Who gives a Tweet? Fandom, social identity, and why people take to Twitter

When we think of the world in terms of categories and different groups of people, we think of the various groups to which we belong and our identities within such groups.  The groups to which we belong impact how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and the extent to which we express our social identities in order to bolster our self-esteem. This blog will examine how and why people are motivated to express their social identities using social media and, more specifically, will propose that Twitter serves an important identity function for group members.

While the common conception regarding Twitter is that its primary use is for celebrities to communicate with fans, bolster their fame, and endorse products (Greenwood, 2013; Stever & Lawson, 2013) results from a recent study indicated that those who use Twitter use it predominantly as a means for expressing their fandom, especially during televised events (Highfield, Harrington, & Bruns, 2013).  While this finding is very interesting and definitely makes sense, it sort of goes against what I always assumed Twitter really was, which was a way for people to post pictures of their food or to try to get their 140 character post re-tweeted by their favorite celebrity. While some undoubtedly use the site for these reasons, the social media site may actually serve more of an identity function for those who use it. Twitter has a lot more to do with group processes and social identity than I ever believed. 

Social identity is the portion of a person’s self-concept that is derived from their perceived membership in a relevant social group (e.g., political party, sports team) and is motivated by both a need to self-enhance and reduce feelings of uncertainty (Hogg, 2006, 2007, 2012).  Any collection of three or more people who share the same social identity (e.g., Republicans, fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers) constitutes a group and evidence for people joining groups to boost self-esteem is demonstrated by research done on the phenomenon of BIRG, or “Basking in the Reflective Glory” of one’s group (Cialdini et al., 1974, 1976). The classic Cialdini studies followed university students after their college football team either won or lost a game.  They measured how many people wore clothing with their school’s logo a day after their team won or lost and found that significantly more students wore such clothing after a win than after a loss.  Furthermore, they found that students used more group-identifying language after a win (e.g., “We won”) and more distancing language after a loss (e.g., “They lost”).  The results from their football studies suggest that people boost their self-esteem from the groups that they join, especially after a group has some sort of success.  Moreover their results indicated that this boost in self-esteem occurs even when the individual has little or nothing to do with the group’s success.

This helps to explain why people got so excited about the Giants winning the World Series or LeBron James signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They didn’t score the winning run or consult with LeBron and offer career advice, yet fans took to Twitter to BIRG and to express their fandom.  These examples help to highlight exactly how BIRG and social identity have to do with Twitter. As I mentioned before, joining groups can boost our self-esteem and reduce feelings of uncertainty, but just as important, being a member of a group allows us to be around others who share the same identity and set of values as we do. Not only do we like to identify with groups, we really like to identify with successful and winning groups (End, Dietz-Uhler, Harrick, & Jacquemotte, 2002).  It feels good to be associated with a group who wins and it feels great to bask in that glory with others.  Why do it alone when you can do it with other members in your group?

With this group mentality in mind it is no surprise why Cavalier fans were so invested in LeBron’s career choice and why they blew up twitter with hash tags such as #LeBronWatch2014, #KingJames, #TheReturn, and #23. They obviously felt happy knowing their favorite player was back on their favorite team and that they would be almost guaranteed to make it to, if not win, the playoffs. They could have sat at home and been happy but they chose to express it on Twitter so that they could reach out to others. In these modern times we might not live in our hometown or have direct access to others who are in the same group us, but being able to Tweet and revel in the glory of our group’s success despite distance is very important.  Twitter and other social media sites facilitate this need to identify and celebrate with others when face-to-face contact is impossible.

Following from this tendency to BIRG is the concept of fandom, which applies to groups of people who identify with and are captivated by a particular subject, such as sports, celebrities, television, etc. Moreover, Highfield, Harrington, & Bruns (2013) demonstrated that people use Twitter to express their fandom, especially during televised events such as the MTV Video Music Awards. They analyzed data sets and hash tags from Twitter during the European televised song contest called Eurovision to find that Twitter as a technology is used for expressing fandom, also known as “audiencing”.  By performing both qualitative and quantitative analyses, Highfield, Harrington, & Bruns (2013) were able to show that Twitter helps to facilitate fans’ expression of their fan identities and provide a sense of belonging to a wider group in which they can connect and communicate with others.  An extension of this new finding relates not only to televised events but to events in general such as LeBron James signing with a new team or a global discussion about something happening in the sports world. It has been argued that the creation of a sports fan identity is an extension of the self and social identity such that a sports fan identity allows people to relate to and socialize with others who have similar interests in sports and teams (Jacobson, 2003).

By Tweeting, not only are we bolstering our public image and trying to enhance our self-esteem by identifying with groups or people we deem successful, but we are trying to reach out and relate to other group members, near or far, real or imagined, so that we can feel like we belong.  So the next time you see an annoying Tweet about LeBron James or some other athlete, just know the person who posted it is trying to express themselves and reach out to others in their group and that their Tweet is serving an important identity function.


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Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., Shuma, P., Braver, S. L., & ... Jellisonn, J. M. (1974). Wearing the warm glow of success: A (football) field studyPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin1, 13-15.

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