If you’re old enough to remember life without Twitter, then chances are you are old enough to find the concept of fandom and its relationship with social media a bit perplexing. Without going too grumpy-old-man, fans of the older generation can be heard bewailing the new young innovations with cries of, “In my day, fans had nothing but conventions and snail mail! You were lucky if you got a package in the mail every other month with a magazine and a trinket.” To put it another way, in the years following the birth of Twitter, fandom has moved out of its parents basement and, blinking somewhat owlishly, stepped into the sun. Gone is the stereotypical "fan" as a white male with his comic book collection and ability to recite entire episodes of Star Trek; here to stay is the self absorbed adult, somewhere between the ages of 13-39, who clutches greedily at their smart phone and/or tablet, who speaks only in LOLz and hashtags and who will go down with their ships. However, when we look at the inner workings of fandom and social media a question does spring to mind: what is the overall relationship of the two?
Let’s clarify something first: fandom is nothing new. So long as there have products to be excited over, there have been fans. Trekkies, for example, have been around since the show began in 1966. Cult television has always produced legions of dedicated followers who stubbornly and passionately stick with the show, even after it goes off the air. But with advent of social media (and for my blog here I’m really only going to focus on Twitter even though Tumblr works in a like manner) the shift has been in power relationships. Suddenly the fandom feels that they can directly affect their product; through hashtags, tweets, retweets, and social campaigns, fans have a larger voice in the inner workings of their favorite TV show—or at least their perception is that they do.
Let’s talk Twitter. Network TV seems to have finally caught up to the 21st century in 2013 when Nielsen, the TV ratings gurus, announced that they would be incorporating tweets into their overall ratings system. Fans chuckeld ruefully, delighted that Nielsen had finally figured out what most fandoms have known for quite some time now: TV is no longer a passive event. In the days of yore, families gathered around their set and simply watched TV. Maybe the next day you discussed it around the proverbial water cooler, but that was in passing. Can you image the reaction to Ross and Rachel’s “break” if Twitter had existed? It would have trended for days. Watching TV is now—for fandoms—an acitivity. Laptops and phones in hand, getting your show to trend is almost as vital as the actual plot. And the networks are finally clued in.
Take for example ABCFamily’s golden child, Pretty Little Liars. Now there is a show that knows how to make itself heard! Partly due to the fact that its key demographic is adolescent to teenage girls, most of whom are on Twitter during the airing of the show, PLL has become an expert at hashtag usage. In its summer finale, fan favorite “liar” Aria attends a hoe-down and ends up line dancing. It’s ludicrous and has little to do with the plot, but a hashtag down in the corner of the screen prompted fans to tweet using #MovesLikeAria and within minuets it was trending in the United States. Through various key moments of development, new hashtags pop up on screen—some with wild success and others fizzing out after a few minuets of tweeting. The big three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—have also picked up this trend, promoting special hashtags for individual episodes (such as #Tinkerbell for the third episode of ABC’s fantasy Once Upon A Time) and hashtags that are meant to carry the fandom through long TV arcs (again, from Once, the #SaveHenry campaign that began in the summer of 2013 and thus far has trended every episode of the third season). The amount of tweets for an episode has become a point of pride—ABC's Scandal putting out a promo where it not only speaks of its 10 million live views but its close to 200K tweets on its premiere night, thereby validating it as “the most talked about show on network TV.” Fans become excited when they realize something from their show is trending and often snap pictures of it to send to the actors as proof of love and loyalty and their own power and prowess. And in return, the networks play into the fans love by offering special rewards: 2,000 retweets will get you a script tease for the next episode; 3 million likes on Facebook and you’ll get a special scene from a new episode. And like Pavlovian dogs, we hear our bell and expect our treat.
But how much can a fan really affect their fandom? Can they, for instance, cause the writers and show runners to change storylines to suit fan agenda? Some think so. The Supernatural Family—fans of the CW’s Supernatural—constantly try and make their favorite ship, Destiel (Dean and the angel Castiel) canonized by participating in internet shipping polls. Nine seasons in and it doesn’t look like the fans are any closer to making Destiel real. However this doesn’t mean that fandoms don’t have power. Sometimes a powerful fandom can save a show. Fox’s Fringe only got to have a fifth season because fans of the show lobbied for it, to have a real close to the show they loved so dearly. It didn’t hurt that the Fringe fandom had a habit of smart trending on Twitter and knowing how to get attention (using specialized hashtags, for example and thereby appealing to the advertisers who fund programing), despite pulling in low numbers. So while there is power in fandom nevertheless it is often aggrandized in the eyes of the fans.
There is something to be said about how far fandoms can reach. Often times TV shows are localized to a certain geographic region. Take Doctor Who, undoubtedly one of the reigning kings of internet fandom. It’s a small, 50 yr old British show that somehow has become an American sensation. When it was announced that current Doctor, Matt Smith, would be leaving, the BBC held a 30min special in order to announce the new Doctor. By less than (ahem) legal methods, somehow, American fans managed to tune in with the Brits, making Matt Smith, Peter Capalldi, and Doctor Who all trend—in America—for long after the special. Doctor Who now has a special place in American popular culture, from the convention halls to the shopping malls and the proof is in the Twitter pudding.
The final point I want to make here about social media and fandom is the concept of identity. Fandoms come up with unique names for themselves that serve as identity markers: Oncers, Whovians, SleepyHeads, SPNFamily, Gladiators, ect. What’s interesting is that on Twitter people self identify in their profiles. Instead of having information about your actual self (age, location, job, ect) it has become a place to identity by fandom. Take my Twitter for instance; there is nothing there about my educational background or where I am from, but rather what fandoms I consider myself apart of: MCRmy (My Chemical Romance), Whovian (Doctor Who), Oncer (Once Upon A Time) and Nerdfighter (followers of John and Hank Green). These identity markers serve as unifying forces. “I belong with them,” they say.
So who is affecting whom? To be sure fandom affects social media—they are what causes trending and conversation. To a lesser extent social meida affects fandom, occasionally offering up tidbits and special prizes for those who are apart of the social media phenomenon. Overall, social media has made fandom more accessible for everyone and fandom in return promotes the product better than the network or creators ever could. These two are uniquely tied from here on out.