The original run of “Twin Peaks” has been credited with changing the way we think about television. But if you talk to media scholar Dr. Henry Jenkins, its influence goes beyond the small screen. Thanks to a subset of passionate fans in the early ’90s, “Twin Peaks,” created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, may have helped create media discourse on the internet as we understand it today.
In fact, Frost revealed to IndieWire that it was something he was aware of at the time, answering a question that’s had hardcore “Twin Peaks” wondering for decades.
When “Twin Peaks” premiered in 1990, audiences were captivated by the show’s mysteries, and a small subset of them went online to discuss their theories and questions. At that point, there was no social media like Twitter or Facebook, or even the modern conception of blogging: Instead, communities flourished on a number of different bulletin board systems, including Usenet, which was publicly established in 1980.
It wasn’t exactly mainstream. “Usenet at that point was heavily still grounded in research universities, military bases, and scientific think tanks,” Jenkins told IndieWire. “It was particularly skewed. It’s not yet the general population at large. These ‘alt’ discussion lists started off as people at work talking with each other about their shared interests.”
The reason Jenkins was paying attention to them at that time was that in the early ’90s, he was working on his groundbreaking work “Textual Poachers,” the 1992 book that examined the relationship between pop culture and its fans. Much of the book is focused on the evolution of fan fiction and other fan works, but a few key sections focus on the fandom that surrounded “Twin Peaks” online.
“I actually had to explain what the internet was. That’s how new the whole phenomenon was,” Jenkins said. “This was a time that Usenet was what I was studying, and most of the people when I spoke had not been online yet. So as far as we know it’s one of the very first ethnographies done of an online discussion list. People were enormously interested. The idea that people were sitting at their computers responding to a television show, and trying to sort out the mysteries of who killed Laura Palmer just tickled the fancy of the audience when I first presented it.”
By audience, Jenkins is referring to the world of academia, which was only starting to discover how the internet might change the way people engaged with the media they watched. “None of us would have projected just how big fan response to television would become, and how the things that were modeled early on by groups like alt.tv.twin-peaks were trying out things that would be so much more widespread over the years,” he said.
While the show was on the air, alt.tv.twin-peaks (the “alt” represents the fact that “Twin Peaks” wasn’t meant to be a primary topic of discussion for the service) was one of Usenet’s most popular groups. “I don’t remember numbers at this point because this was decades ago,” Jenkins said, “but at the time ‘Twin Peaks’ was one of the most discussed topics on the internet.”
And those discussions meant that the online fans had a very different experience in comparison to the unconnected viewer. “The fans were complaining that the show had become so simple it wasn’t giving them enough to work on, but if you read critics at the time they were saying the show had become so complex that everyday people couldn’t follow it anymore,” Jenkins said. “There was a sense of the collective capacity of the fan community demanding more depth, more layers, than they were receiving, and being able to process a lot more information about the show than could be processed by any individuals watching by themselves in their living room.
“To my mind, that really illustrated the potential of network communication to yield what we now call collective intelligence, although that word didn’t exist at the time,” Jenkins added.
As an early example of people engaging with each other online, alt.tv.twin-peaks helped establish behaviors and patterns that eventually evolved into today’s social media-obsessed culture. It also meant that Jenkins had a head start on understanding the internet and how it would eventually change our world, which he’s chronicled ever since in his work, including the fascinating text “Convergence Culture.”
“It meant that I was ahead of the curve in watching that development of online fandom leading up to that moment of ‘Lost,’ where I think the news world and everyone else discovered just how intense the online engagement with television was. ‘Twin Peaks’ is, in so many ways, a trend setting show,” Jenkins said.
“Lost,” of course, was a game-changer in terms of the relationship between television, the fans who watched it, and the digital means that they used to talk about it. As Jenkins explained, “The idea of creating reference sites online to pull together all the information, people passing back and forth alternative conspiracy theories about what would happen, the show intentionally embedding little secrets and mysteries, Easter eggs which are there for the fans to pick up on and discuss, the perception that maybe the producers were following the fan discussions and altering the story to reflect it — all of the things that people wrote about ‘Lost’ were already there with ‘Twin Peaks.'”
In fact, Jenkins believes that even in a pre-digitally-obsessed culture, “Twin Peaks” was demanding more of its audience during its original airing. “The coming attractions on ‘Twin Peaks’ had sound from one scene and a quick flash of an image from another. They were designed to be deciphered. It wasn’t just a straightforward series of clips from next week’s episode. It was quickly encoded. I think the only way to process it would be to use your VCR and go through it multiple times in freeze frame. To my mind, that looks forward to the moment when the map in ‘Lost’ is flashed on the screen many times in quick succession.”
Here’s the point: By creating such a captivating mystery, “Twin Peaks” taught a nascent group of internet users what it meant to engage with TV online. “With ‘Twin Peaks’ and Usenet, people were suddenly responding during the commercial breaks while the episode was still on the air, in the way that Twitter is doing today.”
Thanks to Twitter now, we know that many showrunners follow the conversation online — but during the original “Twin Peaks” run, many on Usenet were uncertain if the show’s creators were aware of their existence.
“There were rumors that Mark Frost read the discussions,” Jenkins said. “There was some sock puppet who pretended to be David Lynch at one point and was easily disproven not to be, but the widespread understanding was that Mark Frost was reading the discussions.”
IndieWire asked if Frost would respond — and it turns out the answer isn’t cut-and-dried (all too appropriate, given the nature of the show).
“Halfway through production,” Frost wrote via email, “I received a stack of printouts on my desk as thick as an L.A. phone book. Chat room dialogues from some online forums that had sprung up. Needless to say, astonishing. I was an early adapter, but still here was concrete evidence a new world was forming right under our feet.
“I read about nine pages and realized ‘this way lies madness, it’s way too much to think about.’ I set them aside and went back to making the show,” he added.
Jenkins’ response to that? “Interesting. Fans imagined Frost reading the posts daily. Today, many productions assign interns to do just this, to identify the audience’s preferences and dislikes, to map their response to creative decisions, and create a greater responsiveness,” he said. “No one [at the time] expected ‘Twin Peaks’ to do this. If anything, they hoped Lynch and Frost were doing the exact opposite — figure out where the crowd was heading and then throw them a curve ball. The authors were seen as tricksters who wanted to constantly defy expectations, and masterminds who had thought everything out to the Nth degree.”
It speaks to one of Jenkins’ most prominent takeaways, when it comes to “Twin Peaks” as a property, as it endures today. Referring specifically to Lynch, but really the series as a whole in this new era, Jenkins observed this: “He still wants to be the trickster author he was 27 years ago.”
The first two episodes of “Twin Peaks” Season 3 premiere Sunday, May 21.