Ted Cruz’s fight with Big Bird on Twitter was not on our 2021 bingo map.
However, Senator from Texas tweet, calling the hero of “Sesame Street” November announcement on the Covid-19 vaccination “Government propaganda … for your five-year-old child” is a prime example of a modern phenomenon: it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to distinguish between real and fictional characters.
To Aaron Bisman, VP of Audience Development at Sesame Workshop, this may seem like a testament to hard work. He oversees all of Sesame Street’s social media accounts (eight on Facebook, nine on Twitter, and one on Instagram), each reflecting characters from a long-standing children’s program and sharing messages that fit the show’s mission: to make viewers smarter and kinder.
“We knew that the stories of our characters were powerful voices for enlightenment,” said Mr. Bisman. But deciding when and how to use each one requires careful consideration.
For example, it made sense for Big Bird to talk about the Covid vaccine because he has “a lot of joy, but a bit of anxiety,” said Mr Bisman. Elmo also tweeted about vaccinations, but not from personal experience. (He is consistently 3 and a half years old – too young to be eligible, but obviously old enough to ski with Lil Nas X.) Bert was able to post a vote in the 2020 presidential election as he is slightly older. In addition, as Mr. Bisman said, he looks like a man committed to civic duty.
Such extrapolations of characters and their motives are no longer limited to the area of writing rooms and social strategy meetings. Now, almost everyone talks about fictional creatures as if they were living, breathing creatures that walk – and set off – among us. During the pandemic, fans began to engage more in so-called parasocial relationships with the stars of their favorite shows as screen time skyrocketed and viewers sought comfortable television. On social media, characters with blue checkmarks who post regularly only fuel this behavior.
Bisman said that Sesame Street’s accounts focus on “harnessing the love and nostalgia” people have for the show, which began airing in 1969 and has been part of the lives of three generations. (The oldest of the accounts, meanwhile, has been around for ten years.) “We’re thinking about building relationships,” he said, “because that’s what every brand in the world is expected to do today.”
The HBO Max reboot of Gossip Girl, which debuted this summer, pursues a similar goal: based on a show that ended nearly 10 years ago, the series had a built-in audience of former fans who still link to scenes on their social media. The media, as well as a new generation of viewers.
Although the original show ended just before the explosion of social media, the writers, executive producers, and directors agreed that it would play a much larger role in the reboot – not just in the show’s plot, but also as a sequel. Gossip Girl’s official social media accounts, as well as the characters’ own accounts, were a way to “reward” viewers “for staying in this world,” said Anthony Kane, social media director at HBO Max.
Five people at HBO Max maintain Gossip Girls’ social accounts, as well as several employees at Ralph, an outside creative agency. The posts closely follow the plot of each character.
Gossip Girl also has a team that makes sure the characters’ phone screens look realistic in every episode. This includes Instagram feeds, tweets, and Venmo transactions – all done using prototyping software, as well as a Google Sheet with tips posted to the Gossip Girl account on the show (hundreds of them, written by Matthew K. Begby, scripted show coordinator and Eleanor Lawrence, social media scriptwriter).
The characters are also active on other social networks. Akeno “Aki” Menzies, an introverted movie buff, has an account on the Letterboxd movie review site, run by Mr. Begby, Joshua Safran, host of Gossip Girl, and Eric Eidelstein, writer of the series. (Shortly after the release of People, Aki’s Letterboxd account posted a review of the film, which featured a Thanksgiving episode of “Gossip Girls,” in which the real and fictional universes mingled.)
Two other characters, Audrey Hope and Zoe Lott, are on Goodreads. Fanfare about Audrey’s story surprised Mr Begby; although, as he put it, fans were screaming about what she read, he didn’t expect it to become the most popular account on Goodreads at some point (it is now 17th). Zoe’s account appeared after fans started asking for him.
Mr. Begby said that keeping accounts is like “an extended play of pretending.” Fans are also playing along, referring to accounts by character names when sending private messages with recommendations for films and books. “Consumers believe these reports are genuine,” said Mr Kane. He added: “They love this world, they want to stay in this world.”
Peter B. Gregg, assistant professor of new media at St. Thomas University, echoed this view. “Our minds do not view parasocial contact as anything other than interpersonal contact,” said Dr. Gregg. As these shows give us “a special window into their world,” he said, viewers begin to feel like they know the characters.
“We all know these characters are not real,” said Mr. Bisman. But even Ted Lasso, whose Twitter account is as unrealistically optimistic as his character on Apple +, has fans who thank him for the inspiring quotes.
“Getting people to have a parasocial relationship with the characters is a good way to get them back to content,” said Dr. Gregg. Ahead of Season 2, the Gossip Girl team plans to reveal a few more tricks. But as Mr. Begby said, referring to one of the show’s heartthrobs, “I don’t think we’ll be seeing Max on the scruff anytime soon.”