of mice and memes

Some of the research I’m preparing for more thorough analysis later in the year builds on what I have been studying, along with my CCI and Curtin colleagues, over the last few years regarding social media uses and behaviours. Many of our presentations and papers have covered isolated events or datasets, across a range of contexts, and these have provided very exciting and important new information about how Twitter in particular is employed for live commentary, for political discussions, and for crisis communication, to name a few examples. One of the research themes I’m keen to follow up this year, though, is taking a step back from these isolated cases, and exploring the wider patterns and behaviours that can be identified across multiple datasets. Some of these ideas I’ve tried teasing out in conference abstracts, although ultimately these may not be successful submissions in terms of being accepted for presentation!

One of these themes is the development of conventions mixing social media commentary, breaking news, and satire, through the creation and cultivation of parody and spoof accounts on Twitter. Here, I am not referring necessarily to accounts which are impersonating other people with a deceptive air – deliberate imposters – but to accounts which are acknowledged fakes or have clear humorous intentions. There are many different examples of these accounts, which satirise everything from public and historical figures (the @Queen_UK account, for example) to fictional characters (@Lord_Voldemort7) and organisations (@DeathStarPR, representing the public relations wing of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars). Further accounts appear as the tweeting voices of towns, animals, body parts, or artworks. Some of these accounts are long-running, established parts of the Twittersphere, and tweet – in character – about many major news stories and cultural events; in the research that Stephen Harrington, Axel Bruns, and I carried out around last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, @Queen_UK was a popular source of comments to retweet during the UK live broadcast (tweeting around the presented context of the monarch having a Eurovision party herself). Similarly, @Queen_UK and @Lord_Voldemort7 also appeared as prominent users within Farida Vis’s dataset of tweets around the 2011 London riots.

Other accounts, though, are more short-lived, and often context-specific. These accounts are often created in response to breaking news or, in particular, live televised events when unusual or amusing (and unplanned) developments transpire. In 2012, for example, a cat appearing on the pitch at a Liverpool soccer game immediately inspired an Anfield cat Twitter account, while a chicken invading the pitch at a Blackburn soccer game (as a fan’s protest) led to a number of ‘Ewood chicken’ accounts. When Clint Eastwood addressed an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, several Twitter accounts appeared soon after, claiming to be tweeting as the chair itself. The world of academia is also a supportive environment for such accounts; during last year’s Association of Internet Researchers conference, somewhat inevitably, a Twitter account appeared on the final day of the conference on behalf of a number of toy animals found in one of the presentation rooms.

Building on the studies that Limor Shifman has carried out into memes and viral videos on YouTube, I’m looking into these satirical, parody, and spoof accounts as a memetic practice – essentially, as an established trope of social media commentary. It is an expected behaviour that (new) parody accounts will appear within ongoing coverage of a variety of topics on Twitter, and when one appears, others may follow; in a forthcoming book chapter about tweeting during the 2012 Tour de France coverage, for example, I discuss in part the presence of parody accounts for many of the SBS commentators, and the creation mid-race of further accounts following developments within the Tour itself.

Of course, these satirical accounts do not necessarily aim for a wide audience or for longevity; their inspiration and focus may be local rather than global. For topical accounts, their activity may decrease dramatically – or stop completely – once the initial wave of interest has subsided (the many Ewood chickens mentioned previously mostly stopped tweeting within a day or two after the match in question). However, what is clear is that the creation of these accounts is now an established response to live events and breaking news, regardless of their scope or lifespan.

I want to stress the local aspect in this post, rather than the global reach of the likes of @Queen_UK and @DeathStarPR, since Perth in particular seems to present a environment supportive of parody and mockery on Twitter (other towns of course will also inspire this activity, but the Perth context is the one with which I am most familiar). Four years ago(!), I wrote about the spread of links to a video satirising life in Perth – entitled “This is Perth” – which attracted a rush of attention across Facebook and Twitter within hours of being uploaded. This satirical presentation of Perth can also be seen in many different Twitter accounts which have appeared over the last few years; Exciting_Perth, for example, or the accounts representing public artworks in the CBD, The Perth Cactus and The Perth Pineapple/Totem. As with other regional and national contexts, politicians are not immune to parody, and (as I noted in the WA election posts) the state Premier, Colin Barnett, is the subject of several spoof accounts (such as YourMateColin or Emperor Barnett). Wildlife are also represented; in particular, the prevalence of shark sightings during the summer (and autumn, and spring) has inspired the Perth Sharks account. Finally, of course, and pre-dating Twitter, the Worst of Perth website should be noted as a major source of mocking many different aspects of Perth life and culture (also on Twitter). Like Eurovision, in some ways, there is a degree of ironic detachment and anti-fandom when it comes to discussing Perth online.

It is somewhat inevitable, then, that further parody accounts will arise around Perth-specific themes. Earlier this week, for instance, photos, videos, and comments about rodent problems at the Hoyts Carousel cinema were posted online by cinemagoers; during the day, this story spread such that not only did mainstream media outlets cover it (and Hoyts was later ordered to investigate the problem further), but a Twitter account appeared, tweeting under the guise of @Hoyts_Mouse.

The ‘mouse’ started tweeting mid-afternoon on 2 April, and their early activity was soon accompanied by a relative flurry of tweets, questions, and retweets (as with previous datasets featured here, the following analysis does not encompass button retweets, which in this case account for several further @mentions/redissemination of @hoyts_mouse and its comments). Tweets ostensibly from the matinée screenings continued the next day, although the total activity and responses were gradually declining on a day-by-day basis; by Thursday, only once did the number of relevant tweets per hour equal or exceed five.

 

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The ‘mouse’ was a willing participant in dialogue with its followers, though (indeed, the number of followers initially grew rapidly after Tuesday afternoon on: 114 followers by Tuesday evening, 255 on Wednesday evening, 283 on Thursday evening). Its early tweets covered a variety of topics, including favourite films (from rodent-oriented favourites such as Stuart Little and Ratatouille, to less-expected fare such as Die Hard), the food at Carousel, the films currently screening (with a new Die Hard film and G.I. Joe II out, Bruce Willis was mentioned several times), and its own news media appearances. Several of its comments were also responses to Twitter users pointing out that its profile picture did not quite match the more straggly look of the rodent in the videos and photos uploaded by Carousel patrons.

Among the users tweeting at – and receiving replies from – the Hoyts Mouse account are several Perth journalists, although these are not the only participants in these tweeted discussions. In the visualisation below, I’ve taken the network of @mentions and @replies from the hoyts_mouse dataset, to establish the connections through tweets between the parody account and other Twitter users. In particular, this visualisation helps to show if these tweets form part of long discussion chains involving several users, or if the conversations taking place are primarily dialogues (or, indeed, unreciprocated mentions). As usual for my visualisations, node size here is based on mentions received; the more times a node is mentioned by another, the larger it appears on the map.

hoyts_mouse4

I’ve left most of the node labels off this visualisation, since it gets quite crowded with them on, but what is quite apparent from this network is the type of communication taking place around the @hoyts_mouse account: conversations are generally involving one or two other accounts, with only a few threads developing into multi-party discussions (see the cluster at the top-right, for example, which features tweets mentioning @todaytonight and @wtvbuzz, for example). While the Hoyts Mouse does respond to other users, these replies generally remain directed at individual users (and any further replies might not introduce other users to the conversation). Of course, this does not mean that there are not other tweets responding to those collected in the dataset; however, if they did not include a mention of @hoyts_mouse, then they are not featured here.

What these initial patterns suggest then is that @hoyts_mouse is representative of the short-lived, topical parody accounts, relying on a particular event or story for its creation, than the longer-running and less context-dependent type of account mentioned earlier. Of course, this may yet change, depending on the time and inspiration that the author behind the account has – and the work of the account’s followers in encouraging further activity. With Hoyts now required to address the rodent problem in the Carousel cinema, it will also be interesting to see what effect this has on the account’s lifespan – whether the eradication of the rodent problem will mean the end of the Hoyts Mouse, or if it inspires further rogue posting (and a possible move towards more discussion of current events outside of the context of the initial story). In this latter case, the account then might transition from one form of spoof to another, potentially adding another voice to the various satirical takes on Perth on social media.