Wholigans Are The Real Thems Of The Who? Weekly Universe
Who? Weekly is a hilarious podcast about all the absurdities of the 24/7 celebrity news cycle. Their fans, known as Wholigans, are the best people on the internet.
In these times, when sinister foreign disinformation campaigns win elections and even Erin Brockovich is a borderline anti-vaxxer, it’s easy to see a shadow network when there isn’t one. But sometimes, there really is something more going on, and at least in the case of say, That Time People Found Sean Spicer’s Venmo, it’s something delightful.
If you were on the internet at all on February 7, 2017, you’ll recall that “Cheeky Twitter users” (as the The Daily Mail put it) found then-current press secretary Sean Spicer’s public Venmo account and began trolling him with requests for Dippin’ Dots money, among other things, thereby bringing us all a tiny bit of joy during what were pretty unsettling times.
Most of the ensuing news articles included a nod to the source, a tweet from the pop culture podcast Who? Weekly that said “It's recently come to our attention that @seanspicer is on Venmo, and that he is being trolled.”
But this was only half the story. How did the Who? Weekly account know Spicer was being trolled? Well, they knew because their own fans started it. The day before, someone — I can’t say who — posted on the Who? Weekly fan page on Facebook that they found Sean Spicer on Venmo. How did they find it? They just looked. What drove this person to look? Doesn’t matter. The point is, from there, the group got to work, and within 24 hours it was all over the news. In addition to the Mail, NBC news, Mashable, The Intelligencer, and The Hill all got in on the action.
This was, no exaggeration, the funniest thing that has ever happened to me. Of course it didn’t actually happen to me — I didn’t even request any money from America’s No. 2 Liar — but because I was in the group of people who knew this completely meaningless backstory, it felt like it did. This was personal. It brought me a refreshing joy right when I needed it most. Even more importantly, it solidified an identity that has become crucial to the survival of my sanity these past few years, as the dystopia of 2017 grew into the spiritual desert of 2018 and the black hole that is 2019: I am a Wholigan.
In the simplest terms, being a Wholigan means I listen to the pop culture podcast Who? Weekly. Hosted by writers and pop culture mavens Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger, Who? Weekly started in 2016 as a newsletter that lovingly poked fun at the tabloid, Us Weekly. Although there is an endless supply of celebrity gossip podcasts and blogs to choose from, Weber and Finger still managed to revolutionize the genre via their focus on a particular brand of celebrity they call “whos.”
The “who”s and “them”s of the world can be identified as such: If someone mentions Janina Gavankar, you’re likely to say “Who?” If someone mentions Beyoncé, you’d say “Ah, them.” And thus, the divide. Thems tend to carry an aura of legitimacy (although Donald Trump is a Them and, well, you know…) To some people, whos can be thems. To others, thems can be whos. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the one Wholigans, Weber, and Finger use to distinguish who gets featured on the podcast. And in this day and age, a who is likely to get as much as — if not more — coverage than a them in the 24/7 gossip news cycle. They can be reality stars, influencers, YouTubers, Hallmark movie stars, and bit characters. They are highly likely to be thirsty enough for attention that they actually welcome the prying eyes of tabloid readers, and they are shameless enough to do cheesy sponsorships and appear on the most unsophisticated of red carpets. The best example of a Who is the one we Wholigans refer to as the “Who Queen”: British pop star Rita Ora, who is the subject of a regular Who? Weekly segment that dissects her activities and press coverage. The segment even has its own catchy theme song.
By focusing on this underworld, Finger and Weber created a whole new way of consuming pop culture. “Who? Weekly has been a constant source of joy,” says Ian Comandante, a moderator for the Who? Weekly fan page based in the Philippines. “Lindsey and Bobby can discuss a who, a them, or anyone in between and never become too snarky or cynical. They always find a way to articulately explain who a person is and what makes them relevant without resorting to cheap jokes or offensive humor.”
“It’s gotten to the point now where I categorize everything as a who/them — the whos and thems of cars, or tourists spots. It’s completely overtaken my life really, this new vocabulary,” adds Amy Whitear, a London-based Wholigan.
All this is to say Who? Weekly isn’t just a celebrity podcast; it’s a media criticism podcast covering a specific kind of news on the Internet, the seemingly endless appetite for content, and all the absurdities that creates. That might be why so many Wholigans are journalists, social media professionals, content creators, and other creatures of the internet. “A lot of people will say yeah, sure, I follow celebrity news. I know what Jennifer Aniston is up to. But not everybody is going to be like yeah I care what Bella Thorne is up to,” explains Jamie Lewis, a social media professional from Athens, GA, who is a moderator of the Who? Weekly Facebook group. “To be a Wholigan you have to be an extremely online individual. So many of the people that Bobby and Lindsey talk about on the podcast, none of it would be possible without social media.”
It’s been more than 3 years now of Who-Them debates (which included: the whos and thems of spices and faults that might cause earthquakes — San Andreas, definite them) , #SponCon fails, Rita Ora updates, and other delicious nonsense that would only make sense if you’re a listener. I mean it when I say I can’t imagine my life without Who? Weekly. That’s largely because, beyond the show, there’s also the fandom, which is an animal all its own.
The fandom around the show has had a huge impact on my life. I feel like I can attribute so much to Who? Weekly.
Wholigan shenanigans may have started with Sean Spicer’s Venmo in 2017, but they haven’t stopped there. When Busy Philipps’ pilot wasn’t picked up by NBC, it was Wholigans who started the unsuccessful petition to bring it attention. In the spring of 2018, a brilliant Wholigan named Hillary Dale Benton created a PowerPoint to make the case that the real reason Jack Antonoff and Lena Dunham broke up was that the former was secretly in love with Lorde. Dunham, who recently called in to the podcast revealing herself as a Wholigan, acknowledged the Powerpoint in an interview later on (“I completely respect this girl because she did a very good job and she was very funny,” Dunham said about Benton.) When the Instagram “writer” Caroline Calloway posted about a seminar series, it was writer/Wholigan Kaleigh Donaldson who called attention to Calloway’s alleged scam, leading to coverage in all the major celebrity outlets. “What’s Rita Ora Up To?” — a line from the song that introduces the Ora segment — was an actual headline that appeared on a Billboard profile of Rita Ora last year. Who Is This Man? asks a headline from The Cut about one of the unrecognizable and particularly thirsty 2020 presidential candidates — a clear reference to Wendy Williams asking “Who is this woman?” in the opening song of the weekly segment on Rita Ora. If you’re not a listener of the show, these breadcrumbs mean nothing, but for Wholigans they are Easter eggs, little signs of belonging that make being online that much more fun.
Fans are important to any podcast or show, but with Who? Weekly, they’re a major part of the show itself. Every week, Finger and Weber do a Tuesday episode covering the who-iest news of the week, and a Friday call-in episode called “Who’s There?” where they play the comments, questions, and often, corrections from Wholigans who’ve called in to the hotline (619-WHO-THEM). Fans can also subscribe to the Patreon (for $5/month) to get bonus episodes, a weekly newsletter, and other extras, like the movie commentaries they just released for You’ve Got Mail and First Wives Club — basically so you can play the recordings and feel like you’re watching your fave classics with them. “I genuinely enjoy listening to every episode. It feels like listening to two friends talking because you spend so much time with these two people, who make you laugh twice a week,” says Jessica Aniol, a Wholigan in Chicago who works in interior design. “But it’s also they’re so accessible, they follow you back on Twitter, they respond to your Patreon messages. It definitely has so much to do with making this a true community.”
But if the podcast is the heart of the Wholigan universe, the main Facebook group is the brain. It’s where Wholigans rejoice in the Easter eggs, indulge their obsessions that are too weird even for Finger and Weber to cover on the show, share IRL celebrity sightings and Who-Them dissertations, and otherwise start shit that may end up on Buzzfeed, People.com, or yes, Refinery29, in a few hours time. Over time, offshoot groups have formed based on a diverse array of side interests (there’s a Bachelor specific Wholigan group, for example, but also location-specific groups and groups for professional networking, health and fitness enthusiasts, and others).
“The fandom around the show has had a huge impact on my life. I feel like I can attribute so much to Who? Weekly,” says Chloe Sobel, 26, who’s based in New York. “I just started a job today that I was referred to by a Wholigan. Last year, I realized I was gay after spending most of my life identifying as bisexual. Talking about it with Wholigans first made it easier to come out to everyone else in my life.”
“I’ve made real-life friends from the groups. There are two people who I got dinner with before a live show a year or so ago,” adds Aniol. “After that, it turned into this thing where we’re going to concerts. We watch award shows. We watch the Lifetime movies. We all call in to the show together — it’s just really fun. They are genuinely some of my best friends now.”
Recently, a friend of mine was describing the benefits of using cannabis. “I feel like I put so much meaning in everything I do all day — my work, what I wear, even what I order for lunch,” she said. “But when I’m high there’s no meaning to anything I’m doing. It takes the edge off. I can just fold the laundry and go to sleep.” This is exactly what Who? Weekly is for me. The time I spend listening to the podcast is so meaningless that it’s a coping mechanism. In fact, one of the best parts of the show is that I mostly can’t remember what happened the week before — it just goes in my ears, I laugh, and then I forget it ever happened. It’s wonderful.
But it turns out, not everyone takes their love of Who? Weekly — or more importantly, their membership in the larger Wholigan community — so lightly. One of the first things I did when I started working on this story was to post in the Who? Weekly Facebook group to find sources. In the words of Vivian Ward, big mistake. Huge. Although I’d gotten express verbal permission from a moderator, and my post was approved, the blowback was swift: I was accused of disrespecting the safe space of the community, and even threatening to destroy it by shining a light on it. It was confusing to me at first — and it felt terrible, like I had committed a horrendous affront to a group of people who I truly admire. I couldn’t sleep the night after it happened, and I couldn’t even listen to the show because it just reminded me of the thousands of people (not just people, but my people) who hated my guts (or were at least just super mad at me). What was once blissfully meaningless became terribly fraught.
It’s gotten to the point now where I categorize everything as a who/them — the whos and thems of cars, or tourists spots. It’s completely overtaken my life really, this new vocabulary.
But, within a few days, the storm passed. I recovered from my narcissistic injury, and the group moved on to more important things: Justin Theroux’s new bar and favorite celebrity dogs. I listened to the episode, which was a good one. And a bunch of Wholigans reached out to me directly to talk for my story. From there, I came to understand the reaction better.
One one level, it’s really not that deep. Who? Weekly carved out a community for people obsessed with a thing many people find dumb, so that community means a lot. Many of us have always been Wholigans, we just haven’t had a word for it or a place to find others like us. “If you’ve ever been somewhere, at your office, or wherever, and you say, OMG did you see x, y, z thing that happened on the internet, or on TV, or on a magazine cover, and you get that blank stare… then Who? Weekly is for you,” Lewis says. “That happens to me all the time.”
I can pick out my own moments pre-Who? Weekly when I really could have used some Wholigans to rejoice in my insanity with; for example, those few months in 2014 that I got extremely wrapped up in the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game, and had no one to talk to about it. I even went as the game for Halloween, and not a single soul understood it, which made me feel like a freak, and also kind of hate my friends.
Shaunna Quin, a Toronto-based Wholigan who is also the publisher of the “Tens of People” Who? Weekly fan zine, had a similar experience. “When I heard Who? Weekly I was like, Oh my God. This is like my brain,” Quin, who was also an extra in Mean Girls and as such is now my hero, says. “When I first started listening, l didn’t have a lot of people in my life that I was able to be that free with — at least without me providing a lot of background and explanation. It was just like these people get it!”
But also, online communities are indeed fragile ecosystems. Take what happened to the My Favorite Murder group in August of 2018. Like Who? Weekly, MFM is a podcast with a rabid fandom, and even does a call-in episode. It once had a Facebook fan group with more than 200,000 people in it — that is, until a racist post got through the moderators and the situation turned so nasty the group was shut down within 24 hours. A more recent example is the Facebook group, “A group where we all pretend to be boomers.” After its existence went viral on Twitter, what once was a silly place where millennials created internet art became infiltrated by trolls and the magic was over.
“I think a lot of us have faced judgment and pushback for being interested in celebrity culture. So people are very protective of that space, where there’s no judgement,” Whitear says. “There have been so many podcast groups that have gone completely off the rails. Who? Weekly has somehow managed to stay quite balanced. We’ve worked so hard collectively to keep the community a nice, sane one. And people are scared of destroying it.”
“The community has brought so much to a bunch of people, its natural that they feel ownership over it,” adds Aniol. Plus: “There have been times when journalists have posted in the group, just looking for something to write about, and it backfired.” An example: A Buzzfeed writer posted in the group asking for people’s favorite shipping fandoms. Then, she wrote a story about the “dark side” of these activities, and how not only sinister fandoms are but how dumb they are. Many Wholigans felt double-crossed, and understandably so.
I’m still really scared that by even writing this, there will be backlash. Like something I say here is going to cause drama in the group that will implode it, and not only will I really be excommunicated this time, but I’ll have ruined it for everyone else. But first of all, that’s a very them-y thing for me to fear, as if I’m important enough to cause such a disturbance in the universe. And second of all, if you have gotten this far in this article, you’re probably a natural Wholigan, and I look forward to meeting you on the interwebs in the near future.
But all of that said, I do think it speaks to what it means to be a fan of anything today that I’m so afraid of disappointing the Wholigans. It used to be that if you loved something, maybe you had a few friends who were also die-hard, but mostly, you loved it and that’s it. Your relationship with it was your own. Today, loving something — be it a podcast, a pop star, or even a fake celebrity romance — almost always means joining an internet tribe. This is a beautiful thing for the most part; it satisfies an innate human need for belonging that is harder and harder to find in the cold, isolated days of late capitalism. But it also means that the group of strangers you’ve come to identify with can turn on you at any moment.
If that happens to me this time? Well, all I can say is, I’ve got my Notes App apology ready.