When we first meet Dre (Dominique Fishback), the terrifying anti-hero of Swarm, she’s obsessed.

For years, she has been busy constructing a world with the pop singer Ni’Jah at its centre –  the musician has become the yardstick by which Dre measures whether anything in her life is worthwhile. This isn’t just a casual interest for Dre. It’s everything. 

And because it’s everything, before too long, Dre starts murdering in Ni’Jah’s name. In the world of Swarm, violently dispatching anyone who stands in the way of the Ni’Jah fandom is par for the course. Indeed, much of the show’s dark comedy comes from the messed-up, but eerily logical, motivation behind Dre’s bloodthirsty rampage, which takes her across the United States, and sees her dispatch both Twitter trolls and fellow fans. 

No doubt then – love is at the centre of Dre’s life. Only, it’s a violent, obsessive kind of love. And a love that attaches itself to someone that Dre doesn’t even know. 

Dre (Dominique Fishback) in Swarm, image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

She just gets me

Dre’s form of love is a parasocial one. She pores over the details of Ni’Jah’s life, sharing factoids about the pop star with her fellow stans. No matter that she doesn’t even know Ni’Jah, really. She doesn’t have to meet her. After all, she has Ni’Jah’s music, and music is the language of the soul, right? 

This kind of romantic obsession is a common feature of the modern age, though it wasn’t invented by it. Certainly, parasocial relationships aren’t new. They go back as far as the fans who tore at classical composer Franz Liszt’s clothes, gripped by a fever called Lisztomania that resembles the hysteria that has met boy bands over the decades.  

When people feel seen by art, it makes sense that they also feel seen by the artist that has made it. You love the music, and then you love the musician. This goes a long way to explaining the behaviour of modern stans, who are not content to merely listen to the newest pop album. They collate pictures of the popstar in question; try to learn details about their personal life; hang on to their every word. 

Fans at The Beatles concert, New York, 1965

Indeed, what sets Beyonce stans apart from Liszt fanatics is the way that technology has stepped up this fascination with the lives of artists. It used to be you had to mail in a self-addressed envelope to a Beatles fanclub to connect with likeminded folks. Now you can log on, sharing and ramping up your mutual obsession. All in it together. 

What love makes us do

Parasocial relationships can spawn a range of immoral acts. They overstep the boundaries of privacy of artists, treating them like commodities, not people.

This is a violation of one of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s most important tenets – Kant says, use people as ends in themselves, their own people, rather than mere means. Pop stans don’t do this. They use popstars as mediums for their art. 

Stans also tend to operate under a groupthink mentality, a kind of contagious sharing of values and emotions that the philosopher Derek Matravers called out in his book, Empathy. Matravers noted that crowds can “catch” feelings from each other – that if one person is angry, then a person who witnesses that anger will pick up on it, through what is known as “emotional contagion.” Then, that anger spreads. And when it spreads out of control, violence can occur. 

That emotional catching is key to Swarm, and Dre’s obsession – she and her fellow stans whip themselves up into a frenzy of hatred, a virulence particularly directed towards the other. This other-directed hatred has been noted by philosopher Jesse Prinz, who argues that empathy and emotional contagion both tend to be triggered in the cases of perceived likeness. As in, if you think someone resembles you in important ways, you’re more likely to feel what they feel. That’s why groups form. Groups share perceived traits – in the case of Swarm, a love of Ni’Jah – and catch feelings of those in their group, without catching the feelings of those outside the group. Thus – an us and them mentality. 

This in turn accounts for the behaviour we see in real life, outside of Swarm, particularly on Twitter. There, stans turn on people who commit the slightest perceived indiscretion, threatening, in some cases, their homes, livelihood, and health. Take the pop music critic, not named here to avoid kicking off a potential wave of abuse, who criticised a pop music stan and had her home address found, and threatening messages left on her voicemail. 

Swarm, image courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

A love that doesn’t change

It’s worth noting that parasocial relationships aren’t totally foreign to other forms of love. Many of us are guilty of turning the object of our infatuation into something other than what they are. Consider those early days of romance, when everything that the object of our affection has touched or produced seems blessed by a kind of glow – there’s the coffee cup they drank from, and then left at ours. There’s the toothbrush they used, on the bathroom mantle. 

But what makes parasocial relationships different to others is the strange way in which they develop and change. Or, don’t change. When the person you love is right in front of you, your affection molds to their shape. They do things, and you respond to those things. They are human, so they fuck up, and your adoration changes in step with those fuck-ups. 

Parasocial relationships lack that constant evolution. Pop albums don’t change. You listen to the new Taylor Swift album, and then months go by, and you listen to it again, and again, and again. Not a note has shifted since that first time. So your love can stay locked in that honeymoon phase – that obsessive, giddy kind of romance, consistent in intensity. 

Without evolution, our passion is obsession, and obsession can turn us into bad ethical actors of all sorts.

This unchanging nature also explains that darker side of modern fandoms – the side targeted by Swarm. Dre doesn’t see Ni’Jah’s flaws. Doesn’t get exposed to the healthy regularity that romance descends into. That keeps her obsession at a fever pitch. One with such violent passion at its heart that it’s only a matter of time until it becomes literally violent. 

Thus, Swarm, and indeed modern fandom itself, teaches us the ethical importance of evolution. Not only is a static love a dying love – how many relationships break up because of the horrifying routines that we can settle into, years into being with someone? The monotony of it all? Static love is also a dangerous love. Without evolution, our passion is obsession, and obsession can turn us into bad ethical actors of all sorts.