Part III: Audience Engagement (Social Media Analysis)

In recent years, transformations to the media ecosystem have enabled audiences to engage more directly with media content and content producers—a heightened interactivity that has given way to new modes of media commentary. The popular #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is just one recent example of the role social media has come to play in challenging media representation and pushing for more accurate and inclusive storytelling in popular entertainment.

In an effort to understand this evolving media landscape and the potential it presents for wider social change, we analyzed how audiences are currently engaging with television content on social media. Specifically, we examined online audience engagement with the 40 television series sampled in our research with the following three-fold goal:

  1. Mapping long term trends in audience’s engagement with popular television content over a 2-year period
  2. Identifying when, if ever, discussions concerning social justice issues emerge in the context of discussions of popular television content
  3. Identifying key influencers and drivers of content at the intersection of popular culture and social change

Our analysis revealed several patterns of audience engagement that present important implications for social justice advocates seeking to better leverage popular entertainment in the advancement of social justice issues.


Social Media Analysis

Analysis of social media data was conducted using Crimson Hexagon, a leading social media analytics software that provides access to publicly available social media data including, but not limited to, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, forums/popular message boards such as Reddit, mainstream news article comments, reviews, and YouTube comments. Crimson Hexagon enables users to create monitors for any topic or set of phrases and establish customized timeframes for data analysis. Once a monitor is established, Crimson Hexagon’s algorithm, created by Harvard University professor Gary King, categorizes relevant social media data—identifying content volume trends, patterns in conversation, demographics, sentiment shift over time, and audience segment interests/affinities. Interests and affinities are generated by analyzing the social media habits of audiences partaking in particular online discussions (i.e., what brands, topics, or media sources this audience segment tends to share) to generate a list of interests, which can then be compared to other audience segments.

The analysis in this report is based on a content analysis of gross social media activity between April 2014 and June 2016—in other words, all social media post generated related to the 40 television series in our sample over a 27-month period. Including data focused on television series in general (not simple the episode analyzed) over a 2-year period enabled us to examine patterns of audience engagement over a significant period and, in doing so, gain a deeper understanding of how audiences are typically engaging with television content online.

The majority of data analyzed originated from Twitter (42 million posts), followed by forums (14 million posts), Facebook (472,198 posts), popular blogs, news comment sections, and Google Plus comments.

Search Parameters

Data were generated through the creation of a monitor with search terms that included the full title of television series and also the most popular abbreviations used by fans and networks.

Overarching Trends

Volume of Engagement

Between April 2014 and June 2016, more than 57 million social media posts were made reacting to the 40 television series examined in this research, totaling an average of 2 million posts a month in the 27-month period examined.

Audiences’ engagement with television content spiked dramatically during the original airing of episodes on broadcast and cable television or shortly following the release of a series on streaming service Netflix. Shows aired on Netflix also tended to generate a much larger social media response than shows aired on broadcast and cable television, resulting in large part from the ability of streaming services to release an entire series on the same day. As seen in Figure 10, the volume of engagement spiked significantly in June 2014, June 2015, and once again in June 2016; each time period corresponds with June premiere dates on Netflix for shows, including Orange Is the New Black.

Figure 9: Volume of Audience Engagement with 40 Sampled Television Series (April 2014–June 2016)

Types of Engagement

The viewing of television content has become a highly interactive and collective activity in recent years as social media has enabled fans to more directly engage with content in real time. In our analysis, audience engagement with popular television shows typically fell into one of three categories:

  1. Expression of excitement about the release of a new shows
  2. Reaction during viewing or airing of a show 
  3. Meme and gif creation and social commentary

Expression of Excitement

A significant portion of social media content engaging with the popular television titles in our sample focused on audience members’ excitement about new content and individual’s intention to “binge-watch” the series. On-demand and streaming platforms and the ability of users to access an entire series at once enable binge-watching. The result has been the emergence of an alternative viewing culture, where individuals can establish their own viewing preferences and no longer be subject to weekly scheduling.

As seen in Figure 11, fans of television shows released on streaming services often shared their experiences watching the entire season in one viewing or expressed their plans to do so in the future. This type of engagement frequently resulted in particular shows becoming a trending topic on social media sites as fans shared in their excitement and reacted to newly available content. In addition to show titles trending, popular characters in the shows were regularly mentioned in this form of engagement; in the case of Orange Is the New Black, cast members actively engaged in this excitement by liking and retweeting fans’ posts.

A screenshot of a sample social media post on June 15, 2015

Reaction During Viewing

Reactions during the airing of shows also made up a significant portion of the social media content generated. This finding is in-keeping a 2014 Twitter study which found that 85% of people who use Twitter during primetime hours reported tweeting about TV31. Certain shows have been able to capitalize on this trend in recent years.

For instance, our analysis showed that titles such as ABC’s Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy generate significant social media traffic during air time, with fans participating in so-called virtual watch-parties and sharing humorous memes and gifs throughout the show. The popular hashtag #TGIT (Thanks God It’s Thursday) is associated with the Thursday airing of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder, and between April 2014 and June 2016 #TGIT was included in more than 250,000 social media posts (as seen in Figures 13 and 14). As noted by Shelli Weinstein in a 2014 article published in Variety, the popularity of this hashtag is largely the result of clever marketing on the part of ABC, who recognized the importance of Twitter and other social media networks for expanding fan bases.

Meme and Gif Creation & Social Commentary

Alongside reactions to television content, a large portion of social media content emerged in the context of people referencing a show or using a popular character for comedic effect and/or to stress a political or social point, generally through the use of memes and gifs. A meme is a cultural idea or behavior that can be replicated and spread person-to-person; a gif is a sharable image or animation. Memes and gif have grown in prominence on social media and are important aspects in user-generated content and participatory culture online. Research also suggests that memes are useful persuasive tools that can succeed in conveying moral lessons and also evoking emotions like anger, fear, or disgust.32

The term meme was coined by Biologist, Richard Dawkins to describe “any cultural idea or behavior”. Memes are popularized through competition that is not solely based on truth or even the usefulness of the idea. In their article Emotional Selection in Memes, Chip Heath and colleagues make the argument that the success of a meme, that is, a cultural idea or behavior, is based on emotional selection. Memes that gain traction among the masses do so because “they evoke an emotional reaction that is widely shared across people” that can be both positive or negative. This understanding of memes is still very much applicable to Internet memes and the online engagement with television content observed in our analysis.

Memes acted as a shorthand for conveying emotional reactions, and as seen in figure 12, were also used to make political and social commentary, often in a humorous or satirical way. These social media post tended to generate more retweets and likes than other forms of online engagement with television content, and also demonstrates the growing ability of media consumer to create new content from source material that serves often serves a wholly different function. 

Sample of a meme from social media

Key Influencers, Audience Demographics and Interests

Most Influential Shows

Another result of this shifting viewing culture appears to be the prominence of streaming television shows in online discussions of television content. Examination of Twitter mentions and hashtags provided even more insights into the shows that tend to generate the most audience engagement. A mention is a Tweet that contains another person's @username anywhere in the body of the Tweet; a hashtag on Twitter is a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.

Between April 2014 and June 2016, of the shows analyzed in the content analysis, The CW’s Arrow, Orange is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS, American Horror Story, Parks and Recreation, and Scandal (all shows available on streaming service Netflix) garnered some of the highest level of audience engagement in terms of the volume of mentions and hashtags. As previously noted, shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy also benefited from highly active fan bases

Top Hashtags

Top mentions of hashtags on popular tv shows

Top Mentions

Graph of top mentions of popular tv shows on socical media

Audience Demographics

Using Crimson’s demographic feature, we were also able to examine the gender and age of audiences engaging in discussions about television content. Between April 2014 and June 2016, 59 percent of individuals discussing the 40 television titles included in this study were women and 41 percent were men.

Graph of Audience interest: Image Shared by Individuals Following @ScandalABC

Online audiences were also significantly more likely to be younger than age 25 years - 22 percent were aged 17 or younger, 30 percent were aged 18 to 24, 11 percent were aged 25 to 34, and 37 percent were 35 or older. Sixty-five percent of people engaging with the television content examined in this research were White, non-Hispanic, 15 percent Black, 11 percent Asian, and 9 percent Latino.

Sub-Interests and Affinities

Another feature of Crimson Hexagon is the affinities tool, which allows users to examine the interests of audiences engaging in particular online discussions and compare the interests between different key audiences. Affinities can provide important insights into the mediums and cross-issue interests of key online audiences.

Audiences engaging with the television content sampled in this research had several distinct interests and media preferences (compared to the general population of Twitter), including an affinity toward CBS, NBC, and Snapchat, as well as interests in LGBTQ issues, comics, and celebrity news. Critically, there appeared to be significant interest in social justice issues among particular fan bases. For instance, fans of Scandal were 32 times more likely than the general population of Twitter to share the image seen in Figure 14 promoting the Women’s March and were twice as likely to share information about the potential impact of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

A social media post from the Women's March

Distinct Interests Likelihood of Sharing Interests
Celebrity News 32 x Overall Population of Twitter
Snapchat 19 x Overall Population of Twitter
CBS 12 x Overall Population of Twitter
NBC 6 x Overall Population of Twitter
Comics 3 x Overall Population of Twitter
LGBTQ 3 x Overall Population of Twitter

Table 2: Distinct Interest of Online Audiences

In the following sections, we provide some context for understanding the key findings in this report and the potential real world implications on public attitudes toward immigrant communities. We conclude with a series of recommendations for how to effectively encourage more inclusive and accurate representation of immigrants and how to engage fan bases to promote social justice causes.


31 Anjali Madha, “Study: Exposure to TV Tweets drives consumers to take action - both on and off of Twitter”, Twitter Blog, 2014. Retrieved May 5, 2017.  

32 Heath, Chip, Chris Bell, and Emily Sternberg. "Emotional selection in memes: the case of urban legends." Journal of personality and social psychology 81.6 (2001): 1028.