There is no event more obviously tailored to the internet’s capabilities than the Olympics. It combines an enormous number of statistics derived from a vast array of sports, and sets them before an actively engaged worldwide population to discuss, tweet, like and recommend. It allows for fetishistic watching and rewatching of Spain in the water polo or of Chris Hoy’s front wheel. Olympian predictability makes it an ideal event to throw money and journalists and innovation at, as if there were no tomorrow, or indeed no other news that needed covering.
The Olympics in many ways mirrors what happens to information itself in a live and connected world. A small number of events gather a huge amount of attention, but the attention is split over many different types of consumption. A social event only becomes more social under the lens of global interest.
There are 21,000 fully accredited journalists at the Games, and possibly as many as 40,000 uncredited ones. The web traffic statistics are, as one might expect, showing dizzying levels of increase. The Guardian site, for instance, has seen unique users reach more than 4.5 million in one day – the highest numbers since the London riots of almost exactly a year ago.
Yet a rise of 30% across its network seems modest by comparison with the BBC, which has seen a 100% increase in its sports traffic across every one of its services. The red button interactive guide to all sports had been used by 20 million people in the first few days of the event, according to the impressively frequent tweets of Roger Mosey, the head of Olympics coverage. The official Olympics site set up live cameras at events, which quickly gathered hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. The whole shooting match (and yes, the shooting match had nearly 4 million BBC viewers thanks to Peter Wilson) reaffirms the articles of faith concerning mass media events, but on different terms.
What can be extrapolated from these waves of positive statistics are a number of universal truths about the nature of digital coverage and audiences. First, the relationship between media operators and technology is at its best when it is actively trying to give people what they want. Secondly, it is at its worst (as NBC’s peerlessly awful efforts in the US show) when preventing people from getting what they want. The howls of Americans that NBC prevented from accessing live events, in order to save highlights for the primetime shows, were loud enough to be heard across the Atlantic. For broadcasters to construct schedules and programmes around the premise that the internet does not exist is foolish.
Audiences could not believe that there was live coverage of everything available, yet they could not access it. Frantic hacking of proxy servers and the BBC iPlayer ensued, but NBC stuck to its guns of partial coverage (BBC radio programmes in the US were also blocked for the duration of the games, lest someone accidentally heard 5 Live’s description of the UK losing the diving). For those who wanted to know who was responsible for NBC’s decisions not to cover the opening ceremony or large tranches of the Games live, the Independent’s Guy Adams helpfully published a name and a corporate email address on Twitter, only to have his account suspended. Isn’t this what the second screen is all about? If NBC had followed Mosey’s lead, none of this would have happened.
Giving people what they want might be a stated aim of commercial media, but it is seldom the actual truth. In another wrinkle to London 2012′s otherwise smooth PR facade, an enterprising individual was blocked after writing a piece of code that sent a tweet every time spare tickets became available.
When live events attract a worldwide audience, the audience now brings its own infrastructure with it. The “second screen” is not a passive experience, but one where people share information and make up for the deficits of what is on the first screen. London 2012 is the first “social media Olympics”, but it might well be the last to run on a timetable dictated by television schedules rather than spectator demand.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010