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Twitter and Fandom in the Case of The Hunger Games

My colleagues and I have a paper in the next session at AoIR 2012, too, but we start with Rachel Magee, whose interest is in fandom on Twitter around the recent movie The Hunger Games. She and her colleagues developed the Twitter Zombie system, which draws on the Twitter search API to track user and hashtag activity around he movie. The movie is based on a popular novel for teen audiences, and the film itself was also very successful, with substantial fan activities around it.

In anticipation of the movie, there was significant Twitter activity - Rachel and her colleagues collected some 8 million tweets in total. What was especially interesting was the creation of and interaction around fake accounts which represented characters from the story – what the researchers call TwARPing, in a play on live action roleplaying (LARPing). The team examined tweets from some 18 accounts which incorporated character names, and seemed to engage in some coordinated roleplaying activities, in a very consistent and committed fashion.

There were shared username structures and shared hashtags between these accounts which were separate from the standard hashtags used to anticipate the movie launch; these were used for consistent first-person role-playing. Some accounts were individual, while some groups of users played together; they demonstrated their immersion in the narrative and tested one another's skilled knowledge both of the narrative and of how to use Twitter effectively. Real-world events such as the Golden Globes were also incorporated into this role-playing.

The hashtags which the team tracked included #TheHungerGames as well as #HungerGames, where they examined the most tweeted texts. One of the most popular tweets was from teen idol Justin Bieber; it was retweeted almost 20,000 times. Quotes such as "may the odds be ever in your favour" were widely used in these tweets, and the story was extended into real-life news and cultural events. Some of these tweets also pointed to outside information – both to information about the movie, but also to real-world hunger relief organisations like Oxfam.

But there are also methodological issues here – there were more tweets than could be processed by the researchers, and the tracker went down on the day of the movie launch (so the analysis here focusses on anticipatory phases only). There are also real questions about the ethics of working with such data, which must be considered further.

Overall, though, the research points clearly to the use of Twitter as an arena for participation and play by fans. Unexpected turns in the discussion (such as the handful of racist comments around the casting of black actress Amandla Stenberg in the role of Rue, or the Aurora shootings at the launch of Dark Knight Rises) can also be difficult to deal with.