Anime’s Outsized Impact on Social Media, Quantified

© 堀越耕平/集英社・僕のヒーローアカデミア製作委員会

In the ever-evolving landscape of entertainment, two trends have become increasingly evident: the global accessibility of anime and the burgeoning influence of its fandom across social media. As traditional viewership metrics falter in the face of media fragmentation, social media engagement emerges as a compelling indicator of a show’s position in the larger ecosystem. Interestingly, this effect is so profound that the social media engagement related to anime can sometimes over-represent viewership, but still remain as an indicator of anime’s continued growth in international markets.

Gone are the days of relying solely on Nielsen ratings to measure a show’s success. Popularity is relative, and benchmarks are far and few between. Myriad third-party services promising to break open Hollywood black boxes with their own viewership estimates contradict one another outside of the top and bottom 10% of titles with aggressive frequency. As a result, I’ve seen many in the world of entertainment turn to social media as a proxy for popularity, a trend that’s paradoxically only become more prevalent as “for you” pages become hyper-personalized and consequently even less representative.

I find this a deeply imperfect method. I’ve led one of the entertainment industry’s largest social media networks in the past and have found only a loose correlation between viewership and online chatter. For example, Apple’s Manhunt and Netflix’s The Gentlemen seem to be evenly matched in terms of online discussion, but Netflix has posted numbers suggesting The Gentlemen has nearly the same volume of viewership than the whole of Apple+! But with intuition and experience, one can better understand the sorts of programming most capable at translating likes and shares into revenue or views.

Anime, once considered niche, now stands shoulder to shoulder with mainstream juggernauts in terms of online engagement. For example, Young Sheldon and Grey’s Anatomy are both at pivotal moments in their long histories, sitting atop network rankings accordingly. But if you compare how much discussion is happening on social media platforms, they sit far below anime heavy-hitters like One Piece and JUJUTSU KAISEN.

 

Even so, this representation obscures the bigger picture. If we were to say that One Piece has the same viewership as Grey’s Anatomy in the English-speaking world (the audience used for the social media analysis above), people who like One Piece are more likely to be “online” than Grey’s Anatomy diehards. I’ve seen — and participated in — some intense Grey’s Anatomy speculation and discussion in my time, but it also would be generally accepted that One Piece fans are more likely to take those sorts of conversations to Twitter (formally referred to as “X”).

So what happens when we try to do a more reasonable comparison? Whip Media’s most recent SVOD originals ranking provides us with a solid list of series that all appeal to age groups more active on social media. Additionally, each of the top five can easily be considered part of the larger “fandom” space, and should theoretically have anime-levels of engagement. Comparing those titles to the most popular anime of the spring season gives us a more complicated picture:

 

Before we dig into takeaways, I want to make a quick note about the methodology. TikTok and YouTube would have been the preferred social media platforms to use for this analysis, particularly due to their adoption rate in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, neither has an API that is friendly to the kind of scraping I wanted to do. Reddit and Tumblr have similar challenges. I do not think that Instagram, X, and Facebook are the most representative of social media platforms, but these findings do align as well as I could hope compared to other social media platforms that are protective of their data. 

Takeaways: 

  • •  Anime franchises have resilient fandoms:

For most US television shows, a gap of a year or two between seasons spell disaster. Even shows with voracious fanbases can wither away from swapped time slots, and if a streaming title does not announce a renewal immediately after a season is released, it’s typically a death sentence. Only the most cultural resonant titles see increased viewership from season-to-season.

In the anime fandom, the opposite is often true. The most recent episodes of both Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime last aired in 2021, and yet, their English-speaking audiences numbered as strong as ever for their second and third seasons, respectively. KonoSuba: God’s Blessing on This Wonderful World! fans had a seven year wait for Kazuma, Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness to return after season 2 (albeit with a spin-off and a film to keep them sated), and yet it generated more engagement than the most recent Star Wars and Star Trek offerings combined.

  • My Hero Academia is still the most popular animated superhero show:

The notion of the superhero genre still being dominated by Marvel and DC has never been so wrong. My Hero Academia maintains huge interest in online discussions, surpassing even the hugely-celebrated X-Men ’97, a title that has taken center stage on Disney+ during a lull of original programming. Despite spending most of the last decade actively marketing My Hero Academia in previous roles, I admit I was surprised. This is where my intimacy with the anime community is a double-edged sword: I was so keenly aware that MHA had fallen from its peak of popularity that, like the show’s many villains, I had underestimated the narrative power of Deku and his friends.

That said, while I feel reasonably confident calling My Hero Academia the most popular superhero show in the world of animation, it’d be hard to argue that it’s the most watched, particularly in the US. Engagement and fandom is where anime punches above its weight class, but when more than two-thirds of Americans have Amazon Prime and Disney+ being more available on smart TVs, it’s hard to imagine a world where X-Men ’97 is not autoplayed more frequently than most titles that are otherwise carefully chosen. Other public data sources provide findings suggesting that My Hero Academia might be overrepresented by social media — in the last 30 days, Invincible has generated four times the Wikipedia traffic and 50% more Google searches. X-Men ’97 similarly trounces MHA on a half dozen other metrics correlated with viewership. To me, that only makes it more impressive that My Hero Academia is the one getting the majority of the attention on social media.

  • Anime will continue to grow its share of the audience

While I’ve been clear that social media engagement is not a proxy for viewership, its impact is significant. The psychological effects of social media are well-documented, if poorly understood by the commentariat and the politicians keen to ban TikTok. With 42% of American Gen Z watching anime weekly — 68% more than their Millennial predecessors — anime’s ubiquity as part of the entertainment landscape is clearly on the rise, bolstered by the exposure from social media platforms.

Anime leaves an outsized impact on its fans, who in turn leave an outsized impact on the town squares of the digital age, inviting more fans to join the community. This virtuous cycle promises to see continued growth, if not acceleration, in the North American anime audience for years to come

Miles Thomas Atherton is the CEO and founder of White Box Entertainment, a consulting firm focused on the promotion of anime in the English-speaking world. He was previously the Chief Marketing Officer of Anime Ltd., a boutique anime distributor in Europe. Prior to that, he spent nearly a decade at Crunchyroll across a half dozen roles, ending his tenure as the Director of Social Media, Editorial, and Curation.
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