“I cyber-stalk because I care,” Taylor Swift tweeted Monday, with the hashtag #taylurking at the end. For the uninitiated, taylurking is a play on lurking, which means to spy on people online without them realizing; in Taylor’s case, it meant she was pulling photos of fans posing with her new album at Target and then posting them to Twitter. If you are over the age of 25 and sort of creeped out by this behavior, don’t worry; her fans loved this, as she knew they would, because Taylor Swift is really, really good at social media. She treats her fans like friends, speaks their language, plays their games — all while encouraging their documentation of her album purchase. It is social media marketing extended to the hyper teenage BFF extreme. And it’s totally working.
A case study: Consider her newfound love for Tumblr, which she joined in order to promote 1989. Here she is joking in the tags, responding directly to popular memes created about herself, reblogging fans with the rare ability to treat them like actual humans. Tumblr is littered with the corpses of corporate promo blogs gone stupidly wrong, but not Taylor’s — because Taylor uses the platform just like the people she is trying to reach. These are her pals, too! And unlike other pop stars, she deftly picks up their vocabulary: “I’m laughing so hard while crying then laughing more. Is this a psychotic break?” she responds to one. “They see me lurkin….. They hatin….” she reblogs another, who accuses her of silently “liking” fans’ posts. (Her tags: “#I used to sleep,” “#before tumblr”). This is expert-level Tumblr-ing.
I asked Vulture’s resident social media expert Tara Abell about Taylor’s online presence because it is her job to know about these things, and Tara brought up a good point about Taylor’s ability to be everywhere: “She treats each platform as a different entity.” Weird social-media-speak, I know, but the idea is that even if you were telling the same story, you wouldn’t tell it the same way to two totally different people. You’d reshape the information (without necessarily changing anything) to suit each person’s interests. That’s one of the functions of a good storyteller.
That’s why Taylor understands that a super-cool thing a celeb can do is randomly respond to fans’ queries in the comments of their own Instagrams — perhaps because it’s so surprising. “I want you to remember that what you are doing is selfless and beautiful and kind. You are loving someone purely because you love them, not because you think you’ll ever have your affections reciprocated,” she wrote to a fan who asked about an unrequited crush (“You Belong With Me,” much?). When it comes to celebrities on social media, it’s okay to be cynical about who’s actually doing the tweeting — but it is hard to replicate a voice so intimately as Taylor’s account. Her Twitter is full of very personal shout-outs, internet-ready jokes, and love-note replies to fans. Which makes sense: Her albums are filled with the same thing — liner-note codes, song hints, the “haters gonna hate” attitude. This is all one very savvy project to encourage devotion and relatability.
And, yes, attention — which is where Taylor’s friend friends come into play. When she is not Taylurking, Taylor’s Instagram and Twitter double as a twentysomething’s Who’s Who: Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss, Lorde, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran, Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland, Tavi Gevinson … the list goes on and on. These are good friends to have on any day — I mean it, I would love to be friends with Karlie Kloss, she seems great — but they are particularly helpful when you have a major album to promote and they’ll help you for free. Performative female friendship is as old as the high-school yearbook, and celebrities have always been friends with each other, but social media lends an easy way to perform that practical BFF requirement: the shout-out. Taylor Swift, a woman who has organized an entire music empire around shared emotions, obviously has this BFF marketing on lock.
Does it matter if those feelings are genuine? Not really, but for what it’s worth, I think they are. Taylor’s talent for all things social media comes from the same place that her songs do, and her emotional facility is the reason that she’s so good at both. There are plenty of celebrities who don’t engage (and ones who try but obviously would rather be elsewhere). But Taylor understands and enjoys putting herself and her work “out there.” And she is savvy — or maybe emotionally open? — enough to know that if she treats her fans as friends, they’ll want to support her back. And as long as Taylor continues to understand human emotion better than any pop star out there, she’ll continue to be better at social media than any pop star out there. Yes, that includes Beyoncé.