Orbiting the Twitterverse: Studying a Digital Community

As social media has risen in popularity, it has increasingly become a place for people to gather and share their love for a common interest — no matter how niche. These online fandoms operate in unique and different ways, and they are fascinating to examine. One group in particular that provides a particularly interesting case study is Orbits, or fans of K-pop girl group LOONA.

LOONA is a 12-member girl group formed by BlockBerry Creative in 2016.

All Loona members at a red carpet
LOONA in 2019. From L to R: Olivia Hye, Choerry, Hyunjin, Haseul, Yeojin, Gowon, Heejin, Jinsoul, Kim Lip, Vivi, Chuu, and Yves

The members were individually revealed over the course of two years, with each member releasing a solo song and music video. The group also created three sub-units (LOONA ⅓, LOONA Odd Eye Circle, and LOONA yyxy) before the debut of the full group. This interesting and unique pre-debut project led them to gain many international fans, even before the debut of the full group in August 2018. This international success is now a hallmark of the group — their most recent album managed to snag a spot on the Billboard 200 Chart, making them the sixth female K-pop act to ever enter the chart. Interestingly, they have not seen the same success in their home country of South Korea, with many of their songs struggling to stay on the charts. The reason why the community of their fans on Twitter is so interesting is because the fans’ use of Twitter has been instrumental in the group’s success.

Orbit twitter is a prime example of a digital public. In order to understand what that means, first one has to understand what a public sphere is. According to Catherine Squires, “The term ‘public sphere’ refers to a set of physical or mediated spaces where people can gather and share information, debate opinions, and tease out their political interests and social needs with other participants… These spaces can be formal or informal; conversations may occur spontaneously or be planned.” Essentially, a public sphere is a place where people can gather to share ideas and opinions. These places are open and accessible, and can serve a variety of functions. Some public spheres are formal, while others are informal. While Squires is talking about physical spaces, this definition can translate into a digital space as well. People can “gather” in digital spaces and do all the things that Squires mentions in her definition of the public sphere — gather and share information, debate opinions, and tease out interests and social needs. An article written in 2019 by Tiago Santos, Jorge Louçã, and Helder Coelho notes that one of the differences in the digital public sphere is the ability to form a public sphere with those who are physically distant. One major change this brings about is the public sphere not being focused on politics, but rather a network of individuals.

There are many different types of digital publics. Some, such as Facebook groups, have clearly delineated boundaries. These groups have a formal boundary — either people are inside the group or out of it. They can be public or private, but either way they have a clear boundary. Other types, such as blog communities, are less clearly bounded. Blog communities are somewhat less defined than Facebook groups. There is not a clear set boundary of the community, rather members are bound by a common interest or blog topic. Twitter communities fall into this second category.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not allow for creation of formal public groups, but forming communities is still possible. Twitter communities form around specific interests, when groups of people all share their thoughts and opinions on a certain topic.

The Orbit community is not a formal “group” on Twitter, rather it is made up of users with similar interests who follow many of the same accounts and tweet about the same things. It is a very open community, anyone can make a Twitter account and join. Many people on creating their first account will even tweet something along the lines of “new to Orbit twitter! Rt to help me find mutuals!”

It is not a completely isolated public, there is plenty of overlap between Orbit Twitter and other fandom Twitters. There is not usually a specific hashtag that users will use in all tweets, but general shared topics. Community members can be identified by their username, profile picture and display name — as opposed to typical profiles which feature a user’s real name and photo, most accounts will have a username and profile picture corresponding to the group they stan. (i.e. an orbit account would be distinguished by having a username related to LOONA, a profile picture of a LOONA members, and a tweets about LOONA, not frequent use of #LOONA). The Orbit community is made up of people from all over the world — even though it is made up of fans of a Korean group, international fans can use Twitter as a way to unite, organize, and feel a sense of community despite being far apart. There are several aspects that fit the specific definition of a digital public.

Gather and share information

Accounts known as fanbases are accounts that spread information about LOONA, their activities, and their achievements. Some are more general such as @INTL_LOONA and @loonapress, and others are more specific such as @loonatheradio and @loonatify, providing information about a specific platform, e.g. radio or Spotify. These accounts (which are often run by multiple admins) are created specifically to disseminate information to the fans as a whole. They also collaborate internally with each to determine courses of action, such as strategies for buying and streaming music. “Regular” members of the community look to these accounts as a source of information.

A twitter thread from user @orrery_nim containing English translations
A sample of a live translation thread, tweeted in real time during a live broadcast

Additionally, there are several accounts dedicated to providing Korean to English translations for the large international fanbase. These accounts can be individuals or teams. Individuals such as @Orrery_nim and @hyecula often translate live broadcasts as they occur and provide translations for shorter articles or various comments. @teamsubbits is a team of Orbits who work to provide complete English subtitles and translations for any videos or articles relating to LOONA. There are also regional accounts such as @OrbitsBrasil and @Loonatheworldfr which provide translations for other languages such as Spanish and French.

Sharing and Debating Opinions

Often, accounts will “livetweet” their opinions as an event occurs. During these types of events, there will often be a predetermined, event-specific hashtag such as #LOONACON (used during KCON) or #LOONAatGDA (used during the Golden Disk Awards). These tags serve the purpose of both providing context and getting more exposure by trending on Twitter. One clear example of this was during KCON:TACT Season 2. KCON:TACT was a virtual version of KCON, a yearly K-pop convention. The virtual event featured performance from various artists (including LOONA) as well as meet-and-greet style interview panels. Lots of Orbits watched this event at the same time. As they watch, especially during performances from other artists, Orbits shared their opinions on Twitter. Because everyone is watching simultaneously, tweets typically don’t include context (i.e. “I hope LOONA is next” with no other context)

A screenshot of several tweets all containing the #LOONACON
A sampling of tweets using the #LOONACON

There is also plenty of debating opinions. Orbits will frequently debate about their favorite songs, music videos, or outfits, sometimes playfully, sometimes in a more heated fashion. However, these internal debates do not always last long. According to research conducted by Eugene Ch’ng, an opposing community’s activities can be an external conflict which helps to indirectly maintain the boundary of a given Twitter community. This is certainly true for the Orbit community on Twitter — while the fans may have internal conflicts among themselves, these are quickly forgotten in the face of an outside “threat”. Whether it be a different fandom insulting LOONA or non-kpop fans ridiculing the genre and any fans as a whole, Orbits are quick to band together in defense, and the community is united once more.

Spontaneous and Planned Endeavors

One example of a completely spontaneous yet incredibly successful endeavor was the #SaveLOONA movement. In October 2019, it was revealed that Polaris entertainment, the parent company of LOONA’s agency, was being sued by IT company Donuts for failure to return a deposit. This news, combined with delays of LOONA’s comeback, caused worry among the fans. Orbits on Twitter began to use the hashtag #SaveLOONA as a movement to buy LOONA’s album on iTunes as well as stream it on music streaming platforms such as Spotify.

Even though this campaign was completely spontaneous, it ultimately led to LOONA’s album [X X] reaching #1 on US iTunes a full 8 months after its release, making them only the third kpop female group to achieve this.

A text reading “Hi Orbit~ We can’t even begin to describe how thankful we are. Because of you, we have gotten so much support on the radio for “Star” 🌟 You make our dreams come true!! Thank you for always believing in us. Let’s continue to take over the airwaves together this week, Orbits! Keep fighting! We love you to the stars and back ❤️” with an image containing the names and twitter handles of several radio stations
A text reading “Hi Orbit~ We can’t even begin to describe how thankful we are. Because of you, we have gotten so much support on the radio for “Star” 🌟 You make our dreams come true!! Thank you for always believing in us. Let’s continue to take over the airwaves together this week, Orbits! Keep fighting! We love you to the stars and back ❤️” with an image containing the names and twitter handles of several radio stations
A promotional text sent to fans, encouraging them to request “Star”

The fans also engage in planned endeavors as well. An example of a planned endeavor is the ongoing radio requesting campaign for LOONA’s English song “Star”, released in October. Led by account @loonatheradio with assistance from other fanbase accounts such as @INTL_LOONA, Orbits have been making a coordinated effort to request Star on American radio stations. This campaign has led to “Star” reaching a peak of #34 on the Billboard Pop Airplay Chart and a peak of #30 on the Mediabase US Pop Radio Chart as of March 1, 2021. Direct evidence of this campaign helping the song’s success can be seen in the syndicated radio show Most Requested Live. This show, broadcast on numerous local radio stations, takes requests on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and through text, and plays the most requested song at the top of the hour. “Star” was the #1 most requested song overall for four consecutive weeks. This campaign was initially begun entirely by fans, but soon LOONA’s management caught on and began to assist in promoting “Star” on US Radio. According to television writer Annemarie Navar-Gill, the need for producers to be tuned in to fans’ interest has become increasingly prevalent with the rise of social media, and this is one example of LOONA’s management doing just that.

Orbit Twitter is a fascinating community to study, and will continue to be as it grows and changes. This community provides a perfect example of how formerly physical public spaces have begun to transition into digital ones.

Comm Student at Christopher Newport University.