For me, and thousands of other American-high-school-based Tumblr users, discovering Skins was a formative part of being a teenager. It wasn't just the plot — a group of drugged up, sexually active teenagers getting into all kinds of mischief, the ying to my suburban, straight-A, in-bed-by-ten yang — but also the community that came with it. Those who watched were bound by secrecy, by the shared pretension that we watched a U.K. show you probably haven't heard of. Admittedly, it wasn't hard to find. This was 2008, when illegally uploaded internet content was neither hidden nor, seemingly, policed. If one link didn't work, there were 80 others just as good. In 2017, with content creators hip to our ways, it's a lot harder to get a hold of something if it doesn't want to be found — but it's not impossible, and Skam is proof. If Skins marked the glory days of uploading, sharing, and maintaining a fandom despite geographical borders, then Skam is its renaissance.
Skam, created by Julie Andem, is not your average hit TV show. First of all, it's Norwegian, a country which is rarely offered a seat at the table of U.S. pop culture. It also doesn't adhere to a time slot. Rather, clips, text conversations, and social media posts between the characters (they all have their own Instagram accounts) are released in real time (if they're at a party on Saturday night, a clip of the party is posted, without warning, on Saturday night) throughout the week, and then compiled into one episode that airs on the network NRK every Friday.
Each season focuses on a different main character, but they all exist in the same circle. Season 1 follows Eva Kviig Mohn (Lisa Teige) as she navigates her relationship with her boyfriend, Jonas Noah Vasquez (Marlon Valdés Langeland). Season 2 picks up with Noora Amalie Sætre (Josefine Frida Pettersen), a friend of Eva's, before season 3 pivots to Isak Valtersen (Tarjei Sandvik Moe), a close friend of Eva and Jonas' from season 1 who is coming to terms with his sexuality. Season 4, the most recent and also final season, follows Sana Bakkoush (Iman Meskini) and the prejudice she faces from her classmates, the very same people we've been getting to know over the past three years.
The first season dropped without fanfare: there was no promotion, no cast interviews. Instead, creators hoped teens would find it on their own — and they did. The premiere episode, which aired in September 2015, broke a record as one of the most viewed episodes of any series on NRK. In June 2016, the series was responsible for half of the network's traffic. These numbers, of course, don't include the incredible amount of people watching it a different way: one by one as the episodes are downloaded, translated, captioned, and uploaded to a Google Drive.
While I won't link to any of the drives, they're really not hard to find. These digital vaults contain everything from full episodes captioned in English to interviews with the cast to copies of the actual text messages the characters send to one another during the interim between episodes — which fans consume fervently in hopes of gleaning some type of clue about what's next.
To be clear, it's not Julie Andem that's doing this, or even the network. It's people like you, and me, and a whole host of other benevolent (and bilingual) social media users who take it upon themselves to make the episodes available to international fans. Likely out of fear of their accounts being targeted for copyright infringement, these specific accounts wouldn't speak on behalf of their own work, but many other fan accounts were more than willing to chat with me about the Skam community, and the all-hands-on-deck process that goes into getting the episodes to a universal platform.
While the first episode premiered in September 2015, the 21-year-old UK-based creator of skamlands says it wasn't until October 2016 that it started gaining momentum internationally — right around when season 3 was airing in Norway. At that time, a YouTube channel was uploading the clips with subtitles, and another user was posting the episodes with subtitles on Tumblr. To make things easier, and to combat the videos' constant removal, people began grouping the content into folders on Google Drive.
As for who is in charge of making the episodes accessible, I was given many names, but because other users were hesitant to reveal them, I'll keep them private. In general, there's no one ringleader. Instead, everyone contributes what they can depending on what they're best suited to do. Some people stick to translating the text messages between characters, others take it one clip at a time, and the particularly dedicated caption entire episodes, or release English transcripts that fans then use to read along. Depending on how long the clips and episodes are, Instagram user skamupdatess says the content can end up online and translated just an hour after it originally airs.
English isn't the only language in demand. The Moscow-based 17-year-old behind skam_all.about.skam runs a YouTube channel that posts episodes captioned in Russian, and each one racks up an average of 2,000 views. In fact, the fans I spoke to came from all over the world — Russia, the Czech Republic, the U.S., and England, to name a few.
With the amount of often tedious work that must go into getting the episodes online, I had to know just what it was about Skam that made fans so eager to dedicate time outside of school and work to put content online for free, or jump through hoops to consume it. For pretty much every user I asked, the answer was the same: This is the first time the viewers have really seen themselves in TV characters, and felt like they weren't being talked down to just because they're teens.
"[The characters are] not romanticized, they're not picture perfect. They're real. And they're just like us teens," says the 17-year-old behind skamfansofficial. "The characters in Skam hardly wear makeup, have acne, have imperfections, speak like teens would speak, discuss things teens would discuss."
Multiple fans pointed out that the actors behind their favorite characters really are teens, or aren't that much older than their characters. It makes what they're going through even more real, and skamlands describes their story as a "realistic representation of everyone's own struggle."
"Whether that be guilt, an eating disorder, internalised homophobia, mental illness, constant islamophobia, or bullying," they continued. "These characters all go through something and it shows that, like the shows most iconic line 'du er ikke alene' says, you are not alone."
The age of the actors, the frankness of the subject matter, the unique way the show is distributed in bits and pieces throughout the week, Skam feels less like a show and more like a part of life.
"It's simply a completely different TV experience than I've ever had before," said skamfansofficial. "Out of this world."
With this in mind, I wanted to know what everyone thought of Shame, the upcoming Skam U.S. adaptation courtesy of Simon Fuller. When Skins attempted to make the leap to the U.S., it flopped, mostly because diehard fans felt something sacred about the show was lost by bringing it to a mainstream audience, and therefore never tuned in. Skam fans feel similarly. In fact, @scarlet_witch24, a 21-year-old fan from Russia, described it as "disgusting." Instead, she'd prefer that the show was just made more accessible, perhaps being streamed on a service like Netflix. But even that could feel like a violation of the community they created.
"As the Skam fandom is relatively small compared to most fandoms, the show still feels like our little secret in a way," skamlands said. "People are worried that when Shame starts to air and people see that it was based on Skam, they’ll look it up and watch it and 'steal' the show from the original fanbase, not understanding what the original long-time fans went through."
Plus, as skamfansofficial points out, the adaptation will lack the Norwegian culture, which is what made Skam all the more interesting to its viewers across the various ponds.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Skamqueen, run by an 18-year-old from the U.S., is excited for the adaptation, especially since the current series is ending. "More people can fall in love with the series as we all did, it can be an exciting thing to look forward to!" they told me.
For now, however, most fans don't have time to think about Shame, not when the last ever episode of Skam is airing this week. On June 23, the series comes to a close, and so does the "24/7 job" Andem described when she announced the news on Instagram.
"Please don't be sad, dear SKAM fans, the coolest fan base on earth!" she wrote in the post. "I'm moved by you all each and every day. "
And they won't be sad. At least, not forever. While Skam soon won't be airing, the community is proof that the magic of Skam exists well beyond the confines of an episode. The Instagram accounts, the friendships, secret fanclubs, none of these things come with an expiration date. Whether they need to hear it right now or years from now, Skam fans can rest assured of what the show has been telling them all along: "du er ikke alene." You are not alone.