“BTS helped me get through the darkest period of my life,” Annika, who had to leave their internship in the UK last year due to COVID-19 and return to their hometown in Germany, said of their isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. “My world’s shrunk down to the size of a room.” Other than to buy groceries, Annika never went out, and had to keep as much distance from their high-risk family as possible. “I tried to just bury myself in my work so as not be overwhelmed by my thoughts, but everything felt meaningless.” That’s when they recalled BTS’s message to LOVE YOURSELF and decided to stop turning a blind eye to their worries and instead look inward and take care of themselves. They took up hobbies like making fan art and other content and shared it through social media and donated to ARMY causes. They also made sure to listen to BTS songs and slowly contemplate the meaning behind the lyrics. Annika said that experiencing everything BTS puts out “is like a warm hug from someone who shares my happiness and at times my sadness, too.”

“If we make room for someone new / Doesn’t mean that there’s less for you / Only means that our circle has grown.” As a member of MOA, the TOMORROW X TOGETHER fandom, Athena believes that, for fans, activity that connects artists with fans, or fans with each other, is a hobby that can be enjoyed from home to overcome physical distance, especially during the pandemic, and reach beyond the limits of one’s room to reach out to the world. They archive all of TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s media to their fan account and share it to international fans so all of MOA can enjoy. For Athena, fan life is a way to meet close friends from all over the world. They had been unable to listen to K-pop after their best friend, with whom they had grown up listening to it together, passed away from cancer. A year later, they happened upon TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s Introduction Film and found solace. Athena remembered how they “couldn’t stop crying because it was like my friend was telling me, ‘It’s okay, you can be happy again now.’ ” These days, they are making memories with other TOMORROW X TOGETHER fans by launching an online donation campaign and holding listening parties on chat app Discord. Esra, a BUDDY who became a GFRIEND fan after coming across the group’s eye mask choreography video, started the Musician Buddy Collaboration last year, a project in which BUDDYs work together to cover GFRIEND songs. BUDDYs from all different countries make use of their talents, such as playing instruments and singing, and combine their recordings to create one complete song. In commemoration of BUDDY’s fifth anniversary, the project released an original song titled “Safe Haven” that received more than 40,000 views on YouTube and a positive reception. “Fourteen BUDDYs all sang in their own languages and received messages of thanks from listeners for reigniting their passion for music,” Esra explained. “It was an amazing achievement, made possible by the many BUDDYs sitting at their own screens.”

“When I was concerned about my career path, I found comfort in listening to BTS’s music, and from there I found the courage to challenge myself to make videos,” Angoo, who runs the YouTube channel Blessing Your Eyes TV (Your Korean Friend), said. They started creating their videos to “record my own fan life, which was a first for me, and share it with fans globally.” Starting with a review of the ticketing process for BTS’s concert LOVE YOURSELF IN SEOUL in 2018, they have continued to steadily post more videos, such as “DIY Boy With Luv Music Box ” and “Concert Vlog,” and has now amassed 1.32 million subscribers from around the world. Thanks to making “everything I like,” Angoo has made friends with ARMY from many different countries and received messages from subscribers about how they “got to know Korean better thanks to” Angoo. “When I participate in fan culture, I feel like I’m getting to know more about what I like and what kind of person I am,” Angoo said. “Hopefully, the fan activities I’m doing now will stay with me as time goes on, and be an experience that’ll make me a stronger person in the future.” Since COVID-19 began, they can no longer attend concerts, but through projects like preparing fan packages for the next scheduled tour and setting up a dedicated BTS “fanning” zone in their room, Angoo is keeping their passion for this work alive through whatever they are able to do, in any way possible, during the pandemic.
The role of Internet-based fan culture has grown during the pandemic but is still not a replacement for offline fan life. However, fans’ focus is not solely on the virtual world. The fact that they cannot meet with other fans during the pandemic helped them to establish a new space, one different from the offline world, and a new way to connect. The dimensions of the room fans physically occupy does not change, but the size of the world that can be experienced from within it increases almost infinitely. ARMY Magazine is a nonprofit magazine published quarterly that covers BTS’s music, activities and performance, with weekly updates posted to its blog in six languages (English, Spanish, Indonesian, German, French and Italian). As many as 110 ARMY donate their time and talent to the operation, research, design, translation and promotion required of their publication. One ARMY, Lee, had a hard time saying goodbye to a recently deceased family member. Lee said that by helping with the management of ARMY Magazine they were reminded that we are always connected and can overcome barriers of nationality and language. “They didn’t die of COVID-19, but I could’ve never imagined burying a loved one under quarantine rules and in lockdown,” Lee said. “BTS and ARMY were a big consolation.” For them, ARMY represents “a source of comfort and relief in these tough times.”

Through their projects, fans are also contributing to public causes during the pandemic. Mita and Ainur, who run Indonesian CARAT, a group of SEVENTEEN fans, recently helped raise funds with other CARAT members to assist victims of natural disasters in Indonesia such as floods and landslides. CARATs were following the example set by SEVENTEEN’s thoughtful social contributions, such as supporting poverty-stricken children and building the SEVENTEEN Dream Center to provide a learning space for teenagers. “SEVENTEEN always try their best, and that makes me try my best in everything I do,” Mita said. “I’m growing up with them and becoming a better person.” Ana is a member of One In An Army (OIAA), an organization of ARMY members from around the world that hosts incremental donation projects across various fields, ranging from disaster relief to minority rights. Recently, OIAA successfully raised US$58,310 for the LN4 Hand Project, an organization that supports those needing prosthetics due to disease or accidents. “By looking at reports, and videos and photos sent by organizations showing where ARMY’s donations went, I could see that children were receiving scholarships, family lives were being rebuilt and refugees’ rights were being secured,” Ana said, explaining further that “what makes me happiest is seeing so many people living with dignity and love.” Seeing the changes that they have brought about themselves makes the hope that we are headed for a better tomorrow feel like a certainty. While they definitely realize that donations are not a panacea for all the world’s problems, they see how, “if each person makes a little difference in the world around them, they are helping to create a more just and equal world.”
Bangtan Academy, which Nas, who lives in Italy, takes part in to study Korean, is an example of how everyday, casual fan gatherings contribute to the world. Bangtan Academy began as a small community who studied together in a group chat while watching Learn! Korean with BTS on Weverse, but has evolved into a language learning community with approximately 850 members studying from seven courses, including Go Billy! Korean, Learn Korean in Korean and Talk To Me In Korean. The senior group of 40 or so members who have achieved level three proficiency or higher, which counts professional translators and native Korean speakers among them, helps other ARMY who face difficulties while teaching themselves. Not all fanbases set out to do something beneficial for the world but, since the pandemic began, communities which began life as fandoms are becoming the nexus of where people from anywhere around the globe can help the world. In July, Marcie created a community for ARMY who are also teachers because they “felt it was a necessity when teaching teenagers during this hectic pandemic period.” With their lives suddenly based online, teachers the world over are exchanging teaching tips through their fan accounts and even comforting one another in times of distress. “It was amazing to see teachers all throughout the world making progress while encouraging and inspiring one another,” Marcie said. They emphasized that “such a solid connection among ARMY never would’ve been possible without BTS’s music and artistic talent.”

Twitter user Nicole produces the “purple twt map,” a visualization of ARMY activity on Twitter. “Many ARMY have sent messages saying they find comfort knowing we exist together as this shining purple light all across the world,” they said. “Even though BE was released during COVID, the purple twt map lit up just as it did when MAP OF THE SOUL: 7 came out. That was the moment we could see that, even though the industry as a whole was in a slump, BTS didn’t quit and ARMY was still supporting and rooting for them in spite of everything else.” Recently, Nicole has been leading a mentoring program that includes courses on BTS in a nonprofit organization for minorities and Asian youths. “I distanced myself from my Asian-American background and culture in the past, but with BTS I came to understand myself and how to look at the world,” they said. “I want to touch the lives of young people like BTS do, and inspire them to find their own voice.” Just over a year after COVID-19 broke out, the world we live in still stops at the walls of our rooms. We cannot hug our family and friends as much as we would like, and it remains a challenge any time we try to go out. Among fans, however, artist updates and fan life make it possible to roam and fly about a vast world, all from within their rooms.
During MAP OF THE SOUL ON:E, BTS’s online concert held in October 2020, ARMY appeared on a screen, and there, Jimin, though he confessed to feeling sad because he could not meet his fans in person, said, “ARMY, even though you’re out there beyond the screen, everything you’ve given us—all the hope and everything else—it’s all come through.” Just as the artists tirelessly dance and sing to give comfort to a generation, the fans communicate with the artists and with one another—even with the world—to bypass the walls and endure the present. There are as many differences in their lives as there are fans altogether, but they all converge at the same place: the hope for a world that is better than now. Every fan in the world made it within their room; now, the world—yours, theirs, ours—waits for that day when the door to the room will open wide.
Article. Hyunkyung Lim
Design. Kim Jam (instagram @_kim_jam)
Visual Director. Yurim Jeon