For Nicole Santero, the current COVID-19 pandemic has at least a little upside — the relevant work done by many of the professors and researchers in the School of Public Health is receiving quite a bit of attention. As the school’s director of communications, she understandably is pleased that their work is receiving the credit it deserves.
And on a more personal note, the research she is doing on K-pop (aka Korean pop) fan culture as part of her doctoral work in sociology also is drawing a substantial amount of attention. Santero recently has been interviewed for stories in a variety of media outlets including NPR, Forbes, Aljazeera, Now This, and The Ringer.
Already having researched fandom as part of her master’s studies, this two-time alum, ’13 BA Communication Studies, ’16 MA Journalism and Media Studies, decided to take a closer look at the global music sensation BTS (also known as the Bangtan Boys) — purely for academic reasons, you understand. She invites you to check them out but warns that you, too, may find yourself sliding down the K-pop rabbit hole.
How did you become interested in studying BTS and its fandom?
When I did my master’s I was studying fandom in social media, focused on One Direction. I always have been into boy bands and was really fascinated by the influence of global, digital fandoms such as “Directioners.” After the group went on hiatus, I was lucky enough to discover BTS and its fans, known as “ARMY,” a few years later
Tell us more about your interest in BTS.
In (the spring of) 2018, I first saw BTS in the news after the Billboard Music Awards. I was really confused about how a group from Korea, that speaks and performs in a different language, was on this main stage. How could they have that mainstream presence and have grabbed this worldwide fan base?
Had you been familiar with K-pop?
I always had looked at K-Pop and people who listened to it as kind of strange. That was ignorant of me, of course. My boyfriend had been listening to K-pop for years. I thought he was one of those weird people. (said with a smile) I asked him about BTS. He just said, “Oh yeah, they’re really good.” He had been a casual fan since they debuted in 2013, and I told him, “Give me a couple of songs. I am intrigued.”
Then I was just like all other fans who kind of fell down this rabbit hole. I couldn’t stop myself from listening to them.
Recommend just one BTS video to people unfamiliar with the group.
I recommend watching the “MIC Drop (Steve Aoki Remix)” music video. It’s one of my favorites and a good starter for those unfamiliar with BTS.
What about BTS, specifically, is so appealing?
Just so many things. Aside from their music and choreography, I love what they stand for and represent. They spoke at the United Nations in 2018 and encouraged people around the world to “speak yourself.” I found that message really powerful. They really do their part for speaking up on issues like mental health, anti-violence and other issues that resonate with people. They even had a “Love Myself” campaign and album series that basically turned into a movement. A lot of fans talk about how BTS helped them love themselves and find confidence through their music and message.
BTS donated $1 million to (Black Lives Matter) in June. Then, the following day, the fandom came together and ended up raising another $1 million in approximately 24 hours. That really spoke to the power of this fandom — how organized they are and their ability to take action.
It’s not just BLM, though. Fans do a lot of charity work in the name of BTS — from donations to volunteering at food banks, adopting animals, and raising awareness for environmental causes. It is exciting to see fandom using it power for good and making a positive difference in the world. Fans are intelligent, aware, passionate, diverse, and far beyond what is portrayed in the media.
Tell us about the BTS-related Twitter account that you manage.
I run a Twitter account called @ResearchBTS. People don’t generally think of fandom as a “serious” topic, and fan studies definitely are an underappreciated area of study. Through this account, my goal is to showcase the global power and impact of BTS and ARMY through analytics, visualization data, and other sources.
Researching BTS has provided you with many opportunities, hasn’t it?
Yes! In January, I was one of about 100 individuals from around the world who presented research related to BTS and ARMY at the first-ever BTS Conference in London. My work was titled "#BTS: Social Network Analysis of the ARMY Fandom's Ability to Dominate Voting Activities on Twitter." I currently serve as a managing editor for, The Rhizomatic Revolution Review (R3), a new peer-reviewed journal focused on the art, fandom, economic effects, and sociocultural forces of and surrounding BTS. I've guest lectured for students at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, and I’ve been invited to guest lecture this fall at the University of Washington's Information School as part of an exciting new class titled "Exploring Information Science Through BTS and K-Pop." I recently also was part of a fan activism panel at the Harry Potter Alliance's annual Granger Leadership Academy.
Tell us about your “day job.”
Basically, I promote the School of Public Health and raise awareness of research and activities by faculty and students.
One silver lining in the coronavirus situation is that right now there is a spotlight on public health issues. These kinds of things are what our faculty and staff play a big role in and have always emphasized the importance of — washing hands, not touching faces, wearing masks, and staying home when sick. I think the fact that public health is now being recognized is an amazing thing. I appreciate the incredible people I work with even more than I did before, and they’re doing great and impactful things throughout the state related to COVID-19 efforts.
What do you miss most about not being on campus?
I wish I could see my coworkers. I miss that person-to-person interaction. Also, the School of Public Health recently moved into the Gateway Building (across Maryland Parkway). It almost felt like we didn’t get to appreciate that. I want to get in there to finish the branding and design aspects of our floor and see all the new food shops on first floor.
How is working from home going for you?
My sleep schedule is a problem. I can’t get it to be normal, and I find myself unable to take a break and get off the computer. It’s hard to have a set schedule while at home 24/7.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I think the cool thing about getting my Ph.D. is that I don’t know where it will lead me. I love communications and have that work to always fall back on, but I love research, too. I love doing data, so maybe I will do data analysis one day. Who knows?
When the pandemic ends, what would be an ideal vacation?
The only vacation I planned this year was to go to BTS concerts. I have been to three so far since 2018. They were supposed to have a big world tour when coronavirus situation started and I was supposed to see them a couple of times in a few cities. Just like so many others, I am dying to go back into a stadium to see them perform.