The ‘Space’ in ‘Cyberspace’ & the Sociability of the Bridge: Introductory Notes

This past week, news of Elon Musk’s impending acquisition of Twitter threw me into a bunch of readings, and conversations, regarding the platform. All of these eventually made me realise that it was about time I published something about my own work. I’ve been poring over the intersection of Twitter, Fan Communities and Place-making since early 2019, shortly after I finished my degree in Architecture and Urbanism. Back then, I used to say I was an Architect trying to look into ‘cyberspace’. This word, ‘cyberspace’, however, wacky, was my best shot at getting people to understand I was interested in alternative ideas of space, as an architect. 

Most people outside my field would stumble upon first hearing about it, but the way I worded things was enough for them to figure out there should be some sort of connection to be made there. That is because there is, indeed, a connection to be made there — and I am not even the first Architect who brought forth such an analysis. Moreso, none of the Architects to whom I’ve talked about my research so far, however removed from this context, has found it hard to understand the point, even without much explanation — It might sound unexpected, but surely not impractical. 

Starting without proper supervision meant that I had to cover a lot of ground on my own. The present text was put together from multiple drafts and notes I wrote over the years, as I made my way through years’ worth of material to establish the foundation of what I was trying to do — use my original body of knowledge to guide me into the new fields I was interested in. A lot has changed since I took my first notes, three years or so ago. I, too, have changed, and I surely feel more ready to publish this now than I did before. I hope that my own investigations can help others who might be interested in getting started down the same path.

This post is also available on Medium.

Outline

  1. Architecture and Other Spaces (go)
  2. The ‘Space’ in ‘Cyberspace’ (go)
    1. Architectural Space (go)
    2. Cyberspace & Other Metaphors (go)
    3. A Digital Sense of Place (go)
  3. The Sociability of the Bridge (go)
    1. Movement, Presence and Experience (go)
    2. The Bridge & Further Investigations (go)
  4. References (go)
Cover of AD Architectural Design Volume 65, No. 11/12 (Nov.-Dec. 1995), titled “Architects in Cyberspace”. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/2/2d/AD_118_Architects_in_Cyberspace_1996.pdf

1. Architecture and Other Spaces

In very general terms, Architecture is concerned with framing the human experience, being the appropriate mediator between the world and ourselves (Pallasmaa, 2015, 17), to the extent of humanity’s own dimension. This expertise is hard to fathom; architects’ distinguishing claim is the ability to order space through design, and realise a vision of ordered space (Quek, 2012, vi). Even though other design professions can also claim the sort of articulated vision that is required to achieve the realisation of design projects – from product design to landscape architecture -, not all of them encompass the same range of different scales of interaction as the architect & urbanist. In fact, architects have been found to develop a very particular point of view in regards to the physical world that surrounds us and with which we interact (Dana, 2016, 2-3), because, since we are trained to design buildings, we are trained to notice the invisible qualities of spaces — namely, how they are built, and how the different parts work to achieve their purpose upon use.

In the introduction of his 2006 collection of essays “Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture”, Henry Jenkins says that “the essence of being methodologically conscious is to be honest about how you know what you know” (2006, 6); as an architect, K-pop fan, and intense Twitter user over a decade, my study started from observation. I noticed, from daily interactions with fans, that the branch of International English language-based ARMY on Twitter had developed a very strong, unique, sense of identity, which I believed was intensely location-based. In other terms, I believed that the intense interaction between I-ARMY and Twitter had generated a sense of place, something that emerges when a specific location in space is invested with particular meaning, which might occur at many different scales. I believe that this interaction had spatial analogous qualities, since ‘place’ is a territory whose boundaries are defined by a sense of being “inside”, “being somewhere” as opposed to “anywhere”, due to an intensity that connects sociality to spatiality in everyday life (Kalay, and Marx, 2003, 20) (Dovey, 2010, 3). 

At first, my biggest challenge was figuring out the appropriate framework and method that could help me move beyond my initial observations. Even though my body of knowledge made me capable of identifying the phenomenon being considered, my lack of previous experience with the fields related to Digital Media forced me to focus on expanding my theoretical understanding. As previously mentioned, the present text is the result of my investigations to develop the understanding of digital spaces and spatialities that would later allow me to interpret the phenomenon that gave rise to my study. 

The starting point that sparked my insight is the understanding that social behaviour is often subject to the architecture that houses it (Anders, 2004, 398). The underlying premise is that, to understand the occupation and maintenance of a digitally-based community of shared taste, we should analyse how the platform which hosts them affords a sense of place, and how this sense of place interacts with their individual and community-generated sense of presence and belonging, and what this interaction brings about. In future writings, I hope to unpack the specifics of the nature of these spaces. 

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2. The ‘Space’ in ‘Cyberspace’

2.1. Architectural Space

Architects have been indulging in figuring out the spatial nature of the internet, according to the idea of the ‘space’ in ‘cyberspace’, for at least 30 years. Scholars from other fields, such as Law and Geography, have also engaged in such studies. The amount of available work meant that there was a lot to consider and learn from, but my readings made me realise that this matter wasn’t a settled affair.

‘Space’ in itself is a concept hard to grasp that demands different definitions, from different fields, to account for its complexity. According to social theorists, for example, ‘space’ is the fabric of reality, but also the expression of society, being both a product of society but also a means of production of society (Lefebvre, 1991, 26-27). For example, as Manuel Castells (1990; 2010) defines it, the ‘space of flows’ is  the “spatial form characteristic of social practices that dominate and shape the network society … the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows” (2010, 442), also defined as “the material arrangements that allow for simultaneity of social practises without territorial contiguity” (1990, 1). 

Italian architect Bruno Zevi frames it differently – he conceptualises ‘space’ from the perspective of ‘the void’, the infinite, continuous substance of existence, whose contiguity is disrupted to delimit and create the setting that affords the unravelment of life. Sounds overly poetic, but, according to Pérez-Gómez (2006), this is exactly the poiesis of Architecture – the possibility of making. Zevi believed that the matter of space was indeed the main, leading concern of Architecture, as it’s been since the late 18th Century (being first properly articulated in the works of August Schmarsow). 

According to Stalder (2003), the space of flows consists of three elements: the medium through which things flow, the things that flow, and the nodes among which the flows circulate. This flow is defined by ‘movement’ and ‘human action’, more specifically movement that takes place through human action and creates the “specific social conditions for our everyday life” (2003, 2). This understanding of space considers digital communication technology and information as part of the material arrangement of social practises, however different in nature they might be. For example, the dimensions in electronically mediated flows are not fixed, because space can expand and contract very quickly according to volume and speed of flow, like an intangible bridge that bends time and space upon bridging. The ‘space of flows’ would then be the expression (not a reflection) of the networked society (‘society’ meaning ‘mode of production’); it’s a social product, but also a means of social production, to the extent that it embodies social relationships (Lefebvre, 1991, 26-27).

Lefebvre’s theory understands the production of space as a dialectic process conceptualised in three dimensions: spatial practise (material production), representations of space (production of knowledge), representational space (production of symbols and signs). Each of these moments represents an experience mediated by the body, summarised in the triad perceived-conceived-lived (1991, 11-40). Cohen proposes that this triad could also apply to the production of ‘cyberspace’ (2007, 236). Understanding that the space of flows of the networked society comprises all that is offline and online, I work from the premise that the perceived-conceived-lived triad of the production of space already covers this extension. Therefore, what we call ‘cyberspace’ is a networked extension of space that we call ‘physical’, and an expression of the networked society. As previously stated, this definition informs that all material instances, tangible or not, are at play in the production of this space.

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2.2. Cyberspace & Other Metaphors

But what is ‘cyberspace’? Ottis & Lorents (2011) defined it as being a “time-dependent set of interconnected information systems and the human users that interact with these systems” (2010, 267). The inclusion of the idea of ‘time-dependence’ highlights the increased complexity of the electronic networks that make up cyberspace over extremely short time, in comparison to other time-dependent systems (ibid., 269). This definition, however, does very little in defining the ‘space’ aspect in question, which is my first main concern as an Architect. This investigation will thread into the metaphorical aspect of using the word ‘space’, so it’s important to point out from the start that the concept of space is far expanded beyond the limits of the built environment. According to American Architect Peter Anders, space can be regarded as “the coherent, internally generated display of sensory information conditioned by body, mind and memory” (2004). This “psychosomatic definition of space” stresses the cognitive nature of space, instead of the architectural emphasis on the built environment. 

I was able to acknowledge this cognitive aspect early on in my research, not just through Anders’s work, but also due to the fact that, initially, I considered a pursuit of ‘cyberspace’ to be an investigation into the character of ‘virtual’ space. I quickly learned that the word ‘virtual’ had a range that, at first, seemed to extend beyond my intended scope of research. According to Dr Or Ettlinger (2007), ‘virtual space’ is intangible, but it’s spatially visible (such as in paintings or movies, for example), whereas the Internet is a conceptual space — one that can be perceived, conceived, experienced, but not touched nor directly seen (regardless of the visible features that the Internet possesses, or the material conditions that make it possible). We can’t ask ourselves “Where is cyberspace?” and figure out an exact Cartesian location (2005, 9), but it can’t exist outside of given materialisations, however immaterial it seems to be (Blanchette, 2011). 

In fact, the materiality of the internet is evident in that it can’t even be accessed or experienced without the mediation of electronic devices (Kalay, and Marx, 2003, 20). Moreso, It is an experience with which we can relate upon symbols; Cohen (2007), for example, says that it is experienced in terms of distances measured in clicks or retrieval times rather than in walking or driving times, but which are distances nonetheless (2007, 229). To Cicognani (1998), it is a linguistic construction, since any ‘object’ found in cyberspace is a result of some sort of language (since information is structured on language) (1998, 19). 

Nonetheless, according to Cohen (2007):

. . . The important question is not what kind of space cyberspace is, but what kind of space a world that includes cyberspace is and will become. Cyberspace is part of lived space, and it is through its connections to lived space that cyberspace must be comprehended and, as necessary, regulated. In particular, a theory of cyberspace and space must consider the rise of networked space, the emergent and contested relationship between networked space and embodied space, and the ways in which networked space alters, instantiates, and disrupts geographies of power. (2007, 213)

However, the ‘cyberspace’ terminology, even though still present in certain contexts such as discussions of national sovereignty, and popular imagination, is outdated. Other words emerged over time, in attempts to describe, or conceive, new ideas about what digital space was supposed to be or look like (such as the 2022 buzzword ‘Web3’, coined by computer scientist Gavin Wood in 2014, which describes a vision for decentralised internet). ‘Web 2.0’, our present environment, became current in late 2004, representing the shift between an information-oriented web, consisting mainly of static web pages with little opportunities for interaction, to a system of Web-based applications (or platforms, such as blogs, wikis, social networkings services, multimedia sharing sites) centred around developing online communities based on greater degrees of interactivity, inclusion, collaboration, authentic materials and digital literacy skills (Harrison and Thomas, 2009, 112). 

Arora (2012) states that the replacement of ‘cyberspace’ by ‘web 2.0’ is evidence of how common understandings of online spaces have changed over time (2012, 2). We can say that the ‘web 2.0’ terminology conceptualises the internet from a network approach, focusing on the interaction between people, rather than what individuals do on their own (Haythornthwaite, 2005, 127) — and might even account for an understanding of the flow of information that navigates through physical and digital space — while the ‘cyberspace’ metaphor conceives the existence of a ‘space’ that is experienced mediated by embodied human cognition (Cohen, 2007, 226), in a monolithic sense, where interactions are carried out. 

These and other metaphors have been useful to help facilitate cognition of the internet’s structure and characteristics, providing visible cues that helped mapping tools, such as the Internet Crawler — the ‘Web’, the ‘Net’, the digital ‘public sphere’, ‘hyperspace’ or ‘cyberspace’. For instance, in 1998, visualisation maps were conceived like astronomical charts, due to an understanding of the Web as hyperspace (Rogers, 2009, 120). But they are limited, due to the nature of metaphors — they highlight the features of the thing being described that are more aligned with the metaphor while necessarily hiding the ones that are inconsistent with that metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003, 10). Even so, our scale of abstraction does help us understand the connections from these symbolic objects to our physical world, in a way that aids cognition (Anders, 1999, 47). Internet users don’t experience this perception of space and sociability only because of how we call it, but because the other metaphors and symbols that are encountered online describe the experience as such, upon mediation by our embodied cognition (Cohen, 2007, 230). That happens because spatialisation operates in the realm of language, at an entirely unconscious level (ibid., 229). We can’t pinpoint the Cartesian location of Twitter, for example, but we can recognise the experience of a shared social reality that resembles a spatial one.

An example from Anders (1996) provides a practical illustration. In an attempt to create models of the spatiality provided by Multi-user Domains (MUDs), Anders and his students noticed that users couldn’t provide specific details of how they envisioned these domains — not in a way that could help researchers build models of their text-based environments. On a collective scale, users weren’t concerned with the dimensions or the shape of these spatial metaphors, not as much as they cared if these layouts allowed the sort of interaction they thought to have experienced (1996, 60-61). In other words, even though users drew from the physical space to conceive the environment, their perception was more related to how they conceived the sociability afforded by these environments, interpreted in spatial, or geometrical terms, following their own set of references. Harrison and Dourish (1996) support this claim by arguing that this happens because it is a shared sense of place that is the actual behavioural framing for how users behave online. The affordability of this sense of place is the point that allows different types of experience of space to be considered in relation to one another.

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2.3 A Digital Sense of Place

Ultimately, the question of place rests on the relation between spatiality and sociality (Dovey, 2010, 6). In Architecture practice, the sense of ‘place’ is something hard to achieve, because architects can’t control all aspects of the interaction between people and the built environment. The intention behind the conception of the design doesn’t amount to anything unless users of that space can perceive the proposal (Holl, 2006). It is, however, easier to identify upon analysis of a space; places emerge as a function of experience, and from practice (Cohen, 2007, 231). In Architecture theory, it has been normally associated with definitions such as ‘stable’, ‘timeless’, ‘essential’, or even ‘eternal’, stemming from the heideggerian tradition interpreted in the works of architectural theorists such as Christian Norberg-Schulz (1926-2000), who theorised the ‘genius loci’ — the ‘spirit of place’. 

Contemporary architectural theorists such as Christopher Alexander or Juhani Pallasmaa support the idea that the sense of place is connected to timeless qualities of human existence in space. Others, like Dovey (2010), favour approaches that are less grounded in ‘being’ and more grounded in ‘becoming’; this view allows for the sense of place to go beyond the stabilised modes of dwelling, such as homeland and history (2010, 4). Saar and Palang (2009) identify several different scales of place making, such as supranational, national, local and individual, but also other dimensions that are harder to group under one specific scale, like meaning attached because of events, or ownership, among others (2009, 7-13). It is in place-making that we discuss the emotional dimension of spaces, like attachment, exclusion or belonging.

The shared notion of belonging is vital to the development of this study — as Kalay and Marx (2003) put it, place is a territory whose boundaries are defined by a sense of being ‘inside’, “being somewhere” as opposed to anywhere” (2003, 20). This is ultimately what defines the nature of the space being considered — if, and how, it is delimited. Bruno Zevi (1978) says that every architectural object constitutes a limit in itself, a border, a disruption in the continuity of space. So, when two non-architectural objects contribute to build the separation between one space and another space, inside and outside, even if these objects can’t be accounted as architecture, they still shape space (1978, 25). 

The production of space, according to Lefebvre (1991), is a dialectic process conceptualised in three dimensions: spatial practise (material production), representations of space (production of knowledge), representational space (production of symbols and signs). Each of these represents an experience mediated by the body, summarised in the triad perceived-conceived-lived (1991, 11-40). The dialectic aspect is a reminder that it is impossible to separate the production of space (and, consequently, the making of place) from time. As Dovey puts it, what distinguishes ‘place’ from ‘space’ is the connection between sociality and spatiality in everyday life (Dovey, 2010, 3). Place-making, then, is an affordance of the fourth dimension, where movement can come about.  

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3. The Sociability of the Bridge

3.1. Movement, Presence and Experience

How should we define digital movement? This is precisely the difference between ‘virtual’ and ‘digital’ notions. Or Ettlinger (2007) calls “virtual space” the space that we perceive from images, or visual cues, which can be seen, but not touched. One of the underlying premises is that we cannot interact with it in a way that affords us to perceive a wholesome spatial notion, due to the nature of the sort of media mediating the viewer’s perspective and experience of space. On the other hand, according to Virtual Space and Place Theory (VSP), because 3D environments (such as Second Life) have what they call ‘directionality’ — the possibility of movement —, users can experience notions of familiarity and the sense of true digital presence. In relation to SNS, we can think of the aspect of  ‘navigability’ of a website or platform. 

It’s important to point out that this type of analysis is possible because, as stated before, we can regard space for its psychosomatic aspects, beyond the built environment. In VSP, Saunders et al. (2011) develop a framework for the design of space in virtual worlds (VW), in a manner that makes room for the emergence of meaning-invested virtual places. Even though it builds up from Second Life — a 3D environment that literally mimics complex physical spaces —, it contains important insight into how we should analyse the construction of digital sociability through design, in a way that provides users with a sense of place and the experience of presence, analogous to intention in architectural practice.

The sense of place is defined in many ways in VSP, but all definitions are centred around four points, as follows: 

  1. Place is a “container” in space, with dynamic and fluid boundaries, that holds a mental representation of experiences that are derived from social interactions and interactions with objects; 
  2. There is no place without the meaning; 
  3. The view of place is tied to mental representations formed through repeated interactions; 
  4. The experience of place is linked to the concept of presence. 

I will add another dimension of place in digital settings, as pointed by Harrison and Dourish (1996) and supported by Anders (2004):

  1. The sense of place frames interactive behaviour, given that social behaviour is often subject to the architecture that houses it. 

In point 3, the affirmation that places emerge through repeated interactions emphasises the layer of experience, over time. It is from an idea of recurring social interactions and interactions with objects that they propose that users develop ‘familiarity’ and experience ‘presence’, perceptions that support the emergence of a sense of place. ‘Familiarity’ is grounded in the past and provides understanding and recognition of current actions of other people or of objects. It also encompasses the process of experiencing and learning how to use the interface. The concept of ‘presence’ is more complex, as it’s expanded into different perspectives and descriptions. 

Saunders et al. (2011) describe in VSP two types of social presence: presence as social richness (or social presence) and presence as immersion (or simply immersion), as described by Lombard and Ditton (1997). ‘Social presence’ is the perception that there is personal, sociable, and sensitive human contact in the medium, afforded by the social cues transmitted by the platform. ‘Immersion’ is the user’s compelling sense of being in a mediated space, and not where their physical body is located; it is presence as a result of the sensory cues transmitted by the platform, instead of the social ones. All senses are obviously involved when users make use of platforms, but only sight, hearing and touch are directly provided by the platform and its interface. I argue that an individual’s perception of immersion depends on their conditions of access, their patterns of use, and the platform’s structure of interaction and experience. On the platform’s end, it would revolve mostly around the structure of how (what, when, where, why) content is presented.

Still about the concept of presence, some points are worth noting; first, that the illusion of presence is unstable; relationships online are conceived at-a-distance, “stretched out too far for linearity” (Lash, 2001). Even so, instability doesn’t erase the fact that this presence is an embodied experience, not just for avatars in VW but also for profiles in social networking services (as we regard them as a form of ‘digital body’, where individuals write their identities into being (boyd (2007)) (Mennecke et al., 2009, 4; 7). These experiences described are possible because using platforms is an ongoing process of perception-cognition-practise; senses of familiarity, presence and place emerge from the ways through which users move through these interfaces and repeatedly recognise their spatiality.

It is a process of cognitive adaptation: users assimilate their experiences on the platforms and create a mental representation which helps them accommodate their old cognition into new experiences. At this point, we can describe experience in digital space as the practical aspects of media use: the interaction with objects — content, other users, tools and the platform itself — and navigability — the extent to which movement is possible across a range of motion —; it’s the result of how the structural clues and social markers on the platform work to afford navigation between its different parts. Through this process, users can attach meaning to the multitude of signs and signals being thrown their way, and something new emerges at the interface of the sense-maker and their environment (Lash, 2001). For example, for a digital community, their experience of place is where, over time, continuities and consistencies are given rise in the way that allows that group of people to perceive certain expressions as traditional, local, or community generated (Howard, 2008, 201), going as far as expressing, or representing, a sense of collective memory.

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3.2. The Bridge & Further Investigations

Considering all of these aspects, we can return to the definition of ‘cyberspace’ proposed by Ottis & Lorents (2011) — a “time-dependent set of interconnected information systems and the human users that interact with these systems.” Aware of the implications of the dimension of ‘place’, we can affirm that, in ‘cyberspace’, the ‘space’ is, in fact, the affordability of action in the distance between two nodes in a network. This ‘distance’ is grounded on the fact that these two nodes are real and exist as physical beings — individual human beings are irreducible to bits and remain localised in the physical realm (Cohen, 2007, 244). This is the ground on which all sorts of networks exist — the existence of the possibility of the establishment of connection between two or more parts.

In “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, Heidegger (1971) proposes an analogy about the emergence of place across building and dwelling, known as “Heidegger’s Bridge” or “the bridge in Heidelberg”. The banks of the river only emerge as banks, or, as opposite sides, upon bridging (or linking) — “The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream […] lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore” (1971, 150). If we think about this analogy in relation to the ties in digital networks, we can appreciate the unfathomable complexity of the worlds brought about through the bridges that are built and burnt online on a daily basis, as multiple different worlds gather, shape the digital environment, and connect with way more people than they would probably ever do in their strictly physical lives.

This unthinkable complexity is, ultimately, what the internet was always meant to be. When William Gibson (2003) coined the term ‘cyberspace’ In “Neuromancer”, first published in 1984, he used these exact same words to describe the phenomenon:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” (p. 51)

And yet, how could we not try to fathom it? This is the foundation of my study: the belief that an architect’s best contribution is a sharp eye to acknowledge the Architecture of Serendipity. Borrowing from Heidegger, what I call ‘The Sociability of the Bridge’ is an analysis of how the actors and elements at play in establishing a digital environment afford the development of communities-at-a-distance. I believe the Heideggerian analogy is valuable, especially because of the idea of gathering through Heidegger’s Fourfold. However, it is unclear whether all the unfoldings of the Fourfold are the best fit for future investigations. For reference, a similar study by Neill (2018), which examined interaction on Tumblr according to the platform’s “singular architecture”, employed Social Construction of Technology and Actor-Network Theory as method and framework. 

Even so, so far, the bridge serves well as an anchor back to the material properties of the hierarchies and structures that seem to be invisible in digital environments — or else, made increasingly invisible. By looking into rather abstract phenomena such as the construction of memory, and a collective sense of shared space, all the actors at play in and through the platform and the community, have got to be considered. This is particularly relevant for fan communities, as the corporate interests are also actively working in nurturing fan loyalty. In this sense, I believe there’s value in considering the effect of cognising virtual spaces through moving images in the construction of community identity. 

An illustration of the Bridge and its gathering properties, as presented by me at BTS: A Global Interdisciplinary Conference Project at Kingston University, London, 4-5 Jan 2020

To put all of these aspects being mentioned in order: 

I first consider the platform/website’s singular architecture, or the structures behind how information is presented and circulated. Second, the construction of identity and their collective imagination in communities of shared interest, emphasising the effect of moving images in shaping their cognition. Lastly, I consider the construction of memory and the emergence of lore and traditions perceived to be community-generated in digital communities, from a shared sense of collective experience. I believe that, with these points, we can reach a qualified analysis of the ways through which perceptual and cognitive space can be perceived and cognised in the bridge, as well as an examination of the bridge itself, and its material properties. 

To conclude, I’d like to touch on how I approach the Sociability of the Bridge as a technological form of social life, as described by Scott Lash (2001). There are several aspects to be considered, but I want to focus on the idea of stretched-out non-linearity, aforementioned in relation to the idea of presence; these are relationships that are navigated at-a-distance by man-machine interfaces, where presence and experience tend to the realm of illusion, and bonds tear apart with ease (2001). Citing Bruno Latour, he calls the links in a network “so thin that they occupy almost no breadth at all. They are ‘topological’ rather than ‘topographical’. They are connected not by the social bond per se, but by socio-technical ties.” (2001). 

The relevant argument at play here is the understanding that, ultimately, the object being considered isn’t the community in itself, but the gathering, exactly where it gathers, and the tension between their own bonds and the weak link which holds them together — which, all in all, is simply communications. I opened this piece mentioning Elon Musk’s Twitter bid, during which he expressed a desire to impose user identity authentication. This would pose a risk to the viability of fan communities on the website — fan accounts are often one of multiple held by fans, who often choose to keep their real identities anonymous. However I feel about whether this will come to fruition or not, it surely exposes, and serves as a warning, of the fragility of the local element in these communities. 

A science fiction writer coined the useful term “cyberspace” in 1982. But the territory in question, the electronic frontier, is about a hundred and thirty years old. Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. *The place between* the phones. The indefinite place *out there,* where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.

Sterling, Bruce. 1994. The Hacker Crackdown.

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References

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Through the Crashing Waves, and what there is to be found there

Versão em Português aqui.

This text is an extended version of the review of “illa illa” that I wrote for KPK: Kpop Kollective‘s monthly music review project, WWLT (What We’re Listening To), Vol. 2, No. 2 (March 1, 2022). You can find the review here: WWLT, Vol.2 , No. 2

Years after releasing the generation-defining album Rubber Soul (1965) with the Beatles, John Lennon recalled that Side 2 track “In My Life” was the first one he “consciously” wrote about his life. Up until that point, lyrics were merely side players in the process of crafting a pop sound, even though he had, from a young age, been puzzled by the potentials of wordplay – such as that found in the works of Lewis Carroll – and keen on writing poems and short stories that reframed episodes of life through the lenses of literary nonsense, to amuse himself and people around him. In 1964, he got to publish some of these anecdotes in the compilation book “In His Own Write”, which eventually led to a remark, made by journalist Kenneth Allsop, who wondered why his songwriting did not have the same literary qualities, or why he never seemed to borrow much from memories and personal experience to write lyrics. 

Excerpt from page 319 of Walter Everett’s “The Beatles as musicians : the Quarry Men through Rubber soul” (2001). Retrieved from Internet Archive.

That remark was enough to prompt him to give it a try; the timing was just right because, even though Lennon himself already had the necessary lyrical sensibilities, the years would end up crowning Rubber Soul as a representative of a key transition in the band’s career, from the media sensation of the Beatlemania into actively expanding the possibilities of what chart-topping pop would sound like. “In My Life”’s themes are rather simple – nostalgia and longing, the things that remain because they are worth keeping, even after everything else has faded, or gone away. Although not exactly one of the promotional singles of the album, it remains as one of the most cherished songs in pop culture; the imperative of time, and our absolute lack of control over it, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, motif that has prompted the finest and highest sensibilities, and deepest dreads and sorrows, in humanity’s creative imagination. It’s songs like “In My Life” that give the scariest things an approachable dimension; they scale the passing of days and years through words that articulate the overwhelming sense of not being able to turn the clock back until it seems small enough to fit within a bunch of simple verses. 

In a way, that’s the greatest triumph to which pop music can aspire – to have generations of people standing at the intersection between music and lyrics, because the way something sounds makes something sound within them, too. Of course, I’m waxing poetic because I, too, feel overwhelmed right now, and completely willing to ignore every other social, political, economic and cultural layer that can be considered about this topic. Not just because the imperative of time doesn’t unravel the same to everyone – the same way we aren’t all given the exact same 24 hours every day. Still, even as the years go by, and we stop to look back, the weight of time only seems to make these classics stronger, staying as significant and impactful as ever, still finding their ways into bringing about other artists and their new realities. Such as when Korean rapper B.I chose to name the Beatles, specifically Rubber Soul and “In My Life” upon being asked by Buzzfeed about his first musical inspiration, while promoting his first album as a solo artist, in 2021. 

25-year-old Kim Hanbin. 131Label.

Across his career that, at 25 years old, already spans a period of almost 13 years, B.I (born Kim Hanbin) often spoke about the importance of movies and poetry in his songwriting. From a young age, he found that, through other works, particularly cinema, he could experience and figure out how to articulate things he hadn’t experienced for himself, in a way that would still result in vivid images, and evoke strong feelings from listeners – his greatest aspiration as an artist. In his own words, the work of the Beatles, specifically the soothing qualities of some of their melodies, as well as the meanings embedded into their lyrics, have been a great source of inspiration. When he chooses to mention a song like “In My Life” as a fundamental source of inspiration in becoming the artist he aspires to be, I can suppose he’s probably referring to how the song brings to life the train of thought of longing in a very laid-back manner, almost jolly, never belittling the lows, but making the highs a tangible possibility. More than anything, it’s not about longing that leaves you stuck, but about the freedom of moving on with confidence, bringing along the memories that matter the most, like a treasure. 

Even though he’s been working his way as a rapper since 2009, his solo career didn’t officially start until the release of the song “illa illa”, on 1 June, 2021 as lead single of album WATERFALL, under his own label. Prior to that, he had achieved recognition as the leader and main songwriter of 7-member boy group iKON between 2015-2019. His work got him an accolade of “Songwriter of the Year”, in 2018, after the group’s song “Love Scenario” became a megahit in Korea. Said to have been inspired by the ending of musical movie La La Land (2017), it’s a song that’s neither particularly happy nor sad. The track moves cyclically, without the driving power of a structure that leads to a big climax, instead choosing to take turns around the chorus like the mind of a person who’s getting ready to turn the page for good and leave behind what should be left behind, but making sure to bring along the memories that matter the most, the things that should be treasured.

13-year-old Kim Hanbin, already going by the name of “B.I”, in 2009, in one of the stages for MC Mong’s “Indian Boy”, in which he features as a collaborator. MBC’s Show! Music Core, retrieved from MBCKpop.

There’s a divide between B.I, the boy group leader and songwriter behind “Love Scenario” – who is seen spinning around memories in the song’s music video, along his bandmates and the soft, repetitive melody – and B.I, the solo artist, coming out of the ocean on his own at the beginning of “illa illa”’s cinematic music video. This, too, is a song that’s neither particularly happy nor sad; the English title is a nonexistent word that bears close resemblance to the Korean ideophones that represent the undulating movement of waves. In Korean, it’s called “해변[haebyeon], which means “beach”. The opening lines are played in the music video as if they were slowly coming through as someone lifts their head from under the water; they were incorporated from the poem “The Taste Of Candy And Beach” [사탕과 해변의 맛] by poet Seo Yun-hoo – “at the end of my sleeves there’s a beach/ because of the tears that I wiped from my cheeks.” This very specific choice of a metaphor structures a song which is about being swallowed by the waves of an ocean made of one’s own warm, salty tears. 

I spent some of my best school years learning how to read and dissect poets and their poetry, but something about the nature of pop music made me change my approach to songwriting over the years. Detaching my favourite lyrics from their writers does make it easier for me to make them my own. Moreso, as a writer myself, I must admit I’m happy to spare artists the burden of elaborating on things that they might not even want to talk about. To me, the choice of publishing or not something I wrote is highly informed by how vulnerable it makes me feel – I might prefer to keep certain writings to myself if I fear people would be able to figure out the details of struggles I would rather be vague about. Choosing to open up before others in a way that gives them the chance to speculate requires courage. In that sense, I think B.I is very brave; by the time “illa illa” was released, he still awaited the final sentencing on a trial after accusations of an illegal drug purchase attempt, in 2019, which resulted in his withdrawal from his former group and agency.  

Make sure to turn captions on.

Much like “In My Life”, “illa illa” describes vivid feelings and recollections that seem specific and detailed enough to come from personal experience – the wording has the type of pungency that stems from individual thoughts that can only have gone through one’s mind as they experienced something first-hand. Because of that, both songs manage to come out subjective, but still consciously made to be general enough to be about anyone. Lennon’s own original vision was a description of a bus trip he used to take from his neighbourhood into the city centre, but he chose rather to describe the way his thoughts travelled through the memories he had of the place and time he had in mind. By choosing to start out with the metaphor from Seo Yun-hoo’s poem, which also functions as the song’s pre-chorus, B.I tells listeners where he stands at the moment – and that’s not specifically under nor out of the water, but neither at the seashore. 

That’s perhaps the reason why the motif of the ocean sounds somehow fresh here, even though drowning in a pool of tears is at least as old as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kat Moon (2021), writing for TIME, wrote that B.I went beyond the “[temptation] to focus on the limitless nature of the ocean at beaches”; the reflection is personal and, just as the track circles around its pre-chorus and chorus, the metaphors are much more centred around his own body as the beginning and end of things. All over and through and out of his ends, there lies the sea, and the sand, and even the waves of memories that hit him, coming and going and washing away both the good and the bad. There’s a sense of a buildup, but it isn’t loud and thunderous like a storm, but fitting for the first steps of someone gearing up for a new start. The pace makes it sound steady, somehow gentle, and sufficiently safe. 

Not to be missed is the rest of the WATERFALL album, and the ways it tells a story, or multiple ones. Right before “illa illa” comes the album’s intro, also titled “Waterfall”. It comes across as a much more violent, and personal, approach to similar topics – pain, rage, shame, loss, scrutiny and the full implications of fall. Unlike the ocean, which is, in itself, big enough to collect and hold both the calmest and the most violent waters, a waterfall goes only one way, which is down. Even so, just as we know that all rivers run to the sea, the end of a waterfall might be the reason why, regardless of how he keeps singing about being swept away by his own tears, “illa illa” doesn’t come across as being particularly nor intensely sad; in the swirling of waves, as much as it is about the sinking, the song is about the emerging. And that’s why it’s so hard to separate the lyrics from the person who wrote it – all in all, it’s a comeback; it’s a statement. The last of the 12 tracks is called “Next Life” in Korean, but “Re-Birth” in English; it’s a sweet song about fateful lovers, but I can’t help but feel that the word choice is so appropriate for someone who seems resolved to emerge out of the waters, time and time again. 

“Waterfall” Performance Film. B.I is very good and I need you to leave this post completely aware of this fact.

One of my favourite descriptions of the sea is in the Book of Revelation, when John the Apostle describes the Heavenly City, and mentions that, before the Throne of God, there laid a Sea of Glass. There’s a little promise hidden in there; waters that are still enough to become like crystal are a sign of what comes at the end of suffering, after the end of the ups and downs of rough waves – peace. The harder I think about it, the more I realise the reason I love “illa illa” so much is because true hope, however faint a flicker it is, is a trait that can only be found in those who went through hell, but survived. Even if these waters are just the calm before another storm, if they stand still for long enough, and if we’re willing to stare for long enough, they become like a mirror where we can see our changed self reflected. Some time after she swam in a pool of her own tears, when little Alice found herself wondering about the world on the other side of the Looking-glass, she was looking at the depths of her own reflection and pondering the extent of the literal and imaginary distances she could conceive beyond the limits of the virtual images her little eyes could see. That’s what is buried deep in the ocean, or on the other side of the mirror – the version of us that will come out once the surface is shaken and shattered, and us, swallowed. 

But don’t get me wrong; I still stand by my choice not to think too hard about songs I love so much. I always work hard to resist the social-media-fueled tendency to solipsisms, so this is not such a case, as much as it is, like I said, a way to free the unthinkably thick streams of pop music from the constraints of making too much sense. I’ve been talking about myself since at least the previous paragraph, but, like something else I said before, I cannot erase the fact that WATERFALL holds statements that can be heard clearly from a certain distance. I’m not one to romanticise pain, let alone other’s, but I’m always trying to find new ways to give new meanings to my own, and rise above and out of the reasons why I still wake up with a hint of regret, and longing, every single day. My favourite lyrics in “illa illa” are on the bridge, with the promise to “build another sandcastle“, even though “it will probably just crumble again”; I have no idea what the sand is supposed to be here, but I guess it’s my own raw material that defines what the beach at the corner of my eyes is made of. I don’t think it matters as much as the decision to keep starting over. As an Architect, I’ve been aware that, regardless of what sort of practice I’m pursuing, my greatest calling in life is to build something. 

“Penny Lane”, the accomplishment of Lennon’s original vision for “In My Life”. 1967.

After putting out “In My Life” in 1965, it took Lennon another year or so to figure out how to articulate the specifics of his feelings and memories in a way that made sense as a song for others to listen to, with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (whose lyrics are actually accredited to McCartney). Enough time has passed for many of the layers hidden in his music to have mostly, or fully come out, as well as the implications, and multiplications, but B.I is still an ongoing case, writing his own story. Perhaps in the future he, too, will find the willingness, the words and the opportunity to talk in different ways about how his journey changed him, and it might sound radically different from where he seems to stand right now, because we hold as little control over the future as we hold over the past.  And there’s literally nothing to be done about it except perhaps wonder, and write about it. 

Visualiser video for one of my personal favourite tracks in the album, “Daydream”, feat. singer Lee Hi.
My favourite song of the last couple of months, “Blue Sail” [푸른 돛], Towner & Town Chief (1986). “But that wave is so high, friend, that I think we should raise the blue sail.”

My Favourite (Forgotten) B-side

Are you the type of person who enjoys songs that never make it to setlists? Me too!

Para uma versão em Português, clique aqui.

I’m a huge K-pop fan. I haven’t been one for a very long time, but, over the last three years or so, I became really passionate about the industry of idol music, to the extent of being actively involved in producing content and even academic material about it. The reason why I love it so much is… Well, it’s harder to explain than how long I want this paragraph to turn out [so you might have to check other writings], but, in the midst of all the performances, dance routines, variety shows, different concepts and fan service delivered by pretty faces wearing pretty outfits, I get music. And I love music, and I always seem to find new music to enjoy there. 

Since you’re here anyway, are you familiar with the 2021’s actual Song of the Year?

One of my favourite groups is called NCT 127. They’re a 9-member group, which debuted in 2016 under the K-pop giant SM Entertainment. They’re part of a larger group called NCT, which has 23 members split into different units, one of which is 127. NCT has a rotational concept, which is something that can be a little tricky to explain if you’re completely new but that’s the simplest way to explain the pictures with dozens of men you get when you google them. Anyway, the important thing is that NCT 127 is a group with amazing music. They’re famous for pushing sonic boundaries and trends – which means that their songs aren’t always unanimous, but their output over the last six years makes up for a very interesting discography.

All of NCT’s 23 members brought together during promotions of the NCT 2020 project.

My favourite NCT 127 song is called “100”. It’s part of their first Japanese single album, Chain, released in 2018. The music is credited to singer-songwriter Andrew Choi, who’s also signed under SM Ent., and to composer Yunsu (SOULTRiii), who’s also worked with other SM artists (such as soloist Baekhyun and my ultimate favourite group SHINee, being credited for the excellent “Chemistry” from The Story of Light pt. 2 (2018)). The lyrics are credited to Japanese Hip-Hop and R&B musician AKIRA. The single album in itself is amazing, with five special, solid songs that speak volumes of 127’s potential, from the first to the last of its 18 minutes. “100” is the last one, the cherry on top; it’s an outstanding track, with a delightful drop and a bridge that builds up to one of my favourite codas in a song. I’ve listened to “100” countless times, and not even once have I gotten to the end of the song without shivering at least a little bit. That’s how powerful it is.

There’s also something else that’s very important about this song, which is the fact that it’s never been performed live. Not even once. 

Most K-pop groups have very serious ventures into Japan – being the world’s second biggest recorded music market, it’s their best option to expand beyond the domestic audience. So far in their career, NCT127 have only headlined one solo concert tour (partially due to the pandemic), but, even so, out of the 44 dates they played across Asia, Europe, North and Latin America, 14 were in Japan. And yet, across these dates, to a reported audience of 74,000 people, not even once did they perform “100”. They did, indeed, do other Japanese songs that are some of my all-time favourites from them, such as “Dreaming” (also from the Chain single album) and “Kitchen Beat” (from their excellent first Japanese full-album, Awaken (2019)). But not “100”. 

I’m a bit dramatic when it comes to songs I really love listening to; there are favourite ones that are meant for big-bite, spoonful consumption, through endless repetition, and there are the ones that must be eaten up in moderation, because they cause a rush so strong, and leave such a lingering taste. “100” is somewhere in the middle. I’d hate to give it an unfulfilling listen, even once. That’s exactly why I’m a K-pop fan; I enjoy the performances, the fan content, the personalities, but, ultimately, I need to get my sonic fill and my favourite groups keep me happy and well-fed in that sense. And the food analogy is actually very good, right? Because we have breakfast, lunch, coffee break, dinner, supper, and not every food fits nicely into every meal. “100” is more like dessert. The portion is smaller than what I had for lunch, but you can be sure everything I did before was anticipating that small bite of 3 minutes and 42 seconds. 

Like I said, I’m a bit dramatic when it comes to songs I really love listening to. So, yes, “100” is always an experience to me. In that sense, whenever I give it a full listen, and I get to the end once again, and I remember there’s never been a live performance, and 127 probably don’t even remember they recorded it to begin with… I can’t help but think about how the experience stands from the speakers to my end alone. The producers, songwriters, distributors, and 127, of course, provided the service, but they don’t know me and they don’t even have to care that I love this song so much, because, whether I replay it 10 or 1000 times, they might get more or less cash, but absolutely no feedback about this poor Brazilian 26-year-old who always has to clarify that she means NCT 127’s song, and not SuperM’s, when she says she loves “100”

This is just one example of many others that I could pull from my career of loving forgotten B-sides, like Foo Fighters’ “Live-in-Skin” and “Erase/Replace”, BTS’s “Paradise”, f(x)’s “Signal”. It’s not on purpose as much as it’s not my fault that I’ve grown attached to songs that rarely or never make it to setlists. It’s a pity, because I love live music, and most songs sound better out of the studio, hanging above ad through the heads of the people, where they belong. On my end of the world, I rarely, or never, get to experience my favourite artists, so live performance clips are the best way (or else, the only one one) for me to experience a fraction of what it feels like to be under the sonic clouds I long for the most. It’s not like I’ve never had it good, though – once, when my favourite band ever, Foster the People, brought back to tour a song from 2011 that I loved dearly, “Broken Jaw”, a bonus track that wasn’t even on streaming platforms back then, and which hadn’t been performed in many years, just in time for my first ever concert of theirs. And I did cry a bit, just as you would expect from someone who’s a bit dramatic when it comes to songs she really loves listening to, but who also knows very well that the intense emotional experience she associates with listening to the music she loves the most is completely detached from the people who made it in the first place. 

Foster the People doing “Broken Jaw” live in 2011. This specific performance kept me both satiated but somehow still hungry for years before I got to see this one for myself.

Of course, this is not about how these songs exist due to the ones who wrote, produced, sang and distributed it, but in the sense that there’s an unbridgeable distance between us and them which manifests in how we feel about the stuff we enjoy, how we consume it, how freely it moves through our lives and our devices with no strings attached besides a picture on the cover, or credits printed on paper. I have endlessly replayed songs by artists that I know nothing about besides a stage name. In a way, through the albums, clips and tracklists on streaming services, the speakers and screens are a lot less like links, and a lot more like mirrors, reflecting myself right back at me. Even if they became as soft as fabric, even if I could get to the other side, I wouldn’t find singers and songwriters waiting for me, but just my own, lonely self, and all the things that make that experience mine, all the things that stand between my body and my reflection. 

And that’s great! That’s what makes it enjoyable and worthwhile, because, if I hit play, I can still hear Doyoung’s voice whenever I want, even though he’s 12 hours ahead of me, sitting somewhere in Seoul. It’s not a live clip, but I can still go back to “100” and “Live-in-skin” and “Signal”, I can go back to Red Velvet’s “Knock on Wood” (which I do on a daily basis), or even “Broken Jaw” – which, at last, has made it to streaming platforms, so I can easily enjoy it in every version that I cherish. On the other hand, my absolute favourite FTP song, “Tabloid Super Junkie”, a pre-order exclusive track from Supermodel (2014), remains as a pretty forgotten B-side. But then, if I’m being perfectly honest, I couldn’t care less. Between me and the speakers, I’ve made the song mine in such a way that nothing else is necessary to make it better than I already think it is. And that’s why I like it so much.

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

The Shape of an Idol

What sort of artist is an idol?

Para uma versão em Português, clique aqui.

I first came into contact with K-pop idols in 2009, at 14 years of age, when I learned that one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite German bands – Cinema Bizarre’s “Forever or Never” – had also been recorded by a Korean boy group called SHINee. The following year, most of my German band-loving peers had exchanged the likes of Cinema Bizarre, Tokio Hotel and Killerpilze with Super Junior, BIGBANG, SHINee, amongst others. Most of us had a history with J-pop and J-rock; I myself was briefly hooked on Super Junior because of Heechul’s visuals, which reminded me a bit of Miyavi’s, the visual kei rockstar I adored. It didn’t last long, though; as a Christian girl, my teenage mind was repelled by the label “idol”.

Cinema Bizarre “Forever or Never” live, 2008

Funnily enough, it was BTS’s 2018 song “IDOL” that ended up dragging me back into the industry, attracting me with the layering of Korean traditional percussion music and African beats that made my mornings as a then-freshly graduated (and unemployed) person less burdensome. That was around 2 and a half years ago. My more educated adult mind was able to overlook the negative connotations that the word “idol” communicated to me in the past, but once in a while I still have to explain myself when the topic arises in my daily religious contexts. Calling young stars such a name is a very unsubtle way of stating what they are presented for but, even so, there’s more to the name than a vocabulary choice.

I have said this many times, but I have always been a fan of things, since my late childhood. Being a fan is part of my identity and shapes how I interact with the world. This is relevant because, after becoming a K-pop fan, the process of learning more about what the label “idol” meant and how it informed so much of what made me enjoy these artists completely reshaped how I perceived my own fan experience. This piece is a very personal take, and a rather subjective first attempt at putting into words how my taste ethos changed over the last few years, as well as paying what little homage I can to one of the idols I cherish the most – Hoshi, from the group Seventeen – not just because today is his 25th birthday, but also because coming to appreciate him as much as I do today has a lot to do with my process of figuring out what idols were supposed to be. 

BTS, the biggest K-pop group in the world, stating that they are, indeed, idols. Aug, 2018.

I came into K-pop straight from a long career into different kinds of rock bands, from power pop to pop punk, to punk and stoner rock, and all sorts of sounds deemed “alternative”. My perception as a new K-pop fan was naturally highly informed by this previous experience, but, at the same time, because there was a poignant transition taking place, I had to admit that there had to be something specific, potentially new, attracting me to this very different type of artist (even though there are also important parallels, which even prompted an article about why so many former emo fans crossed over to K-pop). I had in me a deep sense of wanting to be able to appreciate the differences as much as the similarities. Like I mentioned before, I had just graduated, so my head was still full of my Bachelor’s Thesis and all the studying I had done to produce it, and I had enough free time to do my favourite thing: keep studying (by the way, that’s the rough version of how I ended up studying fandoms). I was lucky to make friends that pointed me in the right direction, showing me the songs, videos, live performances, articles and books that helped me lay a foundation to start to make sense of the general landscape of idols in Asia, in a way that gave context to the finished product I was hooked on. 

In early 2020, in a conversation with one of these more experienced fandom friends, she told me that every fan might eventually have to figure out who’s the one idol they will drop all others for once they no longer have the time (and energy) to put into supporting many different people. I remember saying I had no idea who I would choose; but then, not much longer later, shortly after Hoshi’s 24th birthday, I realised he had become my answer to that matter. When I first got into Seventeen, he was not one of the first members to catch my attention, but, the more I learned about the group, the more he intrigued me. Initially, there seemed to be some unusualness to such interest, because all of my favourite idols up until that point shared some specific traits that weren’t the most striking things about him. That made me think deeply about what could have sparked my interest. I ended up realising that my new-found love was a result of a larger process of shift that I was experiencing, and this shift was a result of the thoughts and conclusions I reached after seeking to educate my mind to perceive idols as idols.

Hoshi, in behind the scenes pictures of the music video for his solo debut song “Spider”, released in April this year. In his own words, he is “the kid who goes when you say not to go // “I’m the kid who tries until the end when you tell me not to do something” (from the lyrics of his self-produced unreleased song “Horanghae). Picture retrieved from Weverse.

What makes an idol?

Idol-ness is, in itself, a performance. Idols are a special brand of pop artist, whose persona is specially crafted to maximise the chance of stardom. Such performance is truly an artistic labour – a fact that can be easily ignored according to one’s definition of art. Because it’s a full-time performance, the role of the young people that work hard to bring up their idol-worthy images to life often ends up being overshadowed by the role of agencies and producers in the process. Trainees at K-pop companies spend their youth training in pursuit of their dream of being given the chance to debut in a group[1], and then work for the subsequent years to build relevance and stability, as a group, and as individuals. From the moment a new trainee is signed, and their journey begins, the ultimate goal is the stage; it’s the place where all parts come together, and they present themselves as idol-material, excelling both in singing and dancing to show they are worthy of the support of their fans. But the sovereignty of the stage is just one aspect of their performance. 

Idols were designed to become a source of security and an object of desire, one through which fans could live out their own dreams in the shape of unconditional support. To fulfill this fantasy, becoming an idol fan is made to be like stepping into a transmedia alternate universe, a realm in which all parts of the narrative eventually point back to one another[2], creating the illusion of a world of intimacy between an idol and their fans. In this world, a collective aesthetic utopia of youth is realised; more than just desiring their bodies and their lifestyle, fans are encouraged to perceive themselves as part of the journey. Just as idols grow from their trainee days into mature artists, all of their fans, too, will grow, and work hard to pursue their own aspirations and dreams. 

These processes are perceived as one, such is the architecture of parasocial interactions; in that sense, the idol fannish experience is a labour of (life)time[3] – as companies and idols work together to bring forth the images and texts around which support will be harnessed, fans come into the equation not only through supporting, but also in performing fandom. This performance is expressed through standard, daily fan practices, such as buying goods, voting for prizes and awards, streaming songs and videos, putting together fan events, producing fanart, supporting their brand endorsements. But, as the stage is the moment in which the idol presents their idol-worthiness, fans will also play their role during live performances, as they shake their lightsticks, sing the special fanchants and perform their fan events, holding up slogans with special phrases to their idols.[4] The entire idol system is built on this pact of kinship between idols and fans; and, as such, as Joanna Elfving-Hwang (2018) points out, whatever role one is assigned, being an idol requires never to drop out of character[5].

If being an idol circles back to articulating an idol-worthy expression of the self, the most desirable talent would be the ability to put on a captivating, consistent performance on and off stage. In that sense, when crafting their personas, the genius of performing as an idol is knowing how to use what they have to build a bridge between who they are and the role they are supposed to fulfill. Since every idol that gets to debut has gone through hard prepping for the chance of stepping on a stage, the very desired life-long fan support that will enable their careers relies greatly on their ability to make people fall in love with their dreams, and dream along with them. That’s why a compelling backstory plays such an important role in boosting a successful rendition, like a compass that informs the overall direction of the narrative and makes their story of growth all the more believable, and potentially sustainable.

Hoshi’s surprise appearance to the fans waiting in line to watch Seventeen’s concert in Newark, US. Jan, 2020.

Hoshi, the idol 

Hoshi, my favourite idol, is a force of nature. His stage name choice is a combination of the words “horangi” [호랑이, tiger] and “siseon” [시선, gaze]. His playful, talkative persona makes abundant use of loud cuteness aesthetics to showcase a soft, endearing side, which makes a great counterpoint to the real awe-inspiring tiger qualities he expresses in performance mode. Born in 1996 as Kwon Soonyoung, he made his official debut in May 2015 as the main dancer amongst the 13 members of Seventeen, after training for four years. Because of the large number of members, the group is internally divided into teams according to specialisation; there’s the Vocal Team, the Hip Hop Team and the Performance Team, of which Hoshi is the leader. He’s recognised as an earnest performer, a talented choreographer, and a pacesetter deeply obsessed with both the practice room and the stage. His absolute love for hard work and enduring the processes is one of his greatest assets – his passion transcends every step of the staircase that leads from the commitment and hardships of preparations into the place under the spotlight. 

Looking back, I believe that his ability to ooze passion in everything he did was what made me enjoy watching him so much. As I made my way through more and more of Seventeen’s transmedia content, he told a consistent story of a hard-working artist, who defied all odds to build himself up from nothing. As a young boy with a dream of becoming an artist and a solid background in taekwondo, he realised that his physical abilities were enough to give him a shot. He found little support at first, but he had enough thirst in himself to do his best to prove he could make it, so he created his own opportunities. At first, he practised on his own, at home. He went on to form his own dance club in school, entering multiple dance competitions, and even winning some. It was in one of these competitions that he succeeded in being scouted into an agency. Since day one, he became known for being the trainee that worked the hardest; this reputation has followed him ever since, and has been reasserted every single time he presented himself. 

Hoshi’s playfulness makes a sweet counterbalance to his fierce performance as a dancer. Seventeen “Ode to You” Tour in Seoul, picture by Eyes on You. Aug, 2019.

When he’s dancing, he’s untouchable and enticing; on camera he’s a reliable and active figure of comfort, with an approachable aura that makes his fans regard him as one like a friend. These many sides shape the complexity of his “tiger power”, the brand that summarises and iconifies the genius of his idol-ness. Kwon Soonyoung, who says that he’s actually an introvert, often chooses the energetic, loud and bordering on the insane as a booster, and seems to have his artistic mind set on putting on a show, whatever the assignment is. I would even argue that the differences between his performance and what he sometimes describes as his “true self” make the show more interesting to watch. He can count on the reliable support of his compelling backstory that makes the complete package being presented on stage easier to believe, and more enjoyable to watch – as if we could see the extent of the road that he’s walked so far every single time the lights are on him. There’s a sense of coherence that he presents across all forms of media which is hard to describe, but, ultimately, it translates to me as a sense of commitment and assurance that he’s infatuated with his own dreams as much as us fans are infatuated with him. 

His ability to communicate himself coherently over the years is perhaps the reason why it’s so easy to fall in love with his dreams and desire to watch him fulfill all of them. That was very evident during “Spider”, his remarkable solo debut this past April. The release is a great display of all that he has built ever since he decided he wanted to be on a stage; the luscious track, written and produced by his long-time friend and fellow Seventeen member Woozi, allowed him to show himself as a fully-grown artist beyond the group, highlighting his poignant moves, sultry vocals, beautiful angles and addictive visuals. The song is an easy listen that begs for a replay, and the music video, as well as the multiple stage performances and even the dance practice are a visual feast, as he makes his way through the backup dancers and the rectangular frames that are part of the choreography. His high quality standards are noticeable in every aspect of the release, since its inception, as described by him in the behind the scenes clips and interviews he gave about the song. It’s not so different from Hoshi, the SVT member, but it’s a few steps beyond, like the feeling of walking a bit further in order to get a bigger picture.

If you’re my close friend I have probably made you watch this at least once.

The shift

Taste is a very tricky topic to navigate, because there are multiple collective and individual, external and internal layers behind what biases and binds us; there are several unarticulated aspects of subjectivity which are both like a sifter and a strainer filtering and shaping how we digest everything that we ingest. Even more when it comes down to the many different kinds of fan discourse that exist, not only because of the emotional qualities, but also the communitarian aspect that entails the general perception of being a fan as being part of an extended array of people sharing the same taste. The extent to which fan taste should be discussed is highly debatable since, after a while, telling apart individual reactions to collective speech constructions can be hard. From the get-go, I stated that this was a personal account, because that’s what a person’s own bias will always come down to. 

But, even in that sense, even though coming to appreciate Hoshi, specifically, was a subjective endeavour, there’s a more general outlook in question, of my process of coming to love a dancer above all others, which is the thing I’m calling a personal shift, and the main product of my own experience of growing in knowledge. That sounds stupidly simple, and perhaps not worthy of a lengthy piece, but reshaping a lifelong perception of the worth of the multiple mediums through which expression can be articulated is quite a challenge. In Architecture school, my greatest asset was my ability to translate images and space into words, and vice-versa. Even my skills as a foreign language teacher are largely indebted to my talent to overthink verbal speech. As a result, someone’s ability with words has long been my biggest source of admiration – the sort of perception I nurtured growing up as a fan of things, and which I carried into idol fandom.

Initially, all of my favourite idols were the talented songwriters, the ones that had a poetics to them that was articulated verbally, going as far as releasing books. Even if I was so addicted to the complete package of the show, at the end of the day I still subconsciously attributed more value to those who could express their artistry in words. Getting deeper into the non-verbal contents of K-pop and how every aspect added its own value to the finished product made me more appreciative of the many layers of the show as equally important; the core of what I called appreciating idols as idols would be an overall sense of seeing each one for the role that they play on an equal footing – from the ones who write and the ones who sing most parts in songs to the ones that provide striking visuals but don’t necessarily lead performances. One of the reasons why idol groups have a diversity of looks, personalities, talents and assigned roles is to maximise appeal; the wider the possibilities, the higher the chances of someone’s story resonating with someone watching – because what is being communicated by one end still depends largely on the other end’s ability to get it.

A fancam of Hoshi dancing to Seventeen’s 2016 mega hit VERY NICE. Once Twitter’s #1 public enemy, fancams were one of the things that I struggled the get the point of when I first became a fan of K-pop but that became a natural part of my experience the more I enjoyed the performance aspects. I have watched this one countless times. Jul, 2016.

Once I had opened myself to cherish the various facets of how idols articulated themselves, I could channel my long-standing enjoyment of the ability to build up a coherent artistic narrative into appreciating an idol’s overall performance more wholly, which eventually developed into love for Hoshi, the idol and artist. Becoming his fan was a bit like figuring out how much I earnestly desired to find new points in the fabric of reality in which the sensibility of bodies and souls seemed to connect with the higher orders of the world – the window of possibility which leads into a taste of the numinous, if we’re lucky. It’s as simple as a deep craving for beauty. There are countless collective and individual, external and internal layers behind what biases and binds us as we make our separate and communitarian ways into the world, but, as such, it is a constant that time will keep going, and we will keep changing along the way. That’s when an idol’s performance points back to their successful journey to the stage, the intersection between falling in love with watching someone, and falling in love with their dreams, and wishing to turn that passion into support. That’s how a fan is born.

Even so, regardless of my big words, ultimately, the artist-fan exchange is a transaction. The reason for the complex structure that makes up the pact of kinship between idols and their fans is the need for steady, life-long support that will enable the careers of all the people involved in putting the show together. And what do fans get out of it? Various are the reasons why we give way to the emotional currency we have to offer in choosing to keep supporting and enjoying something we are fans of. Perhaps I also crave the feeling of doing life together, as distant parallel lines in a huge world, that will meet somewhere in the distant future, in the place where souls gather to look back on the journey. Even if that comes across as overly optimistic… Maybe it’s just my pandemic-struck mind in need of distraction speaking louder than my best senses, but it’s been said that the beauty of the world is like the mouth of a labyrinth. I love writing about my favourite artists, because they help me think about myself too. And I love writing about Hoshi, but I love watching him the most. Like strong, bitter coffee, every single time he steps forward I’m left with a taste that lingers on my tongue, gives me extra energy in the early mornings and might keep me up at night if it’s convenient. And that’s my proudly, fully, completely, passionately biased opinion on what makes him a great idol.

Itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout;
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out;
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain;
And the itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again.

OTHER Readings:

Filmi Girl. “Why an Idol Group isn’t a Boy Band.” The Idol Cast and Other Writings. Mar 4, 2021.

Musikosmos. In the Spider’s Web.” Musikal Kosmos. Mar 29, 2021.

Sara Delgado. SEVENTEEN’s HOSHI Talks First Solo Mixtape “Spider”.” TEEN VOGUE. Apr 2, 2021.

[INSIDE SEVENTEEN] HOSHI Mixtape ‘Spider’ Behind. SEVENTEEN Official Youtube Channel. 14:07. Apr 12, 2021.

Footnotes:

[1] Many idols who begin training at a very young age and/or who debut as teenagers might interrupt their education due to the demands of training/performing (Saeji et al. 2018: 12)

[2] In “Idols: The Image of Desire in Japanese Consumer Capitalism”, Galbraith (2012: 186) describes this using the term “inescapable intertextuality”: 

“Constantly present and exposed, the idol becomes “real,” the basis of feelings of intimacy among viewers, though this is independent of “reality.” John Fiske (1987, 116) describes the situation as “inescapable intertextuality,” where all texts refer to one another and not to any external reality. This is not to say that reality does not exist, but rather that what is accessible in cultural products is a construction of reality, which must be understood on its own terms. “Images are made and read in relation to other images and the real is read as an image” (Ibid., 117). The meanings of images, however temporary, are made (or negotiated) in interaction with images.”

[3] for more on this, I’d recommend specifically Lee Eungchel’s “Always Fans of Something: Fandom and Concealment of Taste in the Daily Lives of Young Koreans” (2021). Huge thanks to Prof. CedarBough T. Saeji who shared a link to this paper which sparked in me the desire to write this piece. 

[4] About fan practices, there’s a special place in my heart for the dense autoethnography “K- Popping: Korean Women, K-Pop, and Fandom” (Kim, 2016) 

[5] Showing consistency between the multiple venues of interaction with fans, media and other spectators is key to forming both the long-lasting bond with fans, as well as presenting a reliable, worthy image as a celebrity before society. (Elfving-Hwang 2018)

REFERENCES

Elfving-Hwang, Joanna. (2018) “K-Pop Idols, Artificial Beauty and Affective Fan Relationships in South Korea.” In Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies, edited by Anthony Elliott: 190-201. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/36343905/K_pop_Idols_Artificial_Beauty_and_Affective_Fan_Relationships_in_South_Korea 

Galbraith, Patrick W. (2016) “The Labor of Love: On the Convergence of Fan and Corporate Interests in Contemporary Idol Culture in Japan”. In Media Convergence in Japan, edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin: 232-64. Tokyo: Kinema Club. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/25849863/The_Labor_of_Love_On_the_Convergence_of_Fan_and_Corporate_Interests_in_Contemporary_Idol_Culture_in_Japan 

Kim, J. (2017). K- Popping: Korean Women, K-Pop, and Fandom. UC Riverside. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5pj4n52q

Lee,  Eungchel (2021). “Always Fans of Something: Fandom and Concealment of Taste in the Daily Lives of Young Koreans.” In Korean Anthropology Review 5: 53-78. Retrieved from: https://s-space.snu.ac.kr/handle/10371/174377 

Saeji et al. (2018) “Regulating the Idol: The Life and Death of a South Korean Popular Music Star.” In Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 16 (13:3): 1-32. Retrieved from: https://apjjf.org/2018/13/Saeji.html 

My Love stories, as told by Taylor Swift


For the Portuguese version, click here.

Dedicated to my long-time best swiftie friend and namesake, Luíza.

TW // mentions of eating disorders

I’m an English teacher with an Architecture degree, but, as a side thing, I study fandoms. I’ve identified myself as a fan of things ever since I was a very young person; because of that, I take the moniker of “fan” very seriously. So, in the strictest sense, I am not a Taylor Swift fan; I am, however, a 26-year-old who grew up with her songs in the back of my early teenage and young adult years. I watched her adorable music video for “You Belong With Me” almost every day on TV back in 2009, enough times for me to enjoy the song, and know the lyrics by heart, and resort to them when the guy I liked in the first year of High School ended up dating my prettiest friend. 

we’re off to a great start.

I thought it was interesting how, in the music video, Taylor fights against her own brunette self, for the boy she loves. When I was around 6 years old, there was this popular Brazilian soap opera after Shakepeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. I had a little brown bob haircut, a big mouth and a blonde curly-haired sweet little sister — I got the nickname of Catarina (Katherina in the adaption), which I grew to hate once I read the play in middle school. I longed to look like a sweet, beautiful, loveable Bianca Minola — someone like Taylor, the prettiest girl I had ever seen at my big age of 14. In my head, she looked like someone I would never be as good as; but, under the four minutes of that song, singing about how she was an underdog and how she was the one who understood him made me believe we could be so similar, almost the same.

My sister and I, at 3 and 6 years old. I’m happy to inform I’m no longer bothered by being associated to Katherina Minola (though I shall remain an untamed shrew) (c. 2001)

Sadly for me, I sang this song to two consecutive guys in High School; just as the first one never woke up and found that what he was looking for had been there the whole time (me), neither did the second one. Back then, it felt like the end of the world, but it was just the beginning. My senior year was a very complicated one, because, after the rejections of the year before, I was led to believe that, if I looked skinny like my pretty friend, maybe things would have been different, maybe he would have picked me. I stopped eating, developing an eating disorder that would follow me into the next decade. Rejection followed too; the other guy spent a year playing with my heart, as he went on and off with another girl from our class, and I had “You Belong With Me” on repeat again. I felt bitter about rejection, but, somehow, I ended up being regarded as “the prettiest girl” at prom, a type of compliment I had never dreamed about, let alone after being turned down in front of the whole class for a year. But it seemed that, whatever people couldn’t see about me before, had come out when I became very skinny, and, in my head, skinny pretty and worthy of being loved were the same.

A picture of me in 2012, the year I started uni, at 17. Taken with my laptop’s webcam.

I started university the same week I turned 17, very young, very skinny, and somehow very proud. My arrogance almost led me into a trap — I was approached by one of my seniors, who was 25 at the time. He was an avid reader of everything I enjoyed, knowledgeable about music and Italian cuisine and vintage clothing, and he made me feel important, and seen, and so mature. Looking from the outside, it seemed like a perfect scenario for a disaster, but after a couple of weeks he just turned out to be the dullest guy I had ever met. After wasting my three years of high school on guys that weren’t really worthy of my time, I wasn’t interested in repeating the same mistake (not that quickly), so I just cut him off, to his absolute displeasure. Around a month later, when he was still making sad posts about missing “someone” so much, the anthemic “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” came out. I had this song on repeat for months, spinning with youthful joy to its circular melody as I enjoyed having just ditched a bullet. 

“Taylor Swift has her heart broken five times a month” – the lack of self-awareness speaks volumes

The sensibility I had shown proved to be a one-time thing very soon, not once, but repeatedly; at some point in late 2012 I tweeted that “Taylor Swift gets her heart broken five times a year”, but such a joke could only be made by someone whose heart was also getting broken left and right. Around that late 2012, the day after Christmas, barely weeks after that tweet, I fell for the guy that sold me a book about Renaissance in a bookshop, and it took me nearly five years to completely get over him, even as I was getting crushed by others along the way. We both loved the same bands, he loved my favourite YA book series, and our birthdays were two days apart; he had an unresolved teenage infatuation with James Bond, the same way I had one with Batman. The months we spent together gave me some of my sweetest memories, the little things that are worth holding even as memories fade. When he left me for someone else, I stayed up all night crying, and the sadness I felt stayed with me for the months that followed, to the end of 2013 into 2014. When I first played Taylor’s “Red”, I wanted to know what a song titled after my favourite colour would sound like, and it sounded just like I felt at the time — “but moving on from him is impossible // when I still see it all in my head // in burning red”. I had the song, and the full “Red” album on constant repeat that specific weekend, one of the many that I spent working at my uni’s Architecture studio room.

Bookshop guy gave me a Harley Quinn flower when we went to the movies to watch opera. I tearfully tore it apart when he left me (Apr, 2013).

All that repeating should’ve taught me better than it did; in September 2013, I tweeted about people whose proximity made me hear Taylor singing in my head “trouble, trouble, trouble”; had I given her ears, I would have avoided yet another year of emotional waste. I became fascinated by this guy that was an acquaintance of my friends. Everything about him screamed that I shouldn’t come too close, but I ignored it, because I was stupidly attracted to being challenged by danger. I don’t remember exactly how we became close, but he was so alluring that I started writing poems about him, and I posted them under a specific tag in my blog (and they’re all still here). In many ways, he behaved like some sort of cult movie character, and he gave me room to play the role of one, too; we exchanged songs all day long, I left small paper notes on the way he took to go home, and I brought him a little lion figure from a trip, because he had curly hair, and a t-shirt from his favourite movie. I got a kiss from him once, and then it took me another half a year to learn he had been seeing someone else – “he was long gone when he met me”. He liked the post of the farewell poem I wrote, and I was glad to know he knew how much I despised how he had played with me.

I was, however, becoming very needy, and I wasn’t clever enough to realise I should never go out of my way for someone the way I did for him. The disappointment that followed ended up being the hardest one, because we actually stayed together for a longer time. This guy wasn’t particularly interested in me, but he enjoyed my attention. We were the same age, but he was two years my junior at uni, and we got closer talking about faith and music. I wrote him a poem too, and bought him a bunch of books that he never read. The first time we broke up was months after “Shake It Off” was released; I cried a lot, and danced twice as much, to shake him off me — “Heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break”… But it ultimately didn’t really work, because we got back together. It took almost a year going on-and-off until he kind of realised he could like me. I thought he was so precious that all the hard work I was doing for him to fall in love with me was worth it. I made him many cute playlists, either with Taylor’s “Mine”, or Glee’s beautiful version by Naya Rivera — “you are the best thing that’s ever been mine”. For the first time, I really wanted to marry someone, but we would have to get through the year I was supposed to spend studying in England first… And we didn’t.

A picture from a trip to Sao Paulo in late 2014 in which I intended to forget the guy that I would go on to date for months a few weeks later. My best swifitie friend left a comment saying I was in the spirit of Taylor’s “Red” tour (Dec 2014)

Being away from him made me realise how worn out from working for love I had become, to the point that it made us grow distant, until eventually breaking up over FaceTime. I wasn’t sad whatsoever; I felt free. Trying to become the girl he wanted, who looked, dressed up and behaved a way he found desirable, had crushed me, but now I was in my dream country, and I had time to find myself again. I lived right next to Leicester City’s home stadium, and that year we had the word “Fearless” written all over the city, because it was the season the fearless foxes won the league. I revisited Taylor’s “Fearless” countless times, eventually tying it up to the cute worship leader that kept me from focusing on Jesus at my local British church. He gave me a lift to my student court every week after our small groups, and we had so much fun, and at some point I thought he was just as distracted by me too. “In this moment now, capture it, remember it”. He was sweet, but we weren’t going anywhere. I was really upset about it for a while, and I returned to Brazil still feeling a bit sad, but the hurt passed rather quickly, and I kept a lot more good than bad. Somehow, I thought that falling in love in England would be beautiful, but now I see that he was right not to let me get closer. Luckily, I kept the nice friend. He was the one who proofread every text in English I posted in 2016.

I must have posted at least a dozen snapchats filming this and singing “Fearless” throughout the season (May, 2016)

Back in Brazil, I felt like I had reached some sort of roof with all those failed attempts, and I was ready for a long single season. It doesn’t feel like a long time ago, but I was only 21, which is significantly younger than 26. I certainly did not live up to my promise – I was already in love and hurting again before I even turned 22. This time felt different, though; it didn’t really amount to anything other than hurt (spoiler!) so I guess I was just feeling a bit of that bitterness that comes with just how serious everything starts to look and feel like after you become more of an adult and less of a teenager. He was by far the most interesting person I’d met, and we clicked intellectually in the way I’d always dreamed I would click with someone. We became very good friends through books, music and politics, and I got enough mixed signs to hang around for two full years. In my head, he was a real Superman, just like the one Taylor sings about — flying and saving the world while I was alone at home, finishing my degree, and figuring out what to do next. “I’ll be right here on the ground // when you come back down”. That was 2017, the year her catalogue came back to Spotify, in August. “Superman”made it to my end-of-year most listened list, as well as “Sparks Fly”, which got second place overall. “Red” also showed up. 

Falling out of love with Superman was tough, because I had some odd hope I should keep on sticking around, because he was worth it — “I’m captivated by you baby // like a fireworks show”. I had been rejected way too many times at that point, but that one was different; I had met someone who seemed to be all that I had thought that would be good for me to have, and I had offered all of the very best I had, all of the very best I was, and it wasn’t enough. I’m still moving on from that feeling, and, sadly, it takes time. I was coming to terms with having to force myself to get over him when the guy from the bookshop that I still had in the back of my mind got in touch with me. He wanted to apologise for leaving me hanging for all those years. To be honest, I didn’t really need that closure, and I told him so, but I could finally let go of my love for the flashes and echoes of our time together that came to me once in a while. In a way, I also think that made me long for putting an end to things that shouldn’t drag. I sent Superman an email a few weeks later, the exact day it turned two years since the first time we met. And, then, my heart was empty and I was alone with myself (but with a Bachelor’s degree).

I wish I could tell you about how the following year sounded like “I Forgot That You Existed”, but it didn’t – it was miserable, in many ways. I had put on a lot of weight over the year before, writing my Bachelor’s Thesis, and all the thoughts that had followed me since my senior year came back – because, now that I had put on weight, whatever people could see in me wouldn’t be visible anymore. My confidence was at an all-time low, but, even as a sad graduate, I made myself time to have fun. I closely followed the release of “Me!”, not just because I’ve been a Panic! fan for many years, but also because I wanted to see if it would surpass the first 24-hour views of BTS’s “Boy with Luv”, which had been released exactly two weeks before. At this all-time low, that’s when I started studying fandoms as a side thing, and that’s the reason I ended up on a plane to London by the end of the year, to attend an academic conference. It was my first time in the UK since 2016; I couldn’t meet the worship leader that distracted me four years ago, but I met my couple of (now married) best friends, some sweet internet friends, and even some friends from university. One of them was a cute, genius young Architect I had a platonic crush on back in 2016. Two days before he left the UK to go back to his own country for the Summer, he told me he had a crush on me too. Once in a while, over the years, I would think about him, and wonder if anything would have been different if we had spoken to each other earlier. Meeting him again was sweet. We had a pint together before I flew back. At the time, Taylor still hadn’t released “folklore”, but when she did, I still had our fun, light conversation stuck in my head, the one thing I think the most about when I hear “the 1” — “if one thing had been different // would everything be different today?”. He’s in a happy relationship now, and I wish him all the best, because he’s the best guy I know, and being happy about him makes me feel better about the rest. 

my little cover of Taylor’s “the 1”. I’m not good but I enjoy doing this.

I also wish I could tell a story with a happier ending, but the best I have is “And no one has been in my heart ever since”. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself as a victim here. I’ve been unlucky so far, in a way, but, at the end of the day, I’m just a person who took too long to realise she would do better things in life besides dating the guys she was obsessed with at every season. Believe me or not, this is just half of my stories; there’s a lot more drama, and even more stupid guys, and maybe one or two that were worth the trouble, and a bunch of stuff that was wrong on my end too (but to which Taylor wasn’t singing along in the back — maybe one day I could also write about what Electra Heart has to say about my series of unfortunate love events). There is a debatable value to storing up so many love stories, but I do enjoy recounting the stupid stuff I did, like a third-person watching a character making wrong moves, wishing they could tell them what comes next. Maybe it’s just a coping mechanism, but it works.

But I think what I’ve been through makes me happier for Taylor, and not only because she succeeded in building an empire out of her heartbreaks: witnessing her stories with friends and lovers as told by the media, having my own share of struggles along the way, even as a non-fan, makes me feel a certain way when she sings “hell was the journey, but it brought me heaven”. She was 30 when she released this. I was 25 when I first heard it, the age I always said I wanted to get married. As an unmarried 26-year-old, I sometimes feel the weight of my 20s passing, and the struggle of rethinking what it meant to be young and hopeful back at 18, and what it means now. It doesn’t always feel like a long time (and it’s not), but this is probably easier to figure out as you get older. Whenever I recount my love stories, surprised at my own stupidity, I realise that only some people are given the gift of getting a happy ending out of their foolishness. On the other hand, I’m glad none of these men that made me suffer amounted to anything else in my life, because the trick is the realisation that I was chasing after the ones that didn’t really belong with me. Funnily enough, one of them ended up marrying the girl he rejected me for, and they’ve just become parents. Maybe I should send his baby a present too.

The Day We Jopped

Do you remember the day we first jopped?

To those unaware, “Jopping” is the combination of “jumping” and “popping”. I’m not a dancer, so I can’t “jump” nor “pop” at the same time, but I’m under the impression that I can every single time I crack yet another joke about the verb coined by “Jopping”, SuperM’s debut title track, released in October last year.

A screenshot I took from the “Jopping” music video page, 12 minutes before it premiered. From left to right: Mark, Ten, Taemin, Taeyong, Lucas, Baekhyun and Kai.

SuperM’s debut season was one of the greatest times of my career as a fan of things. From the initial skepticism with which the project was met, and all the jokes people cracked before some of us realised exactly how huge it was to have all of these amazing artists together in one single group, seeing their separate fandoms coming together to love them or hate them, getting caught in the crossfire, but still having so much fun from getting to know new people and new music I wasn’t very invested in at the time. One mini album, one album, five music videos, a tour, numerous stages and performances of over twenty songs later, we’re still somehow jopping to all of this, as we make our individual ways in the world.

Last week, when their new music video dropped at 1am – for the title track “One”, a mash-up of two other of their songs, “Monster” + “Infinity” – I wasn’t having a particularly good day, nor night. I considered going to bed and watching everything the next morning, but, in honour of the “good old times” – read, last year – I decided to stay. As we began to go through the album, the timeline felt just like October last year all over again, and I was reminded once more of just how much I love being their fan.

SuperM “One”, a mashup of tracks “Monster” and “Infinity”, lead single for their first album

The season around SuperM’s debut was a particularly troubled time of our fan experience on Twitter – by “our” I mean us, their supporters. The aforementioned skepticism with which their debut was met came from different sides – not just their own, suspicious fans, but other fandoms as well – and it reflected badly on us that chose to support them. It might not make a lot of sense to outsiders, but, in the trenches of fandom-making, picking sides might turn into an ugly game if the parties involved are willing enough to take it seriously enough.

At the time, I was working on my essay about Fandoms on Twitter for the BTS Interdisciplinary Conference in London, as well as working double to afford the trip from Brazil to the UK. 2019 was the year I decided to interact with collective fandom again, after a couple of years of enjoying my hobbies solo. This sudden comeback gave me a lot of food for thought, which eventually led me to engaging academically with the topic. It sounded like a great idea at first, but the nights were long and filled with tears, because I felt so alone and so unable to complete what I had decided to do.

Even as I worked on my essay, I still hadn’t realised that this end-of-year journey was my own process of giving birth to the academic fan I had in me. She is the one writing this piece right now.

My own struggles around this time last year surely add to the value of just how good it was to have something that felt so fun and weightless during an especially hard time. I can’t separate how badly my personal life was going from how I perceived everything that happened at the time. But the trope of the lost girl that found herself in a community is an old, overused one, which does not provide enough answers for me – because the question that makes rounds in my head is why everyone else, even those who weren’t particularly struggling at the time, felt the same about this experience we got to share. 

My SuperM mini album – Taemin version, with a Taeyong photocard, the day it arrived. My favourite group chat on Twitter came together because we wanted to discuss which album versions we were going to buy.

Fandoms are inherently religious projects, not just for those who join them, seeking a community to belong to, but for those from whom they are born – the sources of our love, the ones from which we get content and to whom we offer our time, money and full attention in return. The desperate commitment to something so aesthetically appealing, and which can appear bigger than life if you tilt your head the right way, produces religious fanatics in droves, easily driving the most sensible out of their best senses. The digital fandom experience is filled with its own unbelievable kinds of highs and lows, and there isn’t a single reason that explains how our community problems happen. My own theory to digital fandom spaces is an attempt at understanding how artists, admirers, devotees and outsiders interact in/with specific digital social network sites over time and generate their own specific identities. This is why, in order to understand fandoms, I always turn to the sources to understand what birthed them in the first place.

As I’ve mentioned before, there was a lot of collective trouble starting when SuperM was announced, in August 2019. When Taemin, Baekhyun, Kai, Taeyong, Ten, Lucas and Mark were pulled from SHINee, EXO, NCT 127 and WayV to make the group, no one was very sure of what was going to happen – in fact, there were indeed plenty of reasons for the initial skepticism with which the project was met. None of them knew how it would turn out, but neither did any of us, on the other side of the screens. Wishful thinking wasn’t enough of a window into the future, but, as the first teasers dropped, and our collective enthusiasm grew with each new release, I guess this is where the turning point happened – the realisation of just how freaking great the line-up of this group was.

A picture that I downloaded from Twitter, taken during SuperM’s debut showcase at Capitol Records Building. From left to right, we can see the lightsticks of the fandoms that make up SuperM SHINee, EXO and NCT (minus WayV‘s lightstick).

If you know who took this picture, let me know so I can credit them.

In SuperM’s debut, all of my favourite things about being a fan came together to make an unforgettable experience. Nothing felt like a job, or a personality trait I had to hold onto for dear life. In a sense, their debut was a turning point in my fan experience as well, as I realised exactly the type of fan I wanted to be from then on. The images that inhabit my imagination and my memory from those days are filled with, among other things, countless jopping jokes, concept pictures, broken friendships and scenes from always-so-dramatic “I Can’t Stand the Rain” stages, in between dozens of papers I read and dozens of friends I gained and lost along the way. The excitement of anticipating their TV appearances and wondering if our side of the world was about to fall in love with artists we admired so much; appreciating the great interactions between the members, all of them talented beyond measure and committed to help one another as they worked to make this project successful on their end.

Fans’ attachment to the optics of the bond between members can often be their own way of satisfying their craving for stability in the existence of their fannish identities. With a temporary supergroup such as SuperM, there’s no stability besides the assurance that these members are talented and willing to make their time together count. Our network of SuperM Supporters is shaped the same – we’re all happy with the great content, but we’re the happiest that we get to come together from our individual fandoms when it’s time for SuperM to assemble again, like a special party. We’ll be here for whatever the outcome is, because these artists brought us together, and they are worth the views, the listens, and the chance*.

And all of this happened even before the pandemics arrived, and lockdown and quarantines became the norm. SuperM has been just one of the many pieces of fan experience that made the last months easier to bear – watching them on Beyond Live on the first weeks of Quarantine, waiting to see them perform “With You” on Together At Home, discussing with friends, staying up to see everything first hand, waiting for the next teaser, the next single, the next live, the next stage. There was always something to look forward to, even as the world felt out of place. But, even so, even after so much changed, and the world appeared to have become much darker, and we needed even more distraction to cope, the memories that SuperM gave us when we first jopped still feel just as special. Perhaps even more now that we were given a first full album with great songs and great music videos that remind us of just how great this group is, and how much they’re capable of, and how we all want them to succeed altogether.

This is the power of a successful parasocial interaction; both parts are inherently separate and so, so distant, but still enjoying and building something together. I can only hope that these members are having as much fun as we are. All of us deserve that little jumping and popping. 

* Read Also: Kulture Kolumn: The Polarizing Debut of SuperM Riddhi Chakraborty‘s amazing piece about SuperM for Rolling Stone India, which greatly influenced me back then, and still does.

SuperM’s first full album is out now! My personal favourites are Together at Home, Wish You Were Here and Step Up.

The forgotten photograph.

         Para a versão em Português, clique aqui.

     Once upon a time in the future, and she can’t remember a single thing. Can’t remember her wedding day, the many trips she took, all the places she had been to. Can’t remember her children’s birth dates, nor their first days in school, nor the days they left home. But she does remember their faces; she kept the people, but forgot the facts.

      Nothing is as important as the story it carries within, but hers isn’t hers anymore. Everyday, she holds on to whatever others tell her about the adventures of her lifetime, even though not everything seems true or right. She can’t guess if she would really climb a mountain, but she can’t remember if she was ever scared of heights. Some stories seem so simple she can’t believe she could have forgotten them. But that’s what she got – she fell asleep, and, one day later, everything was gone.

         “Have I so far lived a life worth living?”

     With love, every weekend, she would sit down with her husband, children, grandchildren, siblings and friends and examine all of the memories she kept all those years. And they would tell her about party dresses, first kisses, family trips, parties they went. The photographs were many, the objects as well. Luckily, she had always been a storyteller. All of her children and grandchildren could tell where she had bought each of the snowglobes in her collection. And they would retell her the same stories she had first told them, so many times, before she forgot everything. They all knew the first drinks she had in every glass and mug she had kept, and why some book covers were dirtier than others. She would smile, hearing about a life that was hers, as if it was someone elses’s. Maybe tomorrow she would forget that as well.

      “Nana”, her third older granddaughter, nearly grown-up, asked her, one day, “do you remember the people in this picture?”

     It was a small photograph, slightly blurry, but no one there could tell much more about it. “I suppose these were good friends of mine. But I don’t know why.”. The landscape seemed cold and bucolic, but they were all smiles. Rocks, yellow winter fields, and a grey foggy sky. Anyone smart enough would have guessed they were in the English countryside. “I would guess this is in the English countryside, ma”, her smarter daughter spoke, “but, unfortunately, I have reasons to believe all these friends have already passed away. I can recall having been to at least one funeral with you”.

She careful and sadly examined the photograph. If they were all gone, as well as her memory, who else could remember that day? Five beautiful happy young people, but no one could tell the reason they smiled. The frozen moment would last forgotten. The whole room remained in silence, for much longer than it was usual in that family.

     “Nana”, her only great-grandson, almost gone through childhood, that dreamt of being Peter Pan just like she used to, “I can make up a story for your picture, then you can be happy like that again! Could I, please?”

     He rapidly sat down next to her. He was quite clever. His mommy had told him nana would no longer remember that they used to read Peter Pan everytime he stayed at ther place for the weekend. He kept bringing the book with him, though, but he would read her stories about Neverland. And, now, he would read a story in the subtle lines of that picture no one knew a thing about.

     “You’re all smiling, nana, because you’ve just eaten magical delicious food that makes you feel really really happy! You and your two friends are sitting down on the rocks because you ran a lot to get there! You would stop by to play with every animal on the way up! Your friends standing would shout at you all the time ‘Girls, come quickly, before it’s too cold!’, but you didn’t want just to get on the top, you wanted to have fun! The grass is only half green because winter came just like a wave, that destroyed just little by little, and that’s why only half of it has been burnt by the cold! The picture is blurry because even the person who took it was very cold, but forgot to bring gloves! And I’m sure you left home very early, to have the most fun before the Sun was gone! You may not be holding each other, nana, but I know you were holding each other in your hearts, because I think you really loved these friends, nana. I’m sure you loved them a lot, just like I love you.”

     And she really loved them. That, she could tell. She loved them all – the friends in the photographs, the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchild, the husband. She couldn’t remember a thing, but she knew that, whoever had this much love in life, should have lived an amazing life. On that day, they stayed up later, making up new stories about the photos and objects whose real stories no one could tell.

     [This post is part of the 80 Somethings project. Read more about it here.]

“Look at this photograph!”

Brazilian Girl in the UK – some impressions.

     I left home on the 18th of September, and arrived in the UK on the 19th. It’s been six months and a half now. Six months and a half of growth, many challenges, many things learnt, many dreams come true. My life here is a blessing, for several reasons – I have good friends, get to travel a lot, feel much safer walking around the streets, and, to be honest, I love the complications of doing life on my own.
However, this is a text about one very expected reality shock.
     Leicester, in spite of being the home town of the future champions of the Premier League, is also considered to be the most diverse city in the United Kingdom, and that is by no means a lie. I suspect that, amongst the people of my acquaintance, I handle people of at least 20 different nationalities on a daily basis, from immigrants to people born british, but raised in their family heritage. I go to university with people from Pakistan to the Baltics, always chat to the owner of the Costcutter next to my student court, born and raised in India, and my british best friend, Hannah, is half chinese, half mauritian.
     Hannah herself was the one who told me with the proper words about the impressions that I had been been collecting over the past months, of how there is so much diversity around, but so little mix, in proportion. In fact, she said that mixed races couples only became an actual reality from her parents’ generation, but, still, we see the division between different people. There are very strong boundaries, like, for example, between chinese people and indian and black people; and, inside the universities, most would rather hang with other students from their own fellow country. The biggest division, though, is still between english people and non-english people.
     In this crossfire, I, one always considered white enough not to suffer with racism in my home country, have found myself caught.
     The title of this text connects my three realities – as a a girl, woman, as a brazilian citizen, and as someone who currently lives in Europe. These realities are the source of these restlessness and frustration that have convinced me to write tonight.
     As a woman, chauvinism in society paints me as an object all the time. As a brazilian woman, I carry several different heritages in my blood, amongst Portugal, Spain, Cape Verde and indigenous people. As a brazilian woman living in Europe, I am always evaluated under the specific stereotypes designed for my country, whilst still standing with the rest of the non-european foreigners as mixed-race, never good enough as those whose veins carry blood subtly called pure (I assume no one has been reading Harry Potter with the right approach).
     Working in pubs across the city, it was never that hard to understand that most of english boys would rather buy drinks from my english friends. I’ve heard the most absurd comments, such as “how brown” my eyes are, and, once, I was asked twice if I was asian. Actually, they so eagerly ask about the heritage of non-english girls, as if there was a checklist of different races to be tasted.
     The current impression is that, in their eyes, regardless of how sucessfully we could fit in their society, we would still carry the badge of foreigners. Exotics – that innocent word that turns people into objects to be appreciated. The ones who leave their countries to steal jobs and husbands from others. Samba dancers, carnival. The girlfriends their parents would not approve.
     My refuge, in this frustration, is being sure that God is the One with all the answers that I need, and this subject is not an exception. My life, my destiny, my paths, everything has been surrendered to the Almighty. And my citizenship is in Heaven, as Paul said in Philippians 3:20. As long as I’m on Earth, I will always be a foreign. Long live us pilgrims!

 

 

Single Awareness Day

     Para a versão em Português, clique aqui.
 
    One of the most irritating comercial celebrations must be Valentine’s Day. The “Single Awareness Day” pun fits well the situation, in which we are forced to cope with Love being in the air everywhere we go. This year, living in the UK, I had to experience Valentines Day twice in 8 months, between the brazilian 12th of June and today, the 14th of February. I believe that the short amount of time and the fact that I actually had a boyfriend last year have made me quite thoughtful.
     
     Thinking about everything that I’ve ever been through, from the distance of experience, has made me realise how I’ve already allowed my needs to guide me to poor life choices. Relationships with bad endings weren’t necessarily bad relationships, and every experience is an excellent opportunity for us to learn a lot about ourselves and others – but, maybe a little bit more thinking and pondering would have kept people from going forward in situations that were clearly made to step back. However, we are easily deceived by our eyes, and some situations just seem so ideal that we are not conscious enough to see the fragile base on which the love we believe to be building stands.
     
     It’s this same need that saddens the lonely hearts on Valentine’s Day. It’s hard not to catch yourself staring blankly at your bedroom window after scrolling through your Facebook and Instagram feeds, questioning whether Mr. and Mrs. Right will ever come to you. And that’s one serious issue, because a lot of very nice people are getting hurt in exchange of cheap gifts and late night “I love you” texts. And not only the young ones, I’m afraid.
     
     I’ve already heard so many speaking about the perks of being single and how important it is to enjoy this time of our lives, but most of them still don’t quite get the point of it. I believe that human beings were created to be in groups, to live in pairs, but, at the end, we are individuals, above everything else. No one else is allowed inside your head, but yourself and God. And if you never learn how to turn yourself inside out, and know yourself, and love yourself, you can’t possibly expect to do the same for others. Our collective coexistence is perfected in ourselves, more than in the midst of everyone, because good relationships are based in treating others the way we would like to be treated.
     
     And what would you like, anyway?
     
    

Once again, Friend’s Day.

     Para a versão em português, clique aqui.
     
     A reasonably famous campaign defends that, in christian life, Christ is first, others are second, we are third. I agree with that – I’ve already been led to believe that I would only be fit to live in society once I could comfortably live with myself. Today, I realise that my ways are better perfected in the midst of people and the hardest trials that society can put us through.
     
     When you move out, and leave your comfort zone, you obviously learn a lot about yourself, but also about the true meaning of friendship, partnership, trust, honesty. Extreme situations have this power of revealing the best and worst about everything, and distance reveals the real intensity of the relations that are part of our everyday life. You also spend a lot of time on your own, thinking about nothing and scrolling through your Whatsapp contacts list.
     
     That’s not necessarily wrong, or bad. We may be social beings, but we are still individuals, essentially, and always end up on our own. I used to be someone perfectly happy with being lonely, because that was all I knew back then. Nowadays, I may appreciate it sometimes, but I’ve been blessed enough to meet people who accepted me with all my oddities and peculiarities, and who were bold enough to convince me to tear down my walls. The ones that I love, look up to and wants the most around me are those who have truly touched my heart, those that I miss when all that’s left is the Holy Spirit and I, staring at the cars on Eastern Boulevard.
     
     I dedicate this text, first of all, to Jesus, my best friend, the One who first loved me; to my family, the first ones to have my back when I need; to the old friends, those who have been loving me since I wasn’t quite loveable myself; to the friends who stick closer than brothers, always welcome at my own home; to the everyday friends, the ones who fight with me the battle of reaching adulthood; to the friends that are with my in this pilgrim’s journey in this land, the ones who use my toilet and with whom I share the bread, the tears, with whom I eat salt; to the friends in faith from home, the ones who were kind enough to believe in me when I couldn’t, and who always cover me with their prayers; and to the friends in faith from my new land, the ones who daily reassure me that, as hard as things may get, I’m finally making my way in this world.
     
     Not every friendship is meant to last forever, but any friendship can be amazing while “forever” seems to fit within a few weeks, months, years. I am very thankful to every person that was, is and will be part of my life. I’m also happy to have been part of the lives of so many incredible people, and I hope that I’ve touched their hearts as deep as they’ve touched mine. At the end, this text is dedicated to all those who offer me memories that make me look back sometimes, just to realise how worth living my life has been. Thank you.