If you ignore her 10 million followers and the occasional selfie with a famous friend, Taylor Swift leads a pretty normal life on Instagram. She posts snaps of her travels, her cats, and her baking. But while she’s been deliberating over filter choices as a poster to the photo-sharing service for almost three years, it wasn’t until recently that she took a turn as an active commenter. Swift’s dive into the comment section of her fan’s photos incited a riot on the app among her devotees and caused some to wonder if it was as innocent as it appeared.
In July, Swift penned a guest column for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry, writing: “I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise.” Surprise is just what hit lucky Swift devotees in June, as Swift launched her new social media outreach campaign and began commenting on random fans’ photos.
To a girl named Hannah, Swift wrote, “I think unrequited love is just as valid as any other kind. It’s just as crushing and just as thrilling.” But for many “Swifties,” as fans affectionately refer to themselves, their love wouldn’t go unrequited for much longer. This summer, the media caught wind of two separate instances of the songstress leaving long, sympathetic advice on love and heartbreak on fans’ accounts.
Brandon, a 14-year-old admirer, finally received a missive from Swift in July after 11 attempts at trying to get the singer’s attention through tagging her in posts. In an email, he told the Daily Dot, “to have her notice me is relieving just to know that someone who I’ve been chasing for all of these years cares about me is just so beautiful.” A fan of eight years, Brandon repeatedly wrote to Swift, calling her music and her spirit his inspiration to persevere through bullying and ultimately to write and perform his own music.
Kaleigh, a fan since she was 14, received well wishes from her favorite singer after posting a photo of herself with a sprained ankle. “For me she is almost like an older sister,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to meet her, so it’s amazing to get noticed and know she took the time to send me a long well-wish.”
Though the singer has always been known for having a strong relationship with a highly devoted fan base, leaving messages of hope, humor, appreciation, or playfulness in the comment section of fan’s Instagram accounts is something new for the 24-year-old. The commenting is even more unexpected given her restraint on Twitter, where she rarely replies to or retweets her 42.6 million followers.
Many of the Swift fans I spoke to for this piece see Taylor’s interaction with fans on Instagram as a more intimate experience, akin to a private message from a friend, or as Kaleigh put it, “an older sister.” For admirers that have come of age with Swift, experiencing the high school angst and heartbreak her music catalogs, the relationship is less fanatical and more familial. Brandon explained to the Daily Dot that the support didn’t end with Taylor’s words:
“When she comments on our photos it’s like we’re all family because she makes us feel so special and so loved like after she commented I got an overflow of fellow swifties congratulating me and by Taylor reaching out to me it inspired me to help them get noticed and congratulate other people and thank everyone and just in general appreciate more.”
As Washington Post writer Emily Yahr analogized, follow requests and commenting pleas on social media have become the modern day fan letter. If that’s the case, then Swift’s responses are the signed headshots that fans of yesteryear would receive as a response in the mail. One admirer,15-year-old Natasha, was so enamored with the response of her idol, she had it printed on an iPhone case. For her, the phone case represents a tangible piece of the intangible, the highly sought-after recognition and attention from a hero.
“Lots of celebrities notice fans on Instagram, but none take the time out of their day to write such long and heartfelt responses,” she offered. For her 16th birthday at the end of this month, she’s hoping for a birthday wish from Swift on Instagram.
But is Swift’s commenting as innocent and sincere as it seems? While most of the fans and comment recipients I spoke to believed it has all been done in earnest, Mary, a 24-year-old Swift enthusiast who runs a Canadian fansite, had an interesting point about the PR goodwill this has generated for the singer. “The instagram activity increased dramatically after Taylor was paired with a new Publicist,” Mary told the Daily Dot in an email. That said, she concluded, “If it’s benefiting her in a branding sense and it’s benefiting us as well, I don’t see any harm to it.”
Indeed, April of this year saw Swift split with her publicist of seven years, Paula Erickson, for a new PR spokeswoman, Tree Paine. After her hire, Paine immediately took to Twitter to call out bogus stories about her client, taking an aggressive role in managing Swift’s new image. Tynicka Battle, CEO and co-founder of ThinkTank Digital, a media agency that specializes in Social Media Strategy, spoke with the Daily Dot at length about the work that goes into managing an artist’s social media presence and virality. “I won’t say there’s no mistake in viral content, but for the most part, there is usually a lot of coordination behind something that does get a lot of play across social media,” Battle said.
The timing is interesting to say the least. June and July’s commenting sprees saw fans turn a razor-sharp eye to the Swift’s activity on the app. Accounts like @taylornoticed began surfacing, monitoring her commenting activity and keeping time logs of when she was last active. For many fans, Swift’s most important Instagram act came in early August, when she took to the app, releasing a series of three clues that culminated with the announcement of a Yahoo! webcast in which she released a new single and revealed the release date for her fifth studio album.
When asked if they believe Swift comments on photos herself, there was a resounding yes from each of the six Swift enthusiasts that I spoke to for this article. But who wouldn’t want to believe their idol had taken the time to tailor a personal response to their photo and accompanying story? Each of them cited being able to read Taylor’s unique voice in her words. As one fan put it, “I think our whole fandom knows Taylor’s personality and the way she speaks.” While the Washington Post was able to get confirmation from her rep that she does in fact run her own Instagram account, the Daily Dot did not receive a response from Swift or her management on this story.
As a millennial herself, who’s been navigating the ever-growing sphere of social media since her early career, Swift recognizes the importance of digital fan interaction. In her trend piece for The Wall Street Journal, Taylor recounts having brought up her fan communication on Myspace during record-label meetings in 2005. “The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie,” she penned. “It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be ‘how many followers you have on Instagram.’” Given the recent deluge of comments from the star, that’s a line that can either read as dubious or savvy. For now, fans can rest easy, because all evidence seems to point to the star’s appreciation for her fans.
Photo via rwoan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)