Ellen DeGeneres, the Oscars, and the Era of the Visual Storyteller By David Deal (@davidjdeal)

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The defining moment of the 2014 Academy Awards happened in the audience and on Twitter. While the Oscars ceremony lumbered along with the usual moments of awkward onstage patter and stars showcasing their plastic surgery, Ellen DeGeneres snapped the selfie that was seen around the world: a joyous moment of herself surrounded by stars such as Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. According to The Washington Post, it took less than 45 minutes for DeGeneres to break President Barack Obama’s record for the content with the most retweets. Welcome to the Academy Awards in the era of the visual storyteller.

Thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, more than half of adult Internet users post photos online, and we post more than 300 million images a daily on Facebook alone. Pinterest is the third-most popular social network after Facebook and Twitter. Recently, Twitter paved the way for more visual tweets by making previews of Twitter photos and Vines more prominent in your content stream. With one selfie posted on her Twitter feed, Ellen DeGeneres tapped into our visual storytelling zeitgeist.

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The post went viral because so many viewers actively participated in the Oscars on their own social spaces in real time. The Academy itself posted selfies and show updates on Twitter — a smart move from Oscar that taps into natural human behaviors.

Here are four other observations on the night

  • Slicing and dicing content: you don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the screen for an overlong show thanks to smart content creators like Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed captured the show’s memorable moments with breif snippets of visual content, such as Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for best supporting actress. Sites such as ViewHipHop posted Pharrell’s spirited performance of “Happy” in its entirety even as the Academy Awards were still being televised. Oscar should create more  bite-sized content and share it in real-time.

  • Night of the living dead stream: last year I enjoyed the Oscars backstage pass, which gave viewers online a chance to explore some behind-the-scenes moments via a live stream. But 2014 was a different story. ABC took over the Oscars backstage pass as part of a live stream of the show, available only to viewers in major markets and customers of select Internet providers. Well, I qualified to watch the live stream, but it mattered not: ABC’s live stream was dead on arrival, failing to load despite several attempts. And I was not the only frustrated viewer. According to Variety, unexpected demand caused the live stream to crash. Come on, ABC — don’t you know we live in the digital age?
  • Stars are just like us!: Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t the only one taking a selfie. Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Jared Leto were among the stars posting selfies to their Instagram accounts during show rehearsals and the ceremony itself. The social media savvy stars get it: we live in the era of all access. Fans don’t want celebrities cloaked in an aura of mystique. At a time when social sharing (and over sharing) is the norm, we want the stars to share moments of their lives, just as everyday people do on social everyday. And the Oscars are a night of partying and fun for the stars; their selfies are the equivalent of the goofy pictures we post at family weddings. The difference is that no one really cares about a selfie of your bridesmaids. But Ellen DeGeneres mugging with A-list stars is another matter.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt snaps a selfie on his way to the Oscars

  • Less is more: U2 surprised me with a stripped-down version of its single,  “Ordinary Love,” which was used in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. When the song was released in November 2013, “Ordinary Love” struck me as a typically solemn U2 affair, delivering emotional crescendos by layering Bono’s voice over an arrangement of guitars, tight percussion, piano, and synthesizer. U2′s Oscars performance was different. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr., appeared as four lone figures, stripped of nearly all their rock gear. The minimalist approach relied on light guitar and percussion, giving Bono’s vocal more room to breathe. He did not always hit the high notes, but even the little glitches injected more humanity into his singing. U2, which has performed for decades, felt young — and relevant.

Similarly, Pink left behind the trapeze and theatrics to deliver a heart-felt tribute to The Wizard of Oz. The song medley, which could have easily lapsed into predictable Oscars schmaltz, worked because of the power of Pink’s voice. Pink reminded us that she’s not only an engaging performer — she can sing.

The Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl: a global, overhyped event that we keep watching no longer how long and tedious the show can be. Why? Because we can’t predict the outcome. Because of unexpected moments like U2′s spare performance and Ellen’s selfie. Because Oscar is a natural visual storyteller.

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Pharrell (@Pharrell) live at the Oscar Academy Awards

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Lead Actor – Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Lead Actress – Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Supporting Actor – Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Supporting Actress – Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

 

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