[DISCLAIMER: This blog post is a condensed version of my research’s findings. If you’d like a copy of the complete dissertation paper, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to read about my journey in writing this dissertation (including my personal motivations, challenges, and methodology), head over to Part 1]
After an insane amount of late nights and hard work, I managed to submit my final year dissertation consisting of 10,000 words during a global pandemic. Alhamdulillah, Newcastle University gave my research paper, “#DontSpoilTheEndgame: An Investigation Into Social Media Engagements With the Viral Phenomenon of Avengers: Endgame” a First Class grade of 78/100!
ABSTRACT: Avengers: Endgame was a film released in 2019, the finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity saga, that not only became the highest-grossing film worldwide but broke records in terms of social media engagements, making it a viral phenomenon. This research explores the factors leading to high engagement with the film online, revealing social media’s role as a space for meaningful conversations about a beloved media franchise. To investigate this area, insights from 692 online questionnaire respondents as well as a sample of 1,000 random tweets posted during the film’s screening period were gathered. This data was then analyzed thematically to interpret the ways in which social media users interacted with Avengers: Endgame, and why they were inclined to post or share about the film. Drawing on theories of participatory culture, convergence culture, virality and cultural phenomena, the findings argue that meaningful social media engagement with Avengers: Endgame was influenced by psychological motivations – such as emotion, exclusivity, and secrecy. Other than that, this research discovered the powerful capacities of social media in uniting people across the world to interact with the film online through fandom communities, production of user-generated content, and interactive features. This communal genuine urge to share about Avengers: Endgame succeeded in spreading the word to a large audience and making content about the film go viral. However, the negative aspects of this, such as fan labour and spoiler-related anxiety, are also touched upon. Evidently, social media plays a huge role in elevating media audience participation in this digital era.
Keywords: Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Cinematic Universe, social media, engagement, fandom, participatory culture, convergence culture, viral, cultural phenomena, film marketing
As we all know, academic writing is often dull – it lacks humour, storytelling, personal experiences, and is full of hard-to-understand jargon. So please enjoy this condensed and more fun version of my dissertation findings! For every major finding, I’ve also provided an alternative example from a different real-life event for better understanding. It will take you about 15 minutes to read, if you can spare the time to do so.
Why choose Avengers: Endgame as a case study?
Well, other than the fact that I myself am a huge Marvel fan… the movie gained 40.5 social media engagements during release week, breaking internet records. It was also named as the most tweeted movie of all time in 2019. Also, director Joe Russo himself mentioned that Endgame couldn’t have achieved the numbers it did without social media.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also an extremely unique movie franchise in the sense it released 21 movies prior to Endgame are interconnected with each other. Every movie is a small part of a huge jigsaw puzzle, despite featuring different characters. This means that most people who regularly consume American entertainment are familiar with at least a few movies or characters even if they aren’t huge Marvel fans. That small sense of familiarity could have influenced them to watch Endgame, thus posting about it on social media.
To identify the factors causing high engagement with Endgame content on social media.
For the first sub-question, I investigated specific reoccurring features of social media content that drove high engagement with Endgame. I found that Endgame-related postings were often influenced by emotion, exclusivity, and secrecy. These features are not mutually exclusive but often overlap with each other.
1) Marvel fans produced and shared posts to express emotion
Fans in general are pretty emotional – and people often experience an impulse to share things they experience an instant emotional bond with. And well, Marvel takes huge advantage of that. They intentionally created promotional material on social media that invoke high-arousal emotions such as excitement, anxiety, and sadness. Both Infinity War and Endgame were highly marketed as “finale” films, constantly featuring sentimental flashbacks of previous movies in their promotional material. The film itself featured an exhaustive amount of references or “Easter eggs” to the previous films and comic books, a notable feature of the MCU, which got fans feeling both nostalgic and eager to discuss them.
Social media allows the communal expression of emotion – e.g. mourning character deaths together. On Twitter, people openly expressed their feelings prior to and after watching Endgame. The vast majority of tweets were positive and mentioned being emotionally touched – such as feeling proud of the MCU’s journey, applauding the cast and crew’s hard work, sadness related to the ending of a saga, or overwhelming emotions after watching certain scenes. A small minority of tweets expressed negative emotions, such as being disappointed with predictable plotlines or frustration with the lack of diversity.
Alternative example: In 2019, a remake of the nasyid (Islamic song) titled ‘Sesungguhnya’ by Raihan was released featuring Alif Satar. In general, it is a very sentimental song with spiritual lyrics. Millennials also experienced a #majorthrowback and were taken back to their innocent childhood days. In terms of timing, the music video was strategically released during Ramadhan – a time when Muslims try to reconnect with their faith. Personally, I saw many of my friends share the song on social media and express how emotionally touched they were.
2) “Exclusive” insider material from Endgame cast and crew depict the image of authenticity and intimacy
“Insider” scenes related to Endgame were often posted on social media by the cast and crew. Such content such as behind-the-scenes footage and teasers provide fans with a sense of exclusivity and were widely shared. Contact with an MCU film does not necessarily end when one leaves the cinema. Invested fans seek deeper engagement through participatory culture on social media. The notion of “parasocial interaction” can be used to describe the psychological relationship experienced by MCU fans in their mediated encounters with the cast and crew on social media, giving the illusion that those celebrities are their “friends”.
Questionnaire respondents gave examples such as:
- Gwyneth Paltrow’s accidental leak of a photo of her in the Rescue suit
- Robert Downey Jr’s posting of a photo on Instagram of him as Tony Stark and Tom Holland as Peter Parker not ever seen on camera before the film was released
- Supposedly “illegal” footage filmed on set posted by Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Olsen
These posts encourage the illusion of authenticity and intimacy among fans. Some of them have been accused of being marketing stunts (“if the footage was actually illegal, they wouldn’t post it”).
Alternative example: Malaysians got super excited when the Raja Permaisuri Agong (Queen) made a Twitter account. They adored seeing Her Majesty’s cooking videos and cute selfies with the Agong (King) in Istana Negara (National Palace) – exclusive insider material! Many were lucky enough to have their tweets replied to by her. People stated that this was a positive step towards royalty becoming closer to the rakyat (people), feeling an intimate bond with the Permaisuri Agong. Unfortunately her Twitter account has now been deleted. Guess there’s a reason why the British royal family aren’t allowed to have social media accounts. You can still follow Istana Negara on Instagram, though.
3) The spoiler ban was super effective in promoting Endgame
The public event of keeping a Endgame’s plot a secret created a LOT of social buzz. #DontSpoilTheEndgame was an official campaign urging people not to leak Endgame spoilers or footage, and making the private public is a sure way to get people talking. About an eighth of tweets captured were spoiler-related, consisting of: actual spoilers, fake spoilers, spoiler warnings, spoilers without context, users using the #DontSpoilTheEndgame hashtag, people being upset over the fact that people were posting spoilers, and frustration about not being able to post spoilers.
Several questionnaire respondents and tweets mentioned avoiding social media just in order to avoid spoilers. They found themselves unable to escape discussions of Endgame online even when not actively seeking MCU-related content. People receive satisfaction from learning secrets, as well as feeling tempted to share about it. Secrets incite curiosity for those not in the know, thus attracting non-fans and people who would otherwise be uninterested in Endgame. This tremendous spoiler anxiety drove people to watch Endgame as quickly as they could before accidentally getting spoiled. Millennials are more likely to be affected by the fear of missing out (FOMO) on “interesting and exciting things”.
Infinity War and Endgame were both known for their high level of plot secrecy, with even many actors themselves not knowing the exact plot and given fake scripts. There have been instances of cast members accidentally revealing spoilers, some possibly intentionally staged to generate hype. More invested fans were more particular about not being spoilt before watching the movie, because what seems like an irrelevant detail to a casual viewer could reveal a huge plot development for the passionate fan.
Alternative example: Honestly, I can’t really think of an appropriate alternative example for this one. I feel like Endgame was super unique in this aspect – no other media franchise that I know of has caused this much collective anxiety. Remember watching that Hannah Montana movie when everyone at her concert agreed to not reveal her true identity? …Yeah, that would never happen in real life, okay. In this day and age where people tend to show off, there aren’t many secrets anymore. Figures like Teme Abdullah, Encik Mimpi and Ann Jaafar are interesting because they choose to keep their identity a secret. If you can think of any alternative examples, feel free to inform me or comment below!
Moving on to the second sub-question, I investigated specific affordances of social media that facilitated high engagement with Endgame content. Engagement with the data found that social media allowed the formation of fandom networks, encouraged high production of user-generated content, and helped spread Endgame to a wider audience through its interactive nature.
4) Social media connects Marvel fans from all over world
Before social media, fans used to only be able to meet up through weekend events such as conventions and communicate through mail. Today, fans of a media franchise can interact in real time through digital means although they live on different sides of the world. One could have tweeted about Endgame first thing in the morning, while another fan could reply to their tweet a few minutes later, the last thing before going to bed.
While regular viewers might just retweet a few memes occasionally, bigger MCU fans engage with fandom consistently for years. They are the ones that are making in-depth speculations and building up the hype from movie to movie. For Endgame, they used their collective intelligence to connect the dots from prior movies and came up with several theories. They have access to interact with other fans all over the world in real-time, thanks to social media where they form “knowledge communities”. Certain storylines in the MCU do not exist as a single entity but are dispersed strategically throughout several media. While certain “Easter eggs” may pass by casual viewers, more invested fans use these knowledge communities on social media to interpret and put these tidbits together.
It can be argued that the Endgame phenomenon was primarily built on genuine love from fans. They are willing to share their experiences together, to consume and share a great idea together as a fandom. There were very few data expressing hatred or disappointment – and though this may be due to the limitations of the data, it is unlikely that Endgame would have become highest-grossing film worldwide if people did not genuinely like it. Many users expressed joy by documenting the cinema-going experience, as well as tweeting about Endgame before and after watching the film. However, the pure love that media franchise fans possess is often said to be exploited by corporations.
Alternative example: So, a global pandemic happened in 2020, causing many people to miss out on their graduation day. Facebook and Instagram collaborated to make a Class of 2020 celebration, and so did YouTube. These celebrations involved speeches and performances from high-profile individuals such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, BTS, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and so on. Together they gained 41 million views, connecting 2020 graduates all over the world who felt the desire to celebrate their graduation online since they could not experience a traditional ceremony.
5) A LOT of user-generated content was produced for Endgame
It is now easier than ever for anyone to create their own social media content – even primary school kids. Younger than that, probably. Most people trust authentic user-generated content over traditional advertising. While the producers do play a huge role in marketing Endgame on social media, it is regular MCU fans who keep participatory culture alive and strong. Of course, user-generated content (UGC) can be as simple as one tweet with the #Endgame hashtag – but it can go much deeper than that. There are fans who dedicate their abundant time and energy into creating memes, GIFs, videos, parodies, theories, analyses, fan art, and fan fiction.
The data also revealed that UGC made people desire to go watch the film again, influencing their purchase decisions. UGC is a fascinating phenomenon as it is produced by regular fans’ free will, and not by MCU employees who are paid to do so. While fans who practised cultural production were once viewed as rebellious “poachers” and a fierce threat to the film industry, they are now being courted by producers to help increase publicity for media franchises. They are unpaid “ambassadors” of the film.
Alternative example: During the COVID-19 outbreak, people all over the world produced millions of coronavirus-related content – from videos on how to avoid spreading the virus, to funny quarantine memes, threads expressing grief or frustration, or blog posts about how to get used to working from home. Others created art or appreciation videos tagged with #ThankYouFrontliners or #ThankYouNHS. And of course, social media users claiming that coronavirus is a hoax, or full-length conspiracy theories.
6) Social media’s interactive nature helped spread Endgame beyond its target audience
All one needed to post about Endgame is an internet connection and a social media account. Social media has specific functions such as “reposting” and “commenting”, and nowadays posts can travel to various parts of the globe in a matter of seconds. People all over the world were engaging with Endgame and each other – from a simple “like”, to full-fledged forum discussions involving dozens of users. Social media’s features are designed to encourage interaction and share ideas with others on a large scale in real-time, as seen from questionnaire respondents widely agreeing that social media was more effective than traditional media in spreading awareness about Endgame. This is also the reason why spoiler anxiety was a prevalent issue – one could be spoiled by opening their feed just for a few seconds.
Public figures and brand accounts have likely played an outstanding role in spreading the word by jumping on the Endgame trend. Posts from celebrities and brand accounts received a significant amount of attention, and likely reached people with little to no investment in the MCU. Endgame was described as the MCU’s fourth “event movie”, which both “avid and casual fans alike look forward to”. The social buzz about Endgame reached more casual viewers and even non-fans. A respondent stated that, “since the MCU movies and the characters have already accumulated such a big fan base, the fans did the advertising for them”.
Alternative example: The #BlackLivesMatter movement started a few years back in the United States. It largely intensified with the wide circulation of a video depicting the brutal murder of George Floyd, sprouting a lot of original social media content, shares, and people using the hashtag. Many celebrities and brands spoke up about anti-black racism. When things like this go viral, it is questionable whether people share them to their short-lived urge to jump on a trend, or out of pure sincerity and extending their activism outside of the social media sphere. #BlackLivesMatter was definitely bigger than movements like #BlueForSudan and #SaveTheAmazon, because people had more time to go on social media (due to coronavirus) and protest in the streets all over the world.
There is a science behind why humans are inclined to spread certain messages more than others. Discovering these features help in understanding why users perceive certain texts to be meaningful and worthy of sharing – in the case of Endgame: emotion, exclusivity, and secrecy. Endgame also could not have achieved the status of a viral phenomenon being spread worldwide if it was not for the specific affordances of social media that facilitated these engagements. Social media is a brilliant tool that has the power to unite MCU fans all over the world through online knowledge communities, serve as a platform for publishing user-generated content, and spread the word about Endgame much beyond the targeted audience.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! Do let me know what you think or contact me if you have any questions. Once again – thank you to all who were involved in the completion of this dissertation, whether you answered my questionnaire or gave me academic / moral support! I love you 3000. As I mentioned earlier – If you’d like to read about my journey in writing this dissertation (including my personal motivations, challenges, and methodology), do head over to Part 1.