How K-pop Fans Find True Connection Online and You Can Too
By Lenika Cruz, Senior Editor covering Culture at The Atlantic and author of On BTS: Pop Music, Fandom, Sincerity
K-pop has been a source of connection and support for Cassandra Eng for as long as she can remember. In elementary school, her dance teacher had the class warm up to “Abracadabra” by the girl group Brown-Eyed Girls. During a seventh-grade exchange program in Beijing, a friend introduced her to BigBang, which was her gateway to boy groups such as EXO and BTS.
For Eng, who is of Chinese and Filipino heritage, the highly polished, performance-driven world of Korean popular music played a formative role in her teen years. “Seeing Asian artists who are celebrated and recognized and are all about sharing that culture and living in that identity was huge for someone going through puberty.”
A few years later, when Eng moved to a predominantly white high school and “was desperately looking for community,” K-pop came through again. At a meet and greet for incoming students, Eng sat next to a girl wearing a BTS shirt and soon they were bonding over their favorite songs. “You feel even more seen when you meet another person who has the same connection to K-pop as you,” says Eng, now a 19-year-old second-year student at Princeton University.
K-pop fandoms, the universe of devoted fans who meet online and in person, are powerful spaces for connection, validation, and joy—not just for people of Asian descent, but also anyone who sees themselves reflected in the different faces, identities, and personalities of the people drawn to this international movement.
No two fans will share the same path or identity, but their stories have a lot in common: Love of music and dance. Cultural curiosity or pride. Desire for representation. And the simple joy of connecting with others who enjoy something as much as you do.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. Since 2019, I’ve been a member of BTS Army, the fandom for the wildly popular, Grammy-nominated group BTS. I met one of my first-ever ARMY friends on the BTS subreddit four years ago; we became close, bonding over not just the group, but also work, life, and other shared interests. In May, I’ll be a bridesmaid in her wedding.
I wanted to find out how other people made their way to K-pop and created a community within it, and how it helps them feel connected and supported in times as tough as these.
Because K-pop is such a multidimensional art form, there are endless entry points into it: music, performances, variety shows, dance practices, visuals, interviews, and concerts. Many fans dive into this world with the help of friends or acquaintances who are already experts, or they can find their own way, going down a rabbit hole of discovery on YouTube or Spotify.
Like many fans, I looked for community online, particularly on Reddit and Twitter, although others prefer platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook.
Gino Lucas, a 29-year-old Filipino American from the San Francisco Bay Area, found his way to K-pop via J-pop (Japanese popular music) in high school after perusing online forums looking for information about Asian pop culture, which he couldn’t find in mainstream American media. He loved second-generation groups such as Girls Generation and Wonder Girls, and even started learning some Korean.
Phoenix Robertson, a biracial high-school junior living in North Carolina, also began studying Korean a month after a middle-school classmate introduced her to BTS. “I was intrigued by how the culture influenced the music,” says Robertson, now 16. She self-studied for a year, teaching herself the Korean writing system and learning basic grammar and vocabulary before taking formal classes, which she still does today. “It’s allowed me to meet all sorts of people who lead all sorts of lives,” she says.
It is that kind of variety and inclusivity that makes K-pop fandom a place of celebration and refuge for so many.
The Power of Fandom
“People talk a lot about how the internet can be a dark place of negativity,” says JED Consulting Expert Dr. Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But when we’re talking about these microworlds of people focusing on their shared love for something, I think that’s overwhelmingly positive.”
Dr. Linda Charmaraman, the founder and director of the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab at Wellesley College and JED Consulting Expert, agrees that the internet can be especially key for those from marginalized backgrounds. Through online fandom communities, LGBTQIA+ folks and people of color can find crucial support they may not receive from their families or in areas where they live.
She also noted the benefits of K-pop fandom for Asian youth. “It’s not just about being able to connect. It’s also about seeing yourself reflected in pop culture, seeing yourself be successful and thriving,” she said. “If you can’t find someone who looks like you, that can be damaging to your sense of place in the world.”
Soobin Park, a 21-year-old Korean American, listened and danced to K-pop music from an early age, so she was surprised when a friend recently told her that she never liked being Asian before listening to BTS. “Since K-pop has been an integral part of my life since I was young, I always felt a sense of pride in being Asian. I always liked being Korean,” says Park. As a fan of Seventeen who also enjoys Ateez, NewJeans, and NCT, Park has been excited to see how much more open American society has become to the music she loves.
For Abby Miller, a 25-year-old fan of boy groups such as BTS, Stray Kids, and Seventeen, K-pop “has been a way for me to experiment and reflect on and come to terms with my own queerness,” she says. Miller was particularly drawn to the greater range of gender expression in K-pop compared to Western media. She has also found the music to be an important tool for dealing with her own mental health. Miller said her BTS bias, or favorite member, is Suga in part because his music openly addresses his own struggles.
Talking About Mental Health in K-pop
Many longtime K-pop fans told me the industry has become more accepting of idols discussing their mental health and taking breaks from work. A few Shawols, or fans of SHINee, told me the death of the member Jonghyun by suicide in 2017 shook the K-pop world and helped change the culture of silence, even if the pressures of the industry remain.
If you are struggling with your mental health or thinking about suicide, you can find help right now.
Epik High member Tablo has talked about dark times in his life, The Rose’s Woosung shared his experience with disordered eating, and idols such as Twice’s Mina and Jeongyeon have taken breaks from performing for anxiety and health reasons.
Brian Nam and his brother, K-pop star Eric Nam, are two of the co-founders of DIVE Studios, a Los Angeles–based multi-platform media company that features podcasts by K-pop stars. They watched as the fandom responded to these honest conversations, and—at the height of the pandemic—launched Mindset, a “platform and safe space that empowers celebrities and fans to share their most vulnerable moments and stories so they know they are not alone in their struggles.”
“In Asian culture in general, mental health is so stigmatized, so it’s really refreshing and inspiring to see idols humanizing themselves instead of feeling like they need to be a product,” Lucas says. Many fans who see their idols’ vulnerability and honesty respond with support and also feel less alone in their own struggles.
The third time K-pop came through for Cassandra Eng was during the height of COVID. “The rise of anti-Asian hate really brought me down, so I would listen to Mamamoo and watch their videos. The way they promote happiness and joy in their fandom pulls you out of that somehow,” she says.
The pandemic was also difficult for Park, who began experiencing extreme anxiety and panic attacks. She started therapy but also found distraction and solace watching Seventeen’s variety show, “Going Seventeen.” “Since I followed them throughout the years, going back to them gives me a sense of comfort,” she says.
Creating Community Offline
A big part of K-pop fandom culture is in-person gatherings: sponsored meetups, dance classes, concerts, and cupsleeve events (fan-run events at cafes to celebrate a group or its members). Theo Veal, a 22-year-old casual fan of NewJeans and BTS, recently went to a cupsleeve event with his girlfriend, Miller. He was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of other Black fans there. “It was nice to know this was a mainly POC space,” says Veal, who has been heartened to see so many other Black fans express their interest in K-pop online.
Because K-pop offers so many forms of engagement, there are infinite ways to be a fan—and to see yourself in the community that surrounds it.
Robertson emphasizes the importance of finding your people by following your own interests. “Streaming really matters to some people, but it’s not a big part of who I am,” she says. “I got into the gifting practices of K-pop. I liked how you can create things and give them away.” Robertson once spent so long making bracelets to give away to other ARMYs that her hands hurt.
Her biggest piece of advice to anyone ready to explore or find connection and joy in fandom: “Be yourself, and remember why you decided that this is what you wanted to be interested in. There’s no such thing as a perfect fan.”