Currently, pro wrestling fans have access to hundreds (if not thousands) outlets where they get their news from. Dirtsheets, Twitter accounts, forums – They're all part of the wrestling news cycle. All speakers credit Twitter with being their first source of information, followed by forums (such as r/squaredcircle) and some dirtsheets.
Almost all current wrestling promotions have social media accounts to promote their product. WWE's social media branding is undoubtedly the most present and popular, but is it effective?
Spollen: For small independent brands, a strong social media presence is so vital, but there aren't many of them that do it well. There's just a few that get it right. I learn about shows that aren't listed on Ticketmaster thanks to that social media, because there isn't an app like Bandsintown for wrestling. Now, WWE's social media, is a whole other thing. WWE understands, 70-percent-kind-of-understands how to use Twitter. They've done their research to see which kind of posts get the best response. On the other hand, they post several tweets with grammatical errors, which is kind of embarrassing. They're not so great at figuring out how to interpret some of the data that Twitter gives them.
Rouse: It's weird, right? Because there are certain [WWE] wrestlers who are great at social media. We've seen certain guys use social media to push their characters, but the company as a whole, I go back and forth with it. There are moments where they do things where I'm like, “Yeah, they've got this figured out”, but many times there are things I think they should capitalize on, and they don't. One example that comes to mind, is the Divas Revolution, which was a grassroots movement – hashtag – created by fans, and then WWE's social media hijacked it, and in a way, took the legs out of it.
Hines: I think social media, along with smart phones, is one of the worst things that has happened to professional wrestling. From a level of enjoyment, from a level of fan interaction, I do think it's the worst thing. But on another level, social media definitely helps WWE and its presence online, it helps represent promotion of the core brand. And online, they also have their own identity besides television, which I think is vital to keep fans engaged.
Rouse: They have millions of followers, and every night wrestling's on they almost always have the number one trending topic. I don't know if that speaks more to their prowess on their social media game, or just proves how rabid the wrestling fanbase can be.
With examples of how vocal the wrestling fanbase can be, such as the creation of the #DivasRevolution or #CancelWWENetwork hashtags, among others, a question comes to mind: Is the use of social media by wrestling fans a blessing or a curse for wrestling promotions, specifically WWE?
Foray: With the rise of social media, I think, came the rise of this fan assumption that just because they have more accessibility they think that it guarantees them certain rights. Wrestling fans in general think that they deserve certain things, and having social media gives them the access to actually, in their mind, being connected to WWE via their accounts. That they can say whatever they want and make certain demands. I think that WWE should be able to make concessions to them, of course. But I don't think that it's affected the product in a way that the product is poor now, or it has affected the product negatively. I do think it can affect you as a fan, all the negativity sometimes, and it can distort your view of wrestling.
Spollen: It's complicated. I do think you get a lot of fans that have these really entitled reactions that come from a gut-level place. You have a lot of them together in social media, which sometimes does end up with changes in the product. For example, you have the #CancelWWENetwork hashtag in the dark side of it. But at the same time, how many people actually fucking did it? If you care enough about wrestling to get a hashtag trending, you're probably not going anywhere. It's not totally clear what WWE is listening to, actually. That's the thing. We don't know. I could be biased, but in my experience, most of the change I've experienced as a fan, most of the change based on fan reaction, has been pretty positive. We would not have the #DivasRevolution if it hadn't been trending on Twitter, since it became such a big deal that Stephanie and Vince had to respond publicly to it.
Boyd: I think I'd be lying to myself if I didn't say that being online and talking to people on social media doesn't influence my opinion of the product. If I'm watching a PPV, and I'm annoyed about something, I'll automatically go seek opinions that are similar to mine. I don't think anyone's mind has ever changed by the fanbase. You know how some dogs start barking, and then all the neighborhood dogs are barking? I do think wrestling fans can do that. One fan will start yelling, “Roman Reigns can't work!” and five more people will start doing the same, and all of a sudden people accept these truths as being objective. I think the fanbase influences the product in the way that it bolsters opinions that you might already have.
Rouse: I think the pros outweigh the cons to it. I think there is a lot to be said to sticking with your plans and storylines [in spite of public reaction]. I actually have a theory about this, I've had a strong personal feeling about it... When fans get online, and start sort-of fantasy booking things, that affects the product. For example, the big thing going into Battleground, that everyone is talking about, who is going to be Sasha Banks' mystery partner? And immediately everyone started saying, Bayley, it has to be Bayley. My personal theory, and again, I have no inside information on this, is that they [WWE] were thinking about having Bayley on that spot when they started working on the storyline, but the minute that everyone started saying it's Bayley, they started second-guessing that. It's not a surprise anymore. And I think that that's why they might change their minds last minute, and why sometimes we get some lackluster surprises.
Hines: Is it a good thing for the company? Probably not. For example, WWE posts polls after a live show, the whole thumbs up, thumbs down thing. Most of the time, it's like 75-80 percent thumbs down. For a fan, it is a good thing, specially if you spend loads of money on wrestling. You can provide feedback. Let's not forget that wrestling is a very emotive thing. People who are wrestling fans are like addicts, because if you are a hardcore fan, it's really hard for you to stop. And that means that you put up with a lot of shit, in order to get the good stuff. That being said, these fans will pay for the product instead of doing illegal downloads, which will make them more vocal about their discontent. And for some reason, the more successful WWE is on social media in terms of interaction, the less successful their ratings are.
It's pretty clear that these days, social media wrestling fans are joined to the hip. And with that kind of relationship, you get the usual great interactions, but like in any fanbase, you also get the toxic, negative kind. Is it an easy fanbase to navigate, or is it sometimes too overwhelming to handle?
Boyd: It really depends the kind of fans you interact with. Fan response has always been a huge part of pro wrestling, and the internet extension is inevitable these days. So I think that the internet is a good tool as long as fans are not using it to crowdsource their opinions. If they don't want to do the mental work to examine a storyline, or they just want someone to tell them how to feel about something – I think a lot of people do that with Dave Meltzer, or whatever internet darling's opinion is important on r/squaredcircle that week. I think as long as you're thinking for yourself and having meaningful conversations with other fans that have different opinions from you, I think it's great.
Spollen: I don't know that I totally feel like part of the fanbase, which is weird, since I run a wrestling website and help curate a wrestling Twitter. I feel that the reason that I don't self-identify that way, even though it's something that I am, it's because I protect my opinion from other people. The vast majority of the wrestling criticism online, the one I interact with, I try not to let it influence me. I want my perspective to be interesting enough to this brand [Shoulders Up] to be unique. A lot of wrestling fans can be vicious, even to each other. People can troll and stalk your Twitter page if they don't like some of the things you have to say, and that can be really difficult to deal with. It can be difficult to deal with because this thing that gives you so much pleasure and fun can also turn into something that can be really nasty.
Rouse: I've definitely unfollowed people. There was this account I used to follow, they posted wrestling gifs, and suddenly they started posting nasty and messed up tweets which were deleted almost immediately. I didn't want to be connected to that. But I've curated my own Twitter account to only follow mature and smart wrestling fans, I don't think that it comes as a surprise that there are a bunch of immature wrestling fans out there. Just look at the female wrestlers' Instagram accounts or WWE's Facebook comments. I've had disagreements with people online, of course. And as a writer who writes about it and puts his stuff out there, I've gotten criticism but it's mostly overwhelmingly positive feedback.
Foray: I love it and I hate it. For the last two years I've been on Twitter, I've had all this menagerie of people I can talk about wrestling with, and text them. It's fascinating to me how the internet has brought me more friendships. For example, I'm going to Battleground this weekend, and I'm staying with a friend I met through Twitter. On the flipside, you're also giving yourself access to all that negative, and weirdos, people emailing you weird things through your website.
Hines: Personally, sometimes I'm embarrassed to be a wrestling fan. I'm a passionate fan – I've spent lots of money on wrestling, I've been paid to talk about wrestling, and yet, when I look around, especially at behavior online... It's all very embarrassing. It goes with what I said about addiction earlier, there's this “Stockholm Syndrome” thing when it comes to wrestling fans, because they're quick to rally against this product they “hate” so much. And yet, they still watch every week, they buy t-shirts, they pay for the Network every month. I've discovered that the “smarter” a fan is, the less I want to interact with them. When I write about wrestling, I have to take out some of my knowledge to make it accessible for a broader group of people. So the more loud and passionate a fan is, the more unbearable they are to me, because they don't know when to shut up.
It's not rare to hear wrestling fans reminisce about the good ol' Attitude Era days, where internet forums weren't that common or didn't have a strong presence. But what exactly is so different about being a fan back then, and being a fan today?
Rouse: Well, back then I wasn't going on message boards, although I think that there might have been some AOL chatrooms dedicated to wrestling. I've seen people pull really old, really obscure online interviews with people. I was very young back then to partake on any of that, I guess. I grew up with wrestling, and it's something that, as a writer, I think about a lot. I wasn't looking at the product critically back then, I just looked at it as a TV show.
Hines: That's funny, because I feel like wrestling today is kinda cheap. But every generation is going to think that their product is better than the current product. I started watching wrestling around 1996, so I got to experience the Attitude Era, which for a 6-7 year old kid, it was fucking great, fucking amazing. But looking back now, it was mostly shit. I still have a fond regard for it, you know. Reality Era, well, I think it's wrestling at its lowest end, possibly ever, in terms of creativity and entertainment. People can talk about NXT, and Cruiserweight, and don't get me wrong, those are all great. But they are just accessories to the main event, and I do think this is the worst era of wrestling. Three hours of RAW, two hours of Smackdown, PPVs... It's too much, it's not good enough.
Foray: I started watching when I was 10, which is a little bit older than the kids I see at shows today. I didn't get to go to live shows when I was a kid, my parents weren't into that. I didn't get the chance to experience all that. I went to my first wrestling show when I was 18, in college. So, I like it more as an adult now, I have access to more things. For me, I enjoy it way more during this era than back then. Looking back to what I was watching, product-wise, I don't think I would have gotten into wrestling again as an adult if the Attitude Era was happening right now. I don't think I would have enjoyed it. I don't think I would have been able to watch it and support it.
Boyd: It's great being a fan right now because, honestly, this is an incredible period to get into pro wrestling because of the variety of stuff you can watch. People are lying when they say the Attitude Era was good. Overall, it was a horrible period for wrestling and storylines. In the late 90s we didn't have prestige TV, and now WWE has to step it up to keep up with all the options available for what you want to watch. It's awesome because I can turn on the Network at any moment, and watch the Cruiserweight Tournament, or stuff from the Attitude Era if I'm feeling masochistic. Anyone with an internet connection can become a wrestling historian.