The never-ending con: How Twitter has taken fan culture year-round

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Aug 8, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT (Updated)

Two weeks after the nerd carnival left town, San Diego has returned to its downshifted, bayfront vibe. The giant building-sized posters promoting upcoming movies and TV shows are gone, as are the massive installations and street teams distributing swag. Just days ago, leagues of superheroes patrolled the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter downtown; now not even zombies are shambling through.

Though another San Diego Comic-Con is behind us, and it will be a year before the massive pop culture event returns, there's a place where the comic conversation continues with a passionate intensity: Twitter.

Imagine any day in the famed Hall H at SDCC. Studios and networks gather in front of a room filled with 6,000 fans and press to reveal and tease. Celebrities take the stage and sometimes go off script in real time. Fans react, and sometimes things get super awkward. They cheer, they jeer, they react.

Increase the seating capacity from several thousand to several million, and you have Hall T. Granted, Twitter is a massive landing spot to track a live stream of news headlines and follow personalities across the spectrum, but there is a definite geeky bent to the social media site.

According to Andrew Fitzgerald, who works on Twitter’s media team and is involved in the Twitter Fiction Festival, as the power of comic conventions has grown -- at the industry-heavy 44-year-old San Diego show as well as at other events across the nation -- fans have begun to think of the site as a “permanent convention.”

“Twitter enables these real-time conversations between a distributed community," he said. “Because it’s happening in public, other people can find it.”

Fitzgerald contrasts the openness and discoverability of Twitter to the Internet Relay Chat communities of old, which were private, more closed and at times difficult to navigate. But a comparison to Facebook is more relevant. 

Certainly Facebook also allows for real-time talk about topics. It launched its own trending topics section in January so users can connect to a larger community. But anecdotally, Twitter just feels more accessible. Despite sponsored tweets, every message appears to hold the same ground, there's a trustworthiness that you're see all the messages as they are posted, and there isn’t a clunky assault of ads. Click on a hashtag and go for a ride along with everyone else, regardless of status or fame. 

"Twitter has become the ideal platform for communication among the con tribe," said Tony B. Kim, a self-described Comic-Con evangelist who runs the con survival guide site Crazy 4 Comic Con. "Twitter is connected with those that are actively listening versus Facebook that is full of passive conversations."

"If I try to generate a conversation about Firefly, the pool of interested fans (on Facebook) will be very limited -- even with ‘shares and likes,'" Kim added. "On the contrary, the potential to connect with ‘Browncoats’ out in the Twitterverse has explosive growth potential."

Interestingly, SDCC and other comic cons seem to have experienced explosive growth alongside Twitter. Much as 2007 was the year the platform came into its own at the music festival South by Southwest, so did San Diego Comic-Con seem to arrive in the mainstream that same year. Jon Favreau presented footage from his film Iron Man to an audience not yet educated on the phases of a Marvel movie-verse (though some argue it was 2008, when Twilight sank its teeth into the con, that the event became the big show). 

Fast-forward to Comic-Con 2014, when Twitter has 200+ million users. During the convention, from July 24-28, there were 2.1 million tweets mentioning #SDCC and other related terms. According to a Twitter media relations rep, it is hard to measure tweets from a four-day event against one-night televised event like the Super Bowl (which picked up 24.9 million tweets during the 2014 game). It is additionally tricky because Comic-Con as an event involves a near-endless number of brands with a variety of hashtags. Add those in, as well as tweets about the con that don’t mention it specifically, and that number is likely much higher. By comparison, the first weekend of the Coachella music festival garnered only 1.6 million tweets. 

Granted, the 2.1 million figure includes multiple tweets from the same people, as well as celebrity, corporate and media outlet accounts. But it is still a solid conversation on social media. It also represents more people than tickets sold to the convention, and it is a safe bet that it reflects more than every person who visited San Diego during the con. That means that a lot of people who didn’t spend a couple grand on travel and hotels still engaged in SDCC, but they did it online.

This is no surprise to Kim. Even when they are aren't at the event, or year-round outside the con, he believes the Comic-Con community "is more tech-savvy than your average subculture."

"I think we are composed of early adopters with a willingness to use technology to promote our fandom."

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, noted that content creators might be aware of this, which speaks to a “strong shift” in how they in turn have been interacting with audiences.

“You now have directors like Zack Snyder and J.J. Abrams releasing information to that community to whet their appetite.” 

Indeed, Twitter has become a popular platform to break news by directly reaching out to fans. For instance, when Snyder wanted to reveal a Batmobile, then a Batfleck (aka Ben Affleck in his Batman costume) for Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, he took to Twitter to do so. And he did so before appearing at SDCC to show off footage from the 2016 film, which is in production. 

At San Diego Comic-Con, Sam Raimi announced he was bringing The Evil Dead to TV, but it was on Twitter that actor Bruce Campbell announced he was planning to star in the series. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum unveiled a poster for his animated flick The Book of Life before he hit the con.

Of course, the chatter that results from these types of announcements resembles a rowdy con panel. Everything related to Star Wars Episode VII gets a response, including a photo of a handwritten note from director J.J. Abrams asking folks not to leak images from the set. Granted, the photo that was re-tweeted about 9,000 times also included a glimpse at the Millennium Falcon’s chessboard. But the #DayOne photo of a film clapboard? Twelve thousand retweets.

Those tweets from Abrams’ didn’t really show much, and yet they allowed the filmmaker to reveal a taste of what was happening on set. Abrams said Fitzgerald has been operating “outside the typical publicity cycle by showing little bits of stuff as he goes.” 

He has a point. In the past, fans might have had to wait for one bigger reveal, such as a trailer, at 2015’s Comic-Con -- or via a press release from a publicist. Instead, Abrams has been creating a consistent Comic-con panel level of enthusiasm. And the effect has bounced back, as well; while this year's San Diego Comic-Con was as bustling as ever, a lot of fans expressed some disappointment in the lack of big reveals by major players like Marvel and DC ... thanks in part to the fact that descriptions of con events like Marvel's Hall H-rocking Age of Ultron footage and news of Josh Brolin's casting as Thanos had appeared online weeks before the show.

And if Twitter has become a panel where the con never ends, its moderators are famous geeky tweeters who drive the social media conversations toward genre territory of zombies, sci-fi, superheroes -- and sharknadoes.

According to Fitzgerald, Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day were among the “earliest trailblazers” of how to be a celebrity on Twitter. He cited an example of Wheaton sharing pictures of himself and encouraging fans to Photoshop as proof that he understood the con culture of social media.

Aside from the little blue check of verification, celebrities on Twitter are available to trade in the same banter or bickering as everyone else. Kim argues that social media created an opportunity for "us to build relationships with anyone at any time about any subject," and just as a fanboy and gal can join in a communal nerd out with one another through tweets, so too might a celeb reply and retweet. 

High-profile geeks, said Fitzgerald, enter the discussion and engage in a “more enthusiastic” and sustained way -- maybe more than even at a weekend-long event or hourlong panel.

For example, take a look at Syfy’s Sharknado 2: The Second One. While the movie was busy racking up a billion Twitter impressions, making it the most social TV movie ever, the erstwhile Wesley Crusher was live-tweeting the whole affair (as well as making a cameo in it, since he’s also the host of the Twitter-heavy Wil Wheaton Project news recap show on the same network). After the movie went on a trending binge, uber-host Chris Hardwick swooped in with his Comedy Central show @Midnight and kept the Sharknado fun going with the #NewSyfyOriginals hashtag. 

Sharknado was event TV, and the event was propelled in part by two top Comic-Con mainstays. But if Hardwick and Wheaton were part of the conversation, William Shatner is captaining it. Though not new to Twitter, Shatner’s has been an account to watch very recently. 

He started “flirting” with Supernatural star Misha Collins in January, but then in April he began a new mission as a live-tweeter of genre fare. Seemingly out of nowhere, he began live-tweeting Supernatural, then The 100, Star Crossed and The Tomorrow People, all on The CW.

The veteran apparently isn’t getting paid for the work and told The Washington Post he is invested in sci-fi and is just looking to support those involved with it. And it isn’t only limited to CW programs; Shatner live-tweeted episodes for Syfy’s Dominion and Defiance, and had Twitter conversations with NASA and the European Space Agency.

When comic-con royalty like Capt. Kirk takes to Twitter to converse about nerdy stuff, you know it's the place to be. And that’s without even mentioning the very active tweeter “Generalissimo” Stan LeeAs opposed to a con where Shatner or Lee might show up to promote something specific, or just sell autographs and photo ops, they are participating in an ongoing goodwill tour in 140 characters. 

Fitzgerald added that celebs in the geek communities could leverage that to “build the movements that give them the heft to take on new creative projects.”

As for the future of Twitter and the never-ending con, Fitzgerald said other non-traditionally geeky fare has begun following the same model. He said Twitter has opened up geekdom and allowed for its expansion because the site allows for an easy connection to other passionate about a similar topic. He specifically cited the Gladiators, the fan base name for the show Scandal. Driven by a core community, a now-noteworthy Twitter conversation has emerged around the series.

“It’s the same sort of the fan engagement that geek stars like Wil Wheaton have perfected,” he said. 

Twitter will never make San Diego Comic-Con obsolete, nor will any of the myriad conventions out there likely be pushed out by the social media platform. But while San Diego may receive 11 months of respite from superheroes and zombies on its streets, the nerds have settled in for a never-ending con in Twitter town.