When Modes of Information Diffusion Collide

Anyone familiar with Twitter probably knows about “live tweeting” during television broadcasts.  In my own Twitter feed are several “followees” on whom I can depend for a play-by-play about the shows “Scandal,” “Girls,” and “America’s Got Talent.”  Sometimes one, sometimes another of these “friends” are live tweeting and every now and then several of them are at it at the same time.

What I experience at that moment reminds me of the lovers in the film “Letter to Brezhnev” who looked up at the moon, one in England, one at home in Russia, and observe that they were united by looking up at the same moon. They don’t actually communicate at that moment, but as viewer of the film, I experience their “virtual connection”  as the spatial separation between the lovers is romantically collapsed by mutual gazing at this distant, real object.  My Twitter friends do not necessarily follow one another so I may be the only witness to their synchronous experience, but the analogy is this: in one case the moon “broadcasts” its light, in the other a television network broadcasts a show and in both cases I experience the simultaneous common experience of others.

During the 2 March 2014 broadcast of the Academy Awards, host Ellen deGeneres took a photo of herself and a few attendees and tweeted the photo while exhorting the audience to make it the “most re-tweeted tweet of all time.”  It is unlikely this has never been done before but the phenomenon brings up something interesting.  2,909,385 retweets as I write this about 18 hours later.

Now, shows like Scandal and Girls and especially contest shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent actually make an effort to get people to tweet about them and athletes have often tweeted before or even during a competition, but deGeneres’s gambit was slightly different.  She showed us the tweet (or at least informed us of it) and gave us a photo that we saw being composed and taken (indeed, we can find a picture of the picture being made as we see below).

Reportedly, 43 Million people watched the Oscars.

Sociology of Information Gaffes

Much has been made of VP candidate Joe Biden’s capacity to put his fut in his mouth. In this morning’s paper, reporter John Broder (“Hanging On to Biden’s Every Word”) reviews the issue and highlights a few recent events. In one of them, Biden either did not know or forgot an important bit of information about someone:

In Columbia, Mo., this week, Mr. Biden urged a paraplegic state official to stand up to be recognized. “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you,” Mr. Biden shouted to State Senator Chuck Graham, before realizing, to his horror, that Mr. Graham uses a wheelchair.

“Oh, God love ya,” Mr. Biden said. “What am I talking about?”

How is this kind of gaffe is different from those which amount to inelegant diction or impolitic revelations? The “offense” here is certainly not anti-disability bigotry or insensitivity, and the sociologist of information should not get distracted by (either republican or disability-rights) activists who might want to make hay about the event. Rather, it’s a failure to be aware of, or keep track of, a relevant piece of information about someone. As such, it is, before all else, relationally revealing : a basic norm of relationships is to keep track of relevant information about the other. When one utters the phrase “my friend,” even if it is ritualized political speech, it triggers some informational expectations. When these aren’t met, we find it jarring or even offensive (consider the simple case of getting a form letter that mis-addresses you as Mr. or Ms. — it quickly becomes even junkier mail than it already was).

Normally, politicians can synthesize relationships such as “my friend…” because their handlers can remind them of information-you-ought-to-know-about-the-other as they make their way toward a handshake. Getting such things right may not mean anything in an objective sense, but in terms of the relational work it does, it can certainly be consequential.

The take-away is that relationships, even those created artificially for the purposes of the moment, always come with informational expectations and obligations.