Twitter user @tsutomu_0822’s shrine to anime character Zenitsu Agatsuma from Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. [What looks like the inside of a box, or room, lined with hundreds of repetitious images of an anime character’s face.]

The keyboard smash remains an apt summary of fandom. The deeply affective nature of fandom might be triangulated somewhere between devotion, desire, and duty, but, as the keyboard smash demonstrates, it’s ultimately inarticulable. Being a fan means feeling something pure and intense. It means being deeply affected by someone you’ll never know. Being a fan means feeling a sense of obligation — to promote the media you love, to support its creators financially, to make works in their honor. 

In her book, Everything I Need I Get from You, about fangirls and internet cultures, Kaitlin Tiffany describes her personal pilgrimage to the Harry Styles vomit shrine, a particularly infamous artifact within One Direction fandom lore. It’s a great example of how even the most banal sites can become extremely resonant within a fan community through social contagion. Basically, Harry Styles was once photographed vomiting by the 101 freeway in Calabasas, and a fan recognized that particular stretch of freeway, went there, and put up a sign that read “HARRY STYLES THREW UP HERE” to memorialize the occasion. 

This would later be dubbed, semi-officially, the Harry Styles Vomit Shrine. In devotional contexts, even a piece of cardboard can be, literally, monumental. The shrine operates at a nexus of sincerity and absurdity. Fans recognize that a roadside sign to Harry Styles’ puke is funny, but also that the expulsion of such a rare substance (said puke) is an event worthy of remembrance. The Harry Styles fandom is so dedicated, that any type of output from him will fall under scrutiny and consideration. The labor of listening to his new music, of watching all his interviews, of commenting on the little details that only fans would notice — this is the project of reading (and writing) the “text” that is Harry Styles. Even the vomit is a part of his expanded oeuvre. Memorializing it becomes an important point of cultural production for the greater fandom community.

The Harry Styles Vomit Shrine. [The side of a highway at dusk, where a cardboard sign that reads "Harry Styles Threw Up Here 10-12-14" (in bubble letters with a heart) is propped up by what looks like a trash can.]

It’s a common rhetorical move to conflate fandoms with religious fervor, in ways that have been problematized both for framing fandom as inherently irrational, and for reifying Enlightenment ideas of a rational-emotional binary. The metaphor frames both fandom and religion as the irrational other, without a place in secular life.

But with that in mind, there is something similar in how fandoms and religions both create deeply affective communities that cross political and geographic boundaries. I’m thinking about experiences of transcendence, and practices like pilgrimages, rituals, and creating sacred spaces. Both fandom and religion also become potent drivers of economics and labor in ways that feel complexly entangled with exploitation. 

The religious, affective, economic, and social aspects of fan labor are all evident in the fan shrine. As a fan (stan, even), I feel the economic drive to support my favorite artists by collecting CDs, records, and merch. I feel the architectural drive to then arrange and rearrange all of those objects. It’s a type of compulsion that manifests in almost automatic, unconscious shrine building. 

“Might be a desk, might be a Taylor Swift shrine,” posts u/heathensswift on Reddit. [A desk covered with Taylor Swift records, posters, and fan art.]

The paradox of fan labor is that while it can sometimes seem exploitative, if fans were to be compensated for it then they would probably stop doing it. The gift-like system of fandom economics works because it ensures that people are mostly motivated to produce things because of their love of the artist. 

I hate the idea of applying an economic or Marxist lens to my fannish practices. The deep feelings I have far transcend something as base as money. Taylor Swift’s music literally heals me. Labor analysis sucks the joy out of being a fan. But a part of me does think about how exploitable the desire to collect can be. Sometimes I feel so tied to the music that I think I owe something to Ms. Swift, like I’m tossing the proverbial coin into the offering box by hitting “add to cart.”

I spatially arrange the objects I purchase — records, CDs, magazine covers, and various print ephemera — into shrine-like configurations, as if the manifestation or residue of some higher force (fandom) is being channeled through my hands. As fans, we’re compelled to cluster together objects of fan energy. Shrines are outlets. They channel stannish fervor away from the body and into the world — from psychic to physic. 

A shrine to Miku that Tumblr user HERBERTWEST found in the woods near their house. [A poster with a drawing of the anime character leans against a tree, framed by branches arranged in a lean-to formation. On the branches hang other memorabilia, colorful fabrics, and decoration.]

Labeling the more creative acts of fandom — labor like fanfic, fan edits, and making wikis, for example — as exploitative also doesn’t sit quite right for me. Yes, the labor of promotion and marketing slides freely across the threshold between consumer and producer, and increases the value of the media product at the end of the day. But this labor also serves to generate and maintain a robust fan community, which is valuable to the community in its own right. Because it’s done freely without any sort of explicit coercion, and because it’s associated with some amount of pleasure, fandom’s status as labor (vs a hobby) is also a bit of a gray zone.

Part of the joy of collecting is the idea that rarity emerges independent of the original artist’s intentions, like through misprints, early demos never meant for widespread markets, or regional releases that have more to do with global markets and other factors outside of the artist’s control. The exception is when the artists explicitly create “collectors versions” to get superfans to buy multiple copies of a record, even though each album variant has minimal added value – usually just a different photoshoot or color scheme. This feels exploitative of the stannish tendencies of a fan community that has put so much time, labor, and love into their support. 

That being said… I have to admit that as a huge fan of the K-pop group SHINee, I did in fact buy all three versions of a member’s (Key, my bias) recent solo album. There was almost a perverse satisfaction that came from allowing myself to submissively give into the blatant economic cash grab. Actually, I love Key so much that I was willing to become a bit of a pay pig for him. Such is, perhaps, the inherent masochism of fandom. Money feels insignificant when compared to my parasocial fandom relationships.

I’d like to think that fandom doesn’t produce the desire to buy and to buy, it produces the desire to give and to give. Maybe the marketers don’t understand that. They probably don’t have to.

A SHRINee to SHINee, from Twitter user @flyingone_. [Book shelves lined with posters and book covers with images of the boy band.]

There are a lot of structural similarities between religious home altars and fan altars/shrines. They often occupy the same kind of spaces in the home, are the same scale, and involve purposeful and intentional arrangements of multiple charged objects that serve as totems or icons to the original object of veneration. The arrangements are often symmetrical in nature, or have larger objects towards the center and smaller objects towards the periphery. These design tendencies seem instinctual. 

There’s something to the fact that we’re so willing to dedicate walls, shelves, whole rooms to fan shrines. Shrines are often in the corner of the room, a spatial configuration that reminds me of a story I read about Malevich’s Black Square painting. Malevich’s preferred hanging spot for his painting was high up in a corner of the room, because it was “the same sacred spot that a Russian Orthodox icon of a saint would sit in a traditional Russian home.”

Corners are the hardest parts of the room to utilize; they are unused functional spaces so they become devotional spaces instead. On an instinctual level, it feels like spiritual energy might naturally pool into nooks and crannies. Holy spaces are intentionally set apart from everyday life. The corners of rooms are the most likely spots to remain undisturbed. 

A Star Wars shrine in the corner of a room, by Reddit user u/Kookajora. [Various Star Wars figurines lined up on a table, flanked by two posters on either wall of the corner.]

Fan shrines can be constructed in both public and private spaces. The private shrines are the ones in people’s homes, and often consist of merchandise and have more to do with the economic support of the fan object. Public fan shrines (like the Harry Styles vomit shrine, and others) are more often a cluster of images and symbols, not merchandise, and provide a space where other people can add their offerings (whether physical or symbolic) to the shrine, increasing its aggregated affect.

What, then, are internet fan spaces if not digital shrines? What is Stan Twitter if not communion? Virality is a type of offering. In the case of the Harry Styles vomit shrine, I’m sure that very few people actually visited the site, but so many people viewed the image, and reblogged it, retweeted it, commented, and captioned it with their own expressions of emotion. 

I once read somewhere that the sabbath is a temple that exists in time, rather than space. The “place” of worship lies in the fourth dimension. In that sense, fan communities are shrines in and of themselves, the shrines being built up by the accumulation of online cultural production and engagement. Fandom is a shrine that exists beyond space. A community that exists beyond geography. The shrine of fandom is present in the network. The pilgrimage is the traversal through forums, blogs, and social media. The offering is attention. ASDFGHJKLJLJLKGJL.

This piece was originally published in the Annual 2023, available here.

Tiger Dingsun is a software engineer, graphic designer, and tiktok theorist based in NYC. He is mostly interested in the intersections between poetics, web technologies, and digital media cultures. More can be found and