November 18, 2020 2:35 PM EST

It was Jiye Kim’s first BTS concert. A rippling sea of glowing globes formed as the crowd waved light sticks and, in unison, yelled the band’s fan chant—Kim Nam-joon! Kim Seok-jin! Min Yoon-gi! Jung Ho-seok! Park Ji-min! Kim Tae-hyung! Jeon Jung-gook! BTS!

Kim already liked the group’s music, but watching them perform in May 2017 at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena among a crowd of more than 11,000 turned her into a fan—or more precisely, a member of ARMY, the official fandom name of the K-pop juggernaut. “I bought one ticket for myself and sat in the highest corner of the awkwardest position of this small stadium,” says Kim, a high school teacher born and raised in Australia. BTS was in the middle of their worldwide Wings tour. “I expected them to be decent live singers, I expected them to dance well, I expected them to have interesting music,” Kim, 26, says. But what struck her was the message of the concert.

It was a simple declaration of solidarity that resonated powerfully, Kim says. Prior to the tour, the septet had released a compilation album titled You Never Walk Alone, with nearly 20 tracks about the subject. “Spring Day” was filled with sentiments of longing for a friend, and “2! 3!” asked the listener to “erase all sad memories” and “smile holding onto each other’s hands.” Hearing these songs at the concert, Kim was deeply moved. “When I walked outside, I just distinctly remember looking up into the sky, breathing in and thinking, that’s the first time a group has made me not only want to care more about them but care more about the world that I live in,” she recalls.

Who is ARMY?

Already millions strong, ARMY had a new recruit. BTS has been amassing a legion of fans long before it became the first all-South Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100 with “Dynamite,” or set the world record for attracting the most viewers for a concert live stream during the coronavirus pandemic. The septet’s fandom captured the attention of international media when it propelled the band to win the fan-voted Top Social Artist, with more than 300 million votes, at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. BTS ended a six-year winning streak in the category by Justin Bieber and beat the likes Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes and Selena Gomez. At the time, Bieber boasted more than 100 million followers on Twitter, and Grande was the third-most followed account on Instagram. One of the most pressing questions of the day in the music industry was: Who is ARMY?

Though ARMY has always shown up in person—fans lined up for days around Times Square in New York City to ring in 2020 with BTS at Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years’ Eve, not to mention their mighty presence at the group’s sold-out stadium concertsit is also one of the most active online communities in existence. 40 million members of ARMY, which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth, subscribe to BTS’ YouTube channel, and more than 30 million follow both the member-run Twitter account and Big Hit’s official BTS Instagram account. ARMY stands apart from other fandoms through the ways it has mobilized with an unrivaled level of organization, driven by a desire to see the seven members of BTS leave their mark in territories previously uncharted by any other pop act from South Korea.

Translation accounts deepen ties

Today, from her home in Sydney, Jiye Kim runs one of the largest Twitter fan translation accounts for BTS—@doyou_bangtan, with more than 270,000 followers. Fan translation accounts—which tackle everything from song lyrics and video content to the members’ social media posts—are a primary example of how ARMY both deepens an understanding of the group among existing fans and introduces BTS to new audiences. “The desire to translate always comes from a love of the group and the recognition that there wasn’t much being translated into English,” says Kim, who launched her account in 2017.

The first time Kim translated a BTS interview from Korean to English, it took five hours. These days, the time she spends translating depends on the group’s activities. “In promotional season, about two weeks before an album drops, I would probably clear my schedule as much as possible of non–work related events,” she explains. “My sleep clock would change.” In previous years, Kim set an alarm at 12 a.m. KST (Korea Standard Time)—often when Big Hit drops new content—every day for two months around the time of a new BTS release.

Claire Min, a college student living in New Orleans, also operates on a Korea-centric schedule for her fan translation account. Min, 18, started @btstranslation7—which now has more than 350,000 followers on Twitter—in early 2018. She specializes in translating live video streams from BTS members, which are usually broadcast on the platform V LIVE after midnight U.S. Central Time.

“It’s really gratifying to see that international fans and international ARMY are able to actually learn Korean and actually take an interest in Korean culture,” Min says. Every fan translation account has a unique style, and her approach includes a word-by-word breakdown of BTS members’ social media posts, which she labels #BTSvocab. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and say, I actually didn’t want to learn Korean because it was just so difficult,” Min explains. Now, fans tag her in photos of handwritten notes based on #BTSvocab posts.

The power of the hashtag

Data-oriented accounts dedicated to everything from calling for fan votes to tracking the band’s position on music charts have also been an intrinsic part of the fandom. Monica Chahine and Maggie Su, both 21, are university students in Toronto who run one such account. Chahine and Su both became fans of BTS in 2017 and connected with each other on Twitter. Along with another ARMY who has since stepped back due to school responsibilities, they started @BangtanTrends the following year. With more than 130,000 followers, the Twitter account focuses on creating and trending BTS-related hashtags. “The goal is to get either more ARMYs to see it or to get BTS to see it, or to get new fans,” Chahine explains.

In the past, when ARMYs were using too many hashtags at the same time, fewer of them would appear in the Twitter trends chart. “As the fandom got bigger, it was harder to coordinate,” Su says. So for BTS Festa in 2018—the fifth-anniversary celebration of the act’s debut on June 13, 2013—the @BangtanTrends team posted special hashtags. One of them was #5thFlowerPathWithBTS, which references lyrics in the song “2! 3!” in which J-Hope’s rap thanks ARMY “for becoming the flower in the most beautiful moment in life,” as well as the idea of a flower road being one of success and happiness. The hashtag became the No. 1 Worldwide trend on Twitter with more than 800,000 tweets. Its visibility was amplified when UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore used it in a post about the organization’s #EndViolence campaign with BTS. Now, as ARMYs around the world join from all time zones, BTS hashtags dominate the Worldwide trends list for longer periods of time.

Tackling real-world problems

Beyond social media, ARMY’s organization and mobilization extend into offline projects. Many of these are charity-focused, modeled after BTS’ philanthropic efforts—from launching the anti-violence Love Myself campaign with UNICEF to individually making donations on band member’s birthdays. OIAA, short for One In An ARMY, is a group that collaborates with nonprofit organizations around the world and encourages microdonations. Its first campaign, launched in April 2018 in a partnership with the nonprofit Medical Teams International, helped bring medical care to Syrians.

“What I really like is that with some of the organizations that we’ve worked with, we have kept up a relationship with them,” says Erika Overton, 40, a founding member of OIAA who lives in Fairburn, Ga. Overton cites the example of KKOOM, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports orphanages in South Korea. Earlier this year, OIAA raised funds for children in the orphanages that were under mandatory quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. The collaboration between the two organizations started in August 2018, when OIAA mobilized ARMY to raise more than $3,800—enough to fund a handful of scholarships. Less than two years later, in June, BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter—and ARMYs more than matched that pledge within days through a donation site OIAA created.

“The music and the spirit of the guys is at the core and the inspiration for all of it,” Overton says. She references RM’s often-quoted comments from a concert: “If your pain is 100 in a scale of 100, if we can lessen that to 99, 98 or 97,” then “the value of our existence is enough.”

As BTS continues to reach milestones on the charts and across social media, the scale and impact of ARMY’s mobilization also multiplies. Across platforms, fans share the hope for BTS to break even more ground in a music industry where few non-Western artists have risen to the top.

“They were, at one point, from a small company in Korea. They are from a small country in the world,” says Jiye Kim. “There seems to be this continuing expectation from the outside, that BTS and ARMY aren’t going to do well, and I think that makes ARMY work even harder to prove themselves for BTS.”

Write to Kat Moon at kat.moon@time.com.

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