Fan, Fiction, and Twitter

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 MediaMedia 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.

For more project links see:
Follow the story here:!/joshualyman/colleagues


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

The work has produced two more formal outputs — an article that is primarily about the research methodology and another article that focusses more on what we learned.

Twitter fanfic as ‘Improvised Fan Simulation’

I just wanted to share a nugget from one of the articles Inger-Lise and I are producing from our research on fans who tweet as characters from The West Wing. One of the key discussions we had throughout the project was around defining the activity: is it role play? Fan fic? Something else? The term we came up with that best describes it is ‘improvised fan simulation’. We use that term to recognise that this a performance, and that Twitter mediates that performance in an ephemeral way:

For us as researchers, the fragmentation makes it very problematic to establish the boundaries of participants’ collective output. We are looking at a hypernarrative based on multiple texts that include individual tweets, the timelines of individual tweeters, and wider conversations that sprawl across different users and can only be artificially contained through mechanisms such as hash tag labels or the list @joshualyman/colleagues that we used as the starting point for our data collection. Moreover, timelines continue to change, as old tweets disappear from the readily accessible public stream and new ones are added, which further problematizes the idea of narrative openings and closures. Thus, while the output of this fan practice does share certain characteristics with more traditional fanfic, these textual forms also differ in important ways. Most significantly, perhaps, Twitter’s emphasis on brief utterances positioned within a wider, ongoing dialogue here facilitates the creation of a sprawling hypernarrative based on the simulation of TWW characters.

We’re hoping to bring this project to its season finale soon, but in the meantime find out what happened previously on The West Wing on Twitter.

Previously on the West Wing (on Twitter)

This is a little catch up post about a piece of work that’s been developing over the past 12 months. Back in August 2010 I wrote a post about West Wing fan fiction on Twitter which highlighted a few points of interest, and speculated a little about what might be going on behind the scenes.
I know a little about fandom and fan studies from my undergrad days (I didn’t actually take Matt Hills cult media module back in the day, but apparently he thinks I did – I just did all the readings my house mates brought back from class and picked over the concepts with them endlessly in the pub) but not really enough to take this forward. Enter stage-left my wonderful Birmingham School of Media colleague Inger-Lise Bore, one of our resident TV studies experts who happens to be a dab hand at audience and fan stuff.


We worked up the themes of the blog post into a research project and pitched a conference paper for MeCCCSA’s 2010 conference. This paper – complete with fanboy title ‘What’s Next?’ Carrying on the conversations: The West Wing on twitter” – explored the West Wing twitterverse (sorry, that’s what it seems to be called) mostly as a text. We looked at defining what the practice was (role play? fanfic? something else?). We also looked at how some properties of Twitter make for an interesting hypertext story, for example the way following works on Twitter means that the audience can chose to follow partial aspects of the story: are you a keen Josh & Donna ‘shipper, but don’t care much for politics? Just follow Josh and Donna, but don’t follow Leo and Bartlet. To make this more complicated there are multiple accounts for many characters, so we also looked at how readers and authors of the West Wing on Twitter try to bring order to the story through curation, via Twitter lists.


Moving on post-conference we had a bag full of ideas about what the West Wing on Twitter was all about and we resolved to test these out by trying to interview the authors of the tweets. We were pretty bowled over by the access we were given to this world. In the main the authors welcomed our little intrusion and were very forthcoming about their personal motivations for writing the tweets and about the mechanics of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s online analogue.


So what did we learn? All will be revealed in September when we discuss this part of the work at Transforming Audiences 3 (this time the fanboy title is ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’ – I refuse to apologise for this). Needless to say the West Wing twitterverse wasn’t as simple to grasp as our textual analysis suggested, but it was a very, very, interesting journey.


And what’s next? The project is also being written up as a series of articles, and we’re very much against the clock as Inger-Lise has a very important project starting any day soon (she’s off on maternity leave, having just been beaten to the finishing line by Donna Moss). So that’s where we are, all that remains is to thank the West Wing twitterverse for letting us into the corridors of power (where we all talked while we walked) – meet the players here.

Cleaning up Twitter data in Excel for analysis

A lot of academic work that draws on tweets as primary data will use hashtag archives as the basis of their study. What’s nice about that is that you can use tools that capture data and present them to you in a usable manner (e.g. a CSV file). If you’re doing something a little different, like reviewing tweets from a group of individuals, that’s a little harder.
I’ve been working with my BCU colleague Inger-Lise Bore on some research into fan fiction written on Twitter (it started with this blog post – we’re presenting it at MeCCSA 2011 tomorrow). There’s no hashtag used to label the tweets we want to study – we were looking instead at the entire output from a few dozen tweets. We found a few web services that promised ways of capturing and archiving this type of Twitter data for us, but they didn’t work. At all. So instead we had to use some pretty unsophisticated means to grab the data.  Continue reading Cleaning up Twitter data in Excel for analysis

What’s Next? #westwing Fan fiction on Twitter

A week or so ago I started following Josiah Bartlet on Twitter. Turned out he was already following me, as he likes to follow people who are tagging tweets #westwing. I don’t get a lot of the references to contemporary American politics in his tweets, but there’s the occasional reference to the show and a good attempt at some of the classical witticisms and bon mots of the “Former Fictional President, Nobel Prize Winner”. 

But then I spotted something: Jed’s talking to other West Wing characters, who in turn are having conversations with other characters. Josh & Donna (now Donna Moss-Lyman) are chatting about their kids and other domestic niceties, swapping baking tips with Leo’s PA Margaret. CJ & Charlie are still engaged in an escalating battle of one-upmanship, which is currently focussed on their follower count. Meanwhile, Ron Butterfield, head of the POTUS security detail is obsessing about how to keep these Tweets secure (Ron’s also a dab hand at hashtagging, probably those years of protocol). Continue reading What’s Next? #westwing Fan fiction on Twitter