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The rise of the 'Viewertariat': How Twitter is giving power to the people

Posted on 25/02/2010

Researchers have revealed the powerful role social media plays in viewer participation

A new way to track audience responses to live television programmes as they are broadcast provides a unique insight into individuals’ political understandings and motivations, according to research published today.


In their study, Nick Anstead from the University of East Anglia and Ben O’Loughlin of Royal Holloway, University of London, argue that the boundaries between traditional broadcasting and new media are becoming blurred as more and more viewers use Twitter and other social media to comment in public on what they are watching. This is resulting in what the authors term the new ‘Viewertariat’ - a group that responds and gives meaning to events on screen, offering real-time feedback.


The researchers examined viewers’ reactions on Twitter to British National Party leader Nick Griffin’s controversial appearance on Question Time, the flagship BBC debate show. They found that as the episode was being broadcast, viewers were searching the internet for incriminating photos of Mr Griffin and feeding them into the real-time debate about how he was faring. They also found that fellow panellist Bonnie Greer, the playwright and critic, was the audiences’ favourite. A surge of ‘tweets’ - messages of up to 140 characters - occurred when she criticised the historical grounding for BNP policies and when an audience member addressed Griffin as “Dick Griffin”.


Dr Anstead and Dr O’Loughlin’s study, ‘The Emerging Viewertariat: Explaining Twitter Responses to Nick Griffin’s Appearance on BBC Question Time’ , takes the first steps to understanding how viewers of political programmes such as Question Time use technology to comment on broadcasts in real time. With televised debates between the main party leaders to take place in the run-up to the General Election, they believe the emerging Viewertariat raises important questions about how democracy works and public opinion is formed. For example, will public opinion become more divided because people see views they do not agree with, or will it converge as new authorities and viral content come to represent the new received wisdom?


Dr Anstead, from the School of Political, Social and International Studies at UEA, said: “Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time was a significant event because it pointed towards a new way of watching major broadcast events. These forms of real-time participation in political events present an extraordinary opportunity to explore individuals’ political relations, understandings and motivations.


“There is the potential for viewers who aren’t part of the studio audience to participate in these televised political events, though broadcasters must be wary of the usual token gestures where they say “email us your opinion” just to fill time. This will force broadcasters to think about what meaningful participation would look like.”


The authors analysed 43,730 tweets posted before, during, and after the episode of Question Time, which was broadcast from 10.35pm to 11.40pm on October 22 last year. It was the first time a representative of the far right, in the form of MEP Griffin, had been invited to sit on the panel and his appearance drew some eight million viewers, more than three times its normal share.


The study points to a more profound shift in how media organisations and political parties understand their audiences. Instead of surveys and vox pops after a programme or speech is over, the researchers suggest real-time feedback could allow editors or politicians to adapt their messages as they are going out.


They also point to ways in which viewers can influence each other. Instead of sitting at home talking about what they’re watching with friends or family, they can see how the population as a whole is reacting.


Dr O’Loughlin, co-director of the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, commented: “Obviously only a small cross-section of the population use Twitter or blog themselves, but the numbers are still significant and growing. There were over 50,000 live comments on Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. We expect more for the upcoming election debates.”


The highest number of tweets, 1257, occurred at 23.20, just after Bonnie Greer made comments about BNP policies and Griffin’s academic qualifications. There was also a rise in the number of very positive terms used, in relation to both Greer’s comments and Griffin’s discomfort at them, as well as what is claimed to be his lacklustre performance. After the end of the programme the tweets declined, dropping down to under a hundred per minute less than an hour after the broadcast.


To follow Royal Holloway on Twitter, visit: http://twitter.com/RoyalHolloway


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