Online Relationships with Wrestlers

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

This piece goes to the work I am doing on convergent wrestling.

Writing back in 2006, Henry Jenkins discussed how convergence culture was allowing more fans to have more power. Basically, in this context, convergence culture is this idea that digital technologies like smartphones and the internet have blurred the lines between audiences and producers.

In the past, television and movies would separate out those who produce the media and those who consume the media; in other words, audiences would simply have to take what they were given, and they did not have much say over production. Since the rise of the internet, and especially social media, audiences do have more say: they can talk to producers before, during, and after a television show, or movie, or game, or whatever is produced. As Jenkins (2006) said, “Shows which attract strong fan interests have a somewhat stronger chance of surviving.” That means, if the producers listen to what the fans want, then their productions will do better. Or, at least, that is the idea.

Ten years later, Kresnicka’s (2016) writing reiterates this power of fans by relating it to the “digital empowerment” that has been happening in various areas of life since Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media. With social media, people can connect to one another, control what they consume, create their own content (and thus have their own voices heard), collaborate with others, and curate the information that is out there (dictating what is good and bad in the process). These 5 Cs (Pavlik & McIntosh, 2011) represent some pretty amazing powers given to “ordinary” people, taking away some of the power that had before just been in the hands of producers, politicians, librarians, teachers, and so forth. And this fundamental shift that has led to digital empowerment has been impacting the relationship between media producers, celebrities, and athletes, and their fans.

Let’s look at this in terms of sports – well, sports entertainment, or professional wrestling.

I just got into this fandom a couple years ago, and I have been following various wrestlers via Twitter – wrestlers I have met in person, and others I just like. What thrills me, as a fan, is when I can say something about a wrestler, and have them like, retweet, or even respond to something I said. Here are a couple of the latest examples (easier to just link here so you can go see everything about them):

Here I am essentially in communication, via Twitter, with a producer – the wrestler who helps to produce the matches that I watch. I am able to let them know what I thought about their work, and they can show their appreciation by responding to me. And when they like or retweet me, I get a special thrill from knowing they pay attention. Every time I see Brian Cage liking something I said, I squee like any fangirl would.

Cage

Brian Cage liking my tweet after AAW’s 2017 Killers Among Us.

Twitter allows for a convergence between fan and producer when fans are able to talk to people like these wrestlers. This form of digital empowerment also helps me want to keep watching these wrestlers, because I know that they pay attention to how much I care for them.

My interaction with the wrestlers relates to Deller’s (2011) discussion about the uses of Twitter mediating the relationship between producers and fans. My tweets to them provide feedback as to what I thought of their performances, and their in kind responses to me indicate their feedback in acknowledging my appreciation.

We do not engage in discussions that lead to changes in production, but that type of interaction has been known to happen through social media platforms. What seems more important is how, in communicating through Twitter, we reflect how we are all part of the professional wrestling community, and how we support one another. Deller (2011) points out that celebrities and producers are often also audience members, and that is also seen with these wrestlers. In a sense, we are all fans of professional wrestling, and we can share our interests in it with one another via these networks.

Sanderson (2013) clearly makes this connection with my experience when he says “Sports fans employ social media to build community” (p. 290). Interestingly, he says that such fans also work to promote preferred representations of these sports and athletes. I know that one of the reasons wrestlers have taken to social media is to promote themselves; for independent wrestlers, it is a primary way of getting bookings and thus being paid.

Now, the interaction with these producers through Twitter is not a one-to-one type content interactivity (Reinhard and Amsterdam, 2017). By that, I mean I don’t think it is like the interaction a player has with a game. When you play a video game, the actions you take in playing the game determine the outcome of the game. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the actions of the player and how the content of the game unfolds.

Here, I think it is more an aggregate type of content interactivity. Think about things like American Idol. There the audience is invited to vote on who should win. One person’s vote doesn’t matter as much as the aggregate collection of voters — if enough people choose a particular person, then the show changes to reflect that vote.

Wrestling fans have some part of play in how wrestlers represent, promote and brand themselves in social media. Indeed, it is likely the wrestlers who responded to my tweets only did so because of the positive representation of themselves in my tweets. Thus, I am helping them to establish their identity online with my feedback; in that way, I and fans like me could be indirectly helping to produce the matches, because if it wasn’t for our support, then they may not be getting the gigs that they need.

So with these wrestlers, if they get enough positive feedback from the masses, then that can help the wrestlers’ reputation, which can help them get gigs. The wrestler is able to tell the promoters (the people who book the shows) that they will be a good draw and sell tickets because they can point to all these people who support them in social media.

Chris Hero

Chris Olson meeting Chris Hero at AAW’s 2016 Killers Among Us.

Different psychological concepts could help explain how these online interactions can help wrestlers. First, these interactions make the wrestler, this celebrity, seem more like a regular person. This “normalization,” in a sense, represents parasocial interaction, because seeing a celebrity more as a regular person could help people feel that they know the person more, and thus want to follow the person and even do things the person suggests, such as buy tickets to see them perform or buy their merchandise.

Along with parasocial interaction there is also basic identification. We identify with people for two main reasons: we see something about them that is similar to how we see ourselves, and/or we see something in them that we ourselves would like to be. So if I can see a celebrity more as a regular person, then I can identify with them in terms of how similar we are, while I also may be identifying with wanting to be even more like them. As with parasocial interaction, the more I identify with someone, then the more they can influence me. And we get back to this rather symbiotic relationship between professional wrestler and wrestling fan: each need the other to exist.

There is also the related concepts of BIRGing and CORFing (https://www.units.miamioh.edu/psybersite/fans/bc.shtml) which discuss how sports fans relate to their team’s wins (Basking In Reflected Glory or BIRG) and losses (Cutting Off Reflected Failure or CORF). BIRGing and CORFing could apply to other fandoms. I think fans can experience the same attaching and detaching from a fandom if there are significant changes in a fandom — such as based on a celebrity’s actions, or the perception of the values of a television show or movie. Thus, fans’ interest in something can fluctuate based on “how well” that fandom appears to be doing.

In this regard, a fan’s relationship with a professional wrestler can be impacted by their interactions through online spaces like Twitter. Usually this would be thought of in terms of the wrestler’s performances in the ring — but for many wrestlers, this performance has to occur in all public places, such as online spaces. If the wrestler’s actions were seen as “glorious,” then BIRGing occurs; if no, well, CORFing occurs. Since this can extend online, if a fan has a positive online interaction, then they may be more BIRGing and thus want to continually support the wrestler. A negative interaction could result in CORFing. The potential for these interactions to go viral makes them potentially as important as in-ring performances to determining the wrestler’s future success.

My interactions with wrestlers, and the wrestling community as it exists on Twitter, would make for an interesting virtual ethnography. Lindlof and Shatzer (1998) wrote one of the earlier pieces to consider how the ethnographic method could be applied to computer-mediated communication (or CMC, an older term, basically referring to online or virtual communication now). One key idea from them is the idea that such a CMC or virtual ethnography largely relies on “visible discourse.” This phrase means that how we know about a person and their interactions with others largely comes through written words (especially back in 1998, but still true today). In a regular ethnography, you could observe people’s actions and hear what they say. In a virtual ethnography, you are more limited to what people type (which includes emojis, and increasing gifs and memes). On Twitter, that also includes how people use hashtags to reference some communal or historical idea or event.

If I were to do a virtual ethnography of the wrestling community on Twitter, then I would study what people say and how they say it through the words they choose to use (including emojis, memes, and gifs). Looking at this visible discourse would help me to understanding the meanings that are circulating within the community: such as, when we use #Network999 to refer to the WWE’s streaming network, or #ReignsSucks to refer to the wrestler we all love to hate. One goal of the virtual ethnography is to get at the interpretations the community members are making, and analyzing such visible discourse is a way to do that, and we can see how such discourse operates within the context of the online community.

Of course, there are limitations with such as a study. As Lindloff and Shatzer (1998) point out, people may only be lurkers within the community, or there may be a desire to control self-presentation online so that it is hard to know who is really behind the posts. Also, would you know what those hashtags mean if you were not a part of the community? In ethnographic studies, there is a tension between being the outsider looking in (who has an etic perspective) and being the insider and member of the community (who has an emic perspective). Being etic means you can be more objective and critical, but you may miss how people make sense of things. Being emic means you can better understand how people interpret things, but it may be harder to be critical of other members.

Perhaps, then, we can also think about convergence in terms of converging between these etic and emic perspectives, and we can think about having digital empowerment to go out and talk to people through the social media. An ethnographer today can talk to people more easily through social media to get a sense as to who they are and how they think, but can also retain a critical distance because they are just at a computer screen and not actually interacting physically with others. Thus, a fan scholar doing a virtual ethnography on a fan community can be both emic and etic because of the powers of social media.

 

Sources:

Deller, R. (2011). “Twittering on: Audience research and participation using Twitter.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 8(1), p. 216-245.

Jenkins, H. (2006, November 30). “When fandom goes mainstream…” Confessions of an Aca-Fan (blog), retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2006/11/when_fandom_goes_mainstream.html

Kresnicka, S. (2016, April 2). “Why understanding fans is the new superpower.” Variety, retrieved from http://variety.com/2016/tv/columns/understanding-fans-superpower-troika-1201743513

Lindlof, T. R. & Shatzer, M. J. (1998). “Media ethnography in virtual space: Strategies, limits, and possibilities. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 42(2), p. 170-189.

Pavlik, J.V. & McIntosh, S.  (2011).  Converging Media: A new introduction to mass communication (3rd ed).  Oxford University Press.

Reinhard, C. D. & Amsterdam, P. A Community of Televised Avatars: Interactivities in virtual world television promoting and acknowledging participatory. Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 14 (1):
communities (2017). http://www.participations.org/Volume%2014/Issue%201/5.pdf

Sanderson, J. (2013). “From loving the hero to despising the villain: Sports fans, Facebook, and social identity threats.” Mass Communication and Society, 16: p. 487-509.

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