"No context" Twitter accounts show that we're not just consuming TV differently online—the programs themselves are being changed to suit our new, internet-focussed viewing habitsby Harry Harris / May 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
On January 2nd, Netflix tweeted the trailer for its new original show Sex Education, a Skins-esque high-school coming of age sitcom set in Wales, from its Twitter account. As is the way with these things, the trailer was retweeted by the program’s official account to try and drum up a following there, too.
However, the official Sex Education account wasn’t set up for cast announcements or any additional content. Rather, its intention was clear from its name: “no context sex education.” Its first tweet was a screengrab of the main character, Otis, in a swimming pool, with the closed caption: “She touched my eyebrows and now I have an erection.”
“No context” Twitter accounts are exactly what they sound like: they post screengrabs, gifs, or clips from a specific tv show without any accompanying explanation or description.
The effect of this is two-fold. Firstly, people unfamiliar with the show can get a quick, visual indication of what the tone or vibe of the program is, without having to put some headphones on and watch a trailer (handy for those browsing in offices, or in public on their phone).
Secondly, fans of the show have a ready-to-use library of memes. Given memes are now an integral part of the vocabulary of social media—used as punchlines or as a reaction to other people’s posts—it’s essentially like people have been given a new set of emojis to use.
— no context sex education (@sexeducation) January 2, 2019
These accounts exist for all manner of TV shows, as well as podcasts, video games, and YouTube channels. Ru Paul’s Drag Race has a no context account.That 70s Show has a no context account. Derry Girls has one. Fleabag doesn’t yet, but someone has registered the username for one, so y’know, any minute now.
The popularity of these and other accounts helps explain why Netflix made the decision to promote Sex Education in this way. But what does it say about the way we consume art that these accounts are so ubiquitous in the first place? Does art need to work in this chopped-up, out-of-context way to become popular in contemporary culture?
First, let’s talk about what context is. Context is a set of rules that help us understand the text put before us. These rules can be set out by the text itself, as often happens in science-fiction where the logic of the world must be explained before we can make sense of the action unfolding, or it can be knowledge we have already, as when, say, we read an article from the Onion knowing that it’s a parody, rather than an actual news website. Not knowing the context causes us to misunderstand the text.
However, there is also the issue of what is described by Wolf Schmid, chairman of the European Narratology Network, as “intertextual context.” He writes: “literature is perceived against the background of preceding literature rather than against the background of real life.”
In the case of television, one of the major contextual shifts in recent years has been the move to streaming, changing the nature of how we consume the content. We now have the term “binge-watching” to describe watching an entire show in few sittings, rather than waiting for weekly episodes. This is a pretty dramatic reframing of how we understand art.
We also engage with the concept of the “cinematic universe” now in a way we never used to before—first popularised as a way of marketing Marvel’s output, now it is applied across the board. In Netflix programmes, for instance, references are often made to other shows or indeed to Netflix as a streaming service. There are several Netflix easter eggs in the fourth season of Arrested Development, one of Netflix’s very first “original properties,” for instance, and the many references to the cancellation of Daredevil in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In the ending of their recent choose-your-own-adventure Black Mirror episode, Bandersnatch, you can prompt lead character Stefan to ask what Netflix is, and why someone in the sky is controlling him.
30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy would celebrate this as a shining example of “brand synergy,” but what it also serves to do is break the fourth wall, reminding us not only that we are watching a television show, but crucially, we’re building a relationship with that show on the internet.
— no context derry girls (@nocontextderryg) February 28, 2019
The internet is a fundamentally different medium to television and encourages a different audience response. We are used to being passive consumers of TV, but on the internet, we are active. This interactivity extends from being able to consume the content on-demand, to taking ownership of the content itself—making memes, sharing GIFs, disseminating fan-fiction and discussing theories about characters and storylines.
This is illustrated well by something like Frinkiac, the gloriously simple encyclopedia of The Simpsons built specifically so that users can create memes from beloved Simpsons moments. Even when this kind of functionality isn’t available, we’ve seen nostalgic children’s cartoons like Arthur and Spongebob Squarepants have a kind of second life on the internet via the means of internet users taking ownership of the content. This is the feeling that “no context” accounts toy with, playing up the idea that one’s relationship with a TV show is whatever you want it to be.
All this is to say: can a no context account really claim that there is “no context”? The context may have changed from a Netflix show to a Twitter account, but these two things remain in the broader context of the internet. As long as we’re still using the internet as a means of communication, shows will be shaped, and promoted, accordingly—and the success of older properties will be judged by how well they work online. It’s not just about sex jokes. It’s a whole new way of consuming art.