Tumblr as a methodological tool for data archiving: The case of a Calzona Tumblr

Mélanie Bourdaa

University of Bordeaux–MICA, Bordeaux, France

[0.1] Abstract—This case study of a Tumblr created to study the impact of a specific episode of Grey's Anatomy (2005–) on the fandom of a particular romantic pairing shows how ethnoresearchers—that is, researchers embedded into the community they are studying—can use the functionality of this microblogging platform to organize and archive their research.

[0.2] Keywords—Database; Fandom; Grey's Anatomy

Bourdaa, Mélanie. 2018. "Tumblr as a Methodological Tool for Data Archiving: The Case of a Calzona Tumblr." In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The emergence of transmedia storytelling and a related strategy, what I call augmented storytelling (Bourdaa 2012), as well as the increased presence of participatory culture, raises questions for researchers. What methods do researchers use to collect data and analyze this new ecosystem, on both the production side and the fan side? Digital technologies, especially the internet and interactivity, have played a huge part in the production strategies of television series and of audiovisual productions in general. As a result, researchers in the fields of reception studies and fan studies are confronted with a shifting ecosystem that is changing the methods of research and data collection.

2. Tumblr as an archive and database

[2.1] To address these changes, as well as the way fans engage in the reception of TV shows, movies, books, and other media, Tumblr may be a useful research tool. The format is an integral part of fan activity, and it has become the platform of choice for fans to interact and post their thoughts and creations. This microblogging site permits the aggregation of content as animated images (GIFs), video, drawings, and text. This media fluidity, as well as the posting methods inherent to this social network, favor the heavy circulation of content from one Tumblr to another via easy reblogging; circulation is further expanded into the public sphere thanks to Tumblr's sharing option, which permits easy posting to other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Users can also categorize messages by providing tags that allow fans to navigate the content and select information according to their specific interests.

[2.2] Several researchers have pointed out the usefulness and primacy of Tumblr as a productive site of fan activity. Louisa Stein (2016) notes that Tumblr has become "the favored interface for fans, which promotes communication and creativity," because Tumblr permits users to rework and transform preexisting media. Florent Favard (2013), in his analysis of the reception of the final episode of Fringe (2008–13), shows the importance of the methodological tool for research purposes, with Tumblr being used to create an archive and a database. And in their pioneering study, Yi Chang et al. (2014) "find Tumblr has more rich content than other microblogging platforms, and it contains hybrid characteristics of social networking, traditional blogosphere, and social media."

3. Case study: The Calzona breakup

[3.1] With Tumblr an established site for fan interaction, researchers need to be able to engage with the platform in order to perform research on fan communities. Rather than just studying existing Tumblr usage, researchers should consider creating Tumblr accounts in order to work directly with fans and the artifacts they create, as well as manipulate tags and data to discover trends. Here I provide a case study of my doing just that. I collected and archived fan reactions and activities related to the specific episode of Grey's Anatomy (2005–) where the characters of Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins (whose fan portmanteau pairing name is Calzona) break up. I did this in order to analyze the evolution of fan reaction in the 24 hours after 11.05 "Bend & Break" aired on October 23, 2014. The essay that was the result of this research methodology was published in 2017 in a book I coordinated entitled Fan Studies Gender Studies: la rencontre.

[3.2] When I first began my project, I was simply looking for a way to organize and archive the vast number of fan reactions on Tumblr regarding the anticipation for and aftermath of the episode. However, I initially didn't fully understand the potential of Tumblr: I didn't realize that I could have easily created an interactive database, with dates, reactions to posts, and chronology. Instead I began taking screen captures of all the posts that interested me and saving them in a folder on my computer. I had 135 raw screen captures, but they had no context, no posting dates, and no continuity. I discovered I could not perform analysis with so little context. Further, this method didn't take into account the fluidity of this microblogging platform or the richness of the content, especially the GIF sets that fans create to convey their emotions and reactions to other members of the community, using codes and norms that only those embedded in the fandom can understand. Further, I didn't have the ecosystem that surrounded each post—the conversations and threads created by members of the community. boyd, Golder, and Lotan (2010) suggest that this sort of "practice contributes to a conversational ecology in which conversations are composed of a public interplay of voices that give rise to an emotional sense of shared conversational context." Further, one important component of this interplay is reblogging, an essential feature of the Tumblr platform, as it is a way of continuing a discussion throughout the community. My collection of screen captures did not reflect this repetition.

[3.3] I thus decided to create my own dedicated Tumblr, where I presented myself as an ethnofan—that is, a researcher who analyzes fan practices by integrating into the community and fandom under study (Bourdaa, forthcoming). Ethnofans invest, propose, and develop new research approaches that lead to methodologies adapted to a fandom's particular context and purpose. Activities include immersion in a specific fan community, collection of digital traces and fan works, and hypertext navigation. This permits researchers to have a sufficiently complete view of the terrain and community practices to be able to analyze the media ecosystem (production and reception) undergoing changes and to engage in multiplatform serialized narration. The peculiarity of this methodological posture, one engaged in observant participation, lies in the fact that the researcher knows the community from the inside and is able to master the community's media practices.

[3.4] I thought it was important for me to remain sincere in my approach and to explain my research and Tumblr's fundamental purpose to Calzona fans. I carefully chose the name of the Tumblr, The End of Calzona As We Know It (now deleted), to show my knowledge of the show's universe and of the narrative arcs of the Callie-Arizona relationship. My use of the fan portmanteau "Calzona" for the pairing signaled my belonging to a community, a testimony of affiliation. This identity marker carries a double importance: first, it works at the individual level by allowing me to identify myself as a fan; second, it works at the collective level by providing a social resonance that hails the whole community. David Peyron (2015) confirms this link between the construction of an identity and the name of the community: "By being asserted, this (self) categorization is not then experienced as alienating for a group of individuals because they find a confirmation of belonging and thus a recognition of the social validity of their identity."

[3.5] This recognition is twofold: recognition among individuals belonging to the same group, and recognition in and by society precisely because of the very act of choosing a name. Fans of the Arizona-Callie couple use the term "Calzona" to signify their knowledge of the narrative and their membership in the specific community of fans of the couple. The term "Calzona" was also used by showrunners when they discussed or created episode scenarios to label the scenes between the two characters, or to identify the places in which the characters lived and in which their relationship evolved. I used this name in the title of my Tumblr to show that I knew the practices of the community and that I was not a stranger to this community I had chosen to analyze. Use of the term "Calzona" prevented the rejection of my Tumblr and the reblogging I did. Indeed, the virtual community is also a place of social relations that emerge through participation in a mediated environment. James Paul Gee (2004) calls virtual communities affinity spaces, and more and more these spaces are opened in order to allow the circulation of opinions and content, as well as admiration, love, and fannish excitement (figure 1).

Tumblr conversation regarding anticipation of Calzona Grey's Anatomy episode. Top post by iamashleytoyou reads, 'I am not emotionally ready for Thursday peeps. That anticipation is KILLING ME [round-mouthed emoji] [3 notes].' Bottom post by gsmhazcal reads, 'It's finally here! CALZONA CENTRIC EPISODE! I am equally excited and afraid of this. And because I live in Asia, I have to take the day off from work to be able to watch it live. Yay! [2 notes].'

Figure 1. Example of a reblogging I did on my Tumblr of a conversation showing Calzona excitement.

[3.6] After I created the Tumblr, I reblogged fan reactions over 48 hours to create a corpus of text, images, GIFs and GIF sets, and video. This activity was facilitated by the Tumblr interface, which has a reblogging option, and by the community's use of tags, which allowed me to spot the posts that interested me and then allowed me to add helpful new tags. Naturally, I used the #Callie, #Arizona, and #Calzona tags. I also combined both names using the Tumblr-specific codes "Callie × Arizona" and "Arizona × Callie." Fans usually use several tags to ensure that their posts are widely seen by the community and are archived in the right fandoms. After eliminating redundant messages and reblogs from already existing posts, thus keeping only original posts, I collected and archived 363 posts. My objective was to study fan reactions of Callie and Arizona's breakup in qualitative, not quantitative, terms. By using Tumblr's built-in tools, I was able to manipulate and organize data, which permitted me to discover trends useful to my research.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] My research aimed to analyze the reactions of Calzona and Grey's Anatomy fans 24 hours before, during, and 24 hours after the broadcast of the breakup episode 11.05 "Bend & Break." In addition to reactions to the episode itself, fans also responded to published interviews with the actors and the showrunners, as well as to episode trailers and teasers. These paratexts, to use Gray's (2010) term, influence fan reception and provoke anticipatory reactions, which are interesting to analyze. I also discovered that violent, angry comments were posted during the episode's actual airing, which contrasted with the experience of waiting and the anticipation of the day before. The day after the broadcast, more thoughtful reflections emerged, revealing the deep feelings of the fans.

[4.2] Using Tumblr as a database helped me understand the functionality of the platform as well as fan dynamics. The archive I created by collecting posts via the use of tags represents a case study of fan reaction to a highly anticipated event and shows that fans reflect on their own fandoms, their understanding of the fictional world, and the links between their (affective) lives and what the characters experience in a show (figure 2). The methodology I created for this research project could be used again for another research project, as it used the functions of the Tumblr microblogging platform to put together an archive as well as a database of fan reactions and posts.

Tumblr post by titled 'Okay, so I'm scared.' Text reads: 'Maybe I shouldn't be, I mean it's just a show. Just a show, just a fictional couple, not real life. It shouldn't make that much difference to me personally. But it does. It does because it's not just a show, it's a reflection of reality that influences a lot of people and it's not just a couple,… [12 notes].'

Figure 2. Tumblr post by breathtakinglystunning14 showing emotional investment in Calzona and its relationship to a fan's affective life.

6. Works cited

Bourdaa, Mélanie. 2012. "Transmedia: Between Augmented Storytelling and Immersive Practices." INAGlobal, September 6.

Bourdaa, Mélanie. 2017. "'The end of Calzona as we know it': analyse de réception des fans du couple Callie-Arizona dans la série Grey's Anatomy." In Fan Studies, Gender Studies: La rencontre, edited by Mélanie Bourdaa and Arnaud Alessandrin, 139–54. Paris: Téraèdre.

Bourdaa, Mélanie. Forthcoming. "La démarche ethno-fan: de l'importance de l'immersion du chercheur dans les communautés de fans dans l'étude du transmedia storytelling." In En quête d'archives: bricolages méthodologiques en terrains médiatiques, edited by Sarah Lécossais and Nelly Quémener. Paris: Ina.

boyd, danah, Scott Golder, and Gilad Lotan. 2010. "Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter." Paper presented at the 43rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Kauai, HI, January 6.

Chang, Yi, Lei Tang, Yoshiyuki Inagaki, and Yan Liu. 2014. "What Is Tumblr: A Statistical Overview and Comparison." In "Big Data," edited by Charu C. Aggarwal, Haixun Wang, Hanghang Tong, and Ankur Teredesai, special issue, ACM SIGKDD Explorations Newsletter 16 (1): 21–29.

Favard, Florent. 2013. "S01E04—The Tumblr Kind." Rasebeluneries, November 27.

Gee, James Paul. 2004. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. London: Routledge.

Gray, Jonathan. 2010. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.

Peyron, David. 2015. "Enjeux identitaires et communautaires des noms de fandoms." Revue Française des Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication, no. 7.

Stein, Lisa. 2016. "The Limits of Infinite Scroll: Gifsets and Fanmixes as Evolving Fan Traditions." Flow Journal, March 22.