Illustration by Kaleemah Morse.

Illustration by Kaleemah Morse.

When I was 13 years old, I fell in love for the first time. Not with a classmate or a place or even a beautiful person on the street—instead, I was totally engulfed by my newfound fascination with a manga series my cousin introduced me to called One Piece. When she’d first shown it to me I was skeptical—I couldn’t understand why this story about a bunch of unconventional pirates in a fictional world was so alluring—but after reading just a few pages for myself, I was totally hooked.

Almost immediately after stumbling across the comics, I bought discount copies of every single volume printed in English that I could find—58 in total. I plastered my room with enormous wall scrolls of the main characters while using my allowance to track down their figurines on eBay. I even cosplayed as Nami, the crew’s navigator and my favorite character, for anime conventions. She was so smart and beautiful and confident, never afraid to whack the guys in the crew over the head if they were being stupid. And, on some level, I wanted to be her:

Exhibit A.

Exhibit A.

Each year I donned a neon orange wig and tailored clothes I’d scouted out months in advance in an effort to perfectly replicate a single look from her (very expansive) wardrobe for a few short days. I was all-out obsessed, caught in a swirl of adoration, and it took over my life. I surrounded myself constantly with fan art, movies, art books, and other memorabilia related to the series. I watched hundreds and hundreds of episodes of the anime based on the manga and felt as though I’d lost someone close to me when a beloved character died. I wanted nothing more than for the series’ author to acknowledge my existence—I even sent fan mail to his Japanese office address in the hopes that the words I’d written might be seen by the legend himself. (I never got a response, but the thought that he might have glanced at the envelope alone made me hyperventilate.)

In short, I breathed One Piece. I dreamed about One Piece. One time when I was super under the weather and clocking a major fever, I even thought for a moment that I was in the series! When real life got stressful, I’d question whether my current reality or the One Piece world was more appealing. I was completely enthralled by the comics 24/7, and I loved every second.

That (enduring) obsession was followed by another. And another, and another, and another. A swirling pool of girl, guy, and everything in between why-can’t-I-be-you crushes cropped up. I found myself wishing and hoping and dreaming that the people I looked up to so much would notice me.

I wanted them to follow me back.

There’s something special about being a fan in the “digital age.” Fan culture has always been one of a kind. I’m not sure what else has the power to bring so many people together across the world through a mutual love of something. And the experience of being a fan is intriguing in itself—there are the shrines, the posters, the shows of endless devotion that would put even ’s Helga Pataki to shame. The ardent reverence of the fan continually manifests itself in a million beautiful ways, but few are as singularly fascinating as the cultural phenomenon sweeping our social media landscape today: the follow back.

In Ye Olden Days when there weren’t very many direct modes of insta-connection with celebrities and public figures for the common fan, embarking on the quest to glean acknowledgement from celebs generally meant wrestling with the only reliable method available at the time: postal service. You’d send tens, dozens, maybe even hundreds of letters to your personal hero’s PO Box in the hopes of getting a harried scrawl of a name or a scribbled heart across a poster. Even if you were lucky enough to get a response for your efforts you’d still be forced to wait weeks or months for it to arrive in the mail.

Now, we have Twitter. We have Instagram direct messages. We have Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube. You can retweet or like your fave’s latest quip and tag them in your artwork. You can follow them, see whose posts they’ve favorited, and discover the users they’ve followed. And, most importantly, they can choose to follow you—which is arguably the most captivating sequence of the equation. The pinnacle of most fans’ ultimate dream: to be acknowledged by the creator, the lead singer, the actor, the director, the artist whose work is so central to your world. It’s driven by a single distilled prayer: Notice me.

What will—or won’t—a fan do to be noticed by their hero? And what fuels this motivation? At the end of the day, I think the desire to be noticed and acknowledged by a personal idol is about love. Or obsession. Or maybe both. And although the word obsession comes with this awful, negative connotation, I really don’t agree with that. In the case of simple fandom—love of a thing or a figure and a desire to express that love to the world—the vast majority of the time it isn’t negative. There are a bunch of examples of “FANDOM GONE WRONG” that the media likes to sensationalize, but those instances give the rest of the fans in the world a bad rap. More than anything, fandom is mostly self-contained—the whole shebang ultimately gives the individual fan gratification. When I tweet at the creators of shows I love and they favorite or retweet my 140-character ramblings, for instance, I feel like I’ve won. This may sound weird to anyone who doesn’t share my love, but my obsession/love/obsession-love is really being used for positive means. I’m spreading the good vibes I feel every time I watch that show, and I let its creators know how much it means to me.

It’s a little strange to talk about the precise feeling you get when you receive that notification—So-and-so followed you!—but if I had to describe it, I’d imagine it’s like bursting through the final ribbon at the end of a race. My friends can attest to this—though none of them have managed to snag a follow from the people they idolize most, our frenzied conversations about persons of interest (cough cough Beyoncé cough cough) make it pretty clear that if they were noticed on social media, I’d probably never hear about it…because they’d pass out! In the meantime, they’re happy admiring their heroes from afar. Recognition is great but it’s not the be-all and end-all of being a fan, or what makes being a fan so intensely satisfying, exhilarating, and intoxicating.

Fandom is also a reflection of internal love. Stumbling upon One Piece, for example, helped me move past the desire of trying to seem trendy that I felt so strongly in middle school. I embraced how much I loved the adventure and sincerity of the comics. I disregarded the way some might find my obsession childish, while finding solace in my cousin and her friends. I figured out how to accept those parts of myself that weren’t all that “cool.” Now, my love of One Piece, and the other things I’m a diehard fan of, hold very special places in my heart. As do the people I’ve encountered along the way who’ve made me feel like I belonged.

Finding a place in a fandom can feel like coming home. Suddenly, a community blooms full of like-minded people bonded together through a mutual love and connected by collective, rallying names: Arianators, Beliebers, Swifties, the BeyHive. Or, in my case, the WhatsApp group chat between my cousin, our mutual friends, and me, that’s chock-full of heated debates about the most recent activities of the “OP crew.” That sense of belonging is already powerful on its own, and gaining that elusive follow back, or official recognition, is the zenith of lifetime membership. It’s happened when I’ve sent DMs on Instagram or Facebook and been responded to—hallelujah!—and when it does, I’m elated.

Fandom fills a space inside me, and the love I see all around me from fandom drives home the feeling of belonging, of entering the space of someone I treasure from afar with fellow fan babes. A couple of months ago, I arrived to stand in line to see Jenna Marbles at a local university four hours ahead of the 5 PM entry time just to make sure I’d get a prime seat—and, to my surprise, I found two sisters who’d been there since eleven o’clock in the morning! Even though we were waiting for a while, the time went by way faster when we figured out we were all as equally obsessed with Jenna. We’d all seen her videos so many times that we could quote our favorite parts of most of them by heart.

The human connections you make and the spontaneous friends you encounter are a huge part of what makes being a fan so special. Sidling up to someone and having this insta-bond over something you both adore is like communicating with a secret code that outsiders don’t understand—and it’s the same way when you enter into a forum and immediately make a kajillion new friends who just get how deep your love goes. The beauty of fandom and connecting with other fans is that even if you feel as if the whole world will never understand your undying obsession, coming into any space—real world or e-world—that’s centers around that fandom will make you feel like you’ve arrived at your home base.

The rush of exhilaration, of belonging, comes up all the time, everywhere, in different forms. It’s audience member Terah Jay blowing Rihanna away with his incredible voice at a recent concert and his gushing tweet about his star following him back. It’s the collective of fan accounts updating their feeds every few hours, posting adoring photos. The coveted follow back is an evolved seal of loyalty, a symbol of undying commitment to the cause. “Navy for life,” Terah declares in his tweet, a salute to the name Rihanna fans have proudly branded themselves. And even if some people might think it’s weird to have 76 posters of Nicki Minaj on one wall or exclusively wear Iron Maiden T-shirts, I think the steadfast allegiance of the fan, the forever commitment of loving something beyond just liking it, is admirable. It’s a pledge to be passionately in love without shame and rock your enthusiasm about something that might not necessarily be universally “cool,” but integral to who you are nonetheless. That singular, unabashed love is a manifestation of something mystical and otherworldly in a world that constantly tries to shape what’s in and what’s not. ♦