I happened to find this piece today buried deep in my archives: it’s a case study that was included in the textbook we use with undergraduates at the Birmingham School of Media — Media Studies: Texts, Production, Context — and it summarises the work I did with Inger-Lise Bore on the Twitter activities of a group of West Wing fans.
New media create new opportunities for fans to create and share their own interpretations of media texts. For example, a group of fans of The West Wing tweet as characters from the show. In doing so, they have created a new fan activity for us to study.
Jane Feuer (2007) has described The West Wing (TWW) as an American mainstream quality TV drama series. It was created by Aaron Sorkin and originally shown on NBC between 1999 and 2006, and it focuses primarily on the lives of the US democratic president Josiah Bartlet, his family and senior members of his staff.
When we first began studying this activity we approached TWW ‘twitterverse’ (as participants call it) as a work of fan fiction, with each participant acting as a collaborating author. Their joint output has the potential to expand the timeline of the original TWW story. This is particularly significant because the show itself has finished. There will be no new episodes to provide viewers with further narrative development or background information, so this Twitter activity offers one way to fill in gaps in the original text and satisfy fans’ cravings for new episodes (Costello and Moore 2007).
Our analysis considered how this TWW twitterverse worked as a text, exploring how Twitter mediated the content creating a complex hypertext story which may be experienced differently by different readers at different times, according to who they follow on Twitter. In this sense, our object of study differs from conventional fanfic.
When we moved our attention from the text to its producers — many of whom we were fortunate enough to interview — we continued to reassess the way in which we understood this practice. Fanfic writing is believed to be dominated by female fans (Cumberland 2002: 176). However, the majority of our research participants identified themselves as male. Moreover, only one of our interviewees, @donnatella_moss, had written any other form of fanfic. Other characters who we interviewed either understood what fanfic was but rejected that label for this practice, or claimed to be unaware that such fan practices existed.
The output of this TWW twitterverse can appear to its audience as a unified story, but in fact it is formed and shaped by independent participants who have a variety of motivations for their participation. One of interviewees told us that in real life he works in politics in Washington. He originally conceived of the activity as a way to discuss politics openly online without compromising his position. Several other interviewees saw the activity primarily as an exercise in creative writing, and are motivated by their own writing aspirations. Some participants had seen other TWW twitter accounts and created a character with the hope of engaging with the established twitterverse, while others began as a solo activity and were subsequently adopted by the other users and drawn into the twitterverse.
To differentiate these practices from conventional fanfic we now tend to refer to TWW Twitterverse as an improvised simulation. The participants are simulating how these characters might come across if they existed in the “real” world, rather than in a TV show, and if they were using Twitter. Our observation suggested that the accounts can easily be read as “real” twitter accounts as they conform to the normal style of tweets – employing normal Twitter practices such as the RT, hashtagging and @ replies.
Our observation and interview data demonstrated that “staying in character” was a key guiding principle for all participants. Providing what is deemed an “authentic” performance allowed all of these participants to perform TWW fandom by displaying their knowledge and understanding of their chosen character, as well as their awareness of politics and current affairs. It also enables them to demonstrate their creative skills as they adapt that character for Twitter.
Costello, V. and Moore, B. 2007. Cultural outlaws : An examination of audience activity and online television fandom. Television & New Media 8 (2): 124-143
Cumberland, S. 2002. The five wives of Ibn Fadlan: Women’s collaborative fiction on Antonio Banderas web sites. In Reload: Rethinking women + cyberculture, ed. M. Flanagan and A. Booth, 175-194. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Feuer, J. 2007. HBO and the concept of quality TV. In Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond, ed. J. McCabe and K. Akass, 145-157. London: I.B.Tauris