When a #Sharknado attacks! How the phenomenon happened on Twitter

What do you get when you mix sharks with a tornado with hundreds of thousands of Tweets? Sharknado, of course. On July 11, @Syfy network’s Sharknado was the most-social program on TV in the US. So, what exactly happened? (And we don’t mean how those sharks got into that tornado.)

SocialGuide, which measures social activity around TV, ranked it the most tweeted-about program on TV that evening — and that’s a list that includes Big Brother on CBS (@CBSBigBrother) and MTV’s Girl Code (@GirlCode). Social Guide measured 318,232 Tweets about the show during its broadcast — 17% of all the Tweets sent about TV the night of July 11. Over the last 24 hours that’s over 440,000 Tweets, according to Topsy.

Social Guide measured 318,232 Tweets about #sharknado during its broadcast — 17% of Tweets about TV last night.

#sharknado was an instant Twitter phenomenon — that burned brightly and waned quickly. About halfway through the broadcast, Twitter conversation around it reached a peak of over 5,000 Tweets per minute by the time the movie finished at 11pm ET and then subsided to 500 tweets per minute by midnight. This brief flood of Tweets dominated the night. SocialGuide data shows that 38% of all Tweets about the movie came from the East Coast, with another 25% from the Central region.

The conversation didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, there has been tweeting around #sharknado since it was announced last year — this is the earliest Tweet we could find following one by @STYDNews.

Craig Engler, SVP at @Syfy digital and runs the @Syfy account, used Twitter leading into the airing of Sharknado to start building the buzz among the network’s followers. “Hours before the movie even aired we were retweeting the fans talking about how much they were looking forward to watching it and also tweeting out Sharknado ‘warnings’,” he says. “Then about 20 minutes before the movie aired we could see there was an, ahem, feeding frenzy going on around it so we started jumping into as many conversations as we could.”

Engler says Twitter is crucial to the way that @Syfy builds up interest in a show like Sharknado. “We know going in that people already love to tweet about these movies, so our goal is to foster the conversation and amplify it. For instance, we’ll retweet fun posts from our viewers on the @Syfy feed, which the fans LOVE. It gives them their 15 minutes of fame on Twitter and shows them that we’re listening and playing along.”

At one point we had three of the Top 10 trending topics (#sharknado, #syfy, and #tarareid) at the same time.

“A lot of my friends and colleagues were e-mailing me particularly funny Tweets that I might have missed because, at thousands of Tweets per minute, it’s easy to not see some of the best stuff. I was ping ponging between my work and personal e-mail accounts, the @Syfy public feed and all the DMs I had coming in. It was exhausting, but fun! At one point we had three of the Top 10 trending topics (#sharknado, #syfy, and #tarareid) at the same time.”

The rollercoaster begins

But what started the rollercoaster of conversation running? Just before the show begins there is a build-up of conversation. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof (@Damon Lindelof) posts this Tweet:

Reporters then announce they are live-blogging the movie.

Tweets such as this start appearing:

It’s then picked up among people with a lot of followers. Actor Wil Wheaton (@WilW) (who is not actually in the movie, by the way) has 2.4 million followers. He posted updates in anticipation of it starting.

Then the movie starts and for those two hours, it dominates a normally quiet night on TV at a quiet time of the year.

Everyone is watching:

New memes take off, such as ideas for pitches for @Syfy shows:

Or even responses from the Red Cross in Oklahoma:

And this Tweet, which is the most retweeted of the night.

Inside the conversation

But how many people were really involved? It doesn’t take many accounts to get a big discussion started. Around 15% of the conversation came from 495 accounts which were mentioned a total of 66,952 times in the past 24 hours. It’s dominated by Wil Wheaton (@WilW), who also gained 3,400 new followers last night — that’s twice as many as normal. His top Tweets were retweeted over 10,335 times.

Wil Wheaton (@WilW) gained 3,400 new followers last night during #sharknado — that’s twice as many as normal. His top tweets were retweeted over 10,335 times.

Out of the top 500 Tweets, 125 of them contained mentions of other users on Twitter. This is how those conversations look in a network chart (blue is people tweeting, orange is people mentioned. The big circle in the middle is the total conversation about Sharknado).

Click image to explore the network

For Engler, the instant nature of Twitter brought the show attention from unexpected places. “Twitter was where the live, worldwide conversation was happening. I mean, I had reports from my followers in Australia and the Netherlands that Sharknado was trending in their countries even though they weren’t even airing the movie.”

At one point I was tweeting with Damon Lindelof (@DamonLindelof) , Elizabeth Banks (@ElizabethBanks) and Olivia Wilde (@OliviaWilde) about Damon’s idea for a sequel.

— Craig Engler@Syfy

Fans also got to eavesdrop on conversations between Hollywood heavyweights. Says Engler: “When notable people on Twitter post about our movies — like Damon Lindelof, Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt), Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) and many others did last night — we’ll retweet them so our fans can see what they’re saying, and we’ll also tweet along with them. At one point I was tweeting with Damon, Elizabeth Banks (@ElizabethBanks) and Olivia Wilde (@OliviaWilde) about Damon’s idea for a sequel and the roles Elizabeth and Olivia wanted to play in it!”

Do you have any more innovative examples of tweeting around TV? Mail us at mediablog@twitter.com.