Along with the finals for the NBA and NHL going on this weekend, there was also another kind of competition that garners far fewer onlookers: The Scrips Spelling Bee. Tonight, on network teleivision no less, a girl from my home town of Cleveland took the prize. She spelled every word right for 9 rounds of hopelessly challenging competition. I didn’t really know much about her, but I rooted for her over anyone else because of that one geographical thing that we had in common. I rooted for her because of all e competitors, she was most like me.
One of my favorite documentaries of all time is called Spellbound, which is about the road to the national spelling bee. It tells the stories of about 10 different children who are all vying for the title. It is compelling because of the personalities of the kids. They are so genuine in their quest, and at a certain point, you would be happy to se any one of them win. Knowing that only one of them can win in the end, makes us watch all the more intently to see just which words trip up the young scholars.
The personalities that we root for most in the movie are not neccesarily ones that we are most like, but we do have to be able to see ourselves in them. We do not relate to the child with the lisp who has been studying only away with his tutor for the last 5 years and has never attended school or other social activities. We do not root for the kids who are entirely naturally smart and do not feel the need to study at all. Instead, we root for the second-generation Mexican-American. We root for the hyper kid who can’t quite yet play the star spangled banner on his guitar. We root for the flaws, the ones that we know should lose but don’t because of some drive to be better.
You can’t for too many people, though. You have to choose your favorites. And there in lies the problem. Everyone has flaws. Everyone is like you. Everyone has enough humanity within them to be related to. So, in the end, it is alway about who can tell the best story. I am not talking about the American Idol or Olympic interlude kind of story, but rather, a story of details. It isn’t so much that having overcome obstacles makes me want to root for you because everyone has had to do that to a certain extant. It is how many details of those obstacles are you willing to reveal that makes me want you to win.
A board game is not so interesting as Stratego played every night with a younger brother. A favorite pen is not so interesting as an engraving of a favorite quote from a book on a own that never leaves your side. A microscope is not so interesting as one that is broken in two because you couldn’t see what your father was trying to show you about germs.
I root for the details because there really isn’t anything else to differentiate one experience from another, otherwise. This is one reason that I think trending topics and hyperlinked profile categories are going in the wrong direction a lot of times within social networks. The details are skimmed over as if they weren’t the most important aspect of rooting for someone. There is no narrative in 140 characters, especially in the retweet happy twitterverse we exist within now.
YouTube is flying directly in the face of this trend toward homogenization of people to root for. We can look at many of the videos available on most channels and immediately know which ones we are interested in rooting for and which ones just do not have a compelling story. Video is where we are going to get back to our competitive and idiosyncratic ways. Even with the prevelence of parody, each remix is unique and speaks with a single voice. Even with the enormous amount of crap being uploaded every minute, it is through individual action that we are contributing to the mass of people ready to be cheered on. We are truly an audience to approve or disapprove of the details, which is more than can be said for the fast paced news feed on Facebook.
But I still think we need to work on rooting online. It still looks too much like voyeurism. I should be able to rate and cheer for a particular idea of detail, and not jut simply “like” something. I want to find a way to wave a pompom at an individual contribution. If rooting is in the details, I want to be able to search by detail and perform my own commentary and support for it.
Essentially, I want to be able to focus on the backstory and let the actual competition gradually become less important. It will still matter, but because I know that background, I will be able to better cheer on the people that I find valuable.
Go red wheelbarrow, Go!
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