Today is kind of a big day for me, as my first official piece as an academic has been published. If you click on over to In Media Res you’ll find my 400-word curator’s note on the use of social media (specifically Twitter) in the world of pro wrestling. My post is the second in a series of five that discusses wrestling in a more academic light, so be sure to keep up with all of them this week (and really, IMR in general because it rules).
After the jump, a little elaboration on the piece.
For those of you unwilling to click links, here’s the gist of my piece:
Though most of the wrestlers tweet about the inane aspects of their personal lives, which take place almost exclusively on the road, the connectivity between them and fans creates a new experience – and raises new questions. Fans know that the performer known as Hornswoggle is playing a role in the ring and on television, but when the usually silent man tweets about loving a Toby Keith concert, it is difficult to determine the reality of it all. Is this all a part of the WWE marketing machine or is Dylan Post (Hornswoggle’s real name) just boringly updating his followers on his life outside the ring? Are they in or out of character? Are Post and his cohorts even crafting their updates? Or are the tweets being ghost-written by the WWE’s scribes?
I’m glad that I didn’t have an open spot to write as long as I wanted because it’s sometimes good to be restricted, but I figure since I have more to say, I’ll do it in this space.
The relationship between wrestling fans and the performers is an odd one. As fans, we know it’s “fake” and know that the wrestlers are doing a job, playing a character. And even with the internet message boards and spoiler sites, we still know that what we’re seeing on Monday Night Raw isn’t totally real or that the people out there in the ring are representing themselves totally honestly. But with the rise of social media and wrestlers’ embrace of the various applications, that detachment is blurring immensely. In my piece I discuss how wrestlers now use Twitter and Facebook to update fans on their personal lives. Sometimes that results in talking about the mundane things like getting food or working out, other times the tweets feel like plugs for upcoming television appearances or pushes to buy the next pay-per-view.
So now, the first thought is to assume that if I’m following John Cena or Hornswoggle on Twitter, I’m really getting in-tune with those performers as real people instead of just as their characters. But there’s really no way to actually prove that to be true. Mid-carders or jobbers like Hornswoggle might not be bothered by the WWE brass, resulting lame tweets about what music he’s listening to, but I’m skeptical about how the situation works with major performers like Cena. Unlike Hornswoggle, Cena’s Twitter page features a co-sponsored theme that directs back to WWE content. His tweets are often about the content on television and are also some attempt at being inspirational. Considering Cena is the centerpiece to the WWE’s more family friendly image, his merchandise sells the most and his character is thought of as some sort of hero to children, how do we interpret his tweets that always start with them referring to his fans as “CenaNation?” And for Cena specifically, what does it say if he isn’t actually writing the updates himself considering his large youth fan-base? I can’t throw out concrete figures, but I have to imagine that at least a few young folk have joined Twitter so that can follow Mr. Cena and how shady is it if he’s not even writing them or on a lesser note, being directed what to say? As a 22-year old, I can be intelligently skeptical of this situation, but for young fans, is it the same? And although devil’s advocate says that those young fans might not know of the separation between person and character I mentioned earlier, I still suspect people use social media because there is an expectation that the relationship will be more “real,” however fake it is in the first place.
As I noted in my piece, big promotions like the WWE aren’t going to really care about these questions. They’ll stand on their “entertainment” laurels and not worry that certain fans might believe they’re getting “closer” to their favorite WWE superstars when that’s not really the case. And why is that? Because it all, even Hornswoggle’s Toby Keith tweets, point back to the brand. Chances are most people following Hornswoggle came to that choice because of the WWE, so every time they read his tweets, they’ll ultimately connect it back to the product. In that respect, the WWE doesn’t have to concern itself with signing off on Hornswoggle’s profile with a cool background because it doesn’t really matter. The fans know who he is and who he works for, and that’s all the WWE surely cares about. Is that disappointing? Maybe. Is it good business? Absolutely.
The future for pro wrestling and social media is a vast one. Intelligent thought suggests that at some point, the major promotions like WWE can use social media to not only promote events and foster fan interaction, but actually create angles/stories. At some point in the near future, I foresee an angle beginning with two younger performers talking crap to one another on Twitter and if the response is solid from user fans, it makes it into the television story. Or perhaps the company uses the service to have a performer update fans on his/her recovery from an injury, so that when they finally return the audience feels as if they were on the journey with the performer. If it flops, the WWE doesn’t lose anything because the interaction between the performers and the fans still gets everyone in the same place and thinking about the brand. The opportunities are actually fairly limitless if the major promotions are willing to go that route.
But moving forward, it will be most interesting to see how this all affects fans and their relationship with the content and performers. Will fans actually be more invested in performers because they know what they had for breakfast? Does anyone actually care that applications and services that suggest a closer relationship might actually include more falsities and scripted content than the wrestling itself (which, obviously, is physically “real”)? Is it possible that the business actually embraces that closer relationship instead of exploiting it, pushing talent to become more interactive and real with fans? Is there really any way that fans could never know what’s true and what’s scripted? Time well tell, I guess.