The “Socialympics” & Rethinking the Spoiler Alert

London 2012 was a solid, well-oiled machine, producing, hosting, and commemorating the Olympic spirit as the world became one. One main difference was the influence of social media on these Summer Games – more tweets and shared posts for these Olympics than any other in modern history. It is a distinction important to note, signaling how technology and digital platforms continue to mediate our experiences of world events.

However, social media had no significant role in making – or breaking – my Olympic experience. Sans the sole tweet that spoiled Allyson Felix’s gold in the 200m sprint, I logged on my timeline and news feed as I usually do: to join the digital hangout and see what my networks are talking about. I tweeted about the emotive power of the Olympic movement, where athletics becomes the metaphor for the human struggle, where in all our efforts, we must fight our hardest, despite the result. I posted a link to Kerri Strug’s history-changing vault that won USA team gold in gymnastics in the ’96 games; I did the same for McKayla Maroney’s near perfect vault this year (“The Vault – Part Deux”, as I dubbed it).

I meditated on Jessica Ennis’ story, having muscle strains in her foot before the ’08 games, not even knowing the greater symbolic power and fortuitous effort lying before her in winning gold in her home country four years later. I reveled in all of the television coverage across the NBC networks, watching any and every sporting event, from tennis and taekwondo, race-walking, football (soccer), and handball, to the modern pentathlon and archery.

Yes, #NBCFail was arguably warranted: sharing event results when you intend on viewers watching the primetime telecast and limiting full online streaming to cable and satellite subscribers. A personal gripe was online event replays without commentary – I wouldn’t know if that routine on the gym floor was good or not if no one told me; hardly am I an expert in rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming.

The time zone delay was insurmountable. NBC coud have had a different strategy: possibly broadcasting the events people want to see live as they happen and having online streaming available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. However, the attitudes of the viewing public are culpable as well – if you knew the result, does that take away from how they won? Amir, the narrator in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, talked about his father’s Afghani friends wanting to know how a movie ended, to see whether it was worth seeing, if there “was happiness in the end”. We could ask ourselves the same question: if someone did win, and if you inadvertently discovered that, is there not any entertainment in how that athlete won?

We treasure the ending, not as much the story. Some even believe a country wins the Games by collecting the most medals or the most golds, when there is no such contest. Viewers should work to treasure the story and its significance in the result. I knew Allyson Felix won, but I still watched the race. She could’ve came from behind, she could’ve led the pack, or another runner from a country without a strong track and field history could’ve made her way on the podium. I wouldn’t have known if the race was memorable because of a host of strong performances or because of a strong, single competitor if knowing the winner was my sole concern.

Sports do provide that intense drama, the thrill of victory and the valleys of defeat. Especially for the Olympics, we can reimagine our motivations for tuning in. Is it to be engrossed in the process of the competition, the camaraderie of the team collaboration, or to see if a team remains unbeatable or to proclaim bragging rights? Everyone has their own motivations. When it’s the NCAA March Madness bracket or personal bets about the NBA championship, the result may be the only thing of consequence. However, for the Olympic movement, the medals were never the impetus of the Games’ creed. Uniting with the rest of the world to compete in tradition and mutuality takes precedent. The story of the people on the track, in the pool, on the floor, is the purpose.

Knowing who won a relay race is hardly as dramatic as seeing how they did it or knowing their background. Social media need not and never  can spoil that enjoyment of the human experience.

EXPERIENCE LIFE

You see it all the time: from the latest Beyonce performance to the post-primary speeches of presidential candidates. Everyone’s holding up their Canon cameras, Droids, and iPhones to capture what’s going on, eager to save it for later. Even after we upload the files to YouTube and Facebook, is it to savor it for later? Is it for reference, just in case we need to revisit what we saw? Or is it that we can only see something if it comes through an LCD screen?

Daniel Gulati recounts an experience of holy matrimony I once thought was insulated from a device’s intrusion in his recent post on Harvard’s Business Review blog :

The unthinkable happened at a friend’s wedding last month. As the groom was asked to confirm his desire to accept the bride as his lawfully wedded wife, he held up his hand, as if to say “wait a minute.” The audible gasps among the attendees turned to relieved chuckles as he pulled out his iPhone in the middle of the vows. He was tweeting, “I Do,” to his hundred or so followers.

It begs the question: is everything so important that we have to capture it? Or do we capture it in order to define it as important [because we don’t know what is important anymore]?

With the ability to capture everything, there’s the urge to do so, to follow suit. We’re scared that if we don’t capture a celebrity sighting, or the way the lights look at the outdoor concert, or the laugh-out-loud good times you had with friends late into the night, we won’t remember it — it’ll lose importance. So we capture it to codify its importance.

It seems the visceral experience is too much for our senses. We seem dulled to the unembellished veracity of our experiences – no fanfare, no awe-inspiring color themes, no interactive interfaces. Oh, eating this feast with friends, it’s just us and the food… no flashy colors, no nifty appearing mechanisms, no “share” button”. It’s just us.

Yes, it’s just you all, now. Right now is the only moment you have. The scarcity of time in and of itself should compel us to be fully present, instead of stalling the appreciation for later, for our timelines and newsfeeds we we log on, upload, and perk up with the numbered notification flag in Facebook’s navigation bar. Leave your phone in the pocket. Learn how to have a conversation. Be in the moment.

We don’t trust ourselves to be present in any moment; we end up desensitizing ourselves by separating ourselves from the experience through our devices.

Or do we not know how to be present in our experiences, so much so that we have to defer the cognitive energy of being present for a later date? To capture that performance on your phone means you can watch it at your leisure… so that when we are in our homes watching the video, we can transplant ourselves back to that moment, to give in to our cravings of escapism from the daily grind of work, media, advertising, interaction, commuting, eating, sleeping, and repeat.

Is it from that place of discontent? Of wanting to defer any angst we may feel about our daily lives by browsing our phone’s gallery and pressing play? Is it to have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in it later by watching it on our phone’s screens? Instead of actually being present, being alive to our senses and soaking up everything about that moment? Instead of living in our imagination once we recollect that experience?

We don’t have our imagination — nor do we cultivate it. We don’t give our brains the credit of having a metaphysical sensation or detailed sensory memory. We don’t train our minds to be present and SEE, not just look, to FEEL, and not just touch.

It’s truth: we need to stop capturing and start experiencing. If it is this fear of not having exhilarating, uplifting experiences for perpetuity that drives us to capture, maybe we need to have more of them, and more frequently. Go to the outdoor concert series, visit the museums, have more conversations with friends, practice mindfulness, meditate, spend time at the park just laying in the grass looking up at the sun.

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” John Erving’s words ring truer than ever before. Give yourself the credit to be capable of courageously stepping out of inertia and fear and into a full life of uplifting experiences, on a regular basis.

Then you’d have real life to back you up, not the external harddrive you’d need in order to hoard all those videos and photos of infrequent, yet transcendent experiences.

Stop Documenting, Start Experiencing | Harvard Business Review Blog