Looking back over the last year, I remember waking up to this text message from a friend on the morning of May 20, 2019:
“Holy shit that was so bad.”
My friend was talking about the series finale of TV show Game of Thrones.
If you were on the internet around May 2019, you would have seen the huge number of articles, youtube videos, and social media posts of people reacting furiously to the Game of Thrones Season 8 finale.
Between 2011 to 2019, Game of Thrones become one of the most popular TV shows in the world and was nominated for 160 Emmy awards. But the epic story faced a dramatic decline in public opinion during its eighth and final season, which became one of pop culture’s defining events of 2019.
One fan named ‘Dylan D.’ started a Change.org petition asking for HBO to “Remake the final season with competent writers,” saying that “the series deserves a final season that makes sense.” 1.8 million people have signed this petition so far, making it one of the most popular online petitions on any topic ever.
Another friend told me that he was so angry with the ending that now whenever he sees pictures of the cast on Instagram, he gets upset.
Then I realised something — Game of Thrones is the first huge show that ‘grew up’ with the rise of social media. The first episode came out around six months after Instagram first launched. And you can trace the growth of Instagram culture along a similar growth curve of Game of Thrones popularity.
Technology has shaped the rawness and power of fan emotion, and Game of Thrones is really the best example of modern fans empowered to go wild online. This clearly brought consequences for Game of Thrones and will bring the same level of high fan expectations for any entertainment franchise.
In the 1840s, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt became so popular that the medical term ‘Lisztomania’ was coined to describe the deep fan frenzy he would generate from touring around Europe. In the 1960s, fans across the world reacted to The Beatles in a similar way, characterised by a term known as ‘Beatlemania.’
What’s new about today is that physical or ‘offline’ fan behaviour also comes with something new — digital or ‘online’ fan behaviour.
Beyonce might not be hosting a concert where you live in Nigeria, but you could still participate in her online fan community on Reddit. Being a moderator on the biggest Beyonce subreddit is arguably one of the most prestigious roles you could have in any modern fanbase.
You might not be able to see a Manchester United game in person, but you can still make Youtube videos with your own commentary, from the comfort of your home in Mumbai.
The vast (and increasing) majority of fans fit into the category: fans who can only access their favourite entertainers digitally. What percentage of Beyonce’s global fanbase can actually see her perform in person? Less than 10%? Less than 5%? And sometimes the fans with the least physical access are the most passionate.
In 1956, sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined a term called ‘Parasocial Interaction.’ This refers to the “Pseudo-intimate relationship between the audience and media personalities.” Parasocial interaction describes how someone might feel like they are building a personal relationship with a performer despite having never met or seen them in person.
Basically, when you have received enough audio-visual input from something like a TV show, your brain can’t exactly distinguish between what’s a real life interaction or a parasocial interaction. You may have watched enough episodes to feel like the cast of Friends are actually your real-life friends.
Parasocial interaction was first coined in the 1950s, when mass media meant TV, radio, and print. But what does ‘media’ mean to most young people now? Youtube, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, Snapchat, Twitch, Roblox, Facebook, Podcasts, Wechat, QQ, Tumblr, Reddit, Weibo, Linkedin, Pinterest, Line, and more.
If media platforms are evolving to become more interactive and digital, then parasocial effect of digital media on fans should be stronger now than ever before.
If you are a teenager living in Mongolia, it’s unlikely that Lebron James will ever visit your country. But you could have watched hundreds of hours of clips of him on Youtube and dozens of his Instagram posts sharing pretty intimate intimate family moments that can make you feel closer to him parasocially.
So for many Game of Thrones fans, being let down by the finale wasn’t just an entertainment experience, it cut them to the bone because they were being let down by ‘friends’ they had gotten to know over years through social media. Game of Thrones captured the zeitgeist of what a popular TV show looked like in the 2010s and gives us hints to what a popular show might look like in the 2020s.
Media is evolving, and so is fandom.