On Sunday March 2, Ellen DeGeneres’ celebrity-filled selfie at the Oscars generated almost 3 million retweets on Twitter, breaking the previous record held by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012, by millions. The tweeted photo, along with online conversations of the Oscars on Twitter was of such volume that the platform actually crashed for some time. It was one of the most active nights of social media use. The tweet was groundbreaking not because it was a rare moment of celebrity crowding, with some of the biggest stars of our time coming together impromptu to take a in-the-moment photo, on live television. It was groundbreaking because the sudden scatter of celebrities was not DeGeneres’ point. Her goal was to set a retweet record.
DeGeneres’ purpose was to make a point that purely dealt with communication in the newly evolving digital media, completely dependent on users who must find an element of authenticity and interest to interact with the tweet. This fact has created much anxiety among marketing experts and policy makers alike. It was a homage to viewers, apty done in a fashion that combined what seems like a fad, and a bit silly. It however speaks volumes to where social media networks have come to be in our society. DeGeneres, her PR crew, as well as Samsung, the phone used to take the selfie all realized what academics have long argued– digital media is not only commonplace but pervasive. We are in an era where generations have, and are growing up with digital media embedding in their social fabric.
Twitter in particular has been imaging increasingly as a news outlet, becoming the headrunner in this new age of digital media. It is a platform where special niches gain a voice and make splash in the ocean of information providers just but creating an organic comment that sometimes needs just a bit of attention, often randomly. The shared online presence thus becomes quite the playground for products, where gaining visibility is dependent on general consumers. It provides new challenges that come with creating something that would amplify discussions in a customized language of 140 characters.
DeGeneres’ selfie on Sunday also attests to the fact that social media services have become a playing ground for companies and their advertising teams, revolutionizing the way not just products but campaigns, people, and ideas are promoted. Samsung executive spent a few days prior to the Oscars to train DeGeneres on how to take a selfie with their smartphone, an intended plug that was part of a $20 million advertising campaign. Twitter in particular proved to be the ideal social media service of choice, as the platform has increasingly become a common tool for real time discussion on televised programs.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter are not longer one of the viable areas for products to tap into for advertising. They are becoming an advertising standard. Twitter itself has piggybacked on the already diverse range of online conversations taking place to partner with ABC, CBS, Fox, to ESPN and major sports organizations in recent years. This is a good news for such services of course, as their main source of revenues are heavily (and dangerously) dependent on advertisements. Social media services have positive network effects– they are only valuable to a user if there are other users. Likewise, Twitter is only valuable to Samsung or Apple if there are large number of users.
As the weekend revealed, it is not just the number of users, however. The photo that DeGeneres posted generated much media attention that also cited Samsung (and also the iPhone indirectly, the preferred cell phone of the Oscar hostess). The brand marketing went far because in this new digital media technology, ownership is not central, and power belongs to the masses.
The selfie that DeGeneres’ prompted also included celebrities from different generations and caliber, from Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, to Jennifer Lawrence. The idea of a “selfie” itself is a new fad that has sparked much discussion online on its narcissistic traits and wide use by the youth. While social media has been largely attributed to those in media and tech savvy younger generation of internet users by researchers since early 2000, the conversation has been shifting as people from all generations and demographics have taken up the popular tool. This is due to the increasing use of smartphones and greater access to internet, both led by government policies and competitive markets alike. Therefore, the common inference of technology, i.e. social media sites driving a social change (especially by those that fear the increasingly invasive nature of social media on privacy or individuality) is challenged.
DeGeneres’ explicit purpose– to get the most retweets– speaks volume to social media networks’ place in how we communicate, even if one does not have a Twitter account. The selfie itself demands attention and everyone is forced to pay attention. However, such a notion is not new– US President Barack Obama was one of the pioneers to taking advantage of the power that social media may have during the 2012 election. We have entered a social media-driven business model, where user connections and interactions is directly linked to technology. The co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman expressed it well when he noted that the way we use social media as users and by governments and corporations will be the most transformative uses of the internet.
We are part of a greater social change in which communication between one another from varied demographics is changing many landscapes, including politics. Social media is just one of the driving forces. While DeGeneres’ selfie seems like just a publicity stunt, it reminds us that more often than not, new technology is merely part of a broader social and/or historical development that is already taking place.