Am I a bot? (Learning to be a k-pop fan, part 1)

One of the things you should know about me is that I sometimes pursue ideas, bus rides, people, etc., beyond first reasonable stopping points. Instead of stepping off when I realize I’ve missed my stop, my brain asks, what would happen if I just… kept going?

The what-if for December 2020 was: what if after years of dodging the k-pop wave that’s swept through my friends, I finally tripped and fell in headfirst? (And what if I did this right before my Master’s dissertation deadline?)

I got lured in by the memes (this is from GOT7’s Just Right music video)

As an American who primarily listens to English indie and rock music, the k-pop fandom gave me some culture shock. I felt as if I was conducting a direct observation, so I might as well whip up a semblance of an auto-ethnography and talk about how k-pop is changing my internet usage. (My thesis also involved a lot of asking people how they understood Facebook’s algorithm and seeing how they tried to work around it, so that’s probably colored my consciousness.)

Learning to be a fan

You’d think that fandom is all about going to concerts, buying merch, and listening to music, but for some, it’s also about supporting your fave through metrics and strategy. (Or giving them a galaxy.) Two of the aspects that most surprised me as a newcomer to this space were: streaming and voting. This post will be all about streaming, and voting will feature in my next post.

Stream songs to qualify GOT7 for awards! Buy albums strategically to get GOT7 on the charts! Vote to help GOT7 win! The YouTube comments cheer for 30 million views, 40 million, 50 million, world domination.

IGOT7, or Ahgase, is supposedly one of the more chill fandoms in k-pop, but there’s still gatekeeping sentiment cropping up in the YouTube comments sometimes, saying that you aren’t a real fan if you aren’t promoting the group through voting or continuously streaming music. Odd blame-y stuff! Probably heightened since I caught the wave just days after GOT7 released their newest album, Breath of Love: Last Piece. I get it, since inadequate promotion from their record label is one of the major frustrations of the fandom, but to try to guilt individuals en masse, for things that they may not be able to do, seems like a good way to alienate people. Which seems counterproductive?

At first I thought I’d just upvote the kinder messages reminding people not to stress, and move on with my life. But… although this is all more intense than it needs to be, and I am allergic to guilt trips, wouldn’t it be interesting to dive into this new culture completely?

So I did. (Sorry thesis.)

GOT7 has so much content… 7 members x 6 years = 42 years of content

Streaming

Streaming seemed easy enough to do, since I’m a person who plays the same music over and over again for days on end. The main difference is that I became more intentional in my actions.

When I started streaming, Last Piece was only at a sad… 26 million views. I think Breath, released a week earlier, was a few million higher.

Whenever my attention wandered while I was writing my thesis, I would go navigate to these songs, one after the other, and then let autoplay do its thing. A few paragraphs later, I would return and repeat this process, hoping that the YouTube gods would count these views separately and that the algorithm would learn to recommend these videos frequently, persistently. Days went by like this.

It became second nature, this way of using YouTube. I was training the YouTube algorithm as much as it was training me.

Before I turned off my phone at night, I would play the videos. They seeped into my dreams. I no longer knew if I had an opinion about these songs; all I could say was that they were familiar, and comforting in their familiarity.

Before I got out of bed in the morning, I would play the videos. GOT7 became the transition music for the montage of my lockdown life.

Four of the members of GOT7 are older than me… in unrelated news, I have started a skincare routine

When I checked again before bed one night, it looked like Last Piece would hit 27 million by morning. Indeed, I woke to 27 million and a feeling of undeserved accomplishment.

During one of my breaks from the writing-YouTube cycle, I paused on the GOT7 live view counter. I can’t find the video now, but it was a real-time scoreboard for all of GOT7’s sizable collection of music videos. It was soothing, like some sort of numerical lava lamp. Millions and millions of views, all slowly climbing up. One of those digits represented me—which exact number, I didn’t know, but it felt like I was part of a community of millions working towards a shared goal.

One night, I went to sleep thinking Breath was about to break its next million. But in the morning, I checked and it looked like a good chunk of views had gotten axed, perhaps even hundreds of thousands. The disappointment felt quite real, especially since I had been following the progress for two weeks. Was there a mistake?

Turns out YouTube will sometimes throw out entire chunks of views as fraudulent. Which led me to a question I’d always skirted: did my views even count?

Well… back to streaming…

What is a “view”?

If you ever google how YouTube views are counted, you’ll find years of conflicting advice. The corporate side of me is very pleased that it’s hard to game the system. The fangirl side of me still feels that it’s unfair that our hard work got tossed out just as we were rounding the corner to another million.

To answer my own question, I consulted the experts in the comments: Skip the ads! Don’t skip the ads! Get YouTube premium! Don’t use YouTube premium! There were also warnings not to leave comments with the word “views” or “streaming”, so a few creative alternatives had cropped up. After more digging, I discovered that someone in the fandom had conducted a test of YouTube’s views algorithm. It was a veritable thesis, complete with original data, methods and findings! (I then got off Instagram and went back to writing my thesis, shamed.)

It’s pretty amazing to me that there are now guides for how to generate metrics, how to “properly” engage in a way recognized by the site, rather than the other way around. Metrics have circled from being a signifier of meaning to being the goal. Now, viewers are trying to directly use counts to send the message “WE LIKE THIS!” to the point where YouTube has to deduct views to address “spam-like” behavior.

Thanks to my old job, I’m familiar with the fussy nature of social media metrics and the everlasting question of “what does the data mean?” It’s never enough to look at a number and go “wow that’s a big number.” So I want to take a moment to explore what the platform is trying to imply in counting views this way.

What is a view supposed to mean anyway? A lot of views = popularity = “good” music? But what does it mean when I watch the video on loop? What does it mean if I go watch a few videos and then come back? And if I play one song for days on end, do I become a bot?

On the one hand, I understand regulating views so that monetization can reflect real reach, but isn’t it odd that real users are worried about being labeled as spam? Maybe you don’t want to tell advertisers that you’re serving 1,000 ads to the same user, but aren’t returning listeners still a valid indicator of popularity, in addition to new reach?

Does this make sense or am I just a confused fangirl?

It’s not like I have any answers, but I think it’s funny that this is happening. Technology is designed in reflection of user behavior, and user behavior has changed to reflect technology. Specifically, my own behavior has changed. In my next post, I’ll talk about how participating in voting has changed how I use my phone, and how I fundamentally think about time.

All in all, it’s been fascinating and the content itself is bringing me joy. In a pandemic when I can’t see my friends, watching the friendships between the group members feels almost satisfying. And what’s not to like about talented, humble, and good-looking celebrities?

I’m not sure if my perceptions are completely accurate, but this is my experience of fandom thus far, one month and one thesis later. How long I’ll keep riding this k-pop wave, I have no idea, but I hope I snap out of it before I buy the $48.99 official lightstick.

Until next time…

Update: Here’s my next post on voting! Brace yourselves for a lot of griping about interfaces…

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