them and have an account to “just retweet corny stuff,” she knows she’s happier with different people. “[It] sounds pretentious, but at least I don’t have to put up an act. That’s what having a personal account felt like,” she adds. Because of the anonymity made possible by stan accounts, the demands of real life fall away. Not only is the user given a place to celebrate their passions, no holds barred—they’re also given a space to relax from the constant expectations to perform a certain self.
This doesn’t answer, however, why the people who do have multiple Twitters feel like they also have multiple selves across the accounts. By keeping her stan account hidden, Lei says, “[I’m able to] keep my social groups separate and negotiate my identities between my ‘offline’ and ‘online’ selves.” Admittedly, there are some selves that don’t necessarily thrive under certain cultures—or subcultures, since they encompass smaller social groups, e.g. people who go to the same school. While the multiplicity of selves is in no way a contemporary concept, the internet enables us to make tangible these selves—concretize them through a Twitter profile—as well as create even more selves. You get exposed to different cultures and all those require different selves, operating within distinct sets of mechanisms and mores.
Between my accounts, I speak in two different ways, partly because I use different languages and talk about different things, but mostly because each feels like a distinct self. “The primary differences [between my two accounts], I think, mostly lie in which aspects of me they represent. One is just as important as the other, and I definitely cannot discredit the significance of—or the need for—either one,” Lei says.
In this case, then, the stan account is not a backstage but another front stage, since there is an audience and a performance. Only this time, because it’s on the internet, there is never not an audience, so you are never not performing. Front stages are tiring, regardless of how close to our true selves our performances on it are. Their essence is the antithesis of the backstage; you can’t relax. You have an audience and you know what it expects of you, and for your capital-S Self to continue successfully operating, you have to perform, or these expectations will not be met, and essentially you will cease to exist. Because your self is a product of performance, not presenting anything simply means nonexistence. It’s becoming increasingly clear that to exist means to also register yourself digitally, at least to some extent, because the internet it no longer just a reflection of life but an extension of it.
In her essay “The I in the Internet” from her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes, “People who maintain a public internet profile are building a self that can be viewed simultaneously by their mom, their boss, their potential future bosses, their eleven-year-old nephew… On the internet, a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.” Performances in real life vary: you don’t present the same self to your parents and to your friends. But because basically everyone has access to your self on the internet, and all your audiences with all their different expectations are meddling together, you become unsure of which self to present. Similar to the function of the finsta, having a stan account can be a way of compartmentalizing your audience, of trying to regain control over how you are perceived. But where the finsta grants a select few a peek at your backstage, a deeper dive into your private world, the secret stan account is a different world altogether. Less personal, but similarly intimate.