Before Taylor Swift announced her new social media app The Swift Life, it had been a quiet promotion cycle for reputation, her highly anticipated album being released on November 10. Having dominated the media landscape for much of her decade-long career, the 27-year-old country-cum-pop star took an uncharacteristically elusive new approach: deleting all other social media content, foregoing media interviews, and abstaining from public performances. En lieu of a traditional media tour, she connected with fans online instead: responding to comments, liking their posts, and even selecting some to visit her private home and listen to her album—and then return back into the wilds of social media to carry forth her approved message. Swift is banking her current financial successes on the monetization of close connections built among her followers—mainly young women—online.
The Swift Life was the obvious next step in Swift’s cultivation of virtual networks of pseudo-friendship to and among fans, a marketing strategy she has been carefully developing for years.
Swift deftly manipulates the feeling of closeness that comes with online connection and friendship in order to deepen fans’s investment in her and her product. This friendship naturally demands a unique devotion from fans who are also consumers—and can promise commitment to consistent sales. For an artist whose public standing is often shaky, a loyal base that believes they have intimate access to their friend and idol is necessary for rebuffing unflattering media narratives. Swift’s internet persona makes her seem like more of a secret friend than a distant celebrity. After all, she can pop up on your phone screen or at your front door at any moment. The more hidden she appears in the real world, the more exciting it is for fans to find her speaking to them “privately” through social media.
Taylor Swift with her fans (Photo credit: Guardian LV)
A Swift-oriented social media app offers the next level of access: In what looks to be a cross between Instagram and Tumblr, The Swift Life’s users can post pictures and talk with one another as well as get picture and video updates from Swift herself. The app promises even greater connectivity with Swift and hopefully better IRL payoffs for fans who crave her friendship. And with The Swift Life, she’s indicated a clear interest in more closely controlling and financially profiting from the immense commercial power of girls’ online activity. For an artist famously keen on seeking monetary gain for her cultural output, it was only a matter of time before she decided to capitalize on her own personalized domain of online connection.
With the 2014 release of her fifth album 1989, Swift began molding her branding and outreach into the evolving social media landscape—a promotional effort that took a slightly different turn from the previous focus on traditional media appearances. In the months before 1989 was announced, she made headlines by commenting on random fans’ Instagram pages, talking to girls about love, friendship, school, and offering personalized advice. Known for a catalogue of coming-of-age music—the intensity of feeling, the yearning for identity, and the toxicity of love gone wrong—Swift’s seemingly earnest appeals on the pages of fans was fitting. She also created her own Tumblr page and started speaking to fans through the interactive blogging site, even posting Swift fandom memes.
All this coincided with new branding designed to counter her oft-derided lovesick reputation: She was now friendship-oriented with her “squad” of female peers; she openly talked about feminism for the first time, remarking on the press’s characterization of her as inherently misogynistic; and she publicized her move as a young, single woman, to New York City—where the media circus that usually followed her love life was replaced by a focus on famous friendships. Her new online friends (her fans) could therefore see their interactions with Swift mirrored in her public documentations of sparkling celebrity friendship. By the time the 1989 was released, Swift seemed newly intimate and accessible. What’s more, this intimacy had the potential to materialize off-screen for fans: Swift used Tumblr to find fans and personally deliver handpicked gifts, which she filmed and released online.
Taylor Swift changing her image in NYC (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
She also chose a few fans to participate in the first iteration of her “Secret Sessions,” so they could listen to (and hype up) 1989 before anyone else. In short, these fans became a part of her album’s promotional activities. In explaining her selection process, she said, “I would look at their Instagram pages or their Tumblr or their Twitter… and just kind of watch them for months and months… and then I invited them over.” The idea that Swift was always lurking and could reward them for good behavior created a strange sort of online Panopticism among Swifties: They surveil themselves because they know they might be being watched.
As the reputation era approached, Swift— who had been quiet online following the end of her 1989 tour and the Kimye feud—reemerged on Instagram and Tumblr to covertly communicate with fans. As in the past, she used her ability to like posts to confirm or deny certain rumors. The same week she announced The Swift Life, Swift also made a surprise in-person visit to a young fan in London. Weeks later, images of fans cuddling with the star in her private homes poured online as handpicked fans shared pictures and anecdotes from the new “Secret Sessions”— all just before her single “Gorgeous” was released. Her return galvanized her fan base to hype up the new material, while her deliberate elusiveness from the public eye heightened excitement for those who spotted her during their daily online activities.
Swift’s actions are deliberate and well-crafted to develop the parasocial relationship between herself and her devoted followers. Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, who researches generational differences, wrote in The Atlantic that smartphone and social media use has completely reshaped how young people socialize and develop their identity. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” she wrote. “…Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”
Taylor Swift with two fans during a secret listening session (Photo credit: Tumblr/Screaming-Color-Swift)
Similarly, girl culture scholar Anita Harris argues in Revisiting Bedroom Culture that the internet is the new avenue for girls to communicate, cultivate identity, and generally produce culture. While there are undoubtedly detrimental effects, girls’s online networks can be a self-affirming place to have intimate conversations with peers in places that feel protected from real-world pressures. Moreover, on social media, young women with a shared Swift obsession are partaking in online rituals of self-development. Who better than Taylor Swift—an artist who’s spent the last decade speaking to the psyche of girlhood—to enter that sphere and use it to her own benefit?
The Swift Life is also an interesting foray into an alternate, protected media bubble where celebrities can go unchallenged when promoting their material. Following the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” reputation’s first single, critic Mark Harris dubbed it the “first pure, truly emblematic, undeniable piece of pop art of the Trump era” in which Swift seems to be remarking, “I win, but for the record I’m the victim of haters and losers.” She is, Harris argued, “a child of the new century who understands celebrity as a form of constant curation of one’s brand.”
With Swift’s public standing in serious question, it is her quiet, personal, and direct appeals to her loyal fans that stokes their protectiveness over the “real Taylor.” And the anger and resentment from fans inside the bubble is often directed at the “media” who they believe have been deeply unfair to Swift. As Tumblr user stillgotscars wrote, Swift’s new music video “illuminates how the media/society have so tirelessly tried to absolutely sabotage Taylor Swift’s soul, ravage her kind disposition and quite overtly vandalize her reputation.” Swift liked the post.
Of course there is value in analyzing implicit sexism and bias in the media coverage of a young woman’s career, especially when it pertains to her sexuality and personal relationships. But shrewd cultural analysis has replaced the encouragement of inherent distrust of a blanket-termed “media.” For instance, a popular post from shaking-off-the-bad-blood stated, “I’m not angry you don’t like Taylor Swift. I’m angry… because you’ve been given false information by the media as to why you shouldn’t like Taylor Swift.” With The Swift Life, fans are offered a respite from any interaction with the allegedly illegitimate and biased media and their ill-informed public. As Swiftie1D13 tweeted, this app will allow fans to gather “with no haters” to ruin the atmosphere. If media has cast Swift in a false light, then The Swift Life implicitly offers a platform where fans can experience the “true Taylor.”
Fans rallying for Taylor Swift (Photo credit: Twitter)
These days, most celebrities speak to fans directly on various social media platforms. But Swift, in particular, has developed a specific strategy of friendship that goes beyond simple connection or contact. Her presence online is less “here’s special access for you to watch my life” and more “trust me, see me as a friend, and then become a part of my life.” When Swift, as fans report after meet and greets, appears to have remembered their first names and some measure of their online persona; buys them personalized gifts; and indulges in their inside jokes, she is partaking in the realm of online friendship and emotional investment that explodes through pop culture sites like Tumblr. With The Swift Life, fans of Taylor who have proven to be unfailingly active and supportive online can be successfully ushered into a platform controlled by Swift, through which she profits.
When it comes to her actual “reputation,” one habit that continues to follow her is her alleged stringency with money and propensity to ensure strict copyright: a practice detractors might call greed, and supporters laud as good business sense. Famously, Swift wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2014, describing her personal approach to compensation for music, streaming, and piracy. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she wrote. For Swift, value is derived by how much one is willing to pay, which informs much of her business approach. It makes sense, then, that after years of fans getting free access to her online presence on other platforms, she’s chosen to privatize this connection for herself. Interestingly, in that same op-ed, Swift noted that social media was increasingly becoming a determinant of success and that she believed this trend would continue.
When she talked about “the dream bond we hope to establish with our fans,” she argued that “the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond” and described the interest in selfies and Instagram followers as a new “currency” for young audiences. What Swift continues to sell to her fans with this currency goes beyond albums, concert tickets, or merchandise. Now, she is betting her successes on fans’ continued investment in her, and the maintenance of a performative online friendship. What remains to be seen is how the borders of this connection are established and how fans might push back if their relationship demands aren’t met. Having publicly broken up with the media institutions she once relied on, her power now rests with her online reputation.