You can tune in to the Oscars. Or you can watch them with the peanut gallery on Twitter. While Hollywood parades in tuxedos and gowns celebrating itself, a freewheeling cacophony of quips and sarcasm something like a digital, million-times-multiplied version of the balcony Muppet onlookers, Statler and Waldorf, will provide a riotous counter-narrative to the pomp.
The second-screen experience is never better than on Oscar night, when a separate (and possibly superior) entertainment experience plays out on social media. The running commentary, in which comedians and others parody the stars and their sometimes laughable speeches, is now as central to the Academy Awards as the red carpet.
"Following the Oscars on Twitter is like watching the show with 100 million of your drunkest friends," says Andy Borowitz, the humorist and author who's often been a standout tweeter on Oscar night. Last year, he succinctly summarised the previous two best-picture winners, The King's Speech and The Artist, as "an English dude who couldn't speak" and "a French dude no one could hear".
Live tweeting major TV events, from the Super Bowl to the Grammys, has become ingrained now, forming a virtual water cooler subject that has boosted ratings. But the Academy Awards stream is particularly captivating because it provides an antidote to the on-screen, buttoned-down glamour. It's as if there's a LOL button on your remote, bringing you play-by-play from some of the funniest people in cyberspace.
"You gotta say something. Someone has to say something," says comedian Billy Eichner. "To just stand by and watch it happen is almost too tense. It's cathartic. You've got to just get it out on Twitter because if not, we're all going to be bottled up thinking about how awkward Anne Hathaway made it for one billion people in real time. I don't begrudge her the award; I'm just saying she's a ridiculous person."
The Oscars have become one of the biggest social media events of the year. Last year's telecast at one point set a record for the time of 18,718 tweets a second. A statuette could be handed out for a new award: most tweeted tweet. In 2011, that honour went to The Onion, which lamented: "How rude, not a single character from Toy Story 3 bothered to show up."
Last year, The Artist may have won best picture but Martin Scorsese's Hugo easily bested it with 110,179 tweets to 78,509, according to Twitter metrics analyst TweetReach.
This year, the academy has partnered with Twitter to track the top categories with an index measuring the percentage of positive tweets about the nominees. Leading as of Wednesday wasn't the favourite, Argo, nor was it Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, but rather David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. So if the film, widely considered the dark horse in the best picture race, wins on Monday, Twitter will have predicted it.
With real-time data from services like Trendrr, the Oscar conversation can be tracked, revealing which moments resound and provoke audiences. Last year, Angelina Jolie's leg-baring pose as a presenter immediately put Twitter in hyper-drive, spawning parody accounts from the perspective of her right leg.
It's such moments where Twitter becomes Oscar's dance partner. Viewers celebrate with and chortle at Hollywood's self-obsession, combining for a TV experience greater than the sum of its parts.
Watching with two screens
It is difficult for me to imagine sitting down to one of David Attenborough's breathtaking BBC documentaries without a second screen in hand to tweet my way through it and, given the flurry of activity during Africa and its remarkable predecessor Frozen Planet, I'm far from alone. When two giraffes clashed in the desert, we picked our champions and cheered them on. When a baby turtle made its do-or-die dash to the ocean past a pack of predators, we held our collective breath - but our keyboard and touchscreens were subjected to tremendous battering.
So it is with the Oscars. Interactive TV is not quite at the point where the show's presenter will backchat if you say "are you kidding me?" when your pick for Best This or That doesn't win a statuette, but tweet a great remark and in a matter of milliseconds you might have a chorus of people backing you up, cutting you down, or retweeting you all the way to internet microstardom.
Some people really get into watching awards shows with Twitter, holding viewing parties at which very few actual people are in attendance - sometimes only one - but where the conversations are as lively as at any post-Oscars ball. The chatter hits such a fever pitch that some users suggest uninterested followers use third-party apps to "mute" the showbiz tweets during proceedings, or else temporarily unfollow them. The ad breaks become analysis breaks, the red carpet footage becomes the search for the next big meme discovery and anyone can join the gossip network stars as sardonic judges of Hollywood behaviour.
This year's host, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, promised (via Twitter, no less) that this year's ceremony will be like "nothing you can imagine unless you can imagine 3 hours of, like, people getting awards and stuff."
That's true - but only if you're watching it with one screen.
- Troy Rawhiti-Forbes