Tweeting The West Wing: Improvised character simulation

Together with my Birmingham City University colleague Jon Hickman I’ve been working on a project that explores a Twitter-based community of The West Wing fans. The fans are using Twitter accounts to represent TWW characters, so that Jed Bartlet, Josh Lyman, Donna Moss and many of their colleagues appear to have continued their lives in politics, even though Aaron Sorkin’s show was cancelled in 2006. Like so many other Twitter users, the characters tweet about their work, current affairs, pop culture and mundane everyday stuff, while having conversations with each other and with non-character accounts.

Our research is based on our observation of this output as well as interviews with nine fans who kindly gave up their time to answer our (many) questions. We are very grateful for their participation in our project, and for their willingness to reflect on their experiences. Over at The Plan, Jon has previously blogged about different aspects of the research process, including methodological issues and our musings on how this fan activity compares to practices like fan fiction writing and fan role play. In this post, I want to focus on how the fans can be seen to negotiate the structures of Twitter, and what implications that seems to have for their performances.

As a social networking system, Twitter has a dual emphasis on brief, individual utterances and dialogue between different accounts. This facilitates both the development of individual character performances and participation in the fan community through conversations between different characters. Unlike a fan message board or a fan role playing game, for example, this fan community does not have a set of explicit rules or guidelines, but they have developed certain norms and values.

Two key, interlinked norms require participants to stay in character while tweeting and to aim for performances that are considered ‘authentic’ character representations. This demonstrates the salience of TWW canon within this community, and such performances give participants the opportunity to demonstrate extensive knowledge of the show as well as the creative skills they need to adapt characters for Twitter.

We can think of such ‘authentic’ performances as (largely) improvised character simulation. The tweets follow established Twitter conventions and characters appear to be ‘regular’ Twitter users. As a result, readers who are unfamiliar with the show might not recognise straight away that these accounts don’t represent ‘real’ people, but fictional characters. Within TWW fandom, on the other hand, the performances offer Twitter users the chance to partake in the illusion that the characters exist beyond the boundaries of the show itself.

The accounts all have profile pictures featuring their chosen characters as embodied by the TWW actors, while profile descriptions vary between performances of ‘authenticity’ and playful negotiations of the boundary between the TWW diegesis and the ‘real’ world.

Matt Santos

CJ CreggParticipants’ Twitter styles also contribute to the construction of their characters’ identities. As @Pres_Bartlet noted in our interview, developing a performance strategy includes figuring out how to adapt character representations to 140 character tweets, and how to find ‘a balance between the witty retort and the one liner and the twitter speech or something much deeper’. Some adopt a ‘professional’ Twitter style, focusing mainly on political issues and work, while others also include tweets about their personal lives and create a much stronger sense of intimacy.

 Toby ZieglerJosh Lyman

Several interviewees said that they drew on their readings of performances within the source text. For example, @donnatella_moss said she pictured how Donna would say a line and what her mannerisms would be, while @LeoMcGarry said his rule was to ask himself ‘WWLD – What would Leo Do?’

However, ‘authentic’ simulation was also sometimes problematised by perceived differences between the fan’s ‘real world’ identity and their interpretation of the character’s identity. This included different moral values and ideological perspectives, and while one interviewee explained that they avoided tweeting on one such thorny issue, another felt that the fan community’s expectations of ‘authenticity’ required that they set aside their personal beliefs. This highlights the significance of the TWW canon within this fan community, and the process of self-policing that participants maintain in order to comply with established community norms. More overt policing can also be seen in the way participants choose to tweet or ignore other character accounts.

However, the emphasis on staying in character largely prevents participants from having a joint conversation about the community’s norms and values, and this seems to have produced some flexibility in their normative framework. For example, some participants pretend that @PresidentSantos is the ‘real world’ US president, and his character account often tweets about events that map onto those involving Obama.

Matt SantosIn contrast, other participants have disrupted the show’s diegesis and engage explicitly with ‘real world’ current affairs. All our interviewees identified political participation as a vital aspect of the character simulation, which reflects the genre discourses of the source text as a political drama, as well as the emphasis on political engagement within TWW fandom more broadly, and the extensive presence of political debate on Twitter.

‘Authentic’ character simulation, then, seems to involve both improvisation and planning; an interplay between individual performances and collective role play; the negotiation of different aims and textual interpretations within the fan community; considerations of the wider Twitter audience; and the necessity of negotiating the structures of Twitter as a performance space.

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