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The Zayn Effect: The Worrying World of Online Fandom

Although hard to comprehend right now, when things feel at their worst, these pleas won't make Zayn return to One Direction. It will just make him feel really, really bad. Imagine, at twenty-two, feeling responsible for a segment of your fanbase indulging in self harm...

When I was fourteen, a guy called Charlie Simpson left a band called Busted, and the remaining members decided it was best to split. I was devastated; I cried for a whole day, and once the day after that, right up until the point my mother told me that it wasn't a good enough excuse not to participate in my school swimming lesson that afternoon.

Back in my day (2004), social media was but a bitter idea festering in the mind of Mark Zuckerburg. All I had to console myself was my Sony CD player and some Mizz posters to weep over. I sat on my bed and listened to Air Hostess, whispering despondently, "I messed my pants, when we flew over France," as tears ran down my face. I stared out into the bleak abyss, unable to fully comprehend a world without such classics as "Who's David?"

March 25th 2015 will be forever immortalised in history as the day Zayn Malik decided to leave One Direction and ruin everyone's lives. One Direction, the boyband that made Malik an international pop sensation and teen babe magnet five years ago, released a statement on their Facebook page, in which Zayn said:

"after five years, I feel like it is now the right time for me to leave the band. I'd like to apologise to the fans if I've let anyone down, but I have to do what feels right in my heart. I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight."

All roads for boy bands lead to this at some point or another. Leaving a band - or "doing a Robbie" as I like to call it - is nothing new. Geri Halliwell did it with the Spice Girls. Williams did it with Take That. Both bands subsequently split. In fact, in the latter's case, the fallout was expected to be so catastrophic that suicide hotlines were hastily set up. Those retro clips of fans with puffy, tear-stained cheeks, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Mark or Howie or Jason's face (not Barlow - never Barlow) collapsing into a cacophony of tears and snot still epitomises the strange world of boyband culture to this day.

But nothing develops with such tenacity as with the uncomfortable prominence of social media. Seconds after the news of Zayn's departure broke, scores of young fans took to Twitter to express their utter shock and complete devastation. Some were funny, some were angry, and some were kind of heartbreaking to read. One from a young female stated that she was sorry his fans had made him feel like they "didn't care."

But that's exactly it, isn't it? That's the problem. They care so much. Perhaps too much. They're loyal, but suffocating. Their adoration is claustrophobic. And so even though we can sit back and denounce that Zayn Malik has too much money, too many opportunities, and that he's a fool to give it all up, we have one thing that he doesn't: privacy. His every word is studied and scrutinised. His girlfriend is often hounded with death threats. He lives in a world where you can't swish a fringe without running into a screaming, crying fangirl. If this is the price of fame, Zayn is emotionally bankrupt.

When I was at the height of my ardent boyband devotion, I found a crappy but densely populated forum filled with likeminded fans. I spent a couple of days interacting with them, taking part in silly quizzes, and learning more about these strangers who shared my one big interest at that time. But after two days, I left. I was already getting sucked in to that world, and it wasn't healthy. Because the relationship between fans, although feeling like relief, can be extremely toxic. Die-hard fans are usually the ones who are running from something. Not always, but often. At thirteen, I was coming to terms with my parent's divorce. I was also chubby and had braces. I was very shy. Making people laugh online, those who didn't know me as the loser I thought I was, was a big comfort and a confidence boost. So it's understandable to have that desire to share your feeling with a community of people who are feeling the same way. Right now, One Directioners are united in their grief.

But here's where things get out of hand. Posts circling Twitter appeared to show 1D fans self-harming under the hashtag #cut4zayn. Some were new and some were merely resurfacing. Social media is a catalyst for this kind of behaviour: it's all-too-easy contact with a select group of people that are going to justify your actions for you. If you can see other people doing it, you feel like you're not alone, no matter what that action is.

Although hard to comprehend right now, when things feel at their worst, these pleas won't make Zayn return to One Direction. It will just make him feel really, really bad. Imagine, at twenty-two, feeling responsible for a segment of your fanbase indulging in self harm; cutting their wrists, carving self-hatred into their legs, preserving your memory by etching your name into their arm. Regardless of the authenticity or timing of the images, that is surely too much guilt for anyone to carry. Zayn is - or perhaps was - a prisoner of his own success, put there by fans who place their idolisation above all else.

I am now twenty-four. Not too long ago, I found my old Busted album. I put it on, and I chuckled my way through the next forty-five minutes - partly from fondness, but mostly out of embarrassment. I couldn't believe how upset I had been all those years ago over something so trivial. The thing to remember that life goes on: Zayn is happy, and One Direction will continue to be successful.

And hey, at least it wasn't Harry, right?! Trust me, Directioners, this isn't a bad thing: this is the fanfiction plot twist you've been waiting for.

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