BY MICHAEL G. BLIGHT
There is a growing concern within media effects research that consumers’ consumption of new, real-time content alongside Twitter is the new norm. The most recent figure presented by Twitter suggests more than 500 million Tweets are sent per day. Like any addictive substance offered to the general population, the victims are often unaware of the addictive nature nor future consequences of consumption. To extend the addiction analogy further, many of the users begin to promote and recruit new users to the same substance that consumes their lives.
There is a growing social obligation of reacting “in real time” to new episodes of television, and online series are forcing individuals into social media purgatory. According to a joint study conducted by Neuro-Insight and Twitter, Twitter use in conjunction with real time television viewing resulted in viewers exhibiting “higher levels of both engagement (+31%) and memorability (+35%).” This article examines the intersections of fandom, social media practices, and overt marketing plans executed during the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The Burden of Fandom: How can I be a fan without reacting live?
The study of fandom is well documented across a variety of different academic channels including the Journal of Fan Studies. Booth (2010) describes a fan as a “person who invests time and energy into thinking about, or interacting with, a media text” (p. 11). In the case of Game of Thrones, fandom occurs on a variety of individual levels: liking a particular character, liking the actor of said character, and/or liking the show itself. The extension of fan behaviors on Twitter has been well-documented (Bertrand and Hughes, 2017; Highfield, Harrington, and Bruns, 2013; Wood and Baughman, 2012). In short, the practice of using Twitter as a platform to self-present as a fan and interact with other fans can be a potent tool.
Jenkins (1992) argues that fans are socialized to learn the appropriate acts of conduct when participating in fan-like culture. In the case of Game of Thrones live-tweeting, much of the “real” fandom is dictated by marketing-driven business decisions. Of course, that is not to say that real, authentic interactions between legitimate fans does not happen. Instead, the promoted advertisements, leaked footage from the set of the shows, and other strategic bits of information from the show runners is forcing the hand of fan engagement.
Booth (2010) argues, “In an era when the mass media saturate our lives, and the boundaries between cult and mass cultures have blurred, fandom becomes one way to understand contemporary digital culture” (p. 20). Perhaps more importantly, fandom and participation online appear to be symbiotic in nature. That is to suggest our fandom is flaunted and validated in tandem with our active and consistent participation in live-tweeting. Viewers are expected to demonstrate fandom via program-specific hashtags (#winteriscoming) while also engage with others who are live-tweeting as well. These compulsive behaviors (e.g., using hashtags and constantly tweeting) are congruent with Griffiths and Kuss’ (2017) revised work on social media addiction. Specifically, Griffiths and Kuss point to fear of missing out (FOMO) as leading to impulsive technological behaviors such as people frequently checking their devices. As each Game of Thrones character appears on screen, viewers are urged to live-tweet and broadcast their opinions on the significance of the character’s actions.
If it’s not bad enough that individuals feel an obligation to participate in live-tweeting as a way of social currency, traditional marketing efforts have grown to stay in-step with the addiction. Promotional materials previously exclusive to traditional media (i.e., actors being interviewed on late night television) are now purposefully shared before and during the showing of the episodes. A specific example is The Tonight Show tweeting the link to a YouTube video titled, “Maisie Williams Accidentally Drops a Major Spoiler in Game of Thrones’ Final Season” two weeks before the season premiere. This makes for a particularly complex relationship between viewers and their escapism. No longer is the viewer able to experience an unadulterated relationship with their favorite character. Instead, the commercialization of fandom utilizes clickbait (i.e., purposefully sensationalized video titles) as a tool to further drive internet traffic and interest toward the product (e.g., Game of Thrones).
The traditional innocence of fandom (i.e., finding like-minded peers to share an experience) has now shifted toward uncharted and potentially unethical concerns of paid media. In fact, a prominent mechanism within conventional consumer viewing is that of the recommendation feature. Much like Netflix’s recommendation algorithm that drives approximately 75% of viewing habits (Twitter, 2013), online community interactions drive viewership behaviors. Moreover, research conducted by Twitter suggests that, “TV shows that elicit emotional reactions” influence viewer behavior such as higher advertising recall (2016). In other words, the emotional investment to the show while live tweeting directly and tangibly influences viewers’ future behaviors.
Fans’ contributions using the hashtags directly benefits HBO and Game of Thrones. Twitter’s algorithm will catapult the top “Trending” topics to the forefront of the application. Trending topics are later aggregated and used to recap the most “Liked” and “Re-tweeted” posts on the platform. These data points (i.e., engagement, reach, etc.) help brands to make business decisions, which moves the needle further away from the authenticity of traditional fandom. Additionally, the sentiment of traditional fandom is further skewed when considering that three out of four Twitter users utilize the platform to, “learn more about a topic” (Stennis, 2018).
It may be the case that these data points collected are outweighed by the prosocial nature of the platform. To quote the work of Schirra, Sun, and Bentley (2014), “Live-tweeting can help viewers feel connected to a large online viewing audience, while also helping to strengthen social bonds with real-life friends, providing a context for conversation around shared interests” (p. 2450). In fact, it may be the circumstance wherein Game of Thrones’ marketing helped to enhance the viewing and fan experience.
The prominence of Game of Thrones on Twitter can be best exemplified by highlighting two Twitter milestones. First, data presented by Elizabeth Wagmeister of Variety notes that one of the last episodes of Game of Thrones broke the Twitter record of participation at more than 7.8 million tweets related to the show. Second, the popularity of the show led to a Twitter-created interactive map that provided data points on character relationships, popularity of characters tweeted, and even emojis used with the characters. Given the magnitude of users tweeting and the interactions that occur related to Game of Thrones, the crowning achievements of the show may validate user live-tweeting behaviors. In other words, record breaking viewership, interaction with other fans, and swearing allegiance to specific show-related shows provides live-tweeters with validation that their behaviors should be continued. Work by Kuss and Griffiths (2011) notes that benefits of platforms like Twitter may, “potentially lead people to excessively engage in using them, which, in turn, may purport addictive behaviors” (p. 3544).
Fans have unprecedented access to their favorite characters and actors as a direct result of Twitter (Bennett, 2014). Perhaps more importantly, the fans have a growing affordance of interactions with like-minded individuals to talk about live events unfolding within their favorite shows. The extent to which this constitutes as a positive cost-benefit analysis is to be determined. Fans who are eagerly awaiting information and/or insights into their favorite shows are compelled to constantly refresh their feeds and interact with others as a buffer between episode-to-episode. Ultimately, the brand awareness (i.e., paying for advertisements with great reach) is a business-savvy decision that may or may not capitalize on the fundamental behaviors of fans online.
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