What Does the Success of 'Sharknado' Reveal About Social Media?

In 2013, Syfy's Sharknado became a trending topic on Twitter and a pop culture phenomenon. Here's why none of it matters.

No Celebrities, No <i>Sharknado</i>

The unforeseen social media response to the first airing of Sharknado gave Syfy an opportunity to capitalize on the movie’s success. Immediately following the news that the first airing of Sharknado was a trending topic on Twitter, Syfy announced that it would re-air the movie on 18 July 2013. According to Deadline, Syfy announced this before the ratings revealed that the premiere was watched by less than the average amount of viewers a Syfy made-for-television movie typically receives. ("Syfy 'Sharknado' Attracts Average of 1.369 Million Viewers—Mostly Journalists and Celebrities”, by Lisa De Morales, Deadline, 12 July 2013) Therefore, if the social media discourse during the first airing of Sharknado didn’t cause more people to watch it, then what exactly did it do?

Rather than contributing to the profitability of Sharknado, the social media discourse highlighted social media’s limitations as a communicative platform. On 12 July, the day after the first airing of Sharknado, professional media outlets began reporting on the movie’s forceful Twitter presence. Ed Payne of CNN, for example, discusses the social media response to the movie as he writes, “Never has social media been so fin-tastic.” ("Oh no, it's 'Sharknado' and it's ravaging Twitter") In the article, Payne reports on several of the celebrity tweets about the movie, including one from actor Josh Gad and another from Red Cross Oklahoma (Ibid.).

In addition to coverage by CNN, Ann Oldenburg of USA Today focuses on the celebrity reactions to Sharknado in a similar article. Among the celebrity tweets Oldenburg highlights are from actor Patton Oswalt and Lost showrunner David Lindelof. (“Celebs chomp on 'Sharknado', by Ann Oldenburg, USA Today, 12 July 2013) If we allocate these news articles for critical reflection, we can glean several significant insights about the life of Sharknado in the social realm.

One important revelation of these professional media reports is that Sharknado wouldn’t have been considered a newsworthy topic without the celebrity tweets. As Graeme Turner demonstrates in his book Understanding Celebrity, celebrities have more social influence than non-celebrities, and they are often the center of media attention (2004, 8). Turner’s point is relevant, and in many ways it adheres to Murthy’s identification of the hierarchy in the Twitter sphere where celebrities have more social power than non-celebrity users.

Moreover, Turner calls attention to our contemporary media culture in which the celebrity lifestyle is consistently considered newsworthy by professional media outlets. We need to look no further than the constant attention devoted to the Royal Baby’s birth, Paula Deen’s civil court case, and Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards performance in 2013 to grasp the importance professional media outlets place upon the celebrity.

Thus, Sharknado would not have been considered a newsworthy topic by professional media outlets if it were not for the celebrity participation, even if the program remained the most social telecast of the evening. It's not unreasonable to propose, given the professional media’s fascination with celebrity culture in general, that it was celebrities and not social media that made the Sharknado reception a news story.

Further, the professional media’s coverage of the Twitter response to Sharknado inevitably brought more exposure to the movie’s social media reception, thereby informing more individuals of the movie’s existence. CNN, USA Today, and other professional media outlets reported the first airing’s social media response to the masses, and this exposure paid off, as the second airing of Sharknado received 1.89 million viewers. This reinforces the established hierarchy between professional media outlets and citizen journalists.

The relationship between professional media outlets and citizen journalists is often contested in media studies for different reasons. In The Revolutions Will Be Blogged: Cyberactivism and the 4th Estate, Courtney C. Radsch claims that citizen journalism is necessary because it is “driven by different objectives and ideals and relies on alternative sources of legitimacy than traditional or mainstream journalism” (2013). Vincent Maher in “Citizen Journalism is Dead”, on the other hand, argues that “citizen journalism is dead” because it is “wrapped in a false promise that this blogging army is co-ordinated and uniformed in its intentions” (2005).

As both Radsch and Maher imply, the debate has less to do with whether or not citizen journalism is a beneficial ideal—they both seem to agree that professional media outlets are rooted in bias—and more to do with whether or not citizen journalism has fulfilled its promise. That is, has “the exclusive domain of the professional,” as Stuart Allan suggests in Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, been transformed by citizen journalism (2009, 18)?

Ever since the proliferation of social media technologies, scholars have hoped that the circulation of media content would become more participatory. Jay Rosen notes that citizen journalism occurs when “the people formally known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” ("A More Useful Definiton of Citizen Journalism", Pressthink, 14 July 2008)

In other words, when consumers of media content begin to produce and circulate media content, they disrupt the established relationship between producer and consumer, and they give rise to a new relationship rooted in democratic content dissemination.

Social media makes room for more interaction and participation, but this doesn’t automatically mean that these technologies overthrow the established relationship between media producer and media consumer. Dhiraj Murthy acknowledges that social media has therefore produced more citizen journalists, but he wisely claims that Twitter-based citizen journalists “experience a short-lived fame as the public follows stories of interest through professional news media outlets” (2013, 52).

Murthy’s analysis of Twitter applies to the social media response to Sharknado and the appropriation of it by professional media outlets. “Twitter-based citizen journalists” reported on the first airing of Sharknado, but professional media outlets used these reports for their own financial benefit, thereby undermining the influence of social media as a communicative platform and citizen journalism as a communicative practice. Moreover, as the ratings for the second airing of Sharknado illustrate, professional media outlets were successful in bringing exposure to the Syfy movie, as it earned more viewers on its second airing than it did on its first, despite the fact Sharknado was a trending topic during its first airing and not during its second airing.

Contrary to the best wishes of many media scholars, social media has not given citizen journalists authoritative power. Rather, professional media outlets retain their power through their loyal, large readerships, and the “exclusive domain of the professional” to which Allan refers remains intact. In addition to illustrating the limitations of social media as a communicative platform by showing the limited power of citizen journalists, the discourse surrounding Sharknado also destabilizes social media as a financially fruitful promotional platform.

For example, on 16 July, two days before the film’s second airing, star Ian Ziering went on the daytime talk show The View. Upon first glance, the interview seems to be an excuse for Ziering to talk to the hosts about the unforeseen social media response, but by the interview’s conclusion, it is clear that Ziering is there to promote the movie’s second airing. This interview reveals numerous important insights about social media’s influence that are useful to my discussion.

The conversation about the Twitter response to Sharknadoconfirms my earlier point about the limitations of social media as a communicative platform, as The View is a popular daytime talk show with a large following. Ziering and the hosts discussed the celebrity tweets during the interview, and it is appropriate to assume that members of the live audience and viewers at home were learning about this for the first time and became interested in the movie because the ladies of The View deemed it a worthy topic of conversation.

Further, Syfy used a form of promotion for the second airing that it didn’t consider for the first airing, and it wasn’t associated with social media. By sending Ziering to The View, Syfy attempted to reach a wider audience in the hope that more viewers would tune in for the movie’s second airing, an attempt that ultimately paid off for the network. This suggests that media industries like Syfy are aware of social media’s shortcomings, and that social media’s limitations as a communicative platform render it an unprofitable promotional platform. This is imperative to note, especially at a time when scholars are overselling the internet’s role in media distribution.

Some may counter-argue that Sharknado wouldn't have been as popular without social media, and they might be quick to assume that social media can be a profitable promotional platform if media industries like Syfy successfully capitalize on it. If this is the case, then why didn't other made-for-television Syfy movies receive the same amount of attention?

This question is baffling, especially when we situate Sharknado within Syfy’s oeuvre of monster movies. The concept of Sharknado is undeniably absurd, but it isn't any more ridiculous than other Syfy movies like Sharktopus (2010) or Piranhaconda (2012). Yet Sharknado was the one that entered popular culture discourse, whereas Sharktopus and Piranhaconda remain overlooked.

To be clear, both Sharktopus and Piranhaconda averaged the same amount of viewers as the first airing of Sharknado, but they failed to become trending topics on social media and they failed to enter popular culture discourse. It's important to note that these three movies had similar marketing campaigns, and it was only with the second airing of Sharknado that Syfy considered other forms of promotion like ABC’s The View.

Moreover, Syfy released another original movie after Sharknado entitled Ghost Shark (2013), and as the title implies, the film is about a supernatural shark that can kill anyone as long as they are wet. In one scene, for example, a ghost shark appears and attacks a character while she is washing her car, and another character is attacked by the creature in the bath rub. It's logical to assume that Syfy’s Ghost Shark would capitalize on the discourse surrounding Sharknado, and that celebrities would be tweeting about it, professional media outlets would be reporting on these tweets, and the film would re-air to record-breaking ratings.

This wasn’t the case. As The New York Post reports, the first airing of Ghost Shark averaged the same amount of viewers as those who watched the first airing of Sharknado, yet Ghost Shark failed to generate social media discourse. ("'Ghost Shark' lacks buzz bite of 'Sharknado'", by Michael Starr, 24 August 2013)

The social media response to Sharknado and the lack of social media response to Ghost Shark reveals the arbitrariness of social media and its trending topics. Trending topics on social media are not indicative of a cultural product’s profitability, which explains why social media isn’t an advantageous promotional platform for media industries.

Plainly put, there is no telling what will become a trending topic, which makes it difficult for media industries to promote their products on social media. As we learn from Syfy’s Sharknado and Ghost Shark, the former became a trending topic whereas the latter did not. Moreover, topics that do trend experience a short cycle of circulation before the next topic takes over.

danah boyd, Scott Golder, and Gila Lotan argue that “Twitter’s value derives from the real-time nature of the conversations it supports. Its search and ‘trending topics’ functionality captures public conversations in real time from its entire user population.” ("Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter", 6 January 2010) boyd, Golder, and Lotan call attention to the ephemerality of trending topics in particular and social media discourse in general. For example, on Saturday Miley Cyrus’ latest awards show performance may trend, and on Sunday Barack Obama’s healthcare plan could be the hot topic of conversation. This unpredictability is problematic for media industries that are interested in generating a profit.

Sharknado 2: The Second One is scheduled to air sometime in 2014. Its budget is the same as any other made-for-television Syfy movie, and as long as it averages 1.5 million viewers, Syfy will call it a success. It hardly matters whether the sequel garners as much social media attention as the original, because Sharknado has shown that social media attention doesn’t impact the circulation of media content in the commercial realm, and instead remains an arbitrary, ephemeral, and ultimately irrelevant communicative platform.

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