The Personal Stakes of Social Media: Showrunners [Off] Twitter V
In considering Showrunners on Twitter over the past two years, my focus has been primarily on Twitter feeds as a space for professional identity and fan engagement. However, it is also important to acknowledge how Twitter feeds function as a liminal space in which creative industries workers not only define themselves as workers but also exercise their creativity. We can consider showrunners like Dan Harmon or Kurt Sutter not simply as showrunners who use Twitter as a form of engagement, but also individuals who use Twitter as an outlet for personal opinions and personal expression.
The deletion of Damon Lindelof’s Twitter account is similar to yet distinct from Sutter’s—ultimately temporary—hiatus from Twitter back in 2011. Both left Twitter after feeling their presence was becoming a drain on them both personally and professionally, but the difference is where that drain was coming from. While Sutter was largely dealing with the media reporting on his tweets as provocations and amplifying their inherent antagonism (often without proper context), Lindelof faced consistent and intensive criticism on Twitter for his role in divisive projects like Lost and Prometheus.
Rightfully, media reports on Lindelof’s departure foreground his engagement with his critics; Lindelof himself wrote a highly personal piece in The Hollywood Reporter about his experience responding to a new wave of criticism regarding Lost’s ending in the wake of Breaking Bad’s more linear—and some argued more satisfying—conclusion. In the piece, he frames himself as an addict, suggesting “alcoholics are smart enough to not walk into a bar. My bar is Twitter.” He used the piece to strike a deal with the “haters”: he will stop discussing the end of Lost, and they will stop badgering him about it. He acknowledges “there’s no way everyone is going to read, let alone agree with this deal,” while nonetheless promising to hold up his end of the bargain.
Sutter’s Twitter experience revealed how showrunners face a distinct level of scrutiny when sharing opinions on social media, but Sutter has rarely faced intense, highly public criticism from viewers of Sons of Anarchy or other series he has worked on like The Shield. Lindelof’s Twitter account, by comparison, became a lightning rod for spurned Lost fans or jilted Prometheus viewers who saw the service as a relatively anonymous—or at least consequence-free—space in which to air their frustrations directly to the creator. What he said on social media was on some level beside the point; what drove him off Twitter—at least based on the evidence available—was not a response to what he said, but rather a response to his Twitter feed existing as a rallying point for his critics.
Considered in terms of professional identity, Lindelof’s departure from Twitter removes a space where he could frame his professional identity and engage with fans, which may have been useful when expanding to his first post-Lost television project The Leftovers on HBO next year. In an age where a Twitter presence is expected, and where the value of Twitter has been capitalized on by showrunners like Scandal’s Shonda Rhimes, Lindelof’s choice is contrary to dominant industry logics.
However, I want to rearticulate showrunner Twitter accounts away from their professional use and toward their personal utility. Showrunners are often on Twitter for professional reasons, but these are more often than not combined with a personal interest in social media as a form of creative expression. Although all tweets function as a form of labor, which remains tied to and thus contributes to a professional identity, much of that labor is also understood as pleasure. When a showrunner chooses to remove themselves from Twitter, they are removing themselves from not only professional opportunity but also a space for self-expression.
Damon Lindelof was an active Twitter user in contexts beyond tweeting about his labor. In one of his most infamous runs in February of this year, he became obsessed with a studded yellow baseball hat worn by Justin Bieber. In a day-long riff, Lindelof told joke after joke, enraging fans in the middle of the “Lindelof-Bieber” venn diagram and drawing major media coverage; he even changed his Twitter profile photo to an image of him wearing the hat in question. Lindelof also sarcastically retweeted the official Twitter account for cat food brand Fancy Feast, obsessed with the idea someone was being paid to tweet about cat food, and livetweeted Syfy’s Sharknado.
Lindelof’s Twitter identity was that of the benevolent troll, a cultural commentator as much as a professional television writer; commenting on popular culture and issues pertaining to social media, Lindelof’s tweets were neither about nor tied to his labor directly, and instead offered a different form of expression than that offered through his day-to-day employment. Shawn Ryan, who like Lindelof is currently a showrunner without a show on the air, uses his Twitter account to engage with his sports fandom, even organizing a fantasy football league for followers with prizes from his shows. These uses of social media marry the professional with the personal, offering a space for not only the performance or management of distinctly professional identities but also the negotiation of those identities within a more casual, personalized space.
It remains possible that Lindelof—like Sutter—will return to social media, perhaps around the time when The Leftovers debuts on HBO and the channel pressures him to leverage his following to help launch the series. However, Lindelof’s case offers a distinct blending of the professional and personal, where his Twitter account became both a space of personal expression valuable to Lindelof and as a space in which audience frustration with his professional output could latch itself onto a specific person. In leaving Twitter, Lindelof sacrifices the—messy, perhaps unhealthy—personal value of Twitter in order to remove the personal from the criticism swirling outside of his control online, a sacrifice more meaningful to his identity as a showrunner than the inability to remind people Lost is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix.