Studying fan activities on Twitter: Reflections on methodological issues emerging from a case study on The West Wing fandom
First Monday

Studying fan activities on Twitter: Reflections on methodological issues emerging from a case study on The West Wing fandom
by Inger-Lise Kalviknes Bore and Jonathan Hickman



Abstract
Focusing on issues of methodology, this paper reflects on our experiences of studying a specific Twitter–based fan community, and seeks to discuss some of the opportunities and challenges associated with the use of Twitter data for fan studies research. Building on the extensive body of work on online fan practices taking place on message boards (e.g., Hills, 2005; Williams, 2011), fan Web sites (e.g., Bailey, 2002), fan fiction sites (e.g., Coppa, 2006; Cumberland, 2002), and so on, there has been increasing academic interest in how fans use social networking systems such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter (e.g., Booth, 2008; Wood and Baughman; 2012, Zhivov, et al., 2011). Social media services are attractive sites for fieldwork due to the ease of access that some of these platforms afford researchers, as well as the novelty associated with certain platforms and the fan activities taking place there. More importantly, though, “exploring Twitter can also provide a snapshot into the ways that television fans enhance their own viewing experiences using social media tools” [1]. Furthermore, exploring fan activities on social networking systems can help us learn more about how fans negotiate the structures of different online spaces, and how that impacts on their engagement with each other and with their fan objects. It is therefore timely to encourage debate around different approaches to researching social media based fan practices, and this article tries to do so by reflecting on how we negotiated ethical, analytical and more practical methodological issues that emerged from our own empirical research project.

Contents

Introduction
Ethical considerations
Questions of analysis and interpretation
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

This paper describes our approach to studying a particular fan activity on Twitter: tweeting as though a character from the U.S. television drama The West Wing. During our project, we often discussed the extent to which it shared characteristics with other online fan activities with which we were familiar — fan fiction writing, fan role play and fan message boards. In some ways our preconceptions of fan activity shaped our early reading of the activity. By taking a broadly ethnographic approach, we came across a number of “naturally occurring surprises” [2] which led us to look deeper into the activity through close analysis of fan text and then interviews with participants. In doing so, we began to see that this activity could be distinguished by its emphasis on improvisation, its combination of creative role playing and political participation, and the emphasis on dialogue between participants and between participants and external individuals. We feel this highlights that examining fan practices in different online spaces can help us develop our understanding of fandom.

Our case study focuses on a Twitter–based community of The West Wing fans. This American mainstream quality TV drama series (Feuer, 2007) was created by Aaron Sorkin and originally shown on NBC between 1999 and 2006. It focuses on the lives of the fictional U.S. Democratic President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet, the First Lady and their senior members of staff. It follows Bartlet through his two terms in office, and ends with the inauguration of Bartlet’s successor Matthew Santos, who also employs a number of the central characters in his White House staff. However, although the show ended in 2006, many of these characters seem to continue commenting on their work, their colleagues and current affairs, through a set of Twitter accounts.

Focusing on this creative fan practice, we were interested in exploring three key issues: What motivates the fans to use Twitter in this way; how the organisation of the fan community can be seen to negotiate the structures of Twitter; and how participants perform The West Wing fandom through their tweets. We approached these questions by collecting data through the observation of Twitter streams, by analysing tweets as text, and through e–mail interviews with nine participants. Having outlined our research project, we will now discuss how we dealt with some of the ethical issues that emerged as we developed our methodology.

 

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Ethical considerations

Our reflection on ethical considerations focuses on issues around sample selection, recruitment and anonymity. Our empirical research started in October 2010 by observing the Twitter streams associated with this fan community. It quickly became apparent that some characters were represented by multiple Twitter accounts. Where such multiple accounts existed there was a great deal of variation in levels of activity and levels of engagement (for example the number of people who had subscribed to the account for updates). In deciding which accounts to focus on, we used a public Twitter list where an account holder portraying central The West Wing character Joshua Lyman had included 98 unique accounts that portray central and more marginal characters from the television show (@joshualyman/colleagues). The list is described as “People in DC I work with”. Even within this small corpus, some characters were portrayed through multiple accounts. In those cases we then chose to concentrate on the account that was the most active at the time of data collection. In practical terms, focusing on @joshualyman’s list helped draw up some boundaries around our sample, but necessarily also impacted on our findings. The list may exclude accounts that the curator was not aware of, or did not approve of. However, it may also have helped us, as outsiders, get a sense of which accounts were part of this fan community, rather than independently tweeting as The West Wing characters. A wider sense of the activity might be developed by looking at the totality of Twitter accounts which purport to be characters from The West Wing. Further studies might look to develop network analyses of this activity, by noting which accounts are bonded through exchanges at the level of (reciprocal or one way) account following, or trading in public replies to one another. Such studies might help us to understand the ways in which individuals contest their rights to perform their characters, and might help us to understand how narrower groupings, such as the one we studied, are formed. We chose to limit ourselves to one ‘story world’, one continuity of The West Wing on Twitter, and this was pegged to @joshualyman’s list. This was necessary for the type of work we wanted to complete in this project, but we should remain mindful that the canonicity of this world is assumed only by those involved, as characters and observers, and that the rights to characters may be contested.

Observation of online fan activity remains a contentious issue in academic debates around the ethics of studying and citing online fan posts without asking permission (e.g., Bruckman, 2002). However, Twitter differs from fan message boards, for example, in terms of access. As Yardi and boyd [3] note, “Twitter conversations (excluding protected accounts) are public to anyone who looks”. Thus, while contributors to a fan message board may primarily address other members of that fan community, people who tweet may consciously address a much more diverse audience. Based on this, we decided to observe Twitter streams without asking account holders for consent. However, we would like to stress that this should still be a matter for academic debate. For example, asking permission from Twitter account holders should be more straightforward than approaching contributors to a fan board, where members may only intermittently check their message inbox, or may even have left the board. Moreover, while tweets can be seen to contribute to public conversations, citing them in academic papers will still pull posts out of their original context.

We decided to complement our observational and textual analysis data with participant interviews, but were concerned about intruding into this fan community, and were unsure about how we could approach them in a way that might make them feel comfortable about participating in our study. After all, the participants had chosen to tweet under character names, rather than their own names, and our observation demonstrated that they strove to stay in character and never made any references to their own “real world” lives. In fact, for readers unfamiliar with The West Wing, the accounts may not be immediately recognisable as representing fictional characters, since they adhere to Twitter conventions and, in many ways, come across as “regular” Twitter users.

To examine this further, we coded tweets to look at how characters performed as “normal” Twitter users. The idea of a “normal” Twitter user is problematic, as approaches to Twitter are variable; describing the normal use of Twitter might be considered similar to describing the normal use of a notepad. However, recent studies of Twitter suggest a certain consensus of styles and approaches to writing tweets. Conventions listed by boyd, et al. (2010) include the use of the @username syntax for addressivity, the RT @ syntax (“RT” means “retweet” — used to show that a Tweet is a quote from another user) and the #tag syntax (primarily but not exclusively to help codify a tweet’s contents). The study also suggests that the sharing of URLs is a common practice amongst Twitter users. So while there is no measure of the frequency with which a Twitter user might be expected to use these conventions, there is still an expectation that users would engage in these activities regularly. The accounts that we focus on here conform to these social conventions: 62 percent of the tweets we examined feature addressivity (@ syntax), 24 percent include a hashtag (#tag syntax) and nine percent are retweets (RT @ syntax). Seven percent of the tweets studied included a URL. Thus, through their usage of Twitter, the characters are presenting themselves as “regular” Twitter users. This can be contrasted with the Glee character accounts examined by Wood and Boughman [4], whose tweets at times also included descriptions of nonverbal actions, such as: “*Sighs as they pull into the parking lot*” and “*Follows him and shrugs*”. Such dialogue reads more like a teleplay script than a “regular” Twitter exchange.

While we were pondering questions around intrusive academic research, a blog post (http://theplan.co.uk/whats-next-westwing-fan-fiction-on-twitter/) reflecting on our research and speculating on the organisation of this fan community received a comment from one of the participants. The Twitter user behind the @joshualyman account wrote:

“The twitter account for @joshualyman is one person, who doesn’t have other characters. (Though you are correct in surmising I have a personal twitter.) I believe most of the other accounts which sprung up were groups of friends, but I don’t do a lot of OOC [out of character] chatter even via PM or email, so I can’t tell you what they are all about.”

Since @joshualyman had initiated contact, we felt that it was acceptable to contact him directly regarding our project, and tweeted him an invitation to participate in the research.

After completing an e–mail interview, we asked @joshualyman if he could introduce us to other members of the fan community. We hoped that this would be a less intrusive way of approaching the fans. @joshualyman first introduced us to @donnatella_moss and @Pres_Bartlet, and we proceeded to use a snowball method of recruitment by continuing to ask interviewees to suggest and introduce us to potential research participants. In total, we invited 13 fans and completed nine interviews with fans portraying the following characters:

@joshualyman: Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) is President Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff, before becoming President Santos’ Chief of Staff.

@donnatella_moss: Donna Moss (played by Janel Moloney) is Josh Lyman’s Senior Assistant in the Bartlet administration, before becoming the First Lady’s Chief of Staff in the Santos administration.

@Pres_Bartlet: Josiah (Jed) Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) is the U.S. President.

@McGarrysGhost: Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer) is Bartlet’s Chief of Staff, before becoming his Senior Councillor, and then Santos’ running mate as Vice Presidential candidate. McGarry dies of a heart attack in the final season of The West Wing.

@Toby_Ziegler: Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff) is White House Communications Director for the Bartlet administration, until he is fired in season seven.

@CJCreggConcannon: Claudia Jean (C.J.) Cregg (played by Allison Janney) is first White House Press Secretary, and then Chief of Staff for the Bartlet administration.

@ElsieSnuffin: Elsie Snuffin (played by Danica McKellar) is assistant to Deputy Communications Director Will Bailey in the Bartlet administration. She only appears in season four.

@Danny_Concannon: Danny Concannon (played by Timothy Busfield) is White House correspondent for the Washington Post.

@PresidentSantos: Matthew (Matt) Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) is elected U.S. President in season seven.

We are aware that using @joshualyman as a starting point both for our Twitter stream observation and our recruitment of interviewees, we clearly allowed his particular perspective of the fan community to frame our research. In fact our selection could also be seen to confer legitimacy onto the character accounts that we have studied. This highlights some of the methodological issues that fan scholars using Twitter data will need to grapple with; how best to select a sample from enormous amounts of data, and how to approach users while remaining aware of problems around intrusion and around the effects researchers may have on subsequent fan interaction. While the accounts of our interviewees tended to be associated with the most central characters on the show, our respondents also repeatedly referred us to accounts that we would not necessarily have considered including in our sample. This lead us to approach @ElsieSnuffin; while she portrayed a very minor character, she was highly regarded by other members of the fan community and was also one of the most prolific tweeters. We acknowledge that, as The West Wing fans ourselves, we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to spend much time on a marginal character, and feel that this shows the importance of listening to the community itself rather than our own preconceived fan readings.

Throughout our recruitment and interview processes, we also strove to follow social norms appropriate to Twitter. Our own Twitter accounts identified us as academic researchers, and we signed up to “follow” certain character accounts. Hine [5] stresses that maintaining a “sustained presence” in the field will often remain important also in online research, and we found that following the community’s daily Twitter interactions over a ten–month period provided us with rich insights. During this period we engaged with them in appropriate ways, such as by retweeting comments that were amusing or interesting to us, and by responding to any tweets that were directed at us. We hoped that this would help verify the sincerity of our interview invitations. Following the accounts was also important as it allowed the fans to message us privately using Twitter’s DM (direct message) system. We used DMs whilst we were discussing their interest in research participation; DMs enabled informants to share contact details and to post “off topic” without breaking character in public. When making our initial e–mail contact, we also addressed the informant in character, giving due deference to their character’s status by asking permission to speak informally: “Dear Jed (If I may) ...”

All informants were offered a range of options for how we should conduct the interview, but all chose e–mail. This was both for reasons of practicality and for the sake of confidentiality, as the following three examples suggest:

“e–mail would work the best for me, personally, as it wouldn’t require our schedules to mesh or anything, which can be difficult across time zones”

“Let’s do it over email as my schedule gets a little hectic from time to time”

“I cannot do skype for anon [anonymity] reasons”

It was also important to us that e–mail allowed participants to protect the anonymity of their real–life identity (for a further discussion of privacy and online research, see Joinson, 2005), and helped draw a clear delineation between any informal public communication via Twitter and the formal interview situation. However, e–mail interviews are also associated with certain challenges (e.g., Kivits, 2005), such as difficulties in establishing and re–establishing rapport in each exchange. We found that Twitter helped to mitigate this obstacle by maintaining low–key day–to–day contact between e–mail exchanges. For example, one participant wrote: “Jon, I enjoyed our chat about Eurovision yesterday. Fun to get a chance to know a bit about each other via Twitter”. In more practical terms, respondents who followed us on Twitter received informal reminders of their research participation every time they saw our non–project–related tweets appear in their timeline, which may have encouraged them to continue engaging with our project.

In addition to considering ethical concerns around sample selection and recruitment, we also recognised the need to be mindful of how we dealt with questions of identity. Firstly, participants’ real–life identities were hidden behind their Internet handle, and we were unsure of how much information they would wish to share about themselves. Secondly, since they clearly strove to stay in character while on Twitter, we did not know how they would feel about being cited out of character and speaking with a different “voice”. We were therefore keen to discuss issues of identity and confidentiality with each fan who considered participating in our interview research. We proposed that we would attribute cited responses to their character Twitter account, while also inviting the fans to suggest other arrangements that they would be more comfortable with. As a result of this, eight participants agreed to our proposal in principle, but also requested that certain responses should remain anonymous, while others should be entirely off the record. One participant, @ElsieSnuffin, chose to respond in character, which raised issues of interpretation that we will discuss below.

Our use of e–mail interviews increased participants’ ability to manage the amount of information they wanted to share about themselves. For example, we were unable to identify their accents, sex, or other audible markers of identity that may be more obvious in a telephone interview. We did invite participants to provide us with some personal information (age, location, profession, marital status and number of children) to get a limited sense of the fan community’s demographics. However, we stressed that the sharing of such information was voluntary, and some chose not to share any such details. When writing up our research, we avoid linking such information to any specific characters, and we refer to interviewees as “he” or “she” based on the sex of their adopted character. Anonymity was also important for minimising our intrusion into the fan community. We were keenly aware that our research could risk upsetting intra–community relationships by citing interview responses that were critical of particular community members or particular kinds of behaviour. We therefore avoid attaching such comments to specific character accounts, or paraphrase to conceal any identifiers included in the interview response. Finally, we also obscure the names of non–character Twitter users engaging with character accounts. This is particularly important because we can assume that many of these users will be tweeting under their own names. Having reflected on emerging ethical issues around sample selection, recruitment and anonymity, we will now move on to discuss how we negotiated analytical and interpretative issues that our case study brought forth.

 

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Questions of analysis and interpretation

This section will reflect on issues around our combination of data from the observation of Twitter streams, from textual analysis of specific Twitter exchanges, and from participant interviews. The observational data we collected from the Twitter stream created by the @joshualyman list could be seen to provide “naturally occurring surprises” [6] that enabled us to consider how this particular fan activity shared characteristics with other creative fan practices, and how it presented unique characteristics as a result of the particular online space it had to negotiate. However, sampling remained a tricky issue beyond our decision to focus our attention on this list. As Deller (2011) has noted, it is important to pay attention to the communal aspect of Twitter, as well as individual utterances, and we focused both on the public interactions between these fans, and between the listed accounts and other Twitter users. This meant that conversations sprawled across the streams of a vast number of accounts. Such conversations can only be artificially contained through mechanisms such as hash tag labels or lists, and tracing conversations back in time becomes difficult, as old tweets disappear from the readily accessible public stream. This highlights the need to develop data collection tools that attend to the specific needs of fan studies researchers.

We complemented our analysis of observational data by exploring emerging issues through the analysis of individual tweets and conversations as text. This aspect of our research examined how users performed The West Wing fandom, how they constructed their chosen characters, and how they used those characters to participate in public debates around current affairs. At the time of this study, tools for collecting Twitter data were quite limited. Automated archiving tools, such as TwapperKeeper (now HootSuite Archives), allowed researchers to collect all the tweets for one Twitter account or the results of keyword and hashtag searches. Hashtag–based data collection was not suitable for this project as the participants in the activity tweeted naturally, that is they did not mark their tweets as being specifically part of an artificial or fictional world through keyword or hashtag markers. Instead we needed to collect twitter data from across all of the accounts over a period of time. The @joshualyman/colleagues Twitter list provided us with one data source from which we could collect tweets for all of the accounts in our study; data collection was a simple matter of bringing the list up on the Twitter Web site, loading as much information onto the page as we needed (in this case as much as was still available) and then saving the page into a stable HTML archive for off–line storage. We were then able to transfer the data from HTML back into a searchable database for analysis and coding (Hickman, 2011). Whilst we could have collected the tweets from each individual Twitter account page (or used a TwapperKeeper archive for each account), using the list was advantageous as it provided us with a timeline of aggregate activity in which we could view the flow of conversations. While the collective output of the accounts in some ways resembles fan fiction, we did not pursue a narrative analysis of this text. This would certainly be possible, but its sprawling and continuously developing nature would present certain challenges for analysts in terms of drawing up boundaries for the creative text. Moreover, the “fan fiction” readership will necessarily be fragmented, as different Twitter users follow different characters and observe different parts of their individual streams.

Our textual analysis raised questions about fans’ motivations for using Twitter in this way, and their own perceptions of their practice. Our e–mail interviews illuminated some aspects of these issues, although nine interviews can only provide a very limited understanding of this diverse community. Analysis of the interview data underlined this limitation, as we identified individual differences in why fans had chosen to tweet as particular The West Wing characters, how they decided what to tweet about, how they developed the Twitter “voice” of their chosen character, how they perceived the value of their practice, and how they saw their own participation in the fan community. For example, one interviewee told us that he works in politics in Washington, and that he originally conceived of the activity as a way to discuss politics openly online without revealing his identity and so compromising his position. The emphasis on engaging with political debates was evident across most of our interviews, and can clearly be seen to reproduce the focal point of the original show. In this case, there is an evident overlap between political engagement as a key value in The West Wing fandom and the significant presence of political debate on Twitter more broadly. Our research thus suggests that this overlap is an important reason why these fans were motivated to use Twitter. In fact, our interviews also indicated that this group of fans tended not to engage in other forms of online fandom. While one participant had also engaged in fan fiction writing, none of our other interviewees used fan message boards or participated in any other creative fan practices. This may suggest that Twitter can attract fans who would otherwise not contribute to online spaces more conventionally associated with fandom, and, if that is the case, studying Twitter–based fandom can help fan studies scholars research fans who would otherwise be less easily accessible.

In addition to political participation, several participants also constructed this fan practice as an exercise in creative writing, and suggested that they were motivated by writing aspirations. Some had seen other The West Wing Twitter accounts and created a character with the hope of joining that fan community, while others started out on their own and were (sometimes reluctantly) drawn into the role play by existing members. These are two examples from our interviews:

@CJCreggConcannon:
Then I stumbled on President Bartlet through someone’s retweet. I started following him and Charlie and Leo, and started trying to find a female WWer who is about my age so I could start tweeting under a name that might start to have followers; I just wanted my voice heard, and thought maybe a couple hundred people would follow me. I was in for a big surprise.

@Danny_Concannon:
So, I’d been following the WW folks for about a year and saw a couple people come and go. As far as I could tell, there was no real organization to the group beyond a sort of hivemind agreement to all act out our characters. (“Charlie,” @charlieyoungesq, was functioning as a leader for a while but seems to have dropped away from that role.) I thought the dynamic was really interesting and I love the show (and just about everything Sorkin), so I grabbed the @Danny_Concannon username and tweeted @CJCreggConcanon just to see what would happen. My original intent was to stand up a regularly updated blog as well as a vehicle to build up my own ability to dissect the news. Time commitments have somewhat shut that down, but hope springs eternally.

However, the interviews highlighted similarities as well as diversity. For example, we did note that a sense of reach, or audience size, was important to all of the characters. While the interviews often suggested a sense of pleasure in getting attention, participants also emphasised the value they attached to using the characters as a platform to champion not just American left–wing politics, but the very idea of political discourse itself. This is an example from @ElsieSnuffin’s interview, which was conducted in character:

“A big part of the reason I became interested in tweeting in this way was to raise awareness and try to help educate people, even in a small way. As we all know, discussing politics can be complex — more than ever in our rather argumentative society here in the States at the moment — so having a venue to share about and debate politics, issues and policies is a big part of why I’m here, although it’s certainly evolved a great deal over time.”

Importantly, the interviews also demonstrated that the majority of this fan practice is improvised, rather than pre–arranged or coordinated. Below is our interview question and an illustrative selection of the responses we received.

Are all tweets between you and other characters improvised? Do you plan any of your interactions with any other characters, and if so, how do you communicate those plans (e.g. Twitter direct message, email, face to face)?

@Pres_Bartlet:
“Almost everything you see from @Pres_Bartlet is improvised. I think there has been one exchange that was sort of planned in advance to coincide with something, but other than that, it’s all improvised.”

@joshualyman:
“probably 95% of it is improvised. the recent prank war, i did offer some dms to people.”

@donnatellamoss:
“Josh and I sometimes get our stories straight via DM and email. Not face to face — I don't know who any of the others are, and I don’t know Josh’s real name. [...] Usually though it’s spontaneous. Sometimes Josh finds a story that woudl be good for me to follow up on [...] and he tends to tell me about Jewish holidays and stuff too. Occasionally I get him to explain political stuff to me via email too — which mirrors the actual Josh and Donna relationship.”

The question of planning and organisation is an aspect of this fan practice that would have been difficult to assess through observation only. However, our combination of interview and observational data enabled us to conclude that real–world political events provide an ongoing narrative framework, while fans respond to that in different ways through their character performances. However, our analysis also demonstrated that this framework is not stable. Some participants adhere firmly to the show’s diegesis, pretending that @PresidentSantos is the current U.S. President. As @joshualyman and @PresidentSantos explained in their interviews:

@joshualyman:
“9/11 never happened in his universe. firm rule. never break it. if I have to reference something in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, it is taking place in Qumar or Kazakhstan. [...]”

@PresidentSantos:
“Being active in both the political world and the Twittersphere, I try to keep an eye on developing events. When free time allows, I’ll brainstorm tweets that the character of Matt Santos may send if he were living the life of Barack Obama. For instance, @PresidentSantos faces the same citizenship questions that Obama faced, instead substituting Mexico for Kenya. Santos was also successful in passing healthcare reform, which opponents now call “Santoscare.“ You see where I’m going?”

In contrast, other participants constructed this approach as problematic, and instead set their characters in “our” world. However, despite such differences, ongoing current affairs do seem to provide a relatively coherent setting that users can navigate without requiring further coordination, and that leaves them free to develop personal character arcs if they wish. Our observational and interview data suggested that this varied in importance for different fans. @Pres_Bartlet and @McGarrysGhost rarely interact with other character accounts, focusing instead on providing political commentary on current events and discussing political issues with non–character accounts. In his interview, @Pres_Bartlet said:

“I do my best to avoid the serious role playing some of The West Wing twitter characters do. I feel like with Josh and Donna you may wonder “what happened there” ... but with Bartlet, you are more interested in what his reaction to current events would be, and that is what I try to enjoy as him.”

However, the development of romantic relationships represents an example of how such character arcs can be developed through Twitter interaction, and three of the romantic couples portrayed in the show are now portrayed as married couples on Twitter. The last to “get married” were @Zoey_Bartlet and @CharlieYoungEsq, and this “Twitter wedding” represented a rare occasion where members of the fan community collectively planned their public Twitter interactions through an e–mail exchange. The following quote is from our interview with @donnatella_moss, who was already “married” to @joshualyman:

“It was so much fun — particularly because we had a lot of people ‘watching’ and commenting — and a big follower bump as a result. It was fun as a one–off, but coordinating stuff like that often could easily feel like hard work — I much prefer the improv and I think Josh does too.”

While examining this fan activity, we often discussed the extent to which it shared characteristics with other online fan activities, such as fan fiction writing, fan role play and fan message boards. We identified a number of shared traits, but still concluded that the ways in which fans negotiate the structures of Twitter means that the activity can be distinguished by its emphasis on improvisation, its combination of creative role play and political participation, and the emphasis on dialogue between participants and between participants and external individuals. This highlights that examining fan practices in different online spaces can help us develop our understanding of fandom.

Our analysis of the Twitter data and the interview data provided us with two different sets of voices; the constructed Twitter voices of the characters and the e–mail voices of the fans behind the Twitter accounts. One of our key interests was to explore how fans approached the creative task of figuring out how they thought their character would use Twitter, and how they would come across. These are some illustrative examples from our interview data:

@McGarrysghost:
“For example, I am a pacifist, whereas Leo was a combat veteran; therefore, I am obliged to be far more hawkish when tweeting on military topics as Leo than I would otherwise be.”

@PresidentSantos:
“I think it’s a difficult line to straddle between the idea of the “official” Presidential Twitter account and the fact that Matt Santos is a fictional character. What @BarackObama tweets can have real–world consequences. Obama has to acknowledge of holidays, deaths, and current events as they occur. A staff member operates that that feed as a full–time job, with accountability for screw–ups, typos, and mishaps. @PresidentSantos faces no consequences for ignoring Memorial Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other event. In my mind, @PresidentSantos serves as more of a personal Twitter account for the character of Matt Santos, instead of an official account for Matt Santos’ Presidency.”

@CJCreggConcannon:
“I strongly feel the character should respect Mr. Sorkin’s work and Ms Janney’s thoughts on where CJ would be. CJ is all about empathy, respect until she is treated disrespectfully, intelligence, and compassion. Thankfully, those around me describe me with those same phrases, so being “her” comes rather naturally.”

The duality of the character/fan identity presented a particular challenge in the case of our interview with @ElsieSnuffin, who chose to conduct the entire interview in character, apart from certain “off the record” comments. This demonstrates the emphasis placed on “staying in character” within this fan community. Our interviews suggested that very few members knew each other’s “real world” identities, and that few communicated outside of their public Twitter interaction. @ElsieSnuffin’s decision meant that it has been challenging for us to use material from this interview, because the articulated motivations and ideas of the Twitter user are impossible to separate from her articulation of the imagined motivations and ideas of Elsie Snuffin, the character in the show.

Thus, while it was important to us to enable interviewees to choose how they would like to communicate with us, this also presented certain difficulties. In addition to @ElsieSnuffin’s interview, several other interviewees provided responses “off the record”. One interviewee also explained that they shared the character account with another fan, but stressed that we must not identify this co–authored character. Using the resulting interview material was difficult because of the frequent references to the co–authoring process, and because we were unable to gain an interview with the second author. Thus, while these responses often helped develop our understanding of certain aspects of this fan practice, it was sometimes frustrating that we were unable to use them as evidence in any way. Having discussed some important analytical and interpretative issues emerging from our case study, we will now go on to summarise our discussion and consider the wider implications of our findings.

 

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Conclusion

This paper reflected on how we negotiated ethical and analytical issues while developing a methodology for studying a specific fan community. In doing so, we highlighted some of the opportunities and challenges facing scholars of fan studies interested in exploring Twitter–based fandom. One potential opportunity suggested by our case study is that Twitter may attract fans, fans that might otherwise not contribute to online fan spaces such as fan fiction sites or fan message boards. If this is indeed the case, studying Twitter–based fan activities could add further nuance to our understanding of fandom by enabling researchers to access fans that would otherwise be difficult to reach online.

Moreover, because fans have to negotiate the particular characteristics of Twitter as an online space, such practices may also display new characteristics that can shed light on fan communities and fan/fan object relations. In this case, we found that this creative fan practice shared characteristics with existing practices, such as fan fiction writing, fan role play and fan message boards, but the practice itself and the resulting text were also unique in other ways. We were particularly interested in how fans articulated a Twitter “voice” for their chosen characters, and how they improvised their interaction with each other and with other Twitter users within the wider framework of current “real world” political events.

We hope that our discussion of key methodological issues will encourage further debate on how fan studies scholars can explore the rich tapestry of fan activity taking place in social networking sites, and how we should tackle the ethical, analytical and practical issues associated with developing methodologies for empirical research in these emerging areas. End of article

 

About the authors

Inger–Lise Kalviknes Bore is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Theory at Birmingham City University and a member of the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research. Her main research areas are popular comedy and screen audiences.
E–mail: ingerlise [dot] bore [at] bcu [dot] ac [dot] uk

Jonathan Hickman is New Media Degree Leader at Birmingham City University and a member of the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research. He teaches and researches across new media, social media, digital culture and creative industries.
E–mail: jon [dot] hickman [at] bcu [dot] ac [dot] uk

 

Notes

1. Wood and Baughman, 2012, p. 329.

2. Stainton–Rogers, 2006, p. 86.

3. Yardi and boyd, 2010, p. 1.

4. Wood and Boughman, 2012, p. 336.

5. Hine, 2000, p. 63.

6. Stainton–Rogers, 2006, p. 86.

 

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Editorial history

Received 9 October 2012; revised 7 August 2013; accepted 21 August 2013.


Creative Commons Licence
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Studying fan activities on Twitter: Reflections on methodological issues emerging from a case study on The West Wing fandom
by Inger–Lise Kalviknes Bore and Jonathan Hickman.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 9 - 2 September 2013
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4268/3740
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i9.4268





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