The Joy of One-Sided Conversations with K-Pop Idols

“I watched your Jeju island video! It looked like a very relaxing time. Thank you for your vlogs, they’re so much fun!”

I recently sent this message to someone who probably won’t ever see it, and absolutely will never reply directly to it. Yet it made me smile, it brought me happiness, and I do it most days. Before you ask, no, I’m not stalking anyone. It’s through an app that offers Direct Message-style conversation with K-pop idols, and it’s just one example of a growing number of apps that are connecting us to others, many of whom would normally be inaccessible, in very different ways.

Why would anyone invest time and money in a one-sided conversation? Is this illusion of intimacy the ultimate in fandom, or saddening evidence of loneliness only encouraged by addictive online services and the coronavirus pandemic? I think I’m close enough to the subject to offer some insight and help you understand, but in order to really dig deep into why apps like these are gaining popularity, I also asked some experts.

What are these apps?

If you’re not a fan of K-pop or Japanese idols, you probably haven’t heard of DearU’s Bubble with Stars, which is the app I use, or other similar apps like Universe and Weverse. For around $4 per star per month, I receive around a dozen messages a day from former global girl group IZ*ONE members Kang Hyewon and Kim Minju.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Their messages mostly detail the minutiae of life, like what they had for dinner, how work went, and what the weather is like in Seoul, while also revealing more of their personalities through jokes and comments. You could be forgiven for mistaking this feed for Twitter or Instagram, except these apps are not open to the general public. In fact, most of the apps repeatedly warn against sharing the posts made by artists outside of the app on other social networks, under penalty of permanent bans. That’s why we aren’t showing you actual message examples here.

Instead, it’s all presented like a messaging app directly connecting you with an idol. You see a scrollable stream of individual messages and images, some of which are even personalized, like “Andy, what are you doing today?” You can type out replies to messages and add emojis and stickers. It’s just like messaging with your friends.

If the artist is engaged with the app and really understands how to use it, the illusion of directly messaging with them is utterly convincing. But it is still an illusion. The artist is not actually messaging you directly and when you reply, they will probably never read that message. And sorry, but on Bubble, you will never get a real, personal reply sent only to you. Although it may look and feel like a personal exchange, it’s absolutely not.

None of this is a secret to users. According to Bubbles’ developer, messages are sent by the idol, but they are not notified of any replies and cannot then send messages to one subscriber. However, replies are stored in a global inbox that can be accessed by the idol, giving a glimmer of hope a message may be read at some point. I know all this, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m also acutely aware that for those who aren’t fans, it must seem completely ridiculous. But there’s more to it than you think.

Why would you pay for this?

I expect there’s a good chance you are questioning why someone would want to have an entirely one-sided “conversation,” and actually pay for the privilege. Every time I send a reply through Bubble, the same question enters my mind. What do I get out of it? I talked about how relatively mundane the chat messages are, and this is actually part of the appeal, but it’s also connected to what it means to be a fan.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

For me, I love the way the artists I follow reference things only a fan really understands, let you in on little jokes, and shares surprisingly personal aspects of their lives. She shares the good parts of her day, and I can reply by saying how good she was in her music show, or in her latest video. It’s friendly, supportive, and heartwarming. It’s common to receive messages of encouragement too, and because they are often personalized it feels surprisingly special. There are even times where you distinctly get the feeling the artist has read at least some of the replies, due to comments about the conversation made by other fans on Twitter.

The closeness that comes from using these apps is a strong aspect of idol fandom, and to get more perspective, I connected with Nathanial Vibar, a 26-year-old nurse and a fan of Japanese idol group Sakurazaka46, over Twitter to better understand why he sends replies through that group’s messaging app.

“This is our only way of giving back some of the happiness they bring into our lives,” he told me. “You do it because you want them to know that there’s always someone out there