Or, how being in the BTS ARMY shows you the future your students will live.
“I'd like to ask all of you, what is your name? What excites you and makes your heart beat? Tell me your story. I want to hear your voice and I want to hear your conviction. No matter who you are, where you're from, your skin color, your gender identity, just speak yourself. Find your name and find your voice by speaking yourself. I'm Kim Namjoon and also RM of BTS. I'm an idol and I'm an artist from a small town in Korea. Like most people I've made many and plenty mistakes in my life. I have many faults and I have many more fears, but I'm going to embrace myself as hard as I can and I'm starting to love myself gradually, just little by little. What is your name? Speak yourself.”
—Excerpt from Kim Namjoon's speech to the United Nations, Sept. 25, 2018
When the leader of a K-pop group, backed by his six fellow members, addressed the United Nations to help launch Generation Unlimited, the live stream was watched by millions around the world, who gushed over the heartfelt speech and trended supportive hashtags worldwide. Over the next week the group appeared on Jimmy Fallon and Good Morning America, then continued its successful world tour playing two sold out shows at the Prudential Center. Then they appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “Next Generation Leaders."
If this seems like an improbable series of events for a Korean-speaking pop group, you’ve probably never heard of BTS (RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook) or their loyal international fandom, ARMY.
That’s OK. You don’t need to appreciate or even be familiar with the music of BTS to understand the love, commitment and energy they create with their community. From numerous accounts, article read stats, surveys, hashtags and concert attendance, the ARMY is diverse in all ways: nationality, ethnicity, age, sexuality, gender and economic background. And ARMY is powerful — selling out products used or promoted by BTS in minutes, flooding comment sections and phone lines with messages of support or complaints when they feel the boys have been treated unfairly and blowing any social voting competitors out of the water.
This phenomenon may seem a world away from your classroom or anything as serious as digital citizenship — but with BTS as a case study, we’re going to look at digcit in the wild — and the learnings will be applicable to any fandom or community that your students — or you — may be a part of.
Understanding this worldwide community will ultimately require that you explore beyond this article and “go native” on social media to see how conversations and conflicts develop and get resolved in real time. You may feel uncomfortable and bewildered at first on Stan Twitter because the conversations are full of slang, creative punctuation and sometimes vulgarity, but it is worth diving in and living the messy reality of a global digital community so that you truly understand and respect the connected world your students are living in.
BTS accepts the Social Artist award at the 2018 Billboard Awards.
Lost in translation
I’m just a person, person, person
You erode all my sharp angles
And make me, make me into love, love, love.
We’re persons, persons, persons
In the midst of so many straight lines
My love, love, love
Sitting on top of it lightly turns it into a heart.
Trivia: Love, Love Yourself: Answer
They say that the best way to learn a language is to date someone who speaks it. Falling in love with something from another language is similar because you are deeply motivated to understand and communicate according to edtech leader and ARMY, Rafranz Davis. The first obstacle to entering the BTS world is the language barrier. The backbone of BTS' success in overcoming this is the dedicated corps of volunteer translators who help the international fans understand every tweet, video and song, quickly translating it into English and many other languages. This work goes beyond simply translating the words, to adding valuable cultural context and explanation of the layered wordplay that BTS weaves into their songs. (Sidenote: If you are a word nerd, I highly recommend delving into the song Trivia: Love or Ddaeng.)
When half the community has its perception and understanding of BTS filtered through translation it creates a fascinating dynamic in the conversation as we try to fully grasp the context of jokes and lyrics. Translation accuracy, catching bad faith translators, discussing what shouldn’t get translated if anything, explaining humor across cultures, questioning the primacy of English and if it is OK to demand more official translations — all of these issues are passionately debated weekly and can expose your students to interesting discussion topics or even motivate their own translation work for a avid audience.
Translators actively try and make their work easy to re-translate into other languages and fans learn to be careful and clear with their posts to avoid misunderstanding. Relying on translators and attempting to navigate foreign language websites for content and news also encourages appreciation and empathy for ESL students. Furthermore, the songs, videos and structure of the albums are solidly “Asian” making mythical and cultural references that will be new to your students. They are a great way to introduce different storytelling structures.
Translate and post a tweet, article or song.
Interview a volunteer translator about their work.
Compare song translations and discuss differences.
Participate in a discussion about translation issues.
Do an inventory of commonly used websites to look for non-English options and discuss.
Fans from across the country (including the author), who met on the subreddit r/bangtan, met up irl at the Newark shows in September 2018. Like fans across the world they formed a group chats and stay connected.
Kill people with fingers on Twitter
More than a gun, more than a knife
The tip of your tongue just glitter
Change, RM & Wale
This year both RM and J-Hope released solo albums (“Hope World” and “mono”) on free and paid platforms, and both claimed the number one spot on iTunes, in 63 and 89 countries respectively, which is all to show, don’t underestimate the global nature of this fandom. Message boards, group chats, trending topics and campaigns are active 24/7 as fans on opposite sides of the world wake up. All fans are keenly aware of what time it is South Korea in order to keep track of when things will drop or TV performances are airing.
This also means that there are daily, sometimes hourly, misunderstandings and conflicts within the fandom about all kinds of issues like whitewashing, racism, ageism or homophobia. It is a constant battle to keep up with the discussion across such a huge group and try to collectively listen to and address the issues of various groups through hashtags, threads and organized group chats, all while being keenly aware that journalists are eager to report on ARMY drama. You can easily use BTS as a springboard for conversation about the world like this teacher or this mom. Some teachers have already used the text of RM’s UN speech in their classrooms.
Recently, BTS was embroiled in controversy with the far right in Japan over a shirt depicting an atomic bomb blast worn by one of the members in 2017. Then an American Jewish organization brought attention to a magazine shoot from 2013 where one of the members wore a hat with a logo reminiscent of Nazi symbolism. Both issues are complex and not suited for the speed and brevity of social media nor the perils of cross cultural communication.
Fans panicked and jumped to defend the boys, but they also sought to better understand the issues. Japanese and Korean fans tried to explain their viewpoints, while Jewish fans urged others to let them handle responding respectfully to the Jewish organization. To really understand the issue, fans had to absorb complicated history between the two countries and be familiar with the international diplomacy, generational politics and memory in Japan, the Japanese occupation of Korea and the differing levels of awareness of European history across Asia (and vice versa).
In the end, their agency Big Hit, issued an apology, which was accepted by atomic bomb survivors and the Simon Wiesenthal center. From a digital citizenship perspective, it was laudable how the community researched, discussed, debated and took on perspectives that were entirely different from their own in an effort to understand. One notable effort, the White Paper Project involved fans from 5 continents and ended up being over 70 pages long. Fans also acted to create positive energy by donating to a Korean comfort women organization, mass buying a song about overcoming obstacles called 2!3!, and singing together “For You” at their concert in Tokyo.
Watching the conversation develop is instructive in how a modern digital community polices itself for good or bad. Some dynamics of this phenomena include the outsized power that “large accounts” wield, the poison of anonymous commenting and social media algorithms that allow resolved issues to resurface and be taken out of context or extend arguments. On top of that, there is the danger that a righteous mob mentality will fuel dangerous bullying and harassment.
All of this helps students understand in a very real way how to follow indicator 2.b. of the ISTE Standards for Students: Students engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.
It isn’t all drama, however. Jokes and joy are shared with millions of people around the world as memes travel across the fandom. For example, #BTSIdolChallengeAfrica, “streaming parties” with other fandoms like the BeyHive or Barbz, or when 500,000 people trended hashtags for days as they followed a live fanfiction called Outcast written by a 15-year-old. On April fools day, Korean fans changed their profiles to mimic the band’s official lightstick, and international fans posted doctored photos showing band members with beards, which became known as Beardtan. To the uninitiated that might sound like a bunch of nonsense, but it is hard to deny that being in on the joke with literally millions of people and sharing joy around the globe is exhilarating and hopeful.
Use BTS as a springboard for conversation about doing good in the world, like this teacher or this mom.
Interview fans from other countries about the unique problems they face being a fan (for example Chinese fans have a hard time getting on Twitter).
Try to quantify the fandom with an infographic.
Make educational 'BTS as…’ threads for when the fandom gets bored like this one on the parts of a cell!
Take discussion topics from Stan Twitter — particularly the dangers and challenges of a large fandom regarding privacy, bullying and policing other fans.
Love you so bad, love you so bad
Mold a pretty lie for you
Love it’s so mad, love it’s so mad
Try to erase myself and make me your doll
I'm so sick of this fake love
I'm so sorry but it's fake love
Fake Love, Love Yourself: Tear
BTS fans are aware of their relationship with the media and particularly the ins and outs of digital media. Detailed analysis of voting systems, how to effectively trend on various platforms, how to get played on the radio, efforts to improve the quality of comments on videos and articles, how to properly interact with journalists and even hold journalists to account when they treat BTS without respect or engage in outright racism are all part of the day-to-day conversation.
The idea that media is something to be questioned, evaluated and interacted with is deeply ingrained in how the community operates. Even “fancams,” live streams or accounts are taken apart in detail to discern if the account is truthful or if, for example, the same photo or tweet is just being shared over and over. Accounts that make controversial statements are investigated to see if they are actually “antis” and viral threads are analyzed and discussed at length.
In an era of “fake news” the natural fact-checking and analysis of both audience and author is second nature and instructive. Every member of ARMY knows that they are not just representing themselves but also the idols they love. The ISTE Student Standards recognize the importance of this awareness. Student Standard 2.a. states: Students cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world.
BTS live a great deal of their lives under intense public scrutiny, and it raises the issue of what is allowed to be private in addition to what it means to be authentic on social media. This is something that they have hinted at with songs like “Fake Love” and their concept photos, and issues of privacy and free speech can be a real concern in South Korea.
On a smaller scale, your students should be aware of the positive and negative outcomes of how they interact online. Actively participating in the fandom can have huge effects when something goes viral like the fanfiction Outcast. Whether the author is 15 or 50, the attention of more than half a million people can be hard to deal with. How would you prepare your students for that kind of attention? Do they know how to protect themselves? How to ask for help?
Discuss the privacy issues for public and semi-public figures like YouTubers or fan accounts. How important is it to protect your identity and how do you decide what to reveal online?
Discuss how media companies decide what content to serve you and how governments can track your activity. Share and discuss ISTE Student Standard, indicator 2.d.: Students manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.
Evaluate media sources, rumors and self-reporting on Stan Twitter. Does the language barrier create a unique problem?
Review any one of these fascinating articles in this list of research about K-pop, fan culture and international media.
Activism and organization
I’m not a superhero
Don’t expect a lot
I can be your hero ...
… Who’s gonna do it if it isn’t me?
You can call me, say Anpan
Anpanman, Love Yourself: Tear
Just like their deceivingly upbeat song Anpanman, giving of yourself for others is something ingrained in the culture of the community. In March 2018, BTS stopped accepting physical gifts, going against a long-time tradition in K-Pop. Although charity had already been embedded in ARMY culture, fans organized more projects in the the name of BTS, from tree planting to letter writing to donations for different campaigns. @OneInAnArmy is one of the best organized efforts, but local groups all over the world run their own projects.
ARMY flexes their philanthropic muscle with slacktivism as well, from Star Wars retweet campaigns to trying to make sure non-BTS related issues that are important to fans trend worldwide (#bangladeshstudentprotests or #JusticeforEastLight). Global news and tragedies are reported from fans on the front lines and donations flow around the fandom for projects both humanitarian and promotional (like billboards, subway ads or Time Square videos).
This ability to organize both inside and outside of the virtual world demonstrates a connection between fandoms and other community organizing. For example, @report_army coordinates efforts to find and mass report accounts that harass BTS or their fans. When BTS members were repeatedly mobbed in airports, a “purple ribbon army” formed to physically protect and respect them, urging fans not to share airport photos that feed the frenzy. Sometimes the organization is even more directly related to citizenship, one of the largest U.S. fan accounts @BTSx50States encourages fans to register to vote and BTS themselves have long been involved with UNICEF helping raise over $1.4 million, while promoting the #ENDViolence and #LoveYourself campaigns.
Participate in a BTS related charity campaign.
Create your own campaign and involve the ARMY.
Study or interview campaign organizers to understand how they have been successful or not.
Discuss this paper about fandom and political participation.
A large part of any fandom is creating your own content, whether it is fan art or fan fiction. Deep fandom has always involved participation through creation. ARMY is no different; the variety of projects includes musical covers, video editing, writing, digital and traditional fine art, websites as well as crafts like embroidery and crochet, and performing arts such as dance.
Student Standard 2.c.: Students demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property is easy to demonstrate. Respect for the original creator or even the OP (original poster of a tweet) is ingrained with people being called out for using illustrations or photos without permission and giving credit a common practice.
Beyond fan-made content there are smaller ways to participate and make yourself heard in the community. Every month there is an ARMY Selca Day (selfie in Korean) where fans create aesthetically coherent collages or photos of themselves with photos of members. There are also regular random hashtags that encourage ARMYs to share something about themselves, often to show support for or make visible a minority group in the fandom like #ARMYTimeCapsule, #ArmyareDiverse, #MuslimARSD or #BlackoutBTS. RM has said that he enjoys hearing people's stories because it helps them write better lyrics and gives them energy. Having the courage to be seen and tell your own story is something teachers strive to give their students and an important part of digital citizenship.
Encourage students to make and post something related to BTS or any other fandom they consider themselves a part of.
Encourage students to actively participate in the community by liking and commenting on other people’s work. This is especially effective on fanfiction communities for encouraging writing and critical reading. Though some caution is required because some is NSFW.
Discuss the rights that fans do or do not have over what they create. Can they make money from what they create? Where is the line legally and practically? (Copyright law is well behind the reality of the internet and remix culture.)
Create your own social campaign to share stories within your community.
I’m the one I should love in this world
Shining me, precious soul of mine
I finally realized so I love me
Not so perfect but so beautiful
I’m the one I should love
Epiphany, Love Yourself: Answer
The BTS message is to love yourself — whoever that person might be. Taking care of yourself and others is taken pretty seriously. There are fan accounts that offer tutoring, celebrate cultures, counseling, language instruction and fitness encouragement. #BlackArmyBeauty and other organic social campaigns often focus on fans sharing what they are trying to love about themselves. This is less an opportunity for a digital citizenship activity, but something that I hope all of you are able to do for yourselves. Everyday we are learning more about how the love and support that teachers give the world can take a toll on them personally. Please take time to keep exploring the world, challenge your preconceptions, and love yourself.
Do you know BTS?
On days where I hate myself for being me, on days where I want to disappear forever
Let's make a door. It's in your heart
Open the door and this place will await
Magic Shop, Love Yourself: Tear
BTS actively works to create a healthy caring community among themselves and their fans through their songs, words and actions. ARMY tries to mirror that commitment and though they often struggle - it shows how digital citizenship is not just about how individuals present and protect themselves on social media - it is also how large groups of people work together to negotiate evolving social norms, police themselves and project their influence the world. What groups are you and your students already a part of? Participating in such a group is intimidating and confusing to the uninitiated, but it is ultimately very satisfying and enlightening about what the future of digital democracy and organization will be.
MacKenzie Rawcliffe is the web marketing manager for ISTE, and a proud ARMY. She has a master's in international relations.
(Photos: @owlnuna, SBS popasia, Getty Images,