Dear U Bubble, or simply Bubble, is a mobile app that offers online chat service between idols and their fans. It’s another platform for parasocial interaction, but it feels the most intimate of all.
First, the interface of Bubble looks and feels like a chatroom. It sends notifications to your phone like a regular messaging platform. There’s an option to translate Hangul into English and several other languages. Bear in mind that the translations are imperfect.
The power to choose lies within the user. To access the chatroom, tickets must be bought from the Store. Tickets start at P220 per artist and minimal discounts are given if you purchase more. The amount doesn’t seem much at first, but it quickly adds up if you subscribe to several artists. But is it worth it?
I bought several tickets for two boy groups from two different agencies as an experiment for this article.
There were little expectations at the beginning. I was confident that I would be able to walk away from it once the month is over. It only goes to show how I underestimated the addicting pleasure of having a perceived direct line to my favorite artists.
The first week was the most interesting. As a background, I mostly follow second generation to early third generation Kpop artists. Which is why supporting a fourth generation group has its unintended effects. Idols often flirt with their fans, making them feel that they are the most important person in the world. It’s what makes the parasocial relationship special.
But flirting does not have the same effect on me if it comes from idols who are almost half my age. It feels scandalous to read sweet messages from some of them. The words are pretty harmless, such as being compared to a star that shines so bright at night. It’s cute but I cringed at the same time.
I found that the messages I enjoyed the most were from idols who talked to me like I’m a friend. For example, there is one idol whose messages I’ve started to look forward to because of his consistency.
He would wake up around 6 am, greet everyone good morning. Sometimes he would send badly taken photos of his meals during the day. I was expecting carefully curated photos from Instagram but Bubble is allowing idols to more real. Even those bad food photos grew on me. In my third month as his subscriber, I’ve come to equate those food photos as an indication that he’s eating well. Before he sleeps at night, he would say good job and good night. Before he repeats it again the next day.
It sounds silly how I appreciated the randomness. However, if you consider how most idols are driven to work tirelessly every day, you feel special that they make an effort to include their fans in their routine. That’s also how I appreciated random posts about idols walking their dogs, or them asking if we like selfie number 1 or 2.
Hence we go to the frequency of the messages.
There is no hard and fast rule on how many messages a fan could receive from each member in a month. Stray Kids’ Felix is notorious for spamming his fans that they make plenty of TikToks about it. He could blow up his chat room with 350 messages and a number of selfies in one night. Another popular idol also tends to send a barrage of messages in one sitting. This idol has migrated his content from Instagram to Bubble. He’s been on the app so much that other members would tease him about when they catch him on his phone during their Live Broadcast.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the inactive ones. They are the ones who will send a few messages after a couple of weeks. If you equate the value of the interaction to the number of messages, then you might be disillusioned. Long time fans often advise new ones to get the members that they really love.
One idol that I subscribe to could be described as inactive. But whenever he posts something it’s so special that it’s an event by itself. He would take in requests, sing, play the guitar and even make songs on the spot.
Trust and secrecy
Bubble was created by the software company Dear U. The company is under SM Studios, a subsidiary of SM Entertainment. Dear U has also created Lysn, another app for SM’s artist to fan communications. Lysn has the agency’s Bubble.
SM is the first agency to use the service for their artists in 2020. It expanded to other companies hosting artists from JYP, FNC, Jellyfish, WM, Brand New Music, Play M, Top Media, RBW, Mystic Story and, recently, Cube Entertainment. In 2021, JYP Entertainment acquired 23.3% shares in Dear U, making them one of its stakeholders. Users have to download the app Bubble for JYP to access their artists.
The look and feel of the content is the same despite the difference of agencies. However, Lysn has an advantage of offering free stickers to fans which they can use in the chatrooms.
When Bubble was new, fans were dedicated to keeping its content a secret. Afterall, it’s an agreement fans said yes to when they subscribed. The contents of Bubble should just be between you and the artist. The photos are for your own use, not for public consumption.
Banned for life
Agencies could suspend or ban you from the app for life if they caught you sharing. They can also do the same on your social media platforms. Fans we talked to swore that it had happened.
You see its effect. Not even the most impudent Korean entertainment websites would dare post contents no matter how fun or juicy it is.
It is also an app of trust. Artists trust their fans to protect them and prevent contents from leaking out. In return for that trust, artists tend to share more details about their lives. Secrets that are not officially announced yet by their agencies are often shared in the app. One idol once berated their fandom for publicly sharing a very special photo he shared in Bubble as a gift to them.
Most of the time, fans do gate keep the contents, especially those who were on the app from the start. After all, they paid for premium service meant to be exclusive. But somehow, things still find their way on Twitter.
One ugly side of Bubble is that antis or haters of the artist can use it as a weapon. It was recently reported that Stray Kids’ Hyunjin has been receiving organized hate messaging through the app for the past two years. That’s concerning, given that there are parameters within the app that prevent posting of cuss words. For example, “ssi” is banned because it’s the beginning of the f-word in Korean.
Do the idols read the messages you send? There’s a slim chance that they do. Their access is different from the users. Thousands of messages are sent to them without their fans’ profiles. To prevent flooding, fans can only send a maximum of three messages after the artist’s last message. It resets on its own if the artist has not sent anything for a long time.
On the fans’ end, they can only see their messages and the idols, not everybody else. There’s a chance that the artists are schooled on how to carry a conversation with their fans no matter what their answers are.
They will post things like these:
“Have you eaten dinner?”
“What did you eat?”
“That sounds good. I ate gimbap tonight. I’m so full.”
But Bubble’s most ingenious feature is its personalization. Artists can use prompts wherein the messaging will show the name you put in your profile. I’ve been using the app for months, but I still get surprised when I suddenly see my name on the app. I’m not alone. This is one of the most inquired features of the app. It’s not uncommon to see messages such as, “Ruthie, you’ve done well today.”
Milestones are celebrated, too. I get congratulatory messages with balloons and confetti as a subscriber after a certain period. There’s a pink heart under the name of the artist in the chatroom. It pulsates brightly and next to it is the number of days of your subscription. I expect another celebration when my idols and I reach 100 days together.
In contrast, the artists that I’ve dropped will have a weak pulsating heart that turns completely gray after a few beats. The message, “One day we will meet again,” looks forlorn next to it.
I realized that the app adds another dimension to the fan experience after four months of using it. It’s given me more insight into the personalities that I chose to follow. The direct messages sent to my phone make the words special, especially when they try to comfort their fans.
But if I’m being honest, I look forward to feeling my phone vibrate because I am being notified that my fave idol has sent me another message.
Lysn chat services end
Lysn announces that its regular chat services will end on June 2023. DearU Bubble will continue its services after the update, but apparently the history of existing chats will be deleted. Fans can access the chat history of Bubble from when they are subscribed.