“Swarm” asks whether online fan culture has gone too far

Note: this review contains plot details

In the summer of 2019 Nicole Curran was attacked by a swarm of very angry bees. Well, sort of. Members of the “Bey Hive”—a name used by superfans of the singer Beyoncé—posted emojis of the insect on Ms Curran’s Instagram account. A viral video had shown Beyoncé at a basketball game looking uncomfortable next to Ms Curran (who is married to Joe Lacob, the owner of the Golden State Warriors). In response, hundreds of the star’s fans descended onto Ms Curran’s account to harass her; some even sent death threats. Ms Curran said she’d “never experienced cyberbullying like this”. The sting, though digital, was painful enough to temporarily drive her off the social-media platform.

The internet has made it easier for fans to form communities around the musicians they love. It has also become easier to target their perceived enemies, or “haters”, as Ms Curran found out. Such an event is not unique to the Bey Hive: other music fans, such as those of Justin Bieber (“Beliebers”), Selena Gomez (“Selenators”), Nicki Minaj (“Barbz”) and Taylor Swift (“Swifties”), have been known to behave in a similarly aggressive fashion.

In 2018 “stan”, a word used to describe “overzealous or obsessive” fans, entered the Oxford English Dictionary, named after a song by Eminem about a fictional, murderous superfan of the rapper. “If there’s one thing that Stan Twitter is known for above all else, it’s that when it turns against you, it turns bitterly,” writes Kaitlyn Tiffany in her book about fandom and the internet, “Everything I Need I Get From You”. Their attacks are often persistent and co-ordinated.

“Swarm”, a new comedy-horror series, explores this kind of rabid obsession. Co-created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, the story follows Dre (Dominique Fishback), a young woman and devoted acolyte of Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown), a pop sensation. (Ni’Jah sounds like and shares autobiographical details with Beyoncé; her fans belong to the “swarm”.) At first Dre’s adoration, though odd enough to mark her out as a social outcast, is largely harmless. She splurges on concert tickets, proselytises about Ni’Jah’s work and tweets from a fan account.

That is until her foster sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), also a Ni’Jah fan, commits suicide. With nothing left to live for but Ni’Jah, Dre’s fanaticism takes a violent turn. She travels across America alone, hunting down people she believes have disrespected Ni’Jah or who stand in the way of getting closer to her. Any perceived slight is enough to provoke ire in Dre. A seemingly innocent question—“Who is your favourite artist?”—turns into something more menacing.

“At the core of fandom there is an emotional tie,” says Lucy Bennett of the University of Cardiff, and once that bond is forged, “often there is no looking back.” “Swarm” attempts to understand the power of that attachment. Dre believes that she is destined to be friends with Ni’Jah and, using information she has learned about her online, starts to convince herself that she already is. That incentivises her to spend money on the musician and to act violently in her defence.

Mr Glover, who is a famous musician as well as a screenwriter, may well be drawing on his own experience of life in the public eye. The show makes good use of a star-studded cast—Billie Eilish, a hit singer, makes her acting debut—and the script refers to real pop-culture events and viral social-media moments, including Ms Curran’s story, in order to root the drama in something recognisable to young viewers. But in the end it acts out the toxic side of online fan culture to the point of absurdity, with crude comparisons to cults. As Dre’s behaviour becomes increasingly deranged, it also becomes increasingly implausible.

The show’s strength lies in piercing the mystique of intimacy that social media create. The relationship between pop star and fan is one-sided; much of what Dre thinks she knows about Ni’Jah’s character is a projection of her own thoughts and needs. When Dre eventually comes face to face with her idol, it is not Ni’Jah she sees, but her sister, Marissa.

“Swarm” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Updated: 23 May 2023, 04:53 PM IST

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