The weekend of August 19-21 was pretty busy for professional wrestling fans. WWE set up shop at the Barclays Center for not one, but two major shows: NXT Takeover: Brooklyn II, a showcase for its “minor league” developmental brand, and SummerSlam, one of the main roster’s biggest events of the year. There was a ton of exciting in-ring action: the “Glorious” debut of Bobby Roode, Charlotte’s reclaiming of the WWE Women’s Championship from “The Boss” Sasha Banks, “The Phenomenal One” A.J. Styles beating up John Cena, the brutal and bloody (and, it turns out, completely staged, though some wrestlers were as fooled as fans were) outcome of a showdown between “The Viper” Randy Orton’s head and the meat-tenderizing hands of The Beast Incarnate, Brock Lesnar. But outside the ring, another story began circulating online: Twitter accounts @deathtoallmarks (DTAM), @SenorLariato, and @WrestlinGifs, three of online wrestling fandom’s main sources for “live GIFs” (fan-created GIFs of wrestling-related content that appeared online during live telecasts), had been suspended.
After moving operations over to a secondary account on Monday, Lariato noted that Twitter’s decision was made in response to DMCA complaints about several SummerSlam GIFs. Lariato said that Friend MTS, a UK-based “global provider of platform, channel, and content protection services,” was the apparent source of the objections (WWE initially denied making the complaints to at least one journalist, but wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer claims the company is behind the suspensions and that they were motivated by SummerSlam content). Several wrestlers tweeted about the removal of these prominent wrestling GIF-providers, including WWE Superstars Xavier Woods and Big E, former WWE superstar (and current TNA megastar) Matt Hardy, and Bullet Club tag team sensation The Young Bucks. Echoing many fans, Matt Jackson of The Bucks argued that the act of “live-GIF’ing” is not just an essential component of online wrestling fandom, but also a key tool of “any [form of] entertainment” invested in social media engagement.
The WWE seems to agree with Jackson on the importance of GIFs in the social media ecosystem. One of its primary Twitter accounts, @WWEUniverse, has been on a live GIFing tear in recent weeks during broadcasts. For example, during last week’s two-hour episode of Smackdown (and its half-hour, live post-show debrief, SmackTalk), @WWEUniverse posted three retweets, three videos, six images, and twenty-three GIFs (in addition to social media content posted to Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, as well as various content posted to various social media networks by WWE Superstars and other employees). And what seemed particularly egregious about the deletions of Lariato, DTAM and @WrestlinGIFs was the fact that these accounts were fan-driven rather than commerce-driven: these individuals were not selling bootleg t-shirts, or inserting product placement into their tweets, or creating sponsored content for invisible investors.
The WWE, in fact, loves social media. Monday Night Raw and Smackdown prominently display general show hashtags (like #Raw) as well as match or storyline-specific tags (look at the WWE’s own look back at their five favorite Rock-centric hashtags, for instance) throughout their live broadcasts. An animated hashtag graphic is now deployed in the left-hand corner of broadcasts to more prominently mark the shift from general to specific hashtags. In the company’s eyes, this obsession with Twitter is paying off: this week on both Raw and Smackdown, the company announced that it had achieved “Social Media Dominance” during the live broadcast of SummerSlam on Sunday night, besting AMC’s popular Fear The Walking Dead and NBC’s coverage of the Olympics closing ceremony in terms of live audience engagement via social media. While it has not abandoned traditional promotional channels or networks of media distribution (the rise of WWE’s partnership with ESPN’s SportsCenter, for instance, suggests that they believe there’s more to life than Twitter trending), the company clearly puts a lot of stock in the attention it receives on the web.
One of the main lessons to take away from the actions taken against these Twitter accounts seems to be that the WWE, like most companies, loves social media on its own terms, not yours. In fact, a recent WWE job posting for a Social Media intern noted that one job responsibility was to “[m]onitor WWE brand identity/reputation on Twitter/Facebook, and appraise supervisors of potential issues with impostors, etc.” “Social Media Domination” can only be declared if it can be properly documented: by hashtags, retweets, and other metrics (online surveys are sent out to fans after each major PPV, for instance). The main hashtags for Monday Night Raw and Smackdown are used frequently enough to “trend” worldwide during live broadcasts (as the WWE quickly tells us during these same broadcasts), and WWE “rewards” fans who adhere to these conventions with attention by running their PR-friendly tweets on the bottom of the screen during its live telecasts. The attention the company has more recently been paying to live GIFs is likely seen as a reward to GIF-craving fans as well as a dimension of its plans for total domination (and if you think it’s weird that a brand like the WWE would so readily embrace the rhetoric of a supervillain, then you’ve never met Vince McMahon). We may now take this feature of the social network for granted, but Twitter only started letting users post GIFs in June of 2014. More recently (six months ago, in fact!), it partnered with GIPHY and Riffsy to create a GIF search mechanism within the social network’s interface. And while ease of use and convenience are cited as the advantages of Twitter’s incorporation of GIPHY, its real strength resides in the ability to monitor, contain, and police the creation and circulation of this form of digital media via GIPHY’s user account requirements.
The suspensions of @deathtoallmarks, @SenorLariato, and @WrestlinGifs do not mark the death knell for all unsanctioned WWE GIFs online: quick searches on Google, Tumblr, and GIPHY yield numerous samplings from this week’s newest content beyond the GIFs created by official WWE social media channels (for now, at least), and this material can currently be uploaded to Twitter with relative ease. But in targeting these three accounts (among others), the WWE has taken a fairly aggressive stance against fan-driven digital curation on social media. While these accounts may not be known to all wrestling fans, they were held in high regard by many vocal fans and wrestlers alike on Twitter (and beyond: many links to tweets circulated in places like Reddit’s Squared Circle, for instance). In response to the suspensions, Lariato has focused his attention on non-WWE federations and older media footage, DTAM has (for now) apparently decided to stop posting GIFs on Twitter altogether, and @WrestlinGIFs wiped most of the WWE content posted to his account and has avoided live GIFs for now.
when the 3D printer needs maintenance pic.twitter.com/EzVqBFmS7l
— DH Wrestling (@DigHumWrestling) June 25, 2016
The Twitter live-GIF suspension news got my attention as both a wrestling fan and a person paid to study social media and digital culture (there is at least one Twitter account, DH Wrestling, that caters to both of these interests simultaneously: we live in a beautiful world). GIFs are coin of the digital realm beyond the wide world of wrestling: while the format is relatively old in internet time (here’s your obligatory dancing baby GIF reference; also, the disclaimers on that site re: distribution and re-use are super interesting in hindsight, to me at least), the relative ease with which GIFs can now be viewed, distributed, downloaded, and redistributed on various social networks and devices has made them tremendously popular in the last few years. Live GIFs are equally popular with fans of sporting events, HBO programming, news broadcasts, and reality shows, and savvier social media teams working on behalf of many of these programs are happy to provide material (I am a big fan of the GIFs created by the official Kathie Lee and Hoda Today Show account, for instance). There are even surveys of the most popular GIFs circulating on dating apps like Tinder. The fast and deliberate erasure of a significant portion of both the community of live GIF-ers and their popular body of work has me thinking about a number of things: the ongoing (and seemingly-neverending) commodification of all corners of the web, the uses of social media by particular fandoms like WWE fans, and the creation, use, reception, reuse, and (sadly, at times) deletion of GIFs on Twitter and other networks.
If you can’t tell by now, I’m a pretty big fan of the WWE. The weekly three-hour live broadcast of Monday Night Raw has typically been destination viewing in my house, but the recent decision to begin airing a live version of Smackdown on Tuesday nights, combined with the WWE’s division of its roster between the two shows, has demanded additional live viewing time here. For me, one of the major draws of watching live wrestling broadcasts (or of watching taped content, like Wednesday night’s weekly NXT shows and the current Cruiserweight Classic tournament, the first time it airs) is what marketers and other horrible people might call the “second screen” experience. Though “second screen” may not be entirely accurate. For example, during this week’s episode of Smackdown, I was: following and participating in wrestling Twitter conversations via Tweetdeck (I don’t have separate wrestling-related columns there, since a large chunk of my personal Twitter account’s main feed generally migrates to discussions of wrestling / complaints about people tweeting too much about wrestling during weekly shows and monthly PPVs; occasionally texting my brother and a few other friends; following a wrestling-centric Facebook Message thread with a few friends; posting live commentary pretty actively to a “secret” wrestling Facebook fan group with a dozen or so friends and friends of friends; tracking the top stories on Squared Circle’s home page; looking at my Instagram feed (I follow the WWE, several wrestlers, and a few wrestling fans, all of whom generally post live during events); and searching Tumblr for GIFs from that night’s episode. If I was more invested in Snapchat, I’d probably be following WWE content live there too, but I generally catch up with that stuff the following day. The point of this overview is in part to show that online fandom, like most circuits of online discourse, is frequently not restricted or isolated to particular social media platforms, interfaces, or devices: fans freely and casually shift from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat, migrate (or revise, or distort) content within or across networks, juggle phones, tablets, and laptops, identify, create barriers from, and engage with kindred spirits, trolls, wrestlers, reporters, and other randos.
While WWE fan culture is not at the fever pitch it was during the “Attitude Era” of the late 90s and early aughts (a period that introduced the world to The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and Southern Justice, among others), some of you may be surprised by the number of wrestling fans out there. Since the creation of The WWE Network, a massive, Netflixesque archive of wrestling content and a cheaper alternative to the absurdly expensive pay-per-view event model ($9.99 a month for the Network, which provides new programming and archival content on top of monthly PPVs, vs. $50 a pop just for three-hour PPV events), in February 2013, I’ve noticed a lot more wrestling-related Twitter activity in my feed. It might seem odd to some (but probably not to the architects of the Network), but the accessibility of The WWE Network has likely resulted in an uptick of views of live cable television content (and at times, the WWE has been criticized for “saving” resolutions to its PPV storylines for Raw telecasts the next day), if my own completely-unscientific hunch about a narrow segment of their fanbase is true. The perceived increase in fandom may also be due to the ease with which WWE digital content can be screencapped or GIF’d: beyond The WWE Network, video content is accessible via Hulu (which runs replays of Raw and Smackdown after their initial broadcasts) and YouTube, for instance, for users interested in “creating” their own content. For example, one of my favorite Tumblr sites (a site that is sadly no longer updated as frequently) is a collection of screencaps of WCW Monday Nitro fans.
The second screen culture of WWE fandom is, for me, one of its most enjoyable parts, and it’s one of the reasons that I continue to maintain and curate a “personal” Twitter account that’s distinct from my “professional” persona (though they do overlap, and there are many, many good reasons why you might not want to give up your voice on social media entirely to The Dark Gods Of Free Intellectual Labor and Professionalization). A Twitter feed during a live WWE event has its own interesting rhythms, peaks, and valleys, as live reactions to wrestling blur with live reactions to other TV shows, news commentary, hot takes on the election, weird jokes, and whatever else is being shouted at the void on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays. Occasionally I’ll see the non-WWE segments of my feed roll their eyes at the wrestling fans, because god forbid someone use Twitter to do anything but shameless self-promotion, bad amateur political punditry, and celebrity retweeting. WWE fans use Twitter in a variety of ways. My own feed is often full of all-caps screaming that non-wrestling fans have little-to-no context for (such as the yells of joy in response to Kevin Owens winning the Universal Championship belt on Monday, one of those surprise moments that people who snark about the scripted nature of wrestling tend to ignore in their assessments), MST3Kesque jokes about segments or matches that are not going well, complaints about how certain wrestlers are being used (or ignored), screenshots and image macros, and, of course, the aforementioned live GIFs. For example, this week predictably saw a ton of Kevin Owens GIFs in the immediate wake of his surprise victory on Monday Night Raw. In addition to snippets of the in-ring proceedings of Raw (which were shocking due to both Owens’ victory and the role played by a newly-returned Triple H in ensuring said victory), a GIF of Owens declaring himself “the champion of the universe” in a 2013 promo (originally distributed and still residing on YouTube), well before he entered the WWE development system, was also popular. Less predictable was the popularity of a smaller moment: a pre-taped segment on Tuesday’s Smackdown involving Heath Slater and Rhyno in which Rhyno did little besides quietly eat Cheez Whiz and crackers. The @WWEUniverse account, which has generally been favoring in-ring content over interview segment coverage, actually featured this GIF on their feed during the Smackdown broadcast, and a few amateur live-GIF creators also created and circulated their own versions and variations (such as the one seen here).
While Kevin Owens GIFs from this week may be pretty easy to find in the coming months (depending on the length of his title reign), Rhyno and his crackers may quickly end up like Phlebas, forgotten under a sea of social media content as quickly as he arrived. What are the long-term preservation and accessibility issues surrounding GIFs, not to mention the archives of social media communication that rely heavily on GIFs? One of the depressing things about the loss and erasure of live GIF wrestling accounts is that a fairly significant portion of these records of online fan culture is now gone. WWE might preserve its own GIFs (they have an archivist, who seems very cool!), as the company is clearly aware of the value of broadcast material. The WWE uses its impressive archival library of its own media and the media it has purchased when it has bought smaller wrestling companies (WCW and ECW are perhaps the best-known of these federations) to create montages related to current storylines and products, to serve as content for its popular WWE Network, and, perhaps most importantly, to shape and revise the narrative of the company’s corporate history. But who is looking after the history of the company’s fans? Some fans have migrated from social media to official WWE propaganda: witness, for instance, their embrace of Ellis Mbeh (aka “Shocked Undertaker Guy“), or the attention paid to Bayley superfan Izzy, or the presence of hashtags on Randy Orton’s merchandise (a reflection of the popular “RKO” memes). Vince McMahon and Co. will sometimes co-opt social media response to its programming when it “smells money.” The #OccupyRaw “movement” was the company’s eventual embrace of its fandom’s response to Daniel Bryan, a superstar who many fans felt was being denied major opportunities on the show, while #GiveDivasAChange was a hashtag campaign that turned into a corporate-sponsored “revolution” that took credit for the motives behind the rebranding and expansion of the company’s women’s division. But it has also forced fans sitting at events to change out of costumes, erased major figures when controversy arrives, and allegedly “buried” wrestlers who gained social media followings through unconventional (and unsanctioned) means. The WWE is preoccupied with self-image, and when it sees something it doesn’t like in the mirror, its first response is often to break apart the old mirror and build a new one.
when the subway sandwich artist tells you the toaster isn’t working pic.twitter.com/H2YcKAI1xg
— Subway WWExperience (@WWESubway) August 11, 2016
The challenge for the WWE in our contemporary moment is that they can’t control the internet in the way they might dictate security, access, and fan behavior at one of its live events. They will at times loosen their grip or allow for approved avenues of dissent or subversion: there was a Harambe sign at Monday Night Raw a few weeks ago that I’m pretty sure they could have removed if they really wanted to. They could have easily removed the popular @WWESubway Twitter account on the same grounds of copyright violation they chose to invoke against the live GIF accounts. If the WWE’s decisions to push or bury certain superstars seem whimsical or arbitrary at times, so too is their approach to addressing copyright violations. But we nonetheless should keep in mind the speed with which they were able to enforce their interpretation of alleged copyright violations on Twitter. I’m convinced that if the WWE and other companies figured out a way to create more official, centralized channels for ad-supported GIFs, then they would. GIPHY, for all of its integration with Twitter, visibility, and perceived ease of use, has a number of major gaps in its GIF holdings and a poorly-designed search interface. What if it was the only game in town for GIFs? Thankfully, GIFs seem to be leaning more towards screencaps in terms of their ubiquity and functionality; it would be absurd to see attempts to enforce the thousands if not millions of copyright and user-agreement violations evident in the screencaps circulated daily on social media. Nonetheless, we can be reminded of how small the options for communication are when action is taken against alleged violators, as well as who controls these lines of communication.
Wrestling GIFs have weirdly become one of social media’s most beloved resources, and I think new media scholars could learn a lot from paying more attention to modes of online discourse that heavily traffic in these and other GIFs. As it becomes easier to distribute, create, annotate, and distort GIFs, I think we’ll see a whole range of new and interesting uses for them on Twitter, Tumblr, and elsewhere. I also think it’s worth considering the creation and circulation of GIFs and other memes as forms of curation, a word I’ve slipped into this post once or twice. And I think we might also consider what happens when we shift the terms of reading these items into curatorial contexts. What histories are being invoked, rejected, revised, ignored completely? How far removed can certain GIFs move from the original footage they emerge from, and why? How do certain performers and programs anticipate eventual remediation in GIF forms, and how does this awareness impact their performances? What are the challenges inherent in created searchable indexes or archives of GIFs? How do GIFs function differently from traditional modes of criticism or annotation? What will GIFs created in 2016 look like in 2036? While I’ve spent a lot of time mining my own investments in wrestling fandom here, I think these questions could obviously be considered more generally, and they seem worth asking.