A few months ago, I read an article on Spinoff New Zealand about a woman, Sacha Judd, who worked in tech and researched the One Direction fandom. She delivered talks at tech conferences across the world praising this demographic of mostly young girls, who were so heavily engaged with technology on a daily basis.
This was the first time I saw myself being described as an individual with intellect and interests and not just a ‘hysterical and screaming teen’. I was excited and elated because as young female fans of a boyband, validation does not come easy to us. We are criticised and dismissed by the wider public and the mainstream media. So when I saw an adult giving credibility and importance to what my friends and I were doing as a part of the fandom, I was adamant to look her up and read up on everything she had to say.
A quick Twitter search helped me find Sacha Judd, a New Zealand tech investor and speaker working towards diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. I was immediately taken by the videos of her talks at both Beyond Tellerand in Berlin in November 2016 and at Webstock in New Zealand in February 2017 titled, ‘How the tech sector could move in One Direction?’
She delved deep into the corners and crevices of the One Direction fandom; which are largely unknown to people outside of it to talk about the lack of credibility, diversity and inclusion in tech, and why the world is so intent on hating everything young girls like.
In her talk on Creative Morning, Judd spoke of her public and private journey. In her public journey, she was a law school graduate and had worked and studied internationally. On paper, she was a corporate success story. However, her private journey is something she barely spoke of; she admitted to being a giant nerd who fell in headfirst when the Internet first came to New Zealand in 1994, and some of the first online spaces she hung out on were fan sites. To actively participate in these fan spaces, she taught herself numerous technical skills, one of which included learning HTML to build her first website to host her own fan fiction.
When you are young and embracing your Hannah Montana life, constant dismal and mockery from people in your offline world makes you want to keep the life you live online shielded because you are afraid of them branding you uncool or obsessed. When I first read the article, I couldn’t believe that an adult who was doing so brilliantly in her academic and professional life was once writing fan fictions too.
In her talks at Beyond Tellerand and Webstock, she boasts One Direction’s achievements and despite being the highest grossing musical acts ever, Sacha had absolutely zero idea who they were until she tumbled down the rabbit hole that is Larry Stylinson. She spent an entire day clicking around looking at video edits and image manipulations – she was absolutely stunned before promptly forgetting all about it. A few months later, she was reminded of Larry again but what she did not expect was to cross paths with their fans, Larries, on a website she was a seed investor in. This Data (now dealing with login anomaly detection) first started as a cloud-based backup service and one morning, the founders woke up to their sign ups going off the charts. Upon analysing the traffic, surprisingly, it was the Larries backing up their Tumblr accounts. Tumblr was automatically deleting blogs due to copyright infringement issues and one fan posted on Tumblr about using this service to safeguard her blog. Word spread like wildfire.
Sacha was gobsmacked and I quote, “I was amazed and delighted, because how often does the Venn diagram of “weird internet rabbit holes you once fell in” and “companies you have invested in” overlap. NEVER!” and hence her quest began to further investigate the mysteries of this fandom. She effectively started communicating with her friends and family via One Direction gifs.
The more time she spent online searching One Direction gifs, the more she realised that this group of young women, regardless of who they shipped, wasn’t just existing to silently admire One Direction. They were actively out there manipulating images of their favourites next to each other, they were creating beautiful digital art and they were cutting multiple clips and pasting them together to create YouTube videos (freddieismyqueen is a verified youtube channel with 361,082 subscribers). Most surprisingly, they were writing and they were writing fictions longer than the length of some of the world’s most beloved novels. To give you a rough estimate, ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ is 76,944 words long. ‘Young and Beautiful’, a piece of classic One Direction literature, is 227,417 words long.
This video by freddieismyqueen boasts an astonishing figure of 4.5M views.
To further their finesse, in the wake of Zayn leaving the band and a consequent Twitter tiff between Louis Tomlinson and Naughty Boy (who axed his own foot by unpleasantly insulting Louis’ vocals), these fans took it upon themselves to release a fandom favourite and a song laden with Tomlinson’s vocals, ‘No Control’, as an unofficial single. Thus giving birth to the fifth largest Thunderclap ever with an audience reach of over 55 million. They organised and oversaw streaming parties, hashtags and gifted the song to those who couldn’t afford it. Together, these women achieved worldwide radio airplay, mainstream media attention and were acknowledged by One Direction themselves.
Clearly, these women weren’t just hysterical fans. Anna Leszkiewicz calls them “….alchemists uniting hearts and minds over miles and creating something from nothing” in her article for The Independent. Judd adds, these women are video editors, graphic designers, social media managers, and writers but no one is paying attention to them because they are showcasing their skills in service of something most people refuse to care about. The tech industry is missing out on the influx of these smart and creative women because they’ve been fed the idea that obsessing over a boyband is embarrassing. They barely talk about these self-taught skills outside the safe space of their fandom and often deem themselves not good enough for the real world.
Sacha conducted a survey on Tumblr after having made her own One Direction blog and befriending other fans. Despite being immersed in tech day in, day out, these women were hesitant to think of a career in tech and when asked why they concurred that these were meagre self-taught skills they could never ever see being valued and appreciated outside the fandom.
As fans, we never think anyone outside the fandom cares about the drawings we make or the stories we write. We barely talk about the things we love and almost never mention how we participate in these fan spaces. We are constantly worried about accidentally revealing our Twitter usernames to friends and family. Switching between apps, hiding fan fiction tabs open on our screens, saving our artwork and videos in secret files comes to us like second-nature.
When I first came across Sacha’s video, I felt exposed. It felt like my mother catching me while I stole cookies or like that one time in seventh grade when my science teacher caught me writing a fan fiction during class and took away the stack of papers I was writing on (I almost lost my nails trying to peek over the heads in front of me, making sure she put the papers away instead of reading them. She didn’t read them). Sacha was talking about the life my friends on the Internet and I were living, in conferences full of the academic and professional elite. I wondered if she questioned her choice of presentation the moment she uttered the word ‘One Direction.’ Were the hundreds of men and women in the audience taking her seriously or were they dismissing her like they dismissed us for years? Did they roll their eyes when Sacha talked about young women and their love for a boy band?
Sacha adds, the very first things we create are the things we love – drawings we make as kids (dinosaurs for Sacha) or the stories we write as teens. And around the first time when someone tells us what we love is embarrassing, we start to realise that it is cooler to like some things but not others. Liking One Direction was uncool because most of their listeners were young females, but it was suddenly cool to love Harry Styles’ solo work because it was validated by men in mainstream media. Without even realising, we were creating a double standard for obsession which was, not surprisingly, gendered. Young girls and also boys who were fans of pop bands were hiding behind screens and rejoicing in the appreciation they received from within the fandom. They were growing up to become professionals in fields other than tech (their habitat) while simultaneously not being able to credit the self-taught skills they had acquired in a fandom.
The things we are dismissing are things young women are excited about. These are young women of colour, women who are queer and women who are being constantly overlooked by an industry dictated overwhelmingly by white men and their definition of what is cool. When dismissing something unimportant to us, we’re discarding a myriad of opportunities. What is more important than personal biases is that these obsessions are driving young women to create.
Thank you, Sacha, for portraying us like we’ve never been portrayed before. Thank you for reassuring us that the skills we are learning together on Twitter and Tumblr to manipulate images or run livestreams or host and write fan fictions are good enough to think of a future in tech. Thank you for not dismissing us.
Featured Image Source.