Hashtag Watching by Hannah Madonna

I was not one of the 13.6 million viewers to watch the Game of Thrones finale.  I did not have to be.  Whether I wanted it to or not, the show crashed over me like a wave, tweet after tweet giving me a virtual play-by-play of what was going on in the episode.  Being on Twitter during the airtime was, essentially, a watered-down version of watching it for yourself. It helped, of course, that for its final season the internet had Some Thoughts about the show, and everyone seemed to be talking about it.  People who liked the show, people who didn’t like the show, people who wished all the other people would stop talking about it – it seemed like everybody had something to say.  

And even though Game of Thrones is a particularly robust example of this phenomenon – I was inundated with it, immediately spoiled for everything, drowning in dragons and games and thrones – it is by no means the only example of how Twitter, and social media in general, is changing how we watch TV.

Television lends itself incredibly well to social media.  Nielsen, a data analytics company most people know for their TV ratings, now has a dedicated arm just for social metrics and engagement. Unlike movies, where apart from something like the tease of a sequel the story is self-contained, TV series have character and narrative arcs that continue throughout the format (season, miniseries, et cetera).  Storyline A might be neatly wrapped up after an action-packed hour, but Storyline B – and the fate of the favorite character! – lingers, tantalizing, into the promise of next week. This means that the keen-eyed media consumers watching your show can always find something to talk about.  What happened in this episode, what’s going to happen in the next episode, will these characters end up together, will this character be coming back? TV episodes can be picked apart in real-time, right along with thousands of your closest internet strangers and friends, and live-tweeting is more the rule than the exception for many now.  Instead of the old conception of coming home from work and zoning out in front of the TV, watching has become a communal, and interactive experience.

The increase in social media engagement also helps keep TV shows relevant.  There have been many think pieces about how we’re in the “Golden Age” of television. There’s certainly more to watch now, including a glut of “prestige” shows. With so many ways to watch it’s hard enough to keep track of the things you really want to see, and much less find time to try something new.  To grab people’s attention, companies are already planning a social media strategy for their shows before they launch.  A show’s hashtag not only allows fans to connect, but it also gives these networks a chance to gauge their viewers’ reactions.

Another interesting effect is that engaging in this way may actually make TV less bad for us.  There are two reasons often given for the common wisdom that TV is bad, actually: the time spent watching TV is time spent not moving and not thinking.  Tweeting about your favorite show is not going to encourage more movement. If you’re anything like me, Twitter is a delightfully stationary activity when you can space out during a break at work or find some funny memes or gorgeous art before bed.  But talking about TV is a good step towards engaging critically with what you’re watching. Fan theories, trying to unravel twists and mysteries, working through a character’s motivations, these are all great ways to puzzle through a show. It enables the viewers to really spend some time thinking and get some cognitive exercise.  You can even connect with others through fan theories and episode breakdowns. Really, sometimes it’s enough just to tweet “I love this show!” with a hashtag to find someone who shares your interest and maybe have a moment of connection. That’s rare enough on the hell-site that is twitter dot com, so you might as well enjoy it while you can.  Both cognitive and social activity are very, very good for you and in some cases can help delay cognitive decline. I say, if you get to enjoy a good story while you’re helping out your brain; you might as well.

So maybe I didn’t watch the final season of Game of Thrones (and, judging from the reactions of the internet at large I probably never will), but I still got to experience everyone else watching it.  Fandom is a uniquely participatory kind of culture, and social media really helps augment that.  And maybe for Game of Thrones I didn’t join the conversation, but there’s always another show.  I can share how much I love something, and belong – if only for the length of an episode – to a loud, chatty group of people who love it, too.

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