Monday, January 26, 2009

What the Inauguration Taught Me About Live Events

Last week, while my husband stood in a crowd of 1.8 million on the mall in DC, I sat down with 7.7 million of my closest friends to watch Barack Obama's inauguration via live streaming video on the internet. The experience was the culmination of an election season of escalating intersection between produced events and social media. And while many people have written ably about the ways the Obama administration is bringing a new social media sensibility to Washington, I want to share my experience of the inauguration and how it changed my attitude towards virtual participation in live events. I hope you'll share your own story in the comments.

I used the application to watch the inauguration live. The image at top is a screenshot from my experience. The video was streamed live, and on the right, you could see status updates from your Facebook friends and or all of Facebook. This is similar to watching the Twitter stream go by, but Twitter was so clogged during the inauguration that I mostly ignored it.

Watching the video plus status stream was an incredibly social experience. I was sitting alone in my cabin in the woods, but I felt like I was at a party with dozens of friends and colleagues around the world. We talked about the atmosphere in our offices, classrooms, and homes. We cheered and booed, questioned some parts and added additional content about others. While the viewing of the speech and related ceremonies would have likely been more powerful in person, the discussion and social engagement around the speech was as good as at any live event I've ever experienced. Not only could I feel the excitement of the crowd, I could also get direct, specific messages from individuals--the equivalent of people whispering in your ear. I could also tune them out at my discretion without being rude, and so I alternately drank at the social media firehouse and focused fully on Obama. I didn't have to choose between the noisy chatter and the highly produced push content. I could have both, instantaneously.

Some features of the platform worth noting:
  • The focus on status updates, rather than open chat, encouraged people to share their own original expressions rather than getting caught up in digital discussions that could easily spiral away from the experience at hand. This was a "me-to-we" experience rather than one big "we" chat room.
  • You could comment on someone else's update (see example about the celebratory bottle of wine), which provided a limited chat-type interaction. This enhanced the sense of connecting to other people and their experience of the event.
  • You could access the historical updates via the scroll bar on the right. You could experience the chatter in real-time and asynchronously.
  • URLs typed into the status updates were all live. While Facebook is in many ways a walled garden, they let you jump out to explore links easily.
  • You did not have to be watching via the portal to have your comments included in the live feed. Of the four friends whose updates you see in the screengrab, only Darius' were made via the portal. The others were folks who were using Facebook real-time to comment on their inauguration-viewing experience (which they were doing via another stream or on TV). In this case, this is an example of Facebook not creating a "wall within a wall" and restricting the activity to people only using the portal. Among my friend group, it appeared that only about 5% of friends who were updating their Facebook statuses were using the portal, so the experience would have been significantly less active without this openness.
  • There was advertising (Vicks ad, top right) and two commercial entities were presenting it. My social experience was brought to me by CNN and Facebook. This does not thrill me, but I understand that commercialism is the reality of the social media landscape.
Having had this experience, I can easily imagine myself watching other major events in the same way. I say "major" because the single biggest factor in the success of this social media/live event mash-up was its scale. The inauguration was such a self-consciously historic moment with so much media saturation that the majority of my acquaintances watched it live. I didn't have to plan in advance to use the CNN/Facebook portal; in fact, I didn't even know it existed until I saw a message on Twitter about it during the convocation. I went to a link, waited to be connected, and jumped into a discussion in full swing. Facebook averaged 4,000 status updates per minute during the broadcast, with over 600,000 updates posted directly via the platform. I just showed up--the party was guaranteed.

This isn't true of most live events. When museums and theaters try similarly to create a back-channel digital feeds for live events, the content and impact is heavily determined by the (relatively small) number of participants who actually use the platforms as creators and as spectators. This diminishes the sense of "live presence" that I felt during the inauguration into something choppier--the sporadic reports and interactions of a minority.

So what can a museum, arts organization, or event host do to create opportunities for experiences as rich as the one I had during the inauguration without millions of eyeballs?
  • Promote a sense of drama or urgency. If the event feels like it must be experienced live, people will be more likely to tune in at the same time rather than watching a recording later.
  • If it isn't live, make an event out of it. On Wednesday, the Center for the Future of Museums will be streaming Jane McGonigal's talk in December on Gaming and the Future of Museums. This is decidedly not a live talk, but the CFM is hosting a real-time screening (with chat opportunities) as a way to connect people with each other and the experience (and don't worry, the video will be available on YouTube as well).
  • Let people know in advance and give content creators perks. Check out this account of how a Portland theater set up an intentional live blogging/twittering experience for a recent play. They didn't just expect people to come and start typing--they set up a special area and way for them to do so.
  • Find ways for people to engage with friends they already know. I was not interested in the "Everyone Watching" feed on Facebook, nor do I care for the public timeline on Twitter. I find social network tools valuable because they connect me to people I value, not faceless masses. Similarly, I care much more about connecting with my family, colleagues, and friends during live events than with strangers.
  • Use the simplest platform possible. I use Today's Meet to create back channel chat rooms for live lectures because it doesn't require users to register accounts or learn a complicated system.
  • Integrate as many platforms as possible. The most powerful way to visualize all the conversations around an event is to find a way to capture them where they happen, walled gardens be damned. Digitally, this can mean using APIs to pull data from multiple feeds, but conceptually, it just means finding ways to retrieve and display content in many ways. If you have only one kind of feedback mechanism (i.e. comment cards, phone message machine, Facebook, etc.) you will only hear from the people who use that platform comfortably.
How did you experience the inauguration socially? What role (if any) did social media play in your experience?

7 comments, add yours!:

irasocol said...

Stuck at home alone with my wrecked/recovering leg on a brutally cold day, I watched on NBC on the television with the CNN feed in one computer window, Twitter open and the blogs of and the Guardian going. Plus gmail was linking me to friends who were watching. All in all, the TV, 2 laptops, and the Blackberry linking me to the experience and to those I wanted to share it with.

I think of the ways my friends and I share links, videos, images, music, ideas, all continuously, almost all day. This turns solitary experiences - my buddy seeing the Waterfalls in NYC this summer or me coming out of an operation - into shared social events that I think build human connections in ways we just didn't have before.

And it all lets me join. I could say to Twitter that I was thinking about Anne Schwerner during the inauguration. She was a teacher at my high school but back in 1964 she was the mother of a murdered civil rights worker in Philadelphia, MS. I was wishing that she had lived to see this moment - something her son gave his life in hopes of making possible. In this way I, as I linked Michael Schwerner's Wikipedia biography in my Tweet, I added my "exhibit" to the event - maybe for just a few. As others added theirs to my experience of this moment.

Amazing stuff.

- Ira Socol

Bodhibadger said...

Even though I live in DC, my husband was reluctant to brave the crowds downtown, so we had friends over to watch. But before the swearing in, we walked over to the local metro station and filmed me dancing, in costume with various folks headed towards the Mall. (And posted it to Made me feel a part of something bigger, and gave me a chance to connect with friends and strangers! (Including the security guards, hmmm.) Watching the festivities, even over t.v., with friends made it festive and communal as well. Interestingly, it made me feel inhibited about following the web coverage with my laptop--because it felt like that would have isolated me from the other folks in the room.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very interesting article. I think your experience further highlights the idea that new media is not about technology, but instead offers us new ways to make personal connections. That's what it's really about.

Liz said...

I had the Facebook/CNN window open at work as a sidebar to whatever I was doing that morning, along with my Gmail and Meebo--so multiple venues to connect with others watching the inauguration, and connecting with different sets of friends in each venue. The Facebook status feed in particular connected me with friends I never chat with, and I really enjoyed sharing this event with them, as I'm not that connected to them on a regular basis but this day brought us together. This event really opened up my eyes to the potential of streaming events to create long distance connections to an institution that is inherently place-bound, like the library I work at. What about streaming a student or faculty reading and marketing it to English major alums? What about a gallery talk that art alums are invited to? This made me connected to something I would have felt very far from otherwise. Exciting stuff!

Anonymous said...

I'm still thinking about how impactful last Tuesday really was! After the swearing in, I too kept the facebook/cnn chat in the corner of my computer window.

For the big event - swearing in and speeches - I organized a viewing party to stream it from one of the online news channels for all of my coworkers in our auditorium. We brought snacks and coffee, hooted and hollered and whooped it up. Those that could come only for a few minutes did, while some came in early before anything really started and stayed until everyone filtered out of their seats. I'm so glad I was able to see it, and share it as well.

In addition, I followed my twitter stream pretty heartily, and followed the tweets of a high school band that was playing in the Inauguration parade. Experiencing it from so many different viewpoints was such a rich way to do it. It was pretty darn magic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your inauguration experience!

My colleagues and I also watched the inauguration via but was too enthralled with the actual ceremony to comment about other Facebook users' status updates. However, it is interesting to see how social networking tools are actually bringing people closer together as opposed to the popular belief that online interaction hinder our socializing skills in the real world.

I think your strategies for cultural institutions to create rich experiences such as that created by the inauguration are really good. It is challenging to compete with the experience of a "live" event online. However, I think at the end of the day, it all comes down to content and convenience. If the broadcasted content does not generate enough interest, all other strategies will be irrelevant, and if access to the social networking sites/ tools is not at most three mouse clicks away, people will not bother.

MASS MoCA said...

Your point about viewing at home and avoiding the noisy chatter is good. I was actually on the mall so I had a real not virtual community experience and it was great -- wouldn't have traded it for the world. My only complaint was that the people standing behind us watching the jumbotron were, as my grandmother would have said, potty mouths. They weren't rude or nasty, they just swore a lot, like every other word. And there I was with my 9 year old standing in front of me just feeling uncomfortable about barrage of bad language. I don't mean to imply that my child should be sheltered from four-letter words, I'm a firm believer in exposing her to everything so she can learn how to react, but it just sadly distracted me from the moment. The beauty of your experience was that you could pick and chose whose conversation you overheard, we couldn't easily move away.