The one thing that helped One Direction build its career is now the same thing that’s breaking it into pieces.
Social media transformed the boys from X-Factor third placers to the world’s biggest pop group almost overnight. Since being cobbled together by Simon Cowell in 2010, One Direction has released four No. 1 Billboard chart-topping albums, garnered well over 3.3 billion views on YouTube, and grossed $290 million on tour in 2014—eclipsing ticket sales by Justin Timberlake, the Rolling Stones, and even Katy Perry.
The fast paced, frenzy-fueled world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram made One Direction an instant hit. Born into a world of constant communication, the band’s fans launched the group to stardom using digital platforms unlike ever before. The Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync couldn’t have imagined having the kind of relationship with its followers as One Direction has with its fans. The technology just wasn’t what it is today.
Social media has given One Direction fans a stake in the band’s identity—for better or worse. With direct access to each individual member as well as to the collective whole, the group’s followers can express support as easily as they can spread rumors. They can push the band forward—like they’ve done over the past five years—just as simply as they can pull it apart, as was the case on Wednesday when singer Zayn Malik announced that he was leaving the group.
In a public statement first posted on One Direction’s Facebook page, Malik claimed his decision to call it quits with fellow band members Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson was based on him wanting to be a “normal 22-year-old.” His reasoning might be more complicated than that, however.
Right before Malik dropped the news, he signed off from the band’s tour in Singapore and the Philippines due to “stress,” flying back to the UK to patch things up with his fiance Perrie Edwards. A photo of Malik intimately embracing another girl had been circulating online a few days earlier, which prompted the Twittersphere to erupt in disagreement over whether he was cheating. His followers took sides. Some defended him, some condemned him, but nearly all of them flung their opinions straight at him, including Malik’s Twitter handle in their messages so he’d see what they had to say.
There’s no knowing what actually happened, but it’s obvious the situation caused Malik a good bit of anxiety and frustration: “I love a girl named Perrie Edwards,” he tweeted on March 18 in response to his critics. “There’s a lot of jealous [people] in this world. I’m sorry for what it looks like.”
This isn’t the first time Malik faced the negative side effects of social media. Last spring, he came under fire for drug usage after a video of him smoking a joint surfaced. When Malik failed to make an appearance with the rest of the band on The Today Show, host Matt Lauer made it his business to pry. Malik was allegedly absent from the show because he was ill not because he was on drugs, bandmate Payne said—but fans, and Lauer, wielded their criticisms nonetheless.
A couple of months later, Malik became the target of yet another social media attack when he aired his political beliefs regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Malik, who is British Pakistani and was raised in the Muslim faith, tweeted “#FreePalestine” in July 2014, provoking a slew of death threats from his angry fans in Israel.
As members of the biggest boy band of the digital age, Malik and the rest of the group have had to live under pressures unique to the 21st century. These online platforms may have closed the gap between the band and its fans but they opened the door to a slew of other problems, including the constant scrutiny that could have driven Malik to quit.
For One Direction, social media has been a double-edged sword—it carved out a successful career for band, but it also split it into two.
Featured Image Courtesy of Syco Music