How 'Game of Thrones' became a Valyrian steel-clad part of pop culture
5 min Feature
No show has dominated the conversation on Twitter quite like “Game of Thrones,” lighting up timelines around the world like so many baskets of wildfire hidden beneath the streets of King’s Landing. Now, with its final season coming to a spectacular end earlier this month, “Game of Thrones” has officially taken the, erm, throne as one of the most Tweeted-about television shows of all time.
The series has been a fixture on Sunday nights for so long, it’s easy to forget it was once just another highly anticipated new show coming out of HBO in today’s still-going golden age of television.
“If you’d told me back in 2010 that we’d take over Times Square with hashmojis, our character posters, and an accompanying stream of conversation happening on Twitter about each of these characters, it would have blown my mind,” says Emily Giannusa (@Emily Giannusa), HBO’s vice president of social media and content.
“Game of Thrones” began life in the early 1990s as author George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” a series of novels following prominent warring families vying to rule the Seven Kingdoms and sit on the Iron Throne. In April 2011 HBO brought the fantasy-drama to television, and it wasn’t long before the show’s penchant for ruthless characters, unexpected deaths, and political twists had legions of fans glued to their televisions, and to Twitter, cementing it in pop culture history.
Today, the @GameOfThrones handle has over 8.5 million followers, but before the show even aired, it made its mark on Twitter as a hashtag — an easy way to provide casting updates and reassure readers of Martin’s books that the show would do right by the source material. Around the same time, in 2010, Giannusa arrived at HBO as an associate manager, tasked with building an online fan community for the highly anticipated show, just as she’d previously done for MTV’s “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore.”
Back then, social media was a completely different landscape, an uneven topography ripe with experimentation, exploration, and mild confusion. Twitter, for its part, was just four years old at the time, still a text-only platform known primarily for “microblogging.” In that ecosystem, social media managers had more in common with content moderators. “You managed feeds,” Giannusa says. “You put out news.” Nine years later, as Twitter and other social media platforms have matured to become the focal point of pop culture, the role has changed. “Now we have a responsibility to our fans to have that one-to-one authentic communication with them. We're essentially the face of the brand.”
Being the public face of @HBO means hosting the conversation when GoT fans are mid-conniption in reaction to the show’s latest twists and turns in real time — a responsibility that began almost immediately following the first major twist in the show. “‘Game of Thrones’ is the definition of an OMG moment,” Giannusa says, “And the death of Ned Stark [in Season 1] was one of the biggest OMG moments on television. That's when we saw the first wave of reaction videos flood the platform. People screaming at their TV, people crying, people sharing it everywhere.”
As the seasons progressed and grisly deaths piled up — the North remembers (and who could forget) the Red Wedding — the conversation surrounding the show grew and grew, uniting fans in grief, hatred, shock, and delight. For Giannusa and her team, anticipating those climactic moments in the show that drive audiences to Twitter has been crucial to executing a thoughtful, fan-driven social strategy.
“When it comes to ideating, we get to see scripts and episodes in advance,” she says, “so we can kind of predict what those pop culture moments are. If we're not there in real time, then we're late to the Twitter party.”
Some storylines — an epic battle scene, the death of a main character — are obvious conversation starters. Season 8’s Battle of Winterfell, which saw House Stark and Daenerys’ army go toe-to-toe with the Night King, predictably became the most Tweeted episode of scripted television ever, with nearly 8 million Tweets. But sometimes what brings fans together can be more unexpected, whether it’s recipes for Hot Pie’s wolf bread going viral or Ser Pounce cat memes. On Twitter, the lighter, weirder moments in the show are able to come into their own online.
Giannusa and her team stoke the conversation and build up to each episode, but come 9pm on Sundays, the handle goes quiet in the realm. People “really appreciate that we kind of let the fans do the Tweeting for us.” Those fans include not just millions of viewers, but even the show’s cast members and other Hollywood stars who stan the show, all of whom bring joy to the Thrones community by Tweeting with anticipation in the buildup to the final season and live-Tweeting each episode scene by scene.
As HBO’s self-described Three-Eyed Raven, Giannusa is always on, constantly rallying her team to keep fans on Twitter engaged year round. In December 2013, for example, following a dramatic season finale earlier that year, the HBO social team hosted the first social media roast of a despised character with #RoastJoffrey; during the summer solstice in 2017, they declared it to actually be winter by rolling out the #WinterIsHere hashtag; and in December 2018, in the run-up to the final season, they encouraged fans to binge #ForTheThrone in a Twitter and HBO collaboration, capping a year in which “Game of Thrones” was the seventh most Tweeted show of the year, despite not airing a single new episode.
To date, the show has generated 100 million Tweets worldwide in 2019 alone, with the US, Brazil, and the UK leading the charge, fueling the entertainment dialogue to the point where people who have never watched an episode are still eager to join the conversation.
“Game of Thrones” has become a Valyrian steel-clad part of pop culture, through the writings of George R.R. Martin, the production helmed by HBO showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the actors, designers, and crew. HBO’s digital and social teams have acted as the show’s bannermen, helping stoke the conversational fires for the legions of fans who can’t stop talking about it. “The fanbase on Twitter never ceases to amaze me, and I’ll miss seeing them express their passion and creativity on Sunday nights,” says Giannusa. For her and her team, the end of the show is “bittersweet” but “‘Game of Thrones’ is cemented in culture and we know people will still be talking about it for years to come.” For now though, their watch has ended.