Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Invisible Togetherness

Foolish question: if you can’t attend to a live sporting event, election-night rally, competition, or other similar event where the outcome is in doubt … what’s the most fun other way to witness it? Sitting by yourself watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people watching on TV? Being with a bunch of people you know and love, watching on TV?

Well, obviously.

I remember a TV commercial from awhile ago that featured a man sitting on a couch in front of his living room TV, alone, rooting hard for his favorite football team to win; when the winning touchdown is shown on the TV, he jumps in the air, lets out a whoop, and tosses his snack food in the air. Then looks around awkwardly. His utter lack of companionship in that moment makes him look strange, albeit honest.

On any given election night, great numbers of people gather in a convention hall or an outdoor park somewhere, and wait nervously for election returns to come in. When the election of their candidate is official, people (who either know each other or they don’t!) hug each other and whoop and holler and generally celebrate. And the TV networks will intercut these scenes with scenes from bars and offices and lots of other places around the state or the country, with the same things happening, just on a smaller scale. When images of these smaller venues are shown, viewers are more likely to see people who might have known each other before that evening began.

Pick any World Cup soccer final, ever. No matter what national teams are involved, their fans can always be seen in pubs, on the streets, gathered around TVs or radios, wearing their national colors, waving flags, sometimes hanging out of moving cars while waving flags. And when one team wins … that’s when the show really begins.

Before about eight years ago, though, if you wanted to get together with friends and stress out over a suspenseful game or election (or reality show), you had to conspire to physically meet up with them all. It took work. And people who lived far away were out of luck.

Before social media technology, all we could do was get together in restaurants, or in each other’s living rooms.

Whew. Stone Age.

In January 1986, as a sophomore at Umass-Amherst, I repaired with seven or eight of my friends to one of their dorm rooms to watch the New England Patriots’ first-ever Super Bowl appearance, against the Chicago Bears. We were all very excited. Lots of snack foods and cheering, for the first fifteen minutes or so. When it became clear that the Bears were going to administer a ferocious beating, we sadly drifted into other conversations and the TV became just background noise. But it was fun to hang out together on that first weekend back from break, anyway.

One Saturday night in October 1986, I sat on a high school gym floor and watched, along with 239 of my closest friends, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox engage in what is now one of the more re-broadcast World Series games in baseball history. The UMass band was on a weekend road trip, and the director had brought along new technology – a projection TV! – so we could watch a wall-sized TV picture of the game from the comfort of our sleeping bags. Every half-inning, a different half of the band was prepared to throw themselves off the nearby bleachers as their favorite team threw away a chance to win. We were probably about 40 percent Mets fans, 40 percent Sox fans, and 20 percent “so very tired wanna do lights-out and get some sleep”. When that fateful ground ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs and Game Six went to the Mets, band people in that gym commiserated, or celebrated (or rolled over, I guess); I wish more photos of the proceedings existed. No question: it was quite a scene.

 

This past Saturday night, I was part of a gathering of a significant subset of my official list of friends – the ones who follow drum and bugle corps. I couldn’t see any of those friends, though.

In order to participate, I parked myself in front of my computer, opened a Web browser window to the Drum Corps International official website, specifically the webpage devoted to a live-blog of the season’s final competition … opened another browser window to my Facebook page … and settled in.

A year beforehand, I had also done this, and experienced an odd but pleasant sense of invisible togetherness. This year, though, the summer’s competitions had been fiercely fought, and there were an awful lot of people who were rooting uncommonly hard for one or two particular corps. [The specific details of the battle at the top of that leaderboard are contained in my blog post from last week.] We knew people who were on the field marching; we knew people who were their instructors; we knew people who had created the musical scores or choreography being performed all summer and that night. Some of us (certainly not me) had marched with those groups, or some drum corps at some time, and had a extra-special understanding of the kind of desperately wonderful stress of Finals.

A couple of my friends were actually on the grounds of the competition, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and were able to do a little genuine journalism (including, in one case, a running tally of the number of standing ovations her favorite group was receiving, as they happened). The niece of a college band alumni friend was a member of the corps that was working doggedly to reclaim first place from another corps which had caught up to them within the last week of the season. That friend was watching in the way any proud aunt would watch – and several people were periodically checking in with her, there on Facebook, to make sure the suspense had not in fact killed her.

I kept the live-blog page open constantly, and not just because it was my only connection to Finals. Last summer, just as the scores for the 12 competing corps were to be announced, the demand on the DCI website was so intense that it crashed the thing. By way of having maintaining that live-blog page’s activity (seemingly, if I’d closed the window, I couldn’t have re-connected), I had inadvertently became a combination of Dan Rather and Paul Revere – trying to help keep my friends, who couldn’t get the website to load, updated. One if by land … two if by sea … in ninth place, with a score of 86-point-something, the Madison Scouts. I posted each score on my Facebook page for people to see, as the official live-blog webpage was revealing it.

All over the country and in some other parts of the world, lots of my friends sat at their computers and filled in the sound of the crowd applauding, inside their own heads. And posted comments and thoughts and reactions, and read everyone else’s. And Liked them. And commented on them. Social media technology plus imagination equalled, well, not quite the same effect as if we’d been at the local watering hole watching the 60-inch TV in the corner, but near enough.

So this year was likely to be a repeat of last summer’s thriller finish, and then some.

It was an electronic version of a 1930s family gathering around the radio in the living room. Especially since the online video-feed package offered by DCI (in exchange for a significant outlay of money) was glitch-filled to start the evening, settled down for most of the rest of it, but took a flying header for good just as scores were about to be announced. Again. Okay, no picture. Unless one could’ve gotten DCI’s audio-only YouTube channel to load, no sound either. So now this wasn’t even radio … it was storytelling. It was the Pony Express, sort of. It was the Greek army’s advance scout, the fellow who ran the first marathon, returning with news of the enemy invasion. It was that series of mountaintop beacons in the last “Lord of the Rings” movie.

Meanwhile, my live-blog page was still … live. And offering details of the competition, thanks to two gentlemen in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box who were pecking away at their laptops, posting observations and remarks and the occasional digital photo of the field.

All right, then … another chance for public service, sorta.

 

No scores yet,” I posted, “but the Live Blog guys are taking a beating [from their online commenters] for the connectivity issues.” Replied a friend, “I’m yelling at my computer right now… but it’s not helping!” Commented another, “At least the live blog is up.” I typed, “I will defend that open browser window with my life.” Almost instantly, little on-screen flags appeared, letting me know that two online friends had liked my comment, almost simultaneously.

Finally, after the kind of pregnant pauses and video montages which impress the DCI Board of Directors and infuriate fans who just wanna know the scores (irked Facebook posts on my screen: “Now they’re showing a video, apparently. … They do this on purpose, you know.” “I just want to go to sleep. Please just get on with it!”) … the live-blog began to post scores just after the stadium announcer had announced them. Feverishly I moused back and forth between my live-blog window and my Facebook page. Control-C … Control-V … hit “return” on the keyboard and post. Rinse, and repeat.

11th, 86.40 Spirit of Atlanta.” Twenty seconds later: “10th, 87.75 Blue Knights.”

8th place, 90.40 Boston Crusaders.” I added a comment beneath that post: “Nearly caught the Cavs.” Which almost made me late for the next announcement – quick! Copy-paste-post: “Jim Ott Award for Best Brass Performance to Carolina Crown. No kidding.” That last sentence fragment was mine, not the DCI live-blog’s … and the bottom of my screen exploded with little Notification flags. People Liked that post. People commented on one of my previous posts. And another. I gave up trying to read the text of the various comments – they were coming in too fast. I don’t say this to make anyone think I was particularly Like-able – it’s just that there were so many of my Friends all watching their News Feeds at once and all reacting to things in the same moment. The equivalent would have been a sports pub full of friends, all making comments and laughing at them and nodding and high-fiving … you know … in person.

No time to consider the lofty philosophical implications. More scores, and now we’re getting closer to the important ones. “5th place, 93.35 Bluecoats.” Copy, paste. “3rd place, 96.95 The Cadets”, I posted; and added a comment expressing amazement that nearly 97 out of 100 didn’t get them win or place, only show. An instant after I posted that, a friend’s comment sprang into view below it: “.1 over SCV? Scoring is crazy!” More flags. More Likes. More comments. No time. Work to do.

And then a longer pause. The announcement of the runner-up reveals, by process of elimination, the identity of the Champion. The moment of truth is actually not the final score announcement. More pause. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Ping. New live-blog post. Copy, paste. Then read. And catch one’s breath:

2nd place, 98.05 Blue Devils.”

The corps that so many of us were pulling for … had not had their name called. Our sentimental favorite … was the actual winner.

In my mind – and, I’d have sworn, outside my mind as well – I heard the stadium crowd in Indianapolis react. I’d seen or heard the crowd reaction to the runner-up announcement when DCI Finals was in nearby Foxboro in 1994. When half an NFL football stadium full of drum corps fans endures long minutes of suspense, and then is allowed to let loose, that sound is like very few others in the world. My imagination filled it in. Quickly I posted something which was not from the DCI live-blog.

And Indy LOSES ITS MIND.”

So did my News Feed.

Ping, ping, ping, like silent firecrackers going off. “Crown!” “#purplepantsband !!!!” “Carolina Crown wins!” “YES!!!” “They did it!” (My drum corps fan friends do have a little perspective. No one posted “I can die happy.” That’s a Red Sox or Cubs kind of thing.)

Copy, paste. Sit back in chair and relax for the first time in a solid half an hour, or half a day, or half a summer.

1st place, 98.30 Carolina Crown.”

I took a moment to post in the direction of my now undoubtedly proud and madly-dancing friend whose niece was, no doubt, also proud and madly dancing. “Hey … you can go to bed now.”

I felt just as cheerily drained as I would have, had I been standing in a tavern – admittedly, the weirdest tavern in America, if it’d chosen to put a drum corps show on the big TV in the corner instead of the Sox game or a Keno scoreboard. There was no one in my house with whom I could trade high-fives or incredulous silly grins. But I watched my News Feed, read the posts, threw a few of my own in, Liked some comments … and gradually, like a sports bar emptying out after the walk-off home run has been hit and the postgame interviews are underway, my Facebook page calmed down. Then I realized … I had broken a sweat. I felt as if I’d done some actual physical heavy lifting.

I was physically alone – but also surrounded by friends, and sharing a moment with them. Even though they were five, ten, fifty, five hundred, three thousand miles away.

It may take a while for me to wrap my head around the aforementioned lofty philosophical implications.

 

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interactions. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

-Albert Einstein

 

As smart a guy as Prof. Einstein was, and a wise one, too … still, technology is neither good or bad. It’s what you do with it. In this case, we made it work for us, creating a gathering of, by my rough and wholly unscientific estimate, easily more than a couple hundred people. We all experienced an event together, and the technology didn’t surpass our human interactions – it made them feel real enough.

And, not counting the mad jumping around that a lot of us did, virtually and physically, when the Finals results were announced … I didn’t feel at all like I was surrounded by a pack of idiots.

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August 12, 2013 - Posted by | blogging, drum corps, Facebook, friends, Internet, journalism, media, music, social media, technology, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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