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Diary of a lurker: TV and Twitter

by Stephanie Van Schilt , April 10, 2014Leave a comment

Community Twitter

At the end of last month, global information provider Nielsen announced that Australia was to become the third country in the world with the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service.

According to a Nielsen Company press release, the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings are ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. As local TV aficionado David Knox explains, they will measure ‘the total activity (Tweets, Unique Authors) and reach (Impressions, Unique Audience) of TV-related conversation on Twitter’.

TV shows, audiences and Twitter have become the best of frenemies over the better part of five or so years. I can easily sum up why I personally joined the twittersphere in 140 characters or less: television.

Roughly two years ago, back when it looked like Community wasn’t going to be renewed for a fourth season, fans were encouraged by the show’s actors and creators to petition the network through social media. I decided that Twitter offered me an easy outlet to witness this as it unfolded. So I followed the cast, some of the crew, the official page and, of course, hashtags: an aggregated Community community was formed under the umbrella #sixseasonsandamovie.

I was overjoyed when news of the show’s renewal broke on my feed, and laughed at the behind-the-scenes entertainment offered in tweets from the cast and crew. Community was – and I believe still is – a show that truly respects and values its fans, and Twitter offered a place to revel in this fanaticism at a particularly important time in the show’s history.

Community’s fifth season is currently airing and I still use Twitter, but I’m not exactly a prolific tweeter. Because, my friends, I am a lurker. I say I joined Twitter to witness the Community campaign, yet I didn’t actively partake; I was an invested, voyeuristic party.

Lurking has long been my preferred style of ‘engagement’ with online television fan networks and forums; I may get riled up and react in real life, but I don’t feel the need to declare it publicly (beyond, you know, a TV column or something).

I visit the AV Club’s ‘TV Club’ more than any other site on the whole internets (um, maybe don’t fact check that because a person’s browsing history is private). I get lost on there for hours at a time reading recaps and enjoying the wealth of comments offered by dedicated fans. Here, trolls are mainly kept at bay or shooed back under their bridge; this is a relatively safe space dedicated to in-jokes, engaging criticism, plot speculation and bite-sized fan fiction. I love it so. But I’m always silent.

This week, the seminal Television Without Pity – another site filled with discussions I mutely observed – ceased operation. It was assumed by many that this was due to an inability to monetise traffic in the changing critical landscape. In recent years, TWoP’s exhaustive episode recaps no longer sustained their once-high calibre, but they undoubtedly paved the way for the (now oversaturated and often undercooked) recap form by offering serious and amusing critical engagement with a variety of shows. TWoP was also one of the preeminent locations for addicted fans to get a hit, a place where they could discuss their favourite programs and debate plot points on seemingly endless forums. Now, many viewers who actively participated in TWoP-style sites are turning to social media as a means of engagement with fellow TV fans. They may do so voluntarily, but they’re also guided by the often unsubtle nudge of targeted marketing campaigns.

We’ve all seen Q&A take over Twitter on a Monday night, or perhaps you steer clear of your feed while Scandal or Game of Thrones is showing in the States to avoid spoilers. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to watch a program now without the ‘suggestion’ to socialise your viewing experience online (I’m looking at you Real Housewives of Melbourne with your fifteen thousand hashtag recommendations).

In addition to its social dynamic, Twitter offers a creative avenue for fans who want to critically engage with a show. Last week Twin Peaks fans jumped on Twitter and gave the show a ‘third season’ in honour of Laura Palmer’s cryptic statement to Agent Cooper, ‘I’ll see you again in 25 years’, uttered back in ‘1989’.

There’s a definite kinship between TV and Twitter – hence Nielsen expanding their data to include these stats. However, even in its archaic form, Nielsen’s ratings system was problematic. In recent times, many methods of collating ratings became redundant given the various legal and illegal distribution avenues which make quantifying viewer numbers challenging.

It will be interesting to observe the effect of Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings once they become commercially available in Australia in the second half of this year, but will they encourage me to stop lurking and become more active? As someone who watches a lot of television and critically engages with the form by reading and writing about it, will I stop lurking online and make my viewership count? Who knows, but #probablynot.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.

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