Disunited fandom: how the royal split created turmoil online

The British monarchy captivates and entertains a vast international fandom, but the drama of the Sussex split has riven a once-close online community.

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On the morning of 9 January, Reese was leaving her boyfriend's house in Philadelphia when her phone buzzed with a notification. It was an alert from @sussexroyal, the Instagram account of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, announcing the couple’s split from the royal family, which would push the pair to leave the UK, give up their royal titles and reshape their role within the British monarchy. “It was just...woah”, she remembers. The post would be liked by almost two million people and received 167,000 comments.

Reese, 35, rushed home to record an “emergency podcast”, which approximately 650 of her fellow fans would download as quickly as she recorded it. “I’m not even prepared for this,” she told her fellow royal watchers. “I was all prepared to do a podcast about Kate’s birthday weekend.”

The British monarchy has a huge community of international fans. A significant number are women from the US, Canada and South America, who often communicate through the blogging site Tumblr. Fans share notes about Kate Middleton’s outfit choices, the Queen’s schedule and royal gossip. They use Tumblr’s instant messaging service to share links to podcasts about the royals and official family portraits. Like most successful “fandoms”, the royal watchers of the internet combine escapism with a strong sense of community.

This community was sent into turmoil by news of the split. “As I see the fallout and anticipate how ugly this will get in the coming days and weeks, it’s breaking my heart,” Reese wrote on her blog, Sipping Royal Tea.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are particularly important to online royal watchers. While Prince Andrew’s long association with the paedophile Jeffrey Epstein may have damaged the royal family in the eyes of the British public, the younger royals are more important to international followers. “I have little to no interest in following the royals on a day to day basis without Harry and Meghan,” wrote Reese.

Watching the royals was for many a private obsession. One prolific blogger, Natalie, told me she wished to remain anonymous to prevent her friends from finding out about her blog. Online, however, Natalie was part of a community that she and her fellow watchers had built around Harry and Meghan. The news caused fans to take down websites to which they had dedicated many hours.

“Everyone has been really emotionally affected,'' says Natalie.

Others were defiant: “DISCLAIMER – As of today; Monday 13th January 2020, regardless of what happens, I support Harry and Meghan and will continue to keep this page going”, reads one post on Harry and Meghan Sussex, a popular blog. “I have no idea what the future looks like”, the author adds.

For many, however, it was as if a long-running TV show, one they had relied upon for glamour and escapism, had suddenly been cancelled. Many watchers felt it necessary to remind each other that Harry and Meghan were not fictional characters. “Please remember that while we may support/adore/strive to be like Harry & Meghan... do not let the problems of these public figures become YOUR problem or YOUR heartache,” wrote one. “This site/fandom is supposed to be fun, inspiring, and an outlet for you to break out of your every day. It's not something that's supposed to cause you heartache.”

The split also deepened divisions in a community that was already divided by issues of race and politics. The royal fandom has been at war with itself since Meghan’s entry into the “firm”, which encouraged an influx of young black women to blog about the royals. Alongside these pro-Meghan blogs came a surge in racist slurs and even death threats. The battle lines were drawn between Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. Hardline Kateists signed off blogs, comments and tweets with #Megxit, as they pushed for Meghan to leave the family.

But the achievement of this goal has not calmed the pro-Kate faction; if anything, it has emboldened them to be more explicit about what it is about Meghan they dislike.

“I’ve been privately chatting with black women and other WOC about the racism they’re seeing from some of the more popular bloggers in the fandom”, Reese tells me, “and we’ve just been telling each other to take breaks and protect our mental health because of the toxicity”.

While the politics of identity and personality divide the royal fandom, royal watchers share a universal nostalgia. But this, too, makes the community fragile, as watchers seek belonging and attachment in a monarchy that is itself ever less relevant. Nowhere is this more evident than in the community’s reverence for Harry’s mother, Diana. 

The morning after the Sussexes announced their intention to “step back” from the royal family was announced, Google searches for the phrase “Princess Diana” spiked worldwide. Princess Diana Facebook groups were dotted with pictures of Harry and Meghan. Debate swirled about what Diana would think of the news, and whether Harry is jealous of his brother. Collages of Diana were quickly reblogged across the royal fandom.

Many private Princess Diana Facebook groups are hard to join. Most ask vetting questions, such as “are you a troll?” to anyone who wishes to join. The butt of many jokes, the Diana fandom has its guard up.

To her most dedicated fans, Diana represents the golden years of royal celebrity and its martyred heroine. As the cult of the royal family splinters, the memory of Diana has coalesced into something more permanent. “She is always there, on the periphery,” says Reese.

For thousands of devotees around the world, however, the royal family split is also a relief. Not because the show has come to an end – few believe that the Sussexes will disappear entirely from public life – but because, as in so many internet communities, there is a sense that the royal fandom has been broken and made toxic by the same forces – the polarisation, the tribalism, the ever more aggressive competition for attention – that affect so much online discourse. “You are allowed to say you’ve had enough.” reads one popular recent post. “You are allowed to leave.”

 

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.