Oscar night has finally descended upon us, friends, and with that, we can all heave a gigantic sigh of relief. There will be a final riotous outcry of “I can’t believe X won,” (Argo) “X was robbed,” (Zero Dark Thirty) and “OMG, did you see what she was wearing?!” (J. Lo) and then a delightful nine month surcease until the awards season Rube Goldberg machine cranks into high gear again. But in these final hours before what we know will be an interminable live-telecast, I find myself reflecting on the ways that participation has shifted the experience of awards shows, and the distinctive pleasures (and a few losses) that are incurred.
As I noted a few months ago, I’ve only recently made a return to television, after a two-year break. My, how the world has changed! Last year at this time, I would have gone along my merry way today, paying no attention to the official Eastern Standard kickoff time, blissfully unaware of the calculus needed to reckon the best window for red carpet coverage on multiple networks. I would have gone to bed as happy as a clam this evening, knowing that, come morning, someone(s) (a heady combination of The Daily Beast, E! Online, and The Fug Girls) would have provided a just-meaty-enough curation of the evening’s bests and worsts for me to get the general idea. Thus, I’d be informed; I’d get the goods. My, wasn’t I efficient.
What I’d neglected to consider, however, were the manifold ways that participation in social networks expands the experience of “events” like The Oscars. It’s fair to say, I think, that for all of the attempts at entertainment and concision that the showrunners produce, these shows D-R-A-G. Four hours of nominees, speeches, musical numbers, montages, held together by an ever-diminishing thread of anticipation—it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration. It’s no wonder that the show is shedding its audience at an alarming rate, particularly in the all-important “younger” demographic (18-49? Really? Younger than what, exactly?). In contrast to the boredom/rising-annoyance-fest, however, stands the never-silent mob on Twitter and Facebook, a field of voices processing images, statements, and affects in real time. There is a frenetic kind of energy that pervades this participation, for sure, and an intense competitive motivation to say something first and best. In terms of resuscitating the Oscars (and award shows in general), I’d say there’s nothing like it. (In fact, a month or so ago, the brilliant writer and effervescent Twitterer Alexander Chee noted something to the effect that Twitter may be the only thing maintaining appointment television viewing, anymore. I think he’s nailed it.)
There’s no question that this approach, and in particular, the way that it privileges speed over reflection, can allow for some of the worst kinds of responses. (Self-censorship, self-preservation, and etiquette are apparently second-level instincts.) I can’t help but wonder, however, if these events—in their online milieu—function as high-stakes training camps for wit: the equivalent of an improv class, where your spontaneous extemporanaeity blasts out to the ends of the ‘Verse. At its best, event participation fosters a network that rewards the insightful, the funny, the pithy—all linguistic skills that I’m happy to see rise to the top of a discursive community’s values. And this says nothing of the associated participatory skills of selection and curation via retweets—a analytical and socially generous investment in sharing things that delight you with your own network of followers.
Smarter scholars than I (Jean Burgess? Jason Mittell? Kelli Marshall?) could say volumes, I sure, about the ways that social networks perform, and the histories of participation in television viewing, and the connections among these trajectories. While I go look up what they have to say, however, I’ll be flexing my thumbs in anticipation of this evening’s event, more so for its commentary than for its content.