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In today’s social media dominated world, platforms like Twitter are not only there to allow users to express themselves in 280 characters. On a scale achievable only by a multi-billion company, people can now turn to tweeting as a way of connecting over-shared preferences for their favourite media, with television emerging as the winner. Here is where we see the emergence of a golden rule: fans of the same TV programs prefer opinions which support their own (4). This phenomenon, known as opinion homophily or echo chambers, deserves attention as the number of fandoms increases in this triumphant TV era of content streaming platforms like Netflix. But why exactly do TV fandoms on Twitter have a tendency to form homophilic echo chambers?
The Power of Hashtags
Perhaps the most apparent link between online fandoms and homophily is the way Twitter’s technological affordances – the media platform’s characteristics determining what users can and cannot do – make it easy for TV fans to connect with similarly-minded people. Functions such as likes, retweets and mentions allow fans to start a friendly chat with a fellow fan whose opinions they find agreeable (10). What’s more, some affordances can be used to broaden online interactions from dialogues into conversations by involving other fandom members. A like or a retweet is limited to displaying individual support of a Twitter message. Referring to someone by their @username, however, invites responses not only from the mentioned user, but also from the fan audience as a whole (3). As fans seek out similarly-oriented comments within these responses to reassure themselves in their opinions, fandom echo chambers are created.
Twitter’s filtering tools, like hashtags and user-blocking, also allow fans to avoid opinions they know they would disagree with. As a result, the hashtag as a keyword-filtering feature often ends up polarising the fandom by visibly dividing it into fan armies defending their favourite TV couples or characters. Twitter discourse on the show Game of Thrones, for example, is visibly divided into supporters of the main characters who might end up on the coveted Iron Throne. Name-based hashtags – #DaenerysTargaryen, #JonSnow and #NightKing – trend on Twitter like clockwork every time a new episode is aired, with their respective supporters largely ignoring the content marked by the other side’s hashtag. Additionally, according to research by Bruns and Burgess (1), hashtags can cultivate homophily within themselves as the top opinions can become known and followed fandom-wide. Isolating themselves even further, some Twitter users also remove the potential for others to directly speak against their views: taking advantage of the “increased control given to consumers by the new media” (4), fans can actively block their opposition to form uninterrupted echo chambers.
Friend or Follower?
Beyond technological features, user-constructed social networks on Twitter are the backbone of discourse spaces where fan opinions can be expressed unopposed. Research suggests that users primarily use social media to maintain real-life friendships and only secondarily to generate new ones (8). This implies that an individual’s fandom related activities are often witnessed first by their close acquaintances. Receiving agreement or even a simple lack of counter-arguments from their “inner circle” then provides a sense of approval to the fan, empowering them to spread their views to the rest of the fandom. Thus, friendship bonds contribute to the creation of personal online echo chambers.
The social ties between members of TV fandoms can range from personal to anonymous as fans impose an opinion to be echoed by their followers. These followers are people who have chosen to see the fan’s every post, retweet and mention in their timelines. Accordingly, the fan’s mental perception of them becomes the individual’s “imagined audience” which does not necessarily represent the actual reality (6). In fact, investigations like Litt and Hargittai’s 2016 study have revealed that online social media users commonly imagine their audience simply as “people who they thought would like or agree with their posts” (5). This perceived lack of opposition leads many TV fans to format their opinions as if they are the only valid ones, inviting online homophily.
Echoes Across Time and Space
With friends, followers or alone, the immediacy of viewing a beloved TV show as it is broadcasted and simultaneously commenting about it via Twitter often leads to reactive homophily among live-watching fans. Multitasking by using a phone or computer while watching TV, known as second-screen viewing (9), results in many fandom tweets being posted while the episode is airing. These emotionally charged reactions frequently exhibit echo chamber properties, since shows are constructed to broadly evoke certain emotions, such as excitement or shock, in every viewer. Thus, increased Twitter user agreement is likely, compared to the diversity of informed opinions between fans who watch and comment after the initial airing of the episode. Additionally, the fandom being more present on Twitter while the show is “live” distributes user attention unevenly. The trending or initially most popular opinions are favoured, threatening to overshadow any alternative perspectives added later on (11).
Interestingly, TV lovers in close physical proximity, although connected in the global media space of Twitter, often still gravitate towards each other to form regional fan groups (7). As this shared characteristic becomes another bond between them, such communities are especially vulnerable to becoming echo chambers. Besides geocultural similarities drawn upon when constructing opinions, there is also the social pressure to fit in among peers by not opposing the dominant perspective of the group. This effect increases when a shared language, other than the ever-present English, is used to communicate within the cluster of fans, acting as an additional isolating barrier between their opinions and those in other languages (2).
In the end, the opinion homophily of Twitter TV fan communities appears to be a multi-step process. Firstly, the platform provides built-in tools, like hashtags, for fans to connect and distance themselves from other opinions. Secondly, the fans’ social networks and imagined audiences influence the presentation of their views as ones to be echoed. Finally, differences in time and space invite fans to interact in environments favourable to homophily.
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