On January 6, 2015, the midseason premiere of the fifth season of Pretty Little Liars aired on the Artist Formerly Known As ABC Family (now Freeform). My friends and I were seniors at an isolated liberal arts college at the top of a hill in Ohio, so there wasn't much else to do on Tuesday nights except cram ourselves into a single twin XL bed and watch Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale, and Shay Mitchell try to solve a mystery that should have been reported to the police five years ago.
Our dedication to the show meant we followed most of the cast on Instagram, as well as showrunner I. Marlene King. Their posts were fairly innocuous, but the comments were a mess of users demanding to be followed, liked, or otherwise noticed. These were almost always fan accounts — Instagram accounts solely dedicated to the show or the actresses in it. From where my friends and I were standing (or rather, sitting, eating cheese fries), running a fan account seemed like permission to put on a mask, log onto Instagram, and act delightfully unhinged. We immediately made our own.
It was abundantly clear from the get-go that we were not in it for the right reasons. While we created our account for fun, the accounts we followed — and who kindly followed us back — weren't playing games. We got comments requesting shout outs on posts we thought were clearly jokes, and were put in group messages where other accounts accused us of being a "ghostie," or an account that didn't do its fair share in the community in terms of likes, shout-outs, and posts. Our follower count dwindled along with our interest, and eventually we moved on. The other fan accounts, however, are still going strong.
@prettyliarsdiary is one of those accounts. It has 67 thousand followers and is run by a 16-year-old who says they've been a part of the PLL fandom since 2012.
"The purpose of my account is to show my support and to help keep people who follow me updated," they told me when we chatted over direct message. "We all love the show and the cast and everybody enjoys seeing photos, edits, news, etc. about them and it gets so many people excited. It's a good feeling for all of us and it's nice to talk about it together."
While the account has slowed in the interim between seasons, @prettyliarsdiary has all hands on deck when the episodes are airing.
But it's not just a straight news and recap account — they also address their followers directly.
"Goodnight guys," they ended a post about the cast in Rome. "Y'all are the best and if you have school, have a great day tomorrow!"
While Pretty Little Liars was my way into the fan account community, it's not the only show with a dedicated social media following. There are fan accounts for all types of things — movies, musicians, and, of course, the Kardashians.
The 18-year-old creator of @kardashianuniverse_ has been running her account since 2014 and amassed over 633 thousand followers eager to consume her photo edits and daily updates on the family's comings and goings. Her popularity has come from steady, reliable posting, aided by the fact that she regularly gets engagement from the Kardashians themselves. Kris, Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, and Kylie have liked her photos before, and Kourtney, Kim, and Khloé have even reposted some of her edits.
@gomezdailyupdates is another account lucky enough to be noticed by the object of her affection. Run by 15-year-old Lily, the account is all about Selena Gomez, and was followed by the singer back in 2015. This follow is a big part of why the account jumped to 194 thousand followers.
"Before Selena followed me, I had around 8,000 followers," Lily explained. "When she did, my account blew up and I would gain hundreds of followers a day."
But for Lily, and many other creators, followers aren't the thing that makes them feel like they've "made it." If that's the case, then @orgasmicbizzle doesn't think those accounts will ever be successful.
"When you're just looking for followers people tend to not follow that account but if you're there for the sole purpose of supporting and loving your idol you get followers," Diane, the 20-year-old creator of the Justin Bieber fan account told me. "Yeah it's amazing to have 80K+ people following me and I love them all so much and I am so grateful for them but at the end of the day it's about Justin and supporting him through everything."
If supporting the star is the accounts' number one priority, then friendship definitely comes second. A remarkable number of these prominent accounts have met lifelong friends through their shared passion.
"It's just funny that I met one of my best friends on Instagram," says Martha, one of the two women behind @teenholllywood.ud, a fan account for Justin and Selena shippers. "I think she commented on a post of mine and I just DMed [because] I wanted to thank her and one thing led to another and we've been friends for 3 years now."
This isn't just a hobby for most of the account creators; the community that pops up around them is where they find their best friends.
"I have made friends through this account, so many in fact," @prettyliarsdiary told me. "I talk to a lot of my friends on here everyday and we've developed such a strong bond through this show and cast that it feels as if we can lean on each other for everything and as if we weren't just 'internet friends,' but more than that."
For others like @pllxrosewood, it is more than that. The account, which boasts 79.2k followers, is run by a 24-year-old who wanted to keep their personal account separate from their love for PLL. They started @pllxrosewood three years ago, and have made friends in the community that they even met up with at Comic Con in 2015.
The bonds formed between individual accounts sometimes end up spawning accounts of their own, as was the case with @WPCStreetTeam. Run by 20-year-old Abby and 23-year-old Monique, the Twitter account is dedicated to the band Computer Games, formed by Darren Criss and his brother Chuck. I actually discovered the account after they reposted a photo I had taken of the brothers when they came to hang out with Refinery29 last month. The two women found and spread the information so quickly that I DMed them to learn more.
"Monique created the account on March 2, 2017, the day the band was announced, and I joined her the next day," Abby explained. They now have 336 followers.
"We don't know each other in real life!" Monique added. "I had seen her around on twitter through a mutual, but we never followed each other until I approached her about the Twitter account. I was Twitter searching 'Computer Games' and saw that she had started a tumblr news account, and wanted to start a twitter as well, so I asked if she'd like to just help me run a news/promo account."
While fan accounts span many different shows and mediums, most of them agree the hardest part of it all is time management, which isn't surprising considering a bulk of the people behind the accounts are still in school.
"It's been an incredible experience but there are of course moments when it gets stressful," @prettyliarsdiary explained. "Taking the time out of school, your social life outside of here, activities. You have to make sure that you don't stay addicted and that's a real problem with teenagers who are in fandoms these days. It's hard but you have to know your limits."
The digital nature of it all is both a blessing and a curse, since @WPCStreetTeam's Monique says it comes with a cost. Literally.
"There’s a ton of videos and photos coming in from Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook and the fans don’t want to miss any of it, so you have to sometimes purchase the tech needed for preserving those sorts of things," she said.
Some accounts have found a way to counter these costs by actually earning money for their posts. @teenholllywood.ud gets a little bit of money from promoting other accounts, and @kardashianuniverse_ will sometimes make sponsored posts when companies, mainly boutiques, reach out to her.
Their real success, however, lies in making sure they're putting in all the effort in a way that resonates with the fans. Nobody wants to dedicate time, energy, and money into something that no one sees.
"When the show is on hiatus, like it is now, the fandom tends to die down a bit and I feel like some of my followers forget I'm here which makes me a little sad," @pllxrosewood said. "The reason I make my edits is so that my followers can relive the best moments of the show with me, so when they aren't on to see them, it definitely sucks."
One way they keep engagement up is to enter into agreements with other accounts (sometimes known as an Instagram pod). This is something that the 15-year-old creator of @riverdaletvs, a fan account dedicated to the CW show Riverdale, found themselves a part of when their account was still fairly new.
"When my account was smaller (around 10k), I was added to a group chat called an 'engagement group,'" they told me. "Basically like five other accounts were in it and whenever another person posts, all the other people in the group chat like and comment on their post."
Despite this, @riverdaletvs says things never get stressful the way they did when my friends and I attempted a similar feat. Being busy is okay, and the accounts are understanding about other commitments. Plus, each account sets hard limits on what they will and won't do in terms of promotion. For instance, @riverdaletvs doesn't do shoutouts, and @pllxrosewood prefers to distance themselves from the like-for-like, follow-for-follow culture, instead only engaging with accounts they like, and earning their own likes and comments independently.
But, every account is different, and because of this, yes, there is sometimes drama.
"Usually the drama between the accounts is childish in a way," @prettyliarsdiary told me. "People tend to argue over which ships/characters/actors are better and things like that."
Sometimes it's more serious. @orgasmicbizzle had her first Justin Bieber fan account get hacked. She couldn't get back into it, so she started all over.
"People hack fan accounts for the followers," she told me. "It's really sad when you get hacked because all your hard work is gone."
Then there are people, like @pllxrosewood, who stay out of the drama entirely. Because really, they're all there for the same reason: they love the show, or band, or book, or whatever community they're a part of, and they want to talk about it.
Eventually, I had to address the elephant in the room: this is Pretty Little Liars' last season. For the accounts dedicated to the show, who have made time for this alongside extracurriculars and schoolwork, what happens after the finale?
"After the show ends, I will 100% still be here supporting the cast in whatever direction they are headed to," @prettyliarsdiary said. "They've changed my life and I've grown up with them, PLL was the beginning of it all but there's still so much more to come. I'll still update on all of them, root for them and do whatever I can to help their future career."
This seems to be the consensus among accounts: they'll stick around for as long as they're needed — which could very well be forever. Just look at Harry Potter fan accounts like @potterthings and @mypotterfacts, which are still going strong with 116k and 488k followers, respectively, despite the original film series winding down in 2011, and the books even earlier. After all, a fan account isn't really about the show (or movie or book or band), but rather the people who enjoy it. They'll keep happily creating content for any and all fans who want to see it — as long as they make sure to follow back.
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