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I recently lamented to a friend that I miss the excitement of midnight movie releases. In the days before online ticket sales and reserved seating, being the first to see a film meant going to the theater to buy tickets in advance and then showing up again hours early so that you could get a good seat.
I still feel bad for “Game of Thrones” fans who named their children Daenerys before seeing the last season.
The magic of a midnight showing wasn’t just about the film but about the community created standing in line together. These were the people you wanted to see the movie with — everyone else who loved a thing enough to wait together for hours. And they were also the perfect people with whom to discuss all your theories about what was going to happen next in the universes of “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” or whatever setting you were about to get lost in. Sometimes the party in line was better than what was shown on screen.
That might be part of why, despite being only a moderate Taylor Swift fan, I’ve been so engrossed these days in the theories bouncing around “SwiftTok.” For the past two months, the Taylor Swift fandom on TikTok has felt like a giant, global line party leading up to Friday’s release of her new album, “Midnights.”
This theorizing is in part a response to Swift’s openness about hiding Easter eggs and clues in her lyrics and social media that invite her fans to do close readings of not only her work but her entire public life. Some of these fan theories also fuel speculation that Swift might be queer, and in the lead-up to the album release, this conjecture culminated in debate about whether “Midnights” would be Swift’s coming out album.
Some of the fans who spotted the title of the album and her next single in the music video for “Me!” are the same fans who pointed out that the color lavender (as in the song “Lavender Haze,” the first track on “Midnights”) is frequently used as a queer symbol. Interpretations of subtle signals might seem ludicrous in other contexts, but as Swift herself pointed out, she has “trained them [her fans] to be that way.”
Some people might find it strange to build fan theories around a real person in the same way that we do for fictional characters, but I think that as long as the interaction isn’t invasive or disrespectful, people should be allowed to enjoy it. After all, solving puzzles can be just as fun as listening to music or watching a film. Swift’s discography is like an escape room — and it’s largely one she’s constructed.
I study fandom and online communities, especially communities that form around fan fiction, and have seen up close that fan theories bring joy to those who engage in making them. This is what fans do: We talk about the things we love and speculate about what might happen next, whether that’s a song release or a film plot or the outcome of a football game. Considering the way that the internet brings people together around media consumption, it isn’t surprising — or problematic — that people who love Taylor Swift might collectively look for clues or meaning (about her music or about her) in the same way that “Star Wars” fans do.
This kind of speculation keeps interest alive in between installments as it helps to build that fan community. The excitement created by water cooler discussions (where Reddit and TikTok are some of the new water coolers) is also one reason that streaming services have moved from bingeable full season episode drops back to once-a-week delivery for many shows. Though some fans lament the wait between installments, others feel we’ve gotten back a collective experience that had been lost.
This experience was (ironically, given the name) encapsulated by the fan culture I participated in around the TV program “Lost.” I avidly awaited each episode on my own when it aired each week. Then one day I wondered if people were talking about it online, so I searched for a fan forum — and suddenly looked at the show in a brand new way. The things people noticed! The intricate theories about time lines and purgatory and polar bears! It made me want to watch the entire show over from the beginning to see what I’d missed. But it also made me sure to check out the forum after every new episode so that I could experience the collective excitement of dissecting new clues.
So when TikTok thrust me onto SwiftTok in August by showing videos with Taylor Swift fans theorizing about “Midnights” on my For You Page (the personalized feed of videos created by TikTok’s recommendation algorithm), I felt like I was once again stumbling into those “Lost” forums or the “Game of Thrones” subreddit or, as I wrote about in 2014, the subreddit dedicated to discussion of the “Serial” podcast.
The excitement that I saw building around Swift’s album made me way more interested in it than I otherwise would have been. It was like I had only planned on going to see the movie during its opening week like most people, but I just happened to be on the midnight line party and the discussion was so interesting I stuck around.
There can be a downside to fan theories created around celebrities, of course. I do worry about fans who are so invested that they become upset if their theories don’t pan out, in the same way that someone may be upset if their favorite TV show character turns out differently than they hoped. (I still feel bad for “Game of Thrones” fans who named their children Daenerys before seeing the last season.)
But for now, my For You Page has been full of excited videos from fans just enjoying Swift’s music. I imagine the Easter egg hunts will soon begin anew with so much fresh content to examine. In the meantime, it’s just great to see fans being fans … together.
Casey Fiesler, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor in the department of information science at University of Colorado Boulder. She researches and teaches in the area of online communities and technology ethics. You can also find her talking about this topics on TikTok at @professorcasey.
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