When Twitter first became a popular tool, it became a means of quickly disseminating news and a platform for an inclusive global conversation about shared interests.
For the television industry, it’s been a way for studios and networks to promote new shows while allowing fans unfettered access to actors and showrunners (the writer-producers who oversee TV shows). For the talent, it’s the ability to interact at a virtual distance that makes it an attractive proposition. But like everything on the Internet, there is a dark side.
The web has long provided a forum for viewers to criticize, and sites like Television Without Pity have succeeded thanks to such snarkiness. The West Wing creator, Aaron Sorkin, used to frequent TWOP’s message boards, making announcements, tackling viewer frustration, and often lashing out, before he was forced to stop posting at the site. (Sorkin’s experience would inform West Wing’s 2002 episode, “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” in which two White House staffers infiltrate a nasty-minded website, before being censured by Allison Janney’s press secretary.)
But Twitter has taken the interaction between writer and viewer a step further, granting users the ability to pose questions and gush in an unfiltered environment—but the harassment is direct, as well.
Recently, Bones creator/executive producer Hart Hanson, who has roughly 25,000 followers on the social media platform, issued a statement: he would only be interacting with the 300 or so people that he has chosen to follow, cutting himself off from the tide of impassioned fans who have aggressively criticized Bones storylines, sometimes personally attacking Hanson himself.
“I was reading absolutely nothing that shed light on audience response,” Hanson told The Daily Beast. “It suddenly occurred to me that what I was reading was largely just noise, much of it ill-spirited and, not to put too fine a point on it, dim… I didn’t have to read all that crap. So I decided not to.”
“While I’m delighted that fans of the show think of it as ‘their’ show, that delight doesn’t extend to any desire to listen to them tell me how I’m ruining ‘their’ show,” said Bones creator Hart Hanson.
Why doesn’t Hanson block users who are being belligerent or simply not respond? It might be that checking in on audience reaction is addictive. After all, it’s a clear look at criticism of their shows, updating in real time. Responding to one comment opens a floodgate of opinions.
According to Twitter, it has 175 million registered users as of September, and 95 million tweets each day. Which can make for a lot of noise. Viewers often have an innate sense of ownership over these characters and these shows that they’re not shy about expressing.
“While I’m delighted that fans of the show think of it as ‘their’ show, that delight doesn’t extend to any desire to listen to them tell me how I’m ruining ‘their’ show,” said Hanson. “The rude people—who are a minority but very vocal—are convinced that what they think about the show is what everybody thinks about the show and as a result they are furious when I don’t do what they want. It’s a kind of strange megalomania that becomes extremely wearing.”
“It's absolutely wonderful that we have managed to elicit that loyalty and that passion in our fans,” he continued. “But it's a double-edged sword… A TV show is not a democracy.”
Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, who often spends hours answering the same questions from followers, expressed similar thoughts. While relishing the “instant reaction” from viewers that Twitter provides, she agreed that audience input does not affect the story.
“I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, but it doesn’t matter what people are saying because we’re already so far down the road in the direction we’re going,” Rhimes told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never killed a character because the audience didn’t like them.”
But what happens when the dialogue shifts from criticism or suggestions to something uglier or outright verbal abuse?
The Internet has long had a term for posters whose tone becomes verbally aggressive or belligerent: trolls. The popular thought has been that one shouldn’t feed the trolls, particularly as these individuals thrive on conflict. The more you defend, the more they assail.
Ask Hanson about Twitter-based personal attacks and he’ll tell you about the follower who told him that she hoped Hanson’s dog would die or others who comment on Hanson’s family, whom he’s careful to shield from the public eye.
“I realized these rude people were encroaching upon my personal life—my own fault, mind you—for opening the door,” he said. “Which lead me to ask: why leave that door open?”
In the past, Hanson has been known to hit back, responding with sarcasm, which he regrets, such as in this exchange:
@ Rosie_not_Rose: Brutal honesty - your writing of Brennan lately pisses a lot of us off. Have you forgotten what she was like in seasons 2/3?
@ HartHanson: Brutal honesty: I don't give a rat's ass what you say.
“That made me a bully,” said Hanson, of such responses.
Not all showrunners want to back away from the fight. Outspoken Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, for example, went so far as to create what he deemed New Twitter Rules, and lashed out at someone who insulted his wife, actress Katey Sagal. (His response? “If you're gonna hate, you have to post a picture of your fat ugly spouse, so I understand where you're coming from…”)
“I keep it juvenile to put a frame around it that suggests, look, this is juvenile and stupid,” said Harmon. “I’m not on NPR right now doing an interview… I am doing something that six-year-olds do and this person is doing something that six-year-olds do.”
Harmon recently took it one step further, shifting the conversation into the narrative of Community itself, “because it’s what you’re not supposed to do.”
Since before the first season of Community, Harmon has been enmeshed in a public feud with Twitter user Gwynth Alcopoz, a.k.a. “ Gwynnifer.” Sample exchanges from Gwynnifer to Harmon typically include variations of calling him a “ fat bigot.”
Despite the virulence of Alcopoz’s attacks against the show, Harmon, and even Harmon’s girlfriend Erin Hill (“Can you sleep at night after fucking fat bigot @ danharmon? Or does he only fuck his Emmy?”), Gwynnifer’s name was mentioned on-air during the November 11 episode of Community, where it was used as the name of a woman with whom Joel McHale’s Jeff canceled a date.
“I don’t like making up names and I was imagining this person on the other end of the phone being disappointed in Joel’s character and I pulled that name out of my head because it has something to do with disappointment,” said Harmon. Or as McHale’s character says to the unseen Gwynnifer, upon abruptly breaking their date, “Tell your disappointment to suck it.”
(Alcopoz’s reaction to the on-air mention is unknown; she hasn’t tweeted since early October.)
“There’s a ring of people around me and I have a choice of who I respond to and how I respond to them,” said Harmon. “I’m just a fat, sad, lonely guy in the middle of that circle and I keep outputting the stuff that I output.”
Yet, both Harmon and Hanson said that their respective networks and studios have never said anything to them about the way they interact with fans on Twitter.
“It’s almost conspicuous, the lack of conversation,” said Harmon. “Nobody wants to be the guy at Sony or NBC who came up with the ‘showrunners can’t tweet’ policy.”
For their part, publicists have remained mum about their producers running off at the mouth. Conversation, no matter how volatile, is still driving awareness of specific shows.
“[Twitter] is a very powerful tool when they use it wisely,” said one studio publicist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You don’t want to interfere in that too much because, at the end of the day, it helps our marketing efforts… For the most part, [showrunners] know what their boundaries are.”
That tug of war means cultivating an online persona that’s often different from the reality. Most writers, even well-regarded executive producers, aren’t used to living in the public eye in the same way that actors are. But Harmon insists that it’s not just writers who have to cultivate online personalities.
“Everybody does,” he said. “Everyone with more than one follower on Twitter is having an identity crisis every time they log in.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.