Brendon Urie, Twitch & Superfandom In The Social Media Age How One Artist Is Using a Gaming Platform for Good
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – In 1996, I wrote a fan letter to Ben Savage. I was a devoted Boy Meets World viewer and felt it important to express that in writing, so I pulled out some college-ruled notebook paper and, in my best sixth-grade prose, explained to Savage that I was a big fan and really appreciated his devotion to the craft. Truthfully, I was hoping we’d become pen pals and he’d introduce me to his co-star, Ryder Strong, who I’d live happily ever after with. But either way, it was a solid letter, and I enthusiastically stamped the envelope and sent it along to Savage’s P.O. box.
Months went by and I forgot all about the letter. I moved on to a very intense preoccupation with Leonardo DiCaprio that has never fully subsided and went on with my life.
But then it arrived.
There, among my parents’ bills and junk mail was a 5×7 postcard addressed to me. On one side, a smiling, sweatered Ben Savage. On the other, to the left of my name and address, was a message: “Best wishes, Ben.”
I. Lost. My. Shit.
I told everyone about the wishes Savage had wished me (the best!!!), and it was at least a year before anyone pointed out that the “handwritten” note was actually printed directly on the cardstock and did not in fact originate from the pen of TGIF’s rising star. But even when the illusion was shattered, I was still fascinated by this concept of the fan-artist interaction. I admired an actor, I initiated contact, and I received a personal — albeit, generic and delayed — response. It was weird and awesome and I was sure I’d reached the highest echelon of second-hand celebrity coolness for a middle schooler.
Fast forward 20+ years, and the world is a little different. Our societal relationship to/collective obsession with fame has taken on an infinitely more complicated — and twisted — form than anyone could have anticipated in decades past. Myspace may have been the first platform that truly put artists and fans on an equal playing field, allowing for fluid, instant communication that had never before been possible. But Instagram and Twitter have completely changed the game, bestowing the power of direct commentary — good, bad, and very ugly — to anyone with an account. And while we’ve all become familiar with the nasty Instagram trolls and mean Tweeters, something we don’t hear about often enough is the abundance of supportive, interactive, online communities built around artists and how the members — artists included — are finding solace in their self-created online space.
A crystal clear example of this symbiotic relationship between fans and artists can be found within the fandom of rock band Panic! at the Disco. Music that appeals to all ages, the way Panic!’s does, invariably inspires fervent fan dedication (see: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and literally every boy band to ever grace the planet). But Panic! fans historically haven’t been passive consumers content to scream in singer Brendon Urie’s face from the barricades (though they do that too — I should know, because, hi, I’ve done it). Both the older devotees who’ve followed Panic! since the Myspace days and the younger generation who garnered the band its first-ever Billboard Music Award this year for Top Rock Album are all about affecting change, and their dedication has had a direct impact on their idol, which in turn, has benefitted them right back.
When I attended my first Panic! show in 2017 and found a pink paper heart at my seat, I had no idea that I’d just stepped into an arena-sized tribute, organized on social media and executed entirely by fans — most of them not old enough to drive. Starting in 2016, then-13-year-old Eva Goldthwaite joined forces with friends to spearhead a 20,000-person flash mob of sorts, cutting out paper hearts in every color of the rainbow and distributing them throughout the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, MA. Following the directions printed on each heart, fans illuminated the hearts with their cell phones during the song, “Girls/Girls/Boys,” much to the surprise of Urie and his camp. The stunt has since become embedded in Panic!’s legacy and replicated at every tour stop since.
View this post on Instagram
That’s one side of what’s now known as The Hearts Project. Urie has his own side, which he’s expressed repeatedly onstage, in interviews, and via his own social channels. “Most incredible start to a tour I’ve ever experienced,” he captioned a 2017 Instagram photo of a green paper heart. “I don’t know how to put into words my appreciation and gratitude I feel for all of you.” Rather than put it into words, he put it into action, embracing the fans’ equality-based interpretation of “Girls/Girls/Boys” (a song originally written about his first threesome) and re-dedicated the song to the LGBTQ+ community.
The connection between Urie and his fans has only grown stronger and more concrete from there. After then-16-year-old fan Dylan raised over $2,300 for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation for Urie’s birthday last April, the musician launched his own human rights organization called Highest Hopes Foundation. “All of you show me strength, courage + motivation & as a result, it felt important to create something to show you that I see the wonderful things you’re doing out there in the world,” he tweeted. “With that being said, I want to join in on the fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
And then came Twitch. For the uninitiated (raising my hand), Twitch is the world’s biggest live streaming platform for gamers, allowing players and viewers all over the world to host and watch live digital video broadcasts and chat in real-time and show monetary support with virtual donations known as “bits.” Urie, a longtime enthusiast with a soft spot for Fortnite, started casually streaming in late 2018, and what’s occurred on his channel since has been mindblowing.
Since wrapping up Panic!’s Pray For The Wicked Tour, Urie’s made a habit of streaming like it’s a full-time job. He spends hours online most weekdays, sometimes gaming, but more often just talking, reading through comments in his channel’s chat, and answering questions directly. There are no publicists present, no managers, no record label execs — Urie just sits in his home studio, unfiltered, decidedly not media prepped, and just hangs out. It’s jarring in its simplicity and candidness. The interactions range from lighthearted (‘90s adult contemporary singalongs happen often), to soberingly weighty (fans write to him with questions about relationships, drug use, and mental health). Through it all, Urie offers sincere attention and thoughtfulness, even in moments of brotherly teasing. Observing over the last few months, I’ve gotten the sense that for a lot of these mostly young commenters, Urie’s has become their kind of go-to older brother, available, willing, and able to address topics and secrets many may not feel comfortable revealing in their offline lives.
Watch live video from brendonurie on www.twitch.tv The Twitch users don’t just fire questions at Urie; they donate bits like their lives depend on it. All the proceeds from Urie’s streams go directly toward supporting Highest Hopes Foundation, and thanks to Urie’s tech-savvy pal, Panic! tour photographer, Jake Chamseddine, this tight-knit community fostering positivity in the notoriously sinister setting known as the internet, has an official moniker: The Vro Crew. You can chalk it up to a typo: Chamseddine was trying to tweet about gaming with his “bros,” and the inadvertent keystroke error set off something of a viral movement. “The term ‘vro’ has a simple meaning on the surface, a non-gender specific form of the word ‘bro,'” the website, thevrocrew.com explains. “But with the birth of the term “vro” a family was born. A family full of individuals who stand for self-expression, equality, kindness, and the idea that people have a right to unapologetically be themselves to the fullest extent.”
While Urie and Chamseddine use Twitch to broadcast their hours-long gaming sessions with fellow “vros” like Dillon Francis, J. Cyrus, and Ninja, their streams have evolved to support Highest Hopes and the fans who believe in and benefit from it. In April, Urie announced during his stream that the fandom had to date raised upwards of $1.3 million for his nonprofit — it’s unclear how much of that came directly from Twitch donations, but it is clear that in the span of one streaming session, fans can and do donate thousands of dollars.
To say the fan-artist relationship has evolved in the past two decades is an epic understatement. Never in my handwritten-letter-writing, pre-printed-postcard-receiving 12-year-old heart did I ever foresee a world in which fans would have a direct line to the actors, musicians, and creators of all kinds who inspire them, encourage them, and in some cases, keep them hanging on day-to-day. And I definitely never anticipated witnessing first-hand how the actions of fans could move, influence, and energize an artist who may have at one point been considered an untouchable celebrity. So social media does have its bright spots — and some pretty great Boy Meets World memes if that’s your thing.