Thursday night, as millions watched Gabby Douglas captivate the world and simultaneously tweeted about said captivation, I couldn’t help but think about how surreal this entire experience was. Not the “watching while tweeting” dynamic — you can argue that we’re moving to a place where the real-time collective commentary of what’s happening is more culturally relevant than what’s actually happening (In fact, I did argue this a few months ago) — but the fact that all of this was revolving around an event most of us already knew the results of.
It’s no secret that much of NBC’s Olympic coverage is tape delayed so that it can be shown on primetime in America. It’s also no secret that there are various cable channels now where we can watch events in real time. And, even if you don’t have access to these networks, it’s virtually impossible to spend any time online and not get Olympic spoilers.
When these forces collide, you end up with a phenomenon like Thursday night where we’re using a real-time medium (Twitter) to share spontaneous thoughts about a non-scripted event where most of us already know the outcome. It’s really not all that dissimilar to the guy who was accidently told that a surprise birthday party was being held for him, but still acts surprised at the party even though everyone at the party also knows that the surprise had been spoiled.
But, while it may seem like I’m trying to paint this experience as unnecessary and absurd, it does have its merit. Already knowing how Douglas was going to fare makes watching and tweeting about it a much less nerve-wrecking experience. The anxiety that consumes diehard sports fans when watching a game — an anxiety that caused me to go two hours without saying one word while watching game seven of the Heat/Celtics series in a crowded sports bar a couple months ago — pretty much disappears, and the existing angst is largely fabricated. Instead of being able to equate the experience of watching Gabby Thursday night to what happens when awaiting the results of a loan application (you’re on pins and needles because you have no idea if it’s going through), watching after knowing the results is no different than the dread-less anxiety that occurs when getting on a roller coaster.
That Gabby Douglas was at the center of all of this is not unimportant. Aside from some commentary about her hair, the “Tweeting About Gabby Douglas” experience was also notable because it was almost completely devoid of Twitter’s lifeblood, snark. When you combine this with the fact that most of us already knew she won gold, Thursday night became a victory lap, the type of collective celebration Black Twitter has never really experienced. Sure, we puffed our chests when Obamacare passed and we’ll enjoy it when each member of the wretched Zimmerman clan are finally sent to prison, but there hasn’t been another event that had all of us so damn happy. It’s like we’ve all adopted Gabby Douglas as our own personal personable and very flexible little sister. (Seriously, my homegirl even referred to the women’s gymnastics team as “Gabby and Dem,” like “Gabby” was a cousin who was bringing a couple guests to Thanksgiving dinner.)
Would this, this unconditional love, still have happened with a less surreal consumption experience? Probably. Athletes like Gabby Douglas don’t come around very often, and her popularity is largely due to a perfect storm of personality, talent, success, uniqueness, and situation. Her star would have shined regardless of the situation, but maybe it took a little tape-delay for us to truly recognize its glare.