Communities and Social Media

Turning TV On(line): The formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ by reality television audience on Twitter as a third place.


This paper will argue that the relationship between reality television audiences during program broadcast and the collaborative community they form on Twitter creates a third place. The formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ allows community members to engage with the program, communicate with one another, and view content in real-time with community members, regardless of physical location. This paper will examine the formation of this digital community and the characteristics of both Twitter and reality program audiences to support the formation of authentic communities. ­Ray Oldenburg’s characteristics of a third place will provide the framework to examine this digital community. Broadcasters of these programs also see the value of these communities, having seen a reshaping of broadcast investment in resources to ensure this online community is engaged by the broadcast and online. This examination of the relationship between reality television and online communities provide interesting insights into how successful online community engagement can result in a successful broadcast program.

Turning TV On(line): The formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ by reality television audience on Twitter as a third place.

This paper aims to explore the formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ by reality television audiences on Twitter as a third place. This paper will deconstruct three main points to study the aspects of this online community. The first section of this paper will investigate how this community utilises Twitter as a third place by exploring Ray Oldenburg’s characteristic of the third place and evaluating how this reality television audience and their interaction on Twitter during broadcasts are the visible representation of this idea. Then this paper will assess the significance of how the practice of live-tweeting television represents Benedict Anderson’s imagined community. With the invention and development of second screens, the sole focus is no longer on the television and micro-blogging site Twitter. We will analyse the authentic community created regardless of location and social ties. Finally, we discover the influence these communities have on television broadcast programs and the resources network’s put into engagement with them online.

To allow this community to form, we first must explore the microblogging site Twitter and its role in allowing users to connect regardless of physical location. Twitter is an online social networking site that allows users to create accounts, generate distinct profiles, follow accounts, and in turn allow them to follow back.  Twitter enables users to post tweets, which are microblogs limited to 280 characters. Twitter recognises trending topics that influence global discourse and allows users to collaborate on topics by adding a pound (#hashtag) sign to a tweet.The strong connection between television and Twitter is best illustrated through Twitter’s statistics into trends throughout 2020, which showed globally, more than 7,000 tweets per minute were related to television, and the program with the highest level of engagement was the reality tv program Big Brother (McGraw Tracy, 2020). Highfield (2013) points out that Twitter’s position in discussing widely televised events is one of its most well-known applications. Therefore, the formation of this community that intersects live reality program broadcasts and Twitter users creates public conversations functions as a ‘virtual loungeroom’ (Harrington et al. 2012). This concept refers to a communal environment where audiences can discuss and debate their reactions to what they see on the television screen in real-time.

McArthur and White (2016) recognise that when members of a group can communicate and engage with someone they trust and enjoy interacting with, a sense of community is created. Early internet academics were sceptical that the web could act as a virtual host for authentic communities (Hampton, Keith N & Wellman, Barry, 2018). However, Hampton, Keith & Wellman (2018) point out that previous generations could only travel and interact easily over short distances, traditional group structure due to the limitations of being born into and dying within the same network of connections. This community was cultivated by small, tightly knit networks that lasted a lifetime. This paper will showcase that the invention of online technologies has aided in creating a tangible community and that the reality television twitter community is the visible representation of this. Let us now explore how the reality television audience has created this community.

A variety of popular television shows can be seen on today’s television. However, reality television has evolved from an off-season summer sensation to a prime-time staple, often dominating the ratings in various coveted time slots (Godlewski & Perse, 2010). With the inherent excitement in viewing the unfolding action, the novelty of the events, and the opportunity to peer voyeuristically into others’ lives, reality show audiences can be very cognitively involved with the program. The ability to vicariously observe the world by observing others’ trials and tribulations is a distinguishing feature of reality television. As a result, audience members become emotionally and cognitively invested in the programmes (Nabi 2006 as cited in Godlewski & Perse, 2010). Television allows for social comparisons and the creation and affirmation of social and cultural values (Cameron & Geidner, 2014). Reality television viewers have found Twitter a public digital space where they can “meet, discuss, debate and respond” to the moments they are collectively watching on the television screen (Harrington et al., 2013). This experience simulates the effect of mutual viewing as if sitting next to someone in the same room and watching the episode together (Stewart, 2020). When viewers actively use Twitter, it is observed that dual viewing strengthens the space by bringing together virtual communities of people connected by common interests or experiences as a public source of knowledge (Cameron & Geidner, 2014).

Joshua Meyworitz suggested in 1985 that new electronic technology, specifically television, had the ability to distinguish physical location from a sense of place (McArthur & White, 2016). His statement that a sense of place would occur independently of physical location foreshadowed the Internet’s role in the creation of social relationships and social spaces (McBride, 2015). Television has always been a medium that aims to bring people together. It is now no longer a single, standard format medium; it is now characterised by multimedia participation and engagement (Cameron & Geidner, 2014). As internet innovations have altered the nature in which we form communities and socialise, it has also changed how we watch and connect with television. Television is no longer merely a linear “lean-back medium” (Dewdney and Ride, 2006, p. 289 cited in Stewart 2020) but now actively engages its viewers and encourages interpersonal contact in social media – even among strangers. Television has been turned into an “active medium” thanks to social media. (Buschow et al., 2014). When users create simultaneous opportunities for collaborative conversation using Twitter, they create digital third places (McArthur & White, 2016). It is this intersection between television broadcasters and Twitter conversation. The section that follows will present the characteristics of how a third place is created.

Social networking sites and socialising in this realm have increased significantly in recent years due to technological opportunities. When Ray Oldenburg developed the concept of the third place in 1989, it would have been unreasonable for him or others at the time to foresee the visible representation of this idea within the reality television Twitter audience that is outlined in this paper. Ray Oldenburg (1989) constructed characteristics for a community to qualify as a third place, including six attributes (neutral ground, leveller, conversation, accessibility and accommodation, regulars, low profile, playful mood and home away from home).

The Third place must find neutralground “where people may gather” but in which “individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home”. Membership within this community is propagated upon the concept thatthere is “no set formal criteria of membership and exclusion”(Markov 2019). Twitter is a suitable platform for achieving this, given there are no mitigating factors that would initially exclude someone from this community. While membership in this community has no hierarchy, the programs’ official Twitter accounts do exist within this space. Married at first sight, official account @MarriedAU, will engage within the #mafs conversation within the broadcast at critical moments of humour, intrigue or outrage. This is often accompanied by using stills or animated GIFs from the series. While reacting to critical moments within the show, the interaction posted is often playfulness within the community, which is another qualifying factor that this community, while using Twitter, is a third place. Reality Television is seemingly perfectly paired with playfulness and humour within the community. Deller (2019) points out that the discussion about reality shows is full of puns, quips, animated gifs, memes, and satirical commentary. The audience engages in performance for acceptance, likes, and content being shared. By design, reality television is a genre that provokes emotional responses, reaction and judgment from the audience. Deller (2019) also suggests that reality television programs claim to hold up a mirror to human conduct and interaction and challenge viewers to question what they are viewing, not just in evaluating the participants’ actions but also in speculating on the validity of the program. The fundamental element of communication binds members within this community and reinforces the authentic community of the ‘virtual loungeroom’.  

Twitter conversations between members in this digital meeting place are often between users that may or may not be regulars in the community. Regulars can be found in Twitter chats in several ways, including launching discussions, recognising other users, and being noticed by those users. McArthur & White (2016) note that despite being the most frequent visitors to their respective Twitter chats, the regulars do not appear to be as exclusive as new users are welcomed to the chat and can communicate within it. Transversally members of this Twitter communication can follow along with the interactions without engagement and view the dialogue as a commentary rather than become an active participant in the conversation.

While the invention of streaming services has allowed audiences to choose when and where they view television programs, the nature of linear broadcast is still appointment viewing and is scheduled, promoted and broadcast into specific high viewing time slots. The simultaneity of television viewing, or the fact that many people are watching the same thing at the same time, is a central feature of television that allows for this form of second screening (Stewart, 2020). Some of the more frequent participants look forward to these scheduled Twitter chats and use them as places to meet new people, which is the influence of a third place (McArthur & White, 2016). Viewers can track their own personal streams or engage in open discussions with other users (Cameron & Geidner, 2014).

The accessibility of this community is brought together into one digital space using hashtags. A hashtag for a television program #mafs enables viewers to connect even though they are not in the same peer networks. According to Highfield and Leaver (2015), the inclusion of a hashtag in a tweet is not a direct indication that an author is a member of or tangibly linked to an online group. However, hashtags can allow the Twitter chat to emerge as a site for digital gatherings during a regularly scheduled meeting window (McArthur & White, 2016). The structural abilities of hashtags are unifying textual identifiers that are now frequently marketed to prospective audiences by broadcasters well in advance of the live event itself and have helped this new kind of reciprocity between producers and viewers large extent (Harrington et al., 2013). Using these hashtags and thereby interacting with a group of Twitter users that stretches well beyond (but still includes) one’s current followers, audience members of this online community coalesce for the duration of the event(Harrington, 2014 as cited in Stewart, 2020).

Hashtags accommodate relevance for Twitter chats as they act as a connector for the subject of discussion. The reality program Big brother uses the hashtag #BBAU to collate big brother fans and form their ‘virtual loungeroom’ (Harrington et al., 2013). The engagement of users within this community of tweeting while watching television is seemingly motivated by two desires: interacting with the community and/or engaging with the program. (Buschow et al., 2014).  Audiences like knowing that they can be part of the show (McBride, 2015). Having discussed the formation of a third place, the final section of this paper will address the imagined community and then uncovering the commodification of this community by the broadcasters.

While we have firmly positioned this community within a third place, it also represents Benedict Anderson’s definition of an imagined community, a socially constructed community imagined by people who perceive themselves as members of that group.Stewart (2020) states that Several scholars have made the connection between television viewing and Anderson’s theory of the imagined community and live-tweeting of television series provides a way of making Anderson’s imagined community visible” (p365).Communities that are formed around reality programs are persistent but do have a currency window called a ‘region of liveness,’ during which the immediacy disappears, and audiences are less likely to participate (Kavka and West, 2004 as cited in Stewart 2020). This zone of liveness firmly embeds television, or at least specific genres of television, including Reality TV, within Anderson’s imagined community. The practice of live-tweeting television allows this community to overcome physical location to participate in a shared experience and bringing together this community for a specific and dispersed audience for the length of the broadcast. Reality television fans can come together and watch television with thousands of others who share a common interest and form a visible and substantial community experience.

Television networks have come to rely on the success of reality programs for their financial success, but it no longer sufficient to focus purely on the broadcast audience; instead, they have recognised the authentic and tangible community that exists on Twitter. Shows, including Dancing with the Stars to Survivor, have seen increased TV ratings because of social media engagement (Holt, 2017). As people become more interconnected with smartphones, their viewing habits are evolving to a more social model, where they are using second screens; consequently, it is more relevant for shows to be socially interactive and on television. The days of networks determining which shows will be the most successful are long gone. Audiences now have a more significant say in what they watch and how they communicate with the producers and viewers of the content. Audiences are more likely than ever to lose interest if the show and its cast and crew do not have an excellent social media presence. Such is the strength of the community created a network must invest money in a strong social media presence if it wants a show to succeed (Holt, 2017). Deller (2019) observes that broadcasters and production companies no longer make television programmes; instead, they make multimedia brands. It is rare to encounter a TV show that does not engage with social media. Reality shows are some of the most visibly active in extending their storylines, content and marketing across multiple platforms.

This paper has outlined the formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ by reality television audience on Twitter has created a third place. The formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ allows community members to engage with the program, communicate with one another, and view content in real-time with community members, regardless of physical location. This community has qualified as a third place because of the framework Ray Oldenburg’s outlined. This third place also established the practice of live-tweeting television to overcome physical location to participate in a shared experience, bringing together this community for a specific and dispersed audience for the length of the broadcast. Reality television fans can come together and watch television with thousands who share a common interest and form. The practice of live-tweeting has showcased the representation of Benedict Anderson’s imagined community. The validity of this community is underpinned by the value of broadcast and network resources to ensure this online community are engaged because the success of a broadcast program outcome is increasingly determined by it.


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8 thoughts on “Turning TV On(line): The formation of the ‘virtual loungeroom’ by reality television audience on Twitter as a third place.

  1. Hi Joseph,

    I really enjoyed your paper – television’s relationship to culture has been something I’ve done a lot of research into throughout my Masters.

    You touched on how streaming services empower viewers to watch what they want, when they want. How do you think that impacts community building overall, if viewers aren’t necessarily watching simultaneously. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I watched something on TV when it aired, and it makes me wonder about community in on-demand television. Can community still be built from people watching the same show at different times? Does that affect the concept of Twitter as a third place, if everyone is experiencing it separately?

    I watch a lot of television on a platform that has an in-built chat function, even when you watch on demand. At any given hour of the day, no matter what show you’re watching, there’s always bound to be someone on the chat. I find that a really interesting approach to the third place concept – on this platform you know for certain you are watching the same program at the same time as someone else.

    I also wonder what your thoughts are on the enduring capacity of the ‘virtual lounge room’. Reality television tends to be short-lived, or at the very least told in brief spurts. Does the community continue to exist regardless of whether or not a show is airing, and does the virtual lounge room endure across different reality programs throughout the year?

    I really enjoyed this paper – thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Joseph,

      Congratulations on an interesting and informative paper. As my comments are similar to Maddison’s, I thought it would be best to add to this thread so that you are able to respond to the one topic.

      Early on in my masters I spent time researching television fandoms and ‘save our show’ campaigns. I find it fascinating how the introduction of social media sites, especially Twitter, has helped the balance of power shift away from the producers and back towards the fans.

      I’m also curious about your thoughts on these virtual communities for reality television outside of their ‘live’ air times. I work in entertainment which means I am generally working during television ‘prime-times’. This means I spend a lot of time watching shows during catch up times. I find that I generally avoid most social media and / or specific personas until i have had a chance to watch an episode as I don’t want to mistakenly see any spoilers. However, once I have had a chance to catch up I love reading the comments and laughing at the memes on Twitter.

      Am I still a part of this virtual community even though I didn’t participate in real-time?



      1. Hi Maddison and Madison,

        Thanks for taking the time to read this paper. As Amanda and I have been discussing, streaming services has raised questions about how audiences viewing content outside of the region of liveness can participate in the online community. Communities can undoubtedly be built with people that aren’t watching programs at the same time. There is an abundance of Facebook fan pages dedicated to drama shows and even specific television characters, where fans create communities. These communities are built of people that have watched a few episodes or watched all episodes numerous times.

        When watching outside scheduled television broadcasting times, the reality television community has numerous factors that impact the community. The idea of an Imagined Community and a Third place is questioned because when the shows’ immediacy fades, the audiences are less likely to interact with your commentary. This lack of social density certainly brings the third place into question. But overall, I would assert that the conversation is still ongoing. Twitter allows the program’s social account and hard-core fans to discuss the previous episode, discuss theories, plot points, and even promote the next episode. There are still numerous characterises of the third-place relevant in this online community outside of broadcast hours. However, the strength of the individual community to allow social density varies to determine this.

        I believe the concept of the virtual loungeroom is still relative whether someone is communicating with one other person or thousands of people. The virtual loungeroom uses digital affordances to allow communication between new or maintain connections.

        Maddison, What platform do you watch which has built-in chat features? I know platforms such as Twitch can watch content and communicate within the audience and direct with the content creator. That sounds interesting for the future of television and these communities.

        1. The platform is called Viki – it’s primarily Asian media (largely Chinese, Korean and Japanese dramas). It makes for a really interesting data point – I usually turn the chat off because it’s always in a wild array of languages, and it moves really fast, but I definitely see the potential that it has as a way of connecting viewers.

          Recently they’ve been testing Live Watch Parties, using this functionality plus coordinating specific programs or movies to promote. In particular they’ve been doing it for dramas, letting viewers know when to watch the new episode together every week. It’s kind of funny to see – what they’re doing is basically no different to regular scheduled television, but it gives the viewer a sense of freedom, I think.

          1. That is an interesting development for television and it’s audience. Television has always placed an importance of the perception of liveness. Even though these programs have been filmed and edited in advance and while the audience is aware of this fact, they are still viewing the content for the first time which puts the audience in that region of liveness and I think that is important to create the imagined community. When the viewer engages with the content at the time of broadcast, this creates a realistic representation of a live audience viewing the same content at the same time, and it has been perfectly replicated throughout television history. (Stewart, 2020).
            These live public discussions are a perfect example of the formation of a ‘virtual loungeroom,’ allowing viewers to discuss and debate their reactions to what they are viewing on television in real time (Harrington et al., 2013). These social interactions are acting as traditional water cooler discussions but in this digital space, as you mention it is bringing together viewers from different social and cultural backgrounds (Stewart, 2020)

            Stewart, M. (2020). Live tweeting, reality TV and the nation. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(3), 352–367.

            Harrington, Stephen., Highfield, T., & Bruns, A. (2013). TWITTER AS A TECHNOLOGY FOR AUDIENCING AND FANDOM: The #Eurovision phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 16(3), 315–339.

  2. Hi Joseph, I really enjoyed reading your paper. I originally planned to write mine around a similar concept, so it was particularly interesting to me to see how you expanded upon a lot of the ideas I wanted to explore, but didn’t get a chance to.

    Something that came to mind while reading your paper is how, a few years ago, it seemed like every TV network was trying to funnel people into their own second screen apps. I tried to find an example to link to but it looks like they’ve all mercifully given up on it now. I remember they promoted it so hard during the Australian Open. I was curious and did download the app and found that, despite the claims of the commentators, it was a complete ghost town. That seemed completely predictable to me at the time but I couldn’t really articulate why.

    Your point about how the third place is neutral ground where “none is required to play host” hit the nail on the head – the networks had total control over these apps, whereas Twitter was that neutral ground where the social media accounts for networks and shows (and stars) can participate on equal ground with the fans, which makes it much more appealing and engaging.

    The other thing I thought about while reading your paper was how what you’ve explored might relate to the reality TV that is exclusive to streaming platforms. For example, Netflix’s “The Circle” is released in chunks of several episodes of time, intended to be binged like most of their content rather than to be seen as “appointment TV” as you mention. This made me very reluctant to look the show up on social media while I was watching it, as I knew there would likely be spoilers. Do you think the tendency of reality TV viewers to discuss programs in the “virtual loungeroom” will help or hinder this new type of reality TV?

    Congratulations on a very interesting and insightful paper.

    If you’re interested, my own paper on how the Nextdoor social networking site is helping neighbours to connect is available here:

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this paper and providing such insightful comments.

      You’ve raised a great point about programs that aren’t “live” and available on streaming platforms to be accessed at the viewers choosing. Because of the ability to shift-time, they have called into question the concept of an imagined community and necessitate a different meaning than those programs listed above, which you noted as “appointment watching.” To actively participate in the reality television online community, we may summarise that both watching the program and being active on twitter is pre-planned, and while it is not impossible for a community to form after the zone of liveness, individualistic single viewing (bingeing) will appear to be difficult to form and create a sense of community, primarily over twitter which is a real-time communication technology. Although not all forms of imagined communities need immediate simultaneous, such as reading the newspaper, but again there is a window of temporal significance after which interaction declines dramatically. Personally it seemed like the next step for video streaming platforms is creating features on their platform to ‘socialise television’ for interaction between users viewing content at the same time.

      Thanks again for your feedback and I look forward to reading your paper.

      1. “Personally it seemed like the next step for video streaming platforms is creating features on their platform to ‘socialise television’ for interaction between users viewing content at the same time.”

        Interesting! I think you might be right! Stan does well with this in a very simple way by publicising the time they post new episodes of weekly shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, so viewers can have sort of a “live” social experience only a couple of hours after it broadcasts in the original country, whereas Netflix usually only give a date. It will be interesting to see if either (or other platforms) start to incorporate more technical features to create that social experience.

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