“You’re cute,” reads a message on my phone. “But I prefer sexy more than cute these days.” Reading it makes me feel uncomfortable – this isn’t a message from someone I know or a match on a dating app. It’s a text from a popular idol in a private message on K-pop’s newest fan community app.
UNIVERSE, which launched on January 28, boasts the ability to have private calls with and send private messages to some top K-pop artists – as well as the usual exclusive content and its own social network system. Signed up to the app so far are the likes of (G)I-DLE, ATEEZ, MONSTA X, IZ*ONE, Kang Daniel and more, with fans of each promised the opportunity to interact with their favourite stars in new and innovative ways.
But, like that message above, the community the app claims to cater to has found UNIVERSE to be a problematic step too far. The private calls are done via AI recreations of idols’ voices and, when you reserve one, you can choose what they call you, what tone they speak to you in (formal, informal or any), and what the scenario for the call is. Some are sweet and normal – a call to wish you happy birthday, or one to encourage you at school or work – but others are more than a little off. The “chemistry” scenario sets up a flirty or romantic situation, and some calls feature these faux-idols berating you for not picking up quickly enough or asking where you live.
NCSoft, the app’s developer, has since removed some of the aspects most heavily criticised by users, telling Korea JoongAng Daily that it “agrees that [the depictions] can be subject to sensitive interpretation”. It’s a step in the right direction, but the fact that this content was approved and allowed to go live in the first place points to some troubling issues within how companies view K-pop fandom culture and the artists loved by many.
Parasocial relationships being encouraged by K-pop agencies is nothing new and, generally speaking, there are instances where one-sided relationships with artists or celebrities can be healthy. Studies have shown that forming these kinds of connections to stars can help those with low self-esteem feel more comfortable in themselves or give LGBTQ+ people who aren’t – or can’t safely be – out a way find the support or kinship that might be missing in their immediate real-life environment.
The way UNIVERSE feeds into these relationships, though, is dangerous. It takes fans’ desire to interact with the artists that mean so much to them and makes it unnecessarily creepy. The calls being based on idols’ real voices would make it easy for your subconscious to fall into the trap of believing it’s really them and making a parasocial relationship cross the line into an unhealthy obsession. Messages like the one I received – which was in the middle of a whole spam of texts and not provoked by me – make you view yourself through the lens of an idol’s desires, even if you have no interest in being desired by them.
Fuelling people’s fantasies like this isn’t just dangerous for fans though – it could have real life consequences for the idols themselves too. K-pop already has a problem with sasaeng fans (a South Korean term for an overly obsessive fan that engages in stalking and other behaviours that might be considered an invasion of privacy), who go out of their way to pay for and obtain idols’ private information, like phone numbers and flight details.
For example, TWICE’s Nayeon has been traumatised by a relentless stalker, who has found out where she lives, turned up on the same flight as the group and threatened to kill her. The “interactions” with the idols on UNIVERSE could make this problem worse, dehumanising group members and making them seem more like objects to lay claim to in the eyes of sasaengs.
Another facet of UNIVERSE allows fans to dress an avatar of each idol and create virtual reality music videos with them. When you tap on each idol’s animated mini-me, they whip out a dance move or gesture, but the female idols’ moves are more open to sexual interpretation than their male counterparts. Sexualisation of female artists is, of course, a problem that is not limited to K-pop and Korea – the West has long had deep-running issues with this too – but the issue has, in recent months, reached a boiling point in the conservative East Asian country.
As SCMP points out, a public petition calling for laws against those who create deepfake porn videos featuring female entertainers was submitted to South Korea’s presidential Blue House last month, with over 337,000 signatures. Besides deepfakes, the publication also noted that there’s now “major awareness” over sex crimes of a similar nature, such as molka (or hidden spy camera videos) and the Nth room scandal. Given that sexualisation of female artists is a present issue in the scene, you would think NCSoft would have looked at this content from all angles and made sure it wasn’t demeaning to the artists involved.
The world of K-pop has always been an innovative space and the spate of new community and social networking apps created by entertainment agencies and developers are just the latest technological step forward. Revolution doesn’t have to be exploitative, though, as UNIVERSE and – to a far lesser extent – the recent launch of JYP Bubble often feel. On both, interactions with idols cost extra, but on UNIVERSE you’re paying for a fake encounter while on Bubble you’re shelling out to receive messages that are sent to everyone who’s subscribed to a specific member’s chat.
In an age where connecting with artists is easier than ever, these apps are turning digital social spaces into an elitist commodity and dangerously capitalising on the love of loyal fans.