How to Monetize Your K-Pop Boyfriend
Just some parasocial girls making it in a capitalist world.
In this installment of Snake Oil, we return once again to the genre of how-people-make-money-from-weird-videos-on-the-Internet. Previously we discussed Internet subliminals. Today, we take a look at how parasocial relationships drive K-pop merch sales—and more specifically, how fanfiction can function as advertising.
The Content in Question
Welcome to the world of self-insert K-Pop fanfiction videos, your one-stop shop for tsundere boyfriends, mafia husbands, and affiliate marketing schemes.
Unfortunately, this particular type of K-pop content needs a side-by-side translation like a meme needs an NFT–I am not sure if it is a good idea to create one, and once it exists, it feels like the world has taken a turn for the worse. Nevertheless, please allow me to decrypt—starting with the term “fanfiction.”
Fanfiction, also referred to as “fic,” “fanfic,” or “ff,” is a piece of transformative media made by fans about an existing media or work such as a TV show, video game, film, or novel. Sometimes, fanfiction might also be about real people. In real person fic, abbreviated to “RPF,” fans use celebrities and their personas as a starting point for their own works.
RPF about the seven-member South Korean boy group BTS, or Bangtan Sonyeondan (translated as “Bullet-Proof Boy Scouts”), is ubiquitous across social media platforms these days—from multichapter novels (think the length of the King James Bible, but none of the holiness) on the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own, to “Your Name” drabbles (a short piece of writing) on Tumblr. “Your Name” content, which is often abbreviated as Y/N (or the lowercase, y/n), is a genre of fanfiction that is designed for the reader to place themselves into the narrative as the main character, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. This type of fic is called “self-insert”: when “Y/N” is present in the story, you are meant to literally insert your own name. As you may have guessed, these stories are often romantic (and/or smutty) in nature.
Below is an example of a self-insert K-pop fanfiction video, titled “Taehyung [OneShot]When a Mafia Killed his enemy and found out that he has a blind sister.” What follows is a nearly half-hour long dark romance story complete with a swooning soundtrack, images of moody looking bedrooms overlaid with photos of BTS member Taehyung in various coiffures and outfits, and a video game-style narrative dialogue box. All in 480p quality video. At time of publishing, this video has over 167,000 views. If you are wondering about the storyline, it is Bad, and I highly recommend Not Looking Into It.
Titles for these videos tend to be a word salad of tropes that are popular in fanfic and young adult fiction, especially with teenage girls: aloof CEOs, gangster boyfriends, hot-and-cold relationships, forced marriages, abuse & comfort, being sad, being horny, being sad and horny, etc. Stylistically, they are a mixture of the smuttiness of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades with the stormy romanticism of a Brontë novel, emo-ness of a My Chemical Romance banger, plus a dash of Shojo manga tropiness.
Another way to wrap your head around the self-insert genre–!HOT TAKE ALERT!—it’s the same sort of self-indulgent stuff that Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the other Beat Generation boys penned, but this is the 21st century Internet girl version. (Though not nearly as navel-gazing.) For that reason, perhaps, K-pop self-insert is as transgressive as it is cringe.
Anyway, for your edification, here are some Hall of Famers in the category of self-insert K-pop videos that can be found on YouTube.
For those who spend their days merrily skimming the surface of the Internet iceberg, this content may seem alien and incomprehensible—like encountering creatures evolved away from sunlight, churned up from the abyssal depths of the web. And to that I say, correct— this is what one might call an Internet Deep Cut. (Then again, if you were ever on Tumblr in the early 2010s, I am sure this content appears somewhat Banal. Please forgive me for casting the cruel glare of the submersible into the Stygian habitats where you have lurked.)
However outlandish the content may seem, a driving force behind RPF is a connection that most every person, regardless of Internet ecosystem, has in common: a parasocial relationship (PSR).
A PSR is a one-sided connection that an individual might develop with a public personality or a fictional character. The term was coined by social scientists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their 1957 paper “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” In their study, they observed the way people developed feelings of friendship or intimacy with media figures despite not knowing them personally. And yes, even you might be in a PSR with someone–be it a political pundit, a podcaster, a TV show character, an athlete, or a celebrity.
"We are social creatures and need interpersonal connection. PSRs can help fill that innate need," says Dr. Kate Kurtin, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles who has researched social media and parasocial interactions. “The reason why it is a parasocial relationship and not an interpersonal relationship is because you will never meet the person you are in a parasocial relationship with.”
K-pop is a fertile ground for parasocial content, in large part because the business model of the industry relies on forming a cult of personality around band members. BTS has in many ways pioneered and perfected capitalization on parasocial relationships in the age of social media through its use of proprietary TV shows, such as BTS Run; WeVerse, BTS’ multimedia app; and V-Live, its streaming platform. These media outlets give fans a closer look into the members’ lives offstage.
This kind of opportunity for intimate connection and authenticity with fans carries incredible, record-breaking power. In March 2021 Jungkook drew in 22 million real time viewers on V-Live. For comparison, the 2022 Oscars real-time viewership peaked at around 16.6 million. If you are wondering what Jungkook did to draw the attention of 22 million people, he literally just sat in a chair at a desk and ate, like, a salad. (No slaps occurred.)
One consumer of BTS fanfic, who has requested to remain anonymous, points out: “I think a lot of people would argue PSR reflects more of an interaction with the celebrity themselves through a means of technology, like V-Live or WeVerse, whereas I think a lot of ‘ff’ writers and readers don’t see the person in the fic as an extension of the real person, but rather as a character with the same name and likeness. The parasocial connection attracts you to the person, the person attracts you to their ‘character’ counterpart in the story.”
In other words, the PSR is a gateway for writing fic. The fic itself is removed from reality, where the celebrity in the story is an avatar for the projection of the fantasy, and not a representation of the celebrity themselves.
The Grift Mechanics
PSRs, given their potency, are ripe for a good grift. If you can harvest just some of that power, and bottle it, you too can profit from The Grapes of Graft.
The K-pop fanfic video grift is fairly simple: first, post videos with a popular trope—cold CEO husband; arranged marriage; meanie mafioso. To make money on a YouTube channel, you need to have at least 1,000 followers, and at least 4,000 hours of watch time in the previous 12 months. If you clear this threshold (and abide by YouTube regulations on content), you can join the YouTube Partner Program and link it to a Google AdSense account. Then, whenever ads run on your videos, you can pocket the revenue, monetizing your channel. If your channel grows even bigger, you can become a partner in a K-pop affiliate program and start pushing merch sales. Typically, affiliate marketing programs give partners 10%-15% on commissions.
The K-pop self-insert fanfic ecosystem on YouTube seems to have landed on a strong formula for reaching the 1,000-follower threshold and racking up view time. The behemoth BTS fandom is constantly seeking fresh content to consume. There are many 1,000+ subscriber channels all pushing out similar content, and thanks to the YouTube algorithm, if you make a similar-enough video, you can get exposure through recommendations. Even if a channel has only a few thousand followers, popular individual videos can gain 100K views or more.
As a case study, one can look at Bangtan Baby, one of the larger BTS self-insert channels. It has 81.3K followers and over 12.3 million views. According to data aggregated by Social Blade, with an estimated standard cost per mille (CPM)of 25 cents to $1, Bangtan Baby is making anywhere from $3,000 to $48.3K from their channel through ad revenue, annually. Their videos are also sponsored by Cokodive, a K-pop merch website, which has a social media affiliate program. Bangtan Baby also has a link on their YouTube channel to an Instagram merch shop, “itskpop_beach,” an India-based affiliate marketing business that sells unofficial BTS-branded items ranging from BTS coffee to BTS milk bottles.
Kookie-scenario, a BTS fan channel that occasionally spoofs badly written self-insert fanfic, is also a member of the Cokodive affiliate program, as are B Fanfic, and JDCx, two other fanfic channels. Other affiliate marketing schemes linked to K-pop fanfic videos include Lianox, which sells “K-pop fashion,” and BeautifulHalo, which sells everything from wall sconces to graphic Tees. Other channels advertise Klootbox, a subscription-based K-pop goodie-box service.
In short, these self-insert fanfic YouTube channels help funnel traffic to online shops—effectively, deploying fanfiction as advertising.
The emotional reality of PSRs is what makes fanfiction such a generative means of advertising. In a one-sided relationship, one that can never be realized, fulfillment can only come in two forms: stories and commodities. Fans are constantly seeking to consume both.
Internet fanfiction has historically been a creative work that is non-monetized and ad-free. Part of the reason for this is to avoid copyright infringement, but the other reason has to do with what one might call a shared “ethos” in the fanfiction community. Fic is written by fans, anonymously, steadfastly, as a labor of love, and homage to (or sometimes rejection of) the source material. It is one of the few spaces left on the Internet that does not produce content with the aim of accumulating followers, fame, or fortune.
But the capitalization of fanfic is changing the nature of this creative format.
As fanfic has found its way onto monetizable platforms, it will undoubtedly transform (if it has not already done so),into a different beast entirely. One that is algorithmically streamlined, ad-friendly, and search-engine optimized. No longer a strange phantom of the deep, but now evolved to crawl on land and seek the benevolent favor of the Tech Platform. Because the purpose of monetized fanfic is no longer solely to please the author, or the fans–now it must please the algorithm, too.
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The tip for this story comes courtesy of an Anonymous K-pop Stan. Thank you, M.
A “one shot” is a story that is told in one installment—the short story of fanfiction, if you will.
If you must know, it involves kidnapping, Stockholm Syndrome, attempted murder, straight-up murder, repeated rape, death ideation, a four-year time skip, and lines like “I’ll kill you because I don’t want to fall in love.” Basically, your standard continental breakfast fanfic.
“Cost per mille” or “CPM” is a marketing term that refers to the cost of 1,000 advertising impressions on a webpage.
CPM on YouTube varies widely, depending on factors such as type of content, audience, niche, country, etc.
It is important to note that this is not the only K-pop content on YouTube that has links to affiliate marketing schemes—the self-insert fanfic genre is just one amongst many that work this grift.
The description for Archive of Our Own, what one might think of as the public library for Internet fanfiction, sums up this ethos neatly: “fan-created, fan-run, nonprofit, noncommercial.”