Just tell me that I did a good job,” wrote Kim Jong-hyun in a letter to a close friend before his suicide in December 2017. For nearly a decade, the singer known to his fans by his stage name, Jonghyun, was the lead vocalist for SHINee, a five-member boy band nicknamed the “Princes of K-pop.” He was also a successful solo artist and songwriter in his own right and considered one of the industry’s best vocalists by his peers.
Even though he was K-pop royalty, Jonghyun spoke most directly to his legions of fans — inside Korea and around the world — via his Twitter account @realjonghyun90, which had 1.4 million followers at the time of his death. He kept his Twitter bio simple: 청년, the Korean word for “youth.” His posts seemed to reflect this identity, with jokes, selfies, and snapshots of meals scattered throughout his timeline. But what made fans feel even more connected to Jonghyun was his willingness to take on more controversial topics — criticizing the Korean government’s educational policies, remembering a fan lost in the catastrophic Sewol ferry tragedy, participating in a campaign against child abuse, and changing his profile picture to show solidarity with a transgender fan.
Jonghyun was at the top of his game when he died — his first solo EP had snagged its own No. 1 spot on the Billboard World Albums chart, and he was on the cusp of releasing another solo album. But, as he revealed in his suicide note, he had struggled with depression and the demands of fame for a long time. His suicide shed light on the stigma surrounding mental illness and depression in South Korea, which has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, especially among young people. His death also directed some blame at the industry, which has been scrutinized for its treatment of K-pop idols. In late 2019, Sulli and Goo Hara, two South Korean actresses and former K-pop group members, committed suicide just six weeks apart. Many were quick to link their deaths to the relentless cyberbullying they faced as outspoken women in the industry.
Jonghyun’s death sent fans all over the world into mourning, triggering memorials from Seoul to Santiago. Meanwhile, a virtual memorial was taking place online around his handle, @realjonghyun90, as thousands of fans expressed their shock and grief at losing him. Soon, #YouDidWellJonghyun took off as a hashtag, a chorus of responses to the final words in his suicide note.
More than two years after his death, there are hundreds of fan accounts that still post regular content about Jonghyun. Some fans who post daily seem to foster the illusion that Jonghyun is still alive, watching over their lives with an encouraging smile (“Jonghyun loves you!”). One popular fan account with 35,000 followers, Jonghyun On This Day (@jjongonthisday), meticulously re-creates the star’s daily schedule from previous years. Meryem, a Moroccan fan who started the account after Jonghyun’s death, said she “wanted to make Jonghyun constantly present in the fandom, help newer fans discover older content, and preserve all the memories we got to have with him.” On the two-year anniversary of his death this past December, fans turned “Jonghyun” into a worldwide Twitter trend.
In November 2019, Twitter began contacting users who hadn’t signed in for more than six months to log in to their accounts by December 11 or risk losing them. The news sparked panic after Twitter told media outlets there was no plan in place to memorialize the accounts of dead users.
Jason Scott is used to showing up when companies decide to pull the plug on web content. As an archivist with the Internet Archive, he has seen his fair share of anguish over lost digital work, which he and his coworkers try to restore online. Seeing the announcement from Twitter, Scott and his colleagues devised a simple Google form to compile the accounts of dead users, a project they called The Twittering Dead. He tweeted the link to his followers, and the requests to save certain accounts began trickling in. Quickly, the stream turned into a flood, all pleading for a single account: @realjonghyun90. Many of the requests contained the exact same message: “Our memories with real jonghyun’s account are so precious. Please help us by keeping tweets of this account.”
Scott soon realized Jonghyun’s fans seemed to be acting as a voting bloc, trying to prove by their sheer numbers that the star’s account deserved archiving. As the project became inundated with requests, he published a bilingual notice in Korean and English to stanch the tide, informing fans that no further nominations were necessary. Still, Scott said that more than 70 percent of the nearly 10,000 requests he received since launching the project were for Jonghyun’s account.
On November 27, fans also directed a campaign at @Twitter and @TwitterSupport, using hashtags like #트위터계정_폐쇄반대 (“against Twitter account closure”) and #종현이와의_소중한추억 (“precious memories with Jonghyun”). Many included Jonghyun’s handle in their tweets, hoping this would register as an activation of his “inactive” account. Many of the 17,000 replies to Jonghyun’s last tweet also repeated a similar refrain: “I don’t know if tagging your account @realjonghyun90 will help. I pray that @TwitterSupport @Twitter will memorialize your account,” one fan wrote.
The day after the news broke, Twitter reversed track and said the plan was a “miss on our part.” Twitter Support, in a public message, said it would not delete accounts until it found a new way for people to memorialize them.
Jonghyun’s fans were quick to claim victory.
The Internet Archive ended up preserving Jonghyun’s Twitter account, even as the original remains online. But the archived account doesn’t quite capture the density of fan interaction, like the 17,000 replies to Jonghyun’s final post or the conversations that take place outside of his tweets.
In building the archive, Scott observed that @realjonghyun90’s fans had overlaid the idol’s Twitter account with a fan forum, or, in his words, “hijacked” it as a bulletin board system. It became apparent to him that the fans “don’t really care about the standardized pieces of building a follower count” — many Jonghyun fan accounts have around 50 to 1,000 followers. Instead, this subculture flourishes on Twitter through fans talking to each other, using the platform for fan activities rather than for self-promotion. In the case of Jonghyun’s fans, they had self-organized to protect the idol’s legacy and, by extension, their own online community.
“We’re more than just ‘fandom/online’ friends,” said @Z0EYY, who runs the SHINee fan translator account from Singapore, about her relationship with other shawols, a moniker for SHINee’s fandom. “I can talk to them about anything in my life.”
She also uses DMs to chat with fans who may be feeling depressed or suicidal because she says Jonghyun’s death is a shared experience that connects them. “I’m sure there are many shawols who are like me who opened their Twitter DMs for any shawols after Jonghyun’s suicide.”
Twitter is aware that K-pop is a major force on the platform. The company reported that K-pop Twitter had risen to a record total of 6.1 billion tweets last year, and in 2018, the CEO of Twitter Korea attributed K-pop to being a major factor in reviving the platform’s popularity in the country, considering fierce competition from Facebook, Instagram, and homegrown portal giants like Naver.
Kim Yeonjeong, head of global content partnerships at Twitter Korea, said K-pop fans are so dedicated to their idols that they often help set a policy agenda by workshopping hashtags in Korean and trying to influence Twitter by translating the hashtags in other languages.
“Even though its [fan activities] are in Korean language, the fans translate them and deliver the messages in their own languages in their own areas,” she said. “That is why it’s possible for [these messages] to spread from South Korea to other countries.”
Online responses to celebrity deaths have led to policy shifts at other major tech companies in South Korea. After the death of Sulli, South Korean internet company Kakao announced that it would suspend user comments on KakaoTalk, the country’s most popular messaging app, and Daum, one of its largest web portals. Naver, which commands a much larger share of the nation’s internet traffic, passed a similar policy in February. Both portals also said they would stop showing related keywords under searches of individual names, blocking a common channel by which rumors and gossip spread online.
But as the main social media platform facilitating the globalization of K-pop, Twitter has a long way to go in both protecting its stars and supporting their fans. As the mobilization to protect Jonghyun’s account demonstrated, fan devotion hints at the possibility that users, when they work together, are no longer powerless against social media platforms.
For those familiar with the culture of K-pop fandom, the degree to which Jonghyun’s fans mobilized online should not be surprising.
The K-pop industry has always cultivated a particularly intense bond between stars and fans, and over the last decade, Twitter is where the fandoms have staked their tents. According to Lee Gyu-tag, a professor at George Mason University Korea and a judge for the Korean Music Awards, the devotion of Korean K-pop fans is closer to a sense of kinship with the idol, with fans acting like an older brother or even an aunt or uncle. Instead of admiring their favorite celebrities from afar, fans feel as if they are stewarding their idols from their debut to superstardom. They not only strategize about how to raise album sales and streaming numbers to win awards for their favorite groups but also engage in philanthropic activities and battle management agencies and broadcasters on their behalf.
K-pop idols also make it a point to reciprocate that fierce sense of intimacy. No matter how successful they become, many play the role of superstars alongside the approachable boy or girl next door. Their use of social media facilitates a feeling of closeness, through livestreams, candid photos, and behind-the-scenes vlogs. This steady flow of social media content also reinforces the “liveness” of the idol, or the sense that he or she is corporally present. “The real life of the idol is offered as a part of the package to the fans,” said Michelle Cho, a professor who researches Korean film and popular culture at the University of Toronto.
Fans not only interact with idols’ content but also remix endless variations of their own, posting translations, memes, fancams, reaction videos, and even screen-sharing performances that are geo-blocked in different regions. With a global fandom across more than a hundred countries, K-pop idols are perhaps never more alive as in the aggregation of millions of digital representations scattered across every possible platform.
In February, Rest of World requested an interview with the Shiny Foundation — founded and run by Jonghyun’s family after his death. When the foundation shared our questions about shawols’ attachment to Jonghyun’s Twitter on its YouTube community page, more than 1,000 fans responded within a single day. Why were thousands of fans turning to his account more than two years after his death?
“Because it’s where Jonghyun’s way of speaking and his feelings are so well fused, sometimes I gain more strength, comfort and happiness from it than from his photos or videos,” one fan wrote on the community page.
“It is the only space that has preserved how, over a long time, Jonghyun communicated and exchanged content with his fans without reserve,” another wrote.
To many who left similar comments, Jonghyun’s Twitter was valued as the most direct and authentic representation of who he was, not just as a star, but as a person. Other users emphasized the importance of being able to interact with his account.
“To be able to mention him in our everyday tweets feels like an assurance that everywhere we go, in whatever circumstances we are facing, Jonghyun is still with us,” the fan wrote. His Twitter account was, to another fan, “the memories of the moments we spent together, of what we shared of our everyday lives, and the space we will fill with our stories in the future.”
Users called Jonghyun’s account a “refuge,” a “shelter,” and “a safe place” and spoke of how comforting it was to be able to visit his account at the end of a rough day, on holidays, and whenever they wanted to remember him.
In many ways, the ongoing and persistent engagement with Jonghyun’s Twitter account reflects the new mechanisms of grieving online. Instead of following the Western convention of moving through phases of grief that culminate in eventually letting go, mourning instead looks a lot more like holding on. As Jed Brubaker, a professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, noted, a more contemporary understanding of grieving now emphasizes “continuing bonds” and the shift to a changed, not shuttered, relationship between the living and the dead. An extreme example of this can be seen in a recent South Korean documentary that featured a mother reunited with a deceased daughter via a virtual reality experience.
What this means in the social media age, based on Brubaker’s research on MySpace and Facebook memorialization, is that the conversations with and about the deceased don’t end.
“As we shift into digital global social media environments, our memories of the people that we care about rely less on the persistence of that data and more about the circulation of the data,” he said. “It’s not that circulation replaces the importance of that data. It’s that circulation becomes the act of memorialization.”
To this day, shawols continue to use the handle @realjonghyun90 as the scaffolding of a memorial message board for the star. Most days, they congregate in a stream of Jonghyun media — from gifs of his wide-eyed grins to clips of his stage antics and interviews. Jonghyun remains before our eyes, an assemblage of all of his public appearances refreshed from every angle, and for this, his fans are overwhelmingly grateful. As one fan wrote on the Shiny Foundation’s YouTube community page, “I never think he is gone. He is here with me every day. His Twitter makes me feel like that.”