The Academy Awards — Oscar to his friends — are upon us. The whole world is watching, as the kids used to say back in the Days of Rage, or pretending not to watch but watching out of the corner of its eye, or not watching but getting the news all the same.
It is undeniably the case that people who make movies, and the movies themselves, will be praised and prized and patted on the back, backed by the institutional weight of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a celebration, seen around the world, of the signal art form of our time, except (you may also have heard) for television.
But that is not what the Oscars are for, if the Oscar parties I have attended over the years are anything to go by. They are for talking about the Oscars, even to the point of not being able to hear what is happening on TV during the Oscars, there are so many people talking over one another, at continually increasing volume, all at once. They are for caustic remarks and cheers of approval — but mostly they are for caustic remarks. They are for letting your inner Wilde run wild. For taking your Dorothy Parker out for a spin.
These hallowed and ancient traditions have not been abandoned but only been amplified in this new-ish century by the advent of social media, which has in so many respects allowed us to do in private what once required the physical presence of other people. (Or at least a telephone. And some onion dip.) Now, linked to one another by Twitter or Facebook or the app of our choice, we are all one, wherever we are, in as many conversations — relationships! — as we can collect.
Now, when I say "conversation," I don't necessarily mean a two-way flow of information. It can happen, but Twitter, which is still the platform of choice for commenting on big events — like the Academy Awards — as they happen, is itself naturally adopted to proclamations. It is a medium mostly of outgoing messages. When it really gets going, it is very much a matter of shouting "Fire!" in a theater crowded with other people shouting "Fire!" and no one moving. Yet it is a quiet sort of panic; you can hear what they're saying on the TV. We let our fingers do the talking.
It has been quite some time now that television networks and producers set out to harness this energy, the energy of the Internet! Of the World Wide Web! They strove to create their own second-screen sorts of entertainments, websites full of special features and extra-special extras, which they would advertise on their TV shows and the sides of buses and so on. And as so often happens in the world, the killer app entered through a side door, stealthily.
By the same token, the potential and eventual uses of Twitter and its kin were often obscure even to their creators. Now nothing happens in television (and in many other places, of course) without a hashtag, or multiple hashtags, attached, sent out into the body consumerist to replicate and trend and infect the world. This is all useful, I am sure, in ways that I don't understand.
This year, for example, you can tweet a "red carpet-ready" photo of yourself to @TheAcademy (hashtag #MyOscarPhoto — I know that's redundant, writing "hashtag #," but hashtag #whatever) and, in a reversal of the usual way of these things, they might put your picture next to the head of a living, presumably famous person. But that is a drop in the bucket of the mass commentary an event like this will call down, an infinity of japes and jests carpet-bombing the Internet.
From outside the system, certainly, it can look like a waste of time. To which I would reply, yes, yes, it is a waste of time. But no more so than actually watching the Academy Awards broadcast can be, and, depending on whom you follow — on the virtual party of fabulous persons Twitter lets you create and attend — possibly less of one.
Indeed, it is possible now not to watch and feel as if you are getting a fairly good picture. (That's how it all went down back before television, of course, when people had to listen to other people's words to experience some remotely occurring event.) A kind of verbal shadow play, it is its own sort of parallel entertainment, a mass public performance by professional and amateur wits that is itself reported on as news and is guaranteed, by dint of sheer volume, to generate more good jokes than the Oscars broadcast itself. And even the bad lines are over in 140 characters or less.