Oscars 2015: And the winner is ... social media, for better and for worse

Within a few short years, social media has changed the way the Academy Awards show is viewed and presented

In the old days — say, five or six years ago — an Oscar party used to mean gathering with some friends around a TV and watching the show together with a bowl of chips and a few bottles of wine.

This Sunday, though, when millions around the world tune in to the 87th Academy Awards, many will be having a new and very different type of Oscar party: alone with a laptop or a mobile phone, trading snarky comments over Twitter or Facebook with others who are doing the same thing.

Hoping to boost ratings for the Oscar telecast, particularly among coveted younger viewers, the motion picture academy has made a concerted effort in recent years to encourage the audience to engage with the ceremony via social media. Last year's show marked a watershed moment in that campaign, highlighting the upsides — and the potential risks — for a nearly 90-year-old institution founded in the era of silent film as it wades into largely uncharted digital waters.

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According to Twitter, the 2014 Academy Awards telecast was the most tweeted non-sporting live event of the year, with more than 17 million Oscar-related tweets over the evening. By comparison, last month's State of the Union address drew fewer than 3 million tweets.

When host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a selfie with Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie and other stars and asked viewers to "see if we can break the record for the most retweets," they did just that. The photo was retweeted nearly 3.4 million times, causing Twitter's servers to go down for more than 20 minutes.

"That was an incredible moment," said Josh Spector, the academy's managing director of digital media and marketing. "When Twitter crashed, I was talking to someone who was working backstage with me, and we were going, 'That's us, right?'"

But even as the academy celebrated the selfie's success, less favorable moments went viral on social media as well. Introducing Idina Menzel's performance of the song "Let It Go," John Travolta mangled the singer's name as "Adele Dazeem." A Twitter account for Adele Dazeem quickly popped up, and within 24 hours, there were over 26,000 tweets poking fun at the gaffe.

The "Adele Dazeem" meme demonstrated that although social-media engagement can be stoked, it can't be managed — a lesson many corporations and public figures have learned the hard way.

"Once something goes out on social media, it's no longer in the control of the person who started the conversation," said Karen North, Director of USC's Annenberg Program on Online Communities. "We've become a participation culture. People don't want to just sit back and consume media or experiences. They want to participate."

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In the most dramatic recent illustration of the dangers of trying to orchestrate a social-media message, in November the public relations team for comedian Bill Cosby posted an image of Cosby's face on his Twitter feed and asked his 3.9 million followers to create their own Cosby meme.

Within minutes, the effort backfired spectacularly, as thousands of Twitter users co-opted the #CosbyMeme hashtag to highlight the resurfacing of allegations of past assault against the star.

On Oscar night, countless people will be watching the show with a second screen, poised to pounce quickly on any noteworthy moment and offer their own commentary on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. For comedians in particular, live-tweeting the Oscars has become a kind of blood sport, with everyone trying to break though the clutter with the most cutting bon mot in 140 characters or fewer.

"It's a foot race to get out the best joke about something that someone just messed up," said comedian and actor Rob Huebel, who plans to live-tweet the Oscars to his more than half a million followers. "So many people will be chiming in with snarky comments, and everyone is going to say the obvious thing. So you have to think, what's the non-obvious thing?"

The Academy Awards, of course, are meant to be an occasion to celebrate cinematic excellence, not take celebrities down a notch. But at the same time, Hollywood is very familiar with the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

"Obviously we'd love it if every comment was positive, but that's not our goal," Spector said. "We're thrilled there are so many people that want to talk about the show, however they want to talk about it. It's not our job to police that."

While there has historically been an air of exclusivity around the Oscars, actor and avid Twitter user Joshua Malina said the academy has been smart to open the ceremony up to the chaos and clamor of the Internet.

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"Just say the phrase 'the academy' and you can almost smell the mothballs," Malina said. "They are clever to embrace social media in an attempt to clear away the cobwebs." (When he live-tweets this year's Oscars to his more than 160,000 followers, Malina plans to hurl some comedic jabs at the academy for, among other things, the "white-white whiteness" of this year's acting nominees.)

While the academy is keeping its own plans for this year's show largely under wraps, Spector and returning Oscars co-producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have been studying the 2014 telecast's social media impact and looking for ways to build on it.

In the last three years, the number of combined subscribers to the academy's Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel have grown from roughly 400,000 to more than 7 million. That augmented digital reach will be carefully leveraged to simultaneously pull back the show's curtain a bit for viewers and tell the story of Oscar night the way the academy would like to see it told.

But for all of its advance planning, the team behind the show is aware that the moments most likely to resonate on social media are likely to be unscripted ones.

"My feeling is that you can't really consciously plan for [a viral moment] because then it looks like too much of a stunt," Meron said. "You can create moments that hopefully will create a conversation, and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to create moments that work for the show that may also start that chatter."

As for trying to beat last years' record-breaking selfie or to crash Twitter once again, this year's host, Neil Patrick Harris — an active and savvy user of Twitter and Instagram — isn't worrying about any of that.

"I'm not locked in to any kind of social media competition," he told The Times recently. "While the numbers are impressive, you can't really seek them. That's what's so fun about Twitter: When something catches on, it just catches on because it did."

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

Gina Piccalo and Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.

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