I am posting a write up of the conference paper I presented at the 2016 Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I was a part of a panel titled “Appropriate Audiences: From Industrial Imperatives to Subcultural Struggles”, accompanied by Bethan Jones, Bertha Chin, and Mel Stanfill. I feel the panel went over really well, and there were some excellent synergies between the papers.
This doesn’t represent an exact version of the paper presented, as a significant part of it was delivered from notes, but I have written it up to be as close as possible.
The Use of Social Media by Television Networks to Moderate Fandom
Aaron Sorkin’s tenuous and contested relationship with the idea of fandom is made explicit several times within his television work. One notable occurrence is in the tenth episode of season 4, where a minor b-plot involves Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman requiring an office worker to not wear her Star Trek pin at work. In a final exchange, the staff member, Janice, stops him to try to explain her connection to the series. Lyman says to her:
I’m a fan. I’m a sports fan, I’m a music fan and I’m a Star Trek fan. All of them. But here’s what I don’t do. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: “Let’s list our ten favorite episodes. Let’s list our least favorite episodes. Let’s list our favorite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often our favorite galaxies appear in our favorite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian and why? Let’s spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let’s do it again.” That’s not being a fan. That’s having a fetish. And I don’t have a problem with that, except you can’t bring your hobbies in to work, okay?
This connection between fandom and fetishism, between fandom and excessive emotional display, is one which has been tracked by the literature, and can often be treated with skepticism by the television industry. However, the industry is also faced with the reality that fans with depth of engagement are those with the most economic potential, and as such, need to be cultivated. I have argued elsewhere that some recent television series have worked to present an ‘appropriate’ model of fandom, presenting an example of how the television industry would like to see fans engage with their texts. This appropriate model is further moderated through the ways that networks utilise social media, as they work to guide fans into spaces and modes of engagement of which they approve.
A little background on fandom – the theory is familiar to most of you, but helps to set the scene from where the notion of appropriateness emerges. Joli Jensen is always my stepping off point – a classic quote from her connects the notions of fandom and deviance, but she also examines the connection between excessiveness and unacceptable fandom, noting that “self-control is a key aspect of appropriate display”.
Mel Stanfill is one of the few scholars to have addressed the idea of ‘appropriate fandom’, although done through the framework of race. Looking at the default whiteness of fandom, Stanfill suggests that whiteness is one way in which appropriate fandom can be produced. Camilla Obel also makes use of the term in reference to sports fandom in New Zealand, discussing the ways in which male-led focus groups of female fans might produce an expectation of a particular form of engagement, prioritising approval of physical prowess over appreciating of the physical form. On the inverse, Stanfill has also touched on the idea of ‘inappropriate fandom’, highlighting the ways in which some members of fandom might see certain forms of engagement as inappropriate, connecting it to popular anti-fan discourses. Stanfill sums up this notion by highlighting an internal dichotomy that exists within fandom, “both (a) immersed in dominant ideas about the ‘right way’ to interact with the media and (b) emotionally invested in a subculture that is often understood to violate those norms” .
Inappropriate fandom also has its roots in the work of Henry Jenkins who, in his 1992 work Textual Poachers, noted that fans were often identifiable by the “inappropriate importance [placed] on devalued cultural material” , or adopting ‘inappropriate’ reading strategies, which might be read by outsiders as “aesthetic perversion” .
Inappropriateness in fandom is often connected to whether the object of fandom is seen as societally appropriate for the individual fan. Thus, male fans of a feminine object might be viewed with concern, as might adult fandom of a text aimed at children.
Denise Bielby and C Lee Harrington have identified the ways in which different objects of fandom might be seen at being inappropriate at different ages, and how what might be appropriate shifts societally over time . They provide the example of music fandom and how in adults, it can be seen as a sign of ‘arrested development’ . In these instances, inappropriateness seems to be connected to an infantilisation of fandom, connecting it to something done in immature stages of life, and shed in maturity.
We need to recognise that ‘appropriateness’ is used with due caution – in this context refers to the way that industry/media producers view fans. Fans will have their own ideas of what is appropriate/inappropriate, as was highlighted by other papers on this panel, including those of Bethan and Bertha. In addition, what is considered appropriate will differ between different fan communities, and these differences are often only legible from inside. For instance, within Supernatural fandom, whether or not it is acceptable to talk about certain ships when engaging with actors is a point of contestation.
A key idea that I draw on in this paper is the notion of second screening – Hye Jin Lee and Mark Andrejevic have noted its use as industry buzzword dating back to 2012, but I believe that the term can still have utility if separated out from the surrounding marketing discourse. Second screening generally refers to the use of a companion/secondary device when watching television, whether it be a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or home computer. Within a more specific industry discourse, it has been used to refer to applications designed to be used alongside specific individual programs, or social television apps such as GetGlue or Miso TV which operate across television in general. My interest, however, is in the use of technologies such as social media; not designed specifically as a second screening application, but instead adopted and adapted by users to fulfill this need. These technologies have much broader uptake, generally, and as such can address a much wider audience.
Lee and Andrejevic note that the key element of television which allows for certain types of second screening is the simultanaeity of television viewers; that is to say, that some level of mass audience are all engaging with the same content at the same time. This feature of the broadcast television experience is what might bring some users to live social media engagement, with Lee and Andrejevic commenting “viewing itself needs to be turned into something that shares the logic of the event: a sense that others are participating at the same time and are interested in sharing their thoughts and responses”. Thus the ‘liveness’ of broadcast television complements the live affect presented by many social media platforms, Twitter being the most obvious.
The traditional economic structures of broadcast television are paradoxically the most readily visible and the most overlooked of almost all modern cultural forms. Commercial broadcast television is must always be mired in its own industrial realities, as the advertising-supported structure both surrounds it and gives it its form. However, the second order nature of this economic transaction means that for many audiences, television is viewed as a ‘free’ medium, one for which they do not have to pay, with the time devoted to advertisers not always being viewed by audiences as an economic transaction. Audiences become the primary currency for commercial broadcasters, as it is their time (and hopefully attention) which is then sold to advertisers. Andrejevic in “The Twenty-First-Century Telescreen” has described the ways in which audiences do some of the work of making themselves visible and valuable to advertisers, and subsequently networks, as “the auto-production of audience commodities”. This process becomes more important when considering the engaged audiences of fandoms. In many ways, fans are seen as “ideal viewers” because of their position as “dedicated consumers”, and in recently have been “actively wooed by media industries newly recommitted to capturing and exploiting the attention of ‘influentials'”. As we will see, however, not all fan practices are appreciated or deemed ‘appropriate’ by the television industry, and as such, they work in different ways to guide viewers into their desired modes of engagement.
One of the larger issues facing the contemporary television industry is the audience trend away from live viewing by means of personal time-shifting devices (such as DVRs), as well as the increasing popularity of On Demand streaming sites, including those provided by the networks themselves, but also aggregators such as Netflix and Hulu. Viewer strategies such as marathon viewing can mean that audience members may wait until an entire season has aired prior to watching, removing themselves from any sense of contemporaneous viewing community, but also removing themselves from advertising which accompanied the original broadcast. Bringing people to social media to discuss television as it airs helps to encourage people to return to the model of live viewing. Quoting Lee & Andrejevic again, “the attempt to turn all viewing into a networked , social event bucks the current trend of on-demand viewing through time-shifting technologies”. However, not all television will function as well as other forms as a “networked, social event”. Cate Owen, head of Consumer Engagement for Mediaworks NZ, has commented that scripted drama in New Zealand has been far less successful in developing a viewing community interested in simultaneously engaged in social media, but an area which has seen much better results is Reality television.
One of the key elements of reality television is the affect of liveness with which it provides audiences. Reality, especially those formats and sub-genres based around competition, either provide an actual live broadcast or, in the case of series such as Survivor, present a simulation of liveness. This feeling is not unlike that of watching and engaging with televised live sport. These types of events allow for the construction of a national viewing community (much in the same way that Benedict Anderson described the imagined community). Lee and Andrejevic describe the importance of televisual liveness as lying in its “sense of collective immediacy and participation”. It is this desire for participation which is fostered by social media discussions surrounding the television broadcast. Chris Hooper, formerly Marketing Manager for TV2 and Pay Channels at TVNZ, said “the beauty of television is in bringing the nation together around big shared moments so you want people to feel like they’re part of that conversation”. The positioning of some reality television as a national event draws some viewers to social media to comment and engage, but that ongoing social media conversation also helps to reinforce the presence of a national viewing audience, elevating the importance of the content itself. Social media’s role in bringing more people to watch televisual content during its broadcast time is thus welcomed by networks and producers.
All of this raises the question of what is considered appropriate versus inappropriate behaviour by the television industry. One element which seems to be constantly emphasised by many official social media accounts is the idea of enjoying the “reveal” when results are announced, as opposed to the fan practice of spoiling. Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture, has detailed the antagonistic relationship which existed between Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, and the series’ spoiling communities. Discouraging of spoiling practices, and` encouraging the anticipation of results can definitely be seen as working to shape ‘appropriate’ fan behaviours. Connected to this, the avoidance of spoilers can be seen as bringing viewers back to live television, as any engagement with social media subsequent to the initial airing runs the risk of being exposed to discussion of what has happened, and being unwittingly spoiled.
Encouraging fans to support particular contestants or characters becomes a crucial element of social media engagement. Social media allows for fans to express their fandom of individual characters or contestants, which in turn leads to a strengthened emotional connection with them. Fans can be seen to back or support particular contestants or pairings, whether in terms of who they want to win a competition, or romantic/sexual patirings. These preferences can often be expressed via the use of tagging systems such as hashtags, allowing them to be connected with other fans with similar interests. These emotional connections can lead to the sort of affective engagement described by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, which can have significant economic benefit to the series and the advertisers associated with it. Social media gives this affective connection a tangible visibility for what has traditionally been a private activity.
Social media is also proving to be a crucial space for the television industry to observe the responses to their content from fans. Lee and Andrejevic have described the ways that the creator of Modern Family, Steve Levitan, followed Twitter backchannels and used them as an informal focus group, receiving immediate responses on what works and what doesn’t. This form of response is providing instant data and value to producers, generated by audiences.
There is also a shift in the types of work that the tv industry seeks from fans. Cate Owen has talked about the ways in which her team are primed to have gifs ready to drop the second that a key moment has aired. They watch for “gif-able” moments, and share them immediately, performing some of the labour of fandom which previously existed. However, this shifts the labour of fandom from production to transmission – fans are encouraged to share these moments, thus making them visible to audiences who are not currently engaged with the television series, operating as a mode of evangelism. Owen also noted the ways that social media platforms differed, with Twitter being more about commenting minute to minute, and Facebook being used more during commercial breaks to post reflections. As such, the digital engagement team can launch multiple GIFs on Twitter, and post the most successful of them to Facebook five minutes later for the next commercial break.
I have argued elsewhere that Survivor manifests one of the quintessential examples of demonstrating appropriate fandom, not just in relation to social media, but in general. Players such as Cochran who self-identify as Survivor superfans, have been presented as conforming to modes of fandom of which the producers approve, such as economic engagement and encyclopedic knowledge (modes which tend to be gendered male, but that’s a different paper to be told another time).
Jeff Probst also models a form of fandom as well, behaving as audience avatar, expressing shock, excitement, disdain, which the audience are expected to share. While Survivor does not have the live element which some competitive reality television like American Idol offers, it does mean that Probst is able to engage with social media at time of airing, once again operating as a fan, enjoying the reveals as if it were the first time, adding paratextual knowledge to provide value to social media fans, as well as encouraging fans to watch, to engage, to activate their fandom.
Television networks, and those who represent individual television productions, are presenting models through social media of what being a fan can look like. They offer tools and spaces to allow fans to communicate and engage easily with content. The ramification, however, is that fans are engaging in modes which are deemed “acceptable” by networks, contained as they are within the hegemonic framework. By providing GIFs themselves, they curate the types of content that is shared, and the ways in which it is framed. Social media offers a level of democratisation in the communicative potential it offers fans, but television networks are also working hard to commodify this, to bring it back into a framework of which they approve and from which they can benefit.