From SwiftTok to #Taylurking: How Taylor Swift redefined online fandom

As the global superstar releases Red (Taylor’s Version) and takes back control of her reputation, Zoya Raza-Sheikh talks to die-hard Swifties about how she paved the way for her legacy with a lot of help from social media fans

Wednesday 17 November 2021 06:30
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<p>The ‘Blood Blood’ singer has legions of fans around the world</p>

The ‘Blood Blood’ singer has legions of fans around the world

I said, remember this moment, in the back of my mind,” Taylor Swift sang in 2018, seated at a grand marble piano, donning an ornate black and gold military jacket. Only minutes ago, the singer shared an emotional speech with a crowd of 90,000 fans. The lyrics to “Long Live”, echoed by a sold-out Wembley Stadium, was followed by unbroken 10-minute long applause, as Swifties passionately screamed in gratitude. The singer, speechless, tearfully thanked her fans for sharing her final night in London. A few months later, it was announced the singer’s ReputationTour would break the Guinness World Record for the highest-grossing stadium tour by a female artist in 2018.

Journalist and long-time Taylor fan Kelsey Barnes treasures the community atmosphere and shared experience that Swift has nurtured, both online and offline at gigs like these. “It means everything to me,” the 29-year-old says. A self-proclaimed stan, Barnes followed the rise of the Nashville singer on social media, even receiving MySpace comments from the star in 2009. A year later, she met the breakout Fearlessartist during a TV promotion taping in Toronto in 2010. The then-18-year-old songwriter had connected with her young listeners through vlogging on YouTube. During the taping, Barnes asked Swift a question about her online videos. “They cut to a commercial and [Taylor] ran to me and said: ‘I love that you watch me on YouTube. It means a lot’. She took a picture with me,” Barnes recalled. “It made my day. Eight years later, I was picked for Rep Room [Swift’s Reputation tour meet-and-greet sessions], and it was like she never changed.”

Over 15 years later, Swift remains at the forefront of delivering fan-based experiences to cultivate an ever-growing following. Whether it’s personal invites to the singer’s house for album listening parties, aka Secret Sessions, or pre-show hangouts, she continues to put her fans first. Barnes, who was picked out of the crowd during a Reputation show by Swift’s mum, Andrea, remembers: “Taylor Swift doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do. I was standing in line for the Rep Room and her mom, Andrea, was explaining [Taylor’s] management is always asking her to do paid meet and greets because they would make money, but she said ‘Taylor’s not interested in that’.”

Thirty-year-old Michelle Lynn was followed by Swift on MySpace and regularly checked her page for new music announcements. The Californian has been sharing Taylor content since the early Fearless days, and believes that Swift’s career has lasted thanks to her fan-first perspective. “Taylor has made it her mission to have her entire career centred around the fans,” she explains. “When you’re interacting with her personally, you feel like you’re talking to a best friend that you haven’t seen in a while.”

As Swift’s reputation continued to soar, so did how she anchored her tour experiences around her fanbase. In June 2010, Swift hosted a 13-hour meet and greet as a part of the CMA Festival in Nashville. The singer remained interacting with fans for close to 15 and a half hours. Lynn, who attended the event, recalls how the star tailored the event to her admirers. “[Taylor] set up the T-Party Room so people could walk in and see what it looks like on tour every night. It’s where she invites people into her personal space and forges an intimate connection because they’re a part of her life,” she says. Lynn agrees that Swift built her fanbase from social media upwards. “She was the only person who ever used to go and comment on people’s posts,” she says. “Since then, artists have started looking at her social model and do the same because they know she’s successful.”

Four years later, Swift had graduated from an inner-fandom singer known for her romanticised radio hits to an instantly recognisable superstar. On her fifth studio album, 1989, she crossed over from country to an exclusively mainstream pop project. With the aid of producer Jack Antonoff, 1989 became Swift’s most commercially successful album, winning Grammys and gaining her worldwide recognition. And as her profile continued to grow, she didn’t neglect her fanbase. Tumblr became a safe space social media haven for young fans, which the then-25-year-old took to share songwriting easter eggs and new music teasers. Swifties, known for their hawk-eyed observations, flocked to join the singer in what felt like an exclusive online club between artist and fan. The internet erupted as Taylor announced she was running her account: “Taylor here. I’m locking myself in my room and not leaving until I figure out how to use my Tumblr,” she posted in September 2014.

Alyssa Lawson, a 27-year-old Swiftie from Tennessee, was one of the few Tumblr users followed by Swift. “Taylor would literally lurk fans (aka #Taylurking) and become a part of our inside fandom jokes,” she recalls. “There was a whole ‘No, it’s Becky’ thing when she wore that fan edit T-shirt. Somebody took an old picture of her from high school and made a meme of it. Nobody knew Taylor knew about it until she wore that shirt! She’s just like one of us.” Months later, Swift started a phenomenon fans called “Swiftmas”. Lawson, a chosen recipient of Swift’s Christmas gift-giving spree, describes how she was “sent a beautiful handwritten card with individually wrapped gifts and gift tags. Her card read: ‘I was in Tokyo this week and I started thinking about how funny you are’. These instances are reminders of how detailed Swift can be in establishing a mutual friendship with her fans. This, of course, was not without an eye on the content potential: on New Year’s Day that year, Swift’s team posted a compilation video on YouTube titled “Taylor Swift’s Gift Giving of 2014“ video set to the song “You Are In Love”.

Merry Swiftmas: the singer took to YouTube to give gifts to lucky fans in 2014

Whether this can be chalked up as a cynical PR move or simply an effort to make the Swiftie community feel included, the inventiveness and intimacy worked. “Taylor’s kindness makes these interactions stand out in the minds and hearts of fans,” Lawson says. “I’ve met Taylor five times in person since 2007. Each interaction has been warm and welcoming. It felt like I was reuniting with an old friend.”

Another fan Swift befriended on Tumblr is 26-year-old Brittney Mackey. The Los Angeles Swiftie has been followed by the star since 2015 and was chosen to meet her in person during the 2018 Reputation Tour. Despite her online interaction, however, Mackey feels the distance between the star and the Swiftie is still vast and carefully managed. “She’s still unreachable for the most part. It’s the effort of making fans feel like they could approach her,” she explains.

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It’s not all been plain-sailing, however. As Swift’s fan communities have flourished online, they have developed their own ecosystem, and within that, plenty have noticed their lack of LGBTQ+ and POC visibility. “There are a lot more people like me than people would think. I don’t feel excluded, but if we didn’t constantly make ourselves known, we wouldn’t be known,” Mackey says. Like many POC fans feel, fitting in as a Swiftie can require constant self-assertion. As a long-time fan myself, I’m often told I “don’t look like a Swiftie”, a backhanded comment that inevitably reasserts the notion that Swift’s music is accessible to a certain demographic. “For the longest time, it’s been said as, ‘This is the white girl thing’,” says Mackey. “Everyone I know has experienced the same thing.”

The singer joined TikTok earlier this year

In August 2021, Swift joined TikTok. With a simple click of a button, the star trended worldwide as she shared a video announcing the vinyl version of Red (Taylor’s Version). Dasie Anderson, 24, from Utah, has been a Swiftie all her life. She posted a video on TikTok sharing her favourite lyrics, which caught the eyes (and approval) of Swift. “I would have never guessed she would have found that video,” Anderson says. Crediting Swift as a “smart businesswoman”, she considers the artist’s use of TikTok as a “genuine” move to connect with fans, even if a liking spree by the star is all it takes to get fans to promote her new audio. “It feels like we have these inside jokes with Taylor Swift. Swifties call her ‘Blondie’ and that banter doesn’t exist between many global superstars and fans that make TikToks in their bedrooms,” she says. What it all comes down to, she says, is dogged faithfulness to the star: “If your hero wants to interact with you, then it inspires loyalty. My video was about lyrics and to have her thank me makes those 10 years of being a Swiftie worth it.”

As Swift takes control of her reputation – and her masters; Red (Taylor’s Version) is a rerecorded version of the original Red album – she is laying the groundwork for a lasting legacy. And it seems there is no social media platform she can’t conquer. So if you want to be the next global superstar, take a leaf out of Swift’s book: you’d better start pressing the ‘like button’ now.

Taylor Swift’s album Red (Taylor’s Version) is out now via Republic Records

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