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Please cite this as: Murthy, D. (2013), “’Hate-watching’ and Twitter”, iSociology,  http://www.dhirajmurthy.com/hate-watching-and-twitter

In my Twitter research, I have been exploring ‘social television watching’. There are two key points which come to mind regarding how the rise of social media has impacted our approach to television-viewing generally. First, scholarship on television has seen TV viewing as ‘parasocial’, an unbalanced relationship where television viewers feel ‘intimacy at a distance’ with celebrity actors (MR Levy 1979). In other words, TV viewers perceive an intimate relationship, where they have the illusion that they ‘know’ the celebrity on screen; however, the celebrity knows nothing of the television watcher. The promise, or at least perception, of social media such as Twitter is that this parasociality may be broken down or challenged one @-mention at a time by the likes of Ashton Kutcher. So the impact here is a perceived decrease of parasociality (a decrease in the traditional gap between television viewer and celebrity on the screen).

Additionally, social media, by encouraging television audience members to be quite active, tweeting under #thefollowing or #dexter can form engaged public audiences, which include both fans who know each other and fans who do not. This social TV watching is powered by social media use via mobile smartphones and laptops. Interestingly, an argument can be made that this increases our sociability while engaging in an activity which many have viewed as becoming less and less social (in juxtaposition to historical TV watching as a family or other group).

Hate-watching has been a part of television since its inception. It’s not that Twitter and other social media encourage hate watching per se, but that social media make it easier to publicly hate-watch. In other words, shows like Single Ladies or Toddlers & Tiaras would have had hate-watchers with or without social media. It is not only the publicness of hate watching that has changed, but also that it is real time, global, and not limited to one’s living room or to a single telephone call. What social media does is enable a ‘networked public’ (see ‘Networked’ by Barry Wellman) to hate-watch together. Additionally, after Emily Nussbaum’s 2012 New Yorker piece, ‘Hate-Watching “Smash”‘, Twitter has seen many incidents of people tweeting under #hatewatching and similar hash tags shows that are the top of their hate-watch list. Twitter can ultimately egg people on to hate watch (especially during the network broadcast of a show or in the immediate days after the show is aired).

As mentioned above, social media creates new social communities and formations. Often, these are focused around particular events (something I discuss in my book). In the case of television, these events are particular TV shows. Events encourage social responses. My view is that hate-watching is not more popular today per se. Rather, it is the way in which we hate-watch that has changed. Melrose Place in the 90s comes to mind here! Though by no means the same as hate-watching, the best term to describe similar historical processes of this type of television watching is ‘guilty pleasure’. An Associated Press article in 2002 refers to Jerry Springer shows in this vein.

What is different, and why we may perceive hate-watching to be more popular today, is that Twitter makes it very easy to publicly broadcast your hate-watching. Not only that, but the social engagement of rapid @-mentions between hate-watchers leads us to think it is on the rise. Not only is it very public and in your face now, but it is highly networked, real-time, and global.

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I teach an undergraduate Social Media class. As a sociology class, the class explores issues of privacy, the public and private (jokingly referred to as the ‘theme of the semester’ by my students), technological determinism, and power/influence. In today’s class, we discussed celebrity culture on Twitter. In my forthcoming book about Twitter, I argue that Twitter’s ease of use to connect to people is one reason for its popularity. My class has been interested in how much this applies to ‘connecting with’ celebrities. To explore this question ’empirically’, my class sent a total of 57 tweets to ‘celebrities’ (defined very broadly as ‘famous people’). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  •  @ellenDegeneres_ So proud to share my name with such an amazing person. #ellenssticktogether #yougogirl
  • @ryanlochte I’ve heard rumors you’re doing a workout video for swimmers…is that true?
  • Gonna wear my @jermaineoneal Eau Claire jersey tomorrow. Let’s Get It SUNS!
  • @JLo where did you get your sideway cross necklace?

Within five minutes, one student received a retweet and, within an hour, one received an @ mention

The retweet:

  • @RosaAcosta love your youtube workouts.. they are so effective and great to follow

The @ mention:

  1. STUDENT: @OliverPhelps We’re looking at whether or not Twitter connects us with celebs. Help me out? 😉
  2. @OliverPhelps@STUDENT yes it does
  3. STUDENT: […] verdict by @OliverPhelps: Twitter can indeed connect you with celebs. Thanks a bunch, Oliver. 🙂
[NB Oliver Phelps = George Weasley in the Harry Potter films] 

Their conclusion was that having a 2 in 57 chance of being ‘noticed’/’interacting’ with a celebrity was not only noteworthy, but provided a leg to stand on in terms of Twitter’s ability to connect ‘normal’ people with influential people on Twitter.

One interesting discussion which emerged from this exercise was whether the tone/content of these tweets was an independent variable which we should be considering in our analysis. My students then posted more ‘cerebral’ tweets to the same genre of celebrity they had initially tweeted to (e.g. now a tweet to Kanye when previously one was sent to 50 Cent). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  • For what do fictional worlds serve? @jk_rowling
  • @ladygaga what are your views on gay marriage?
  • @MicheleBachmann what will you be doing to encourage people to get out and vote this Tuesday? #election #MN
  • @Eminem Have you been watching the debates? Any thoughts on the two candidate’s views on economy?

Within a minute of the student who had tweeted Lady Gaga about gay marriage, Lady Gaga tweeted a link to a blog post titled ‘#VOTE2013 #OBAMA Romney’s on drugs.

My students found it interesting, but completely unsurprising, that their initial tweets tended to be more ‘banal’ and that they actually had to be ‘forced’ to tweet more ‘intellectual’ ones. Of course, I was not passing a normative value on either genre of tweets. Rather, part of the exercise was for my students to reflect on forms of talk in Twitter (they have read a lot of Goffman!). My students seemed surprised by the fact they received some responses. If others out there have done similar exercises with their classes, please post a comment!