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Social media winners and losers in the Olympics opening ceremony

Danny Boyle and his army of volunteers are to be commended on a stunning television production for the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. But if you only watched one screen, you missed a significant dimension of responses from a global audience, and that dimension was at least as interesting.

For both scholarly mass-media analysts and media practitioners, if it wasn’t clear already, the responsive dimension of social media now forever changes the very concept of event broadcasting.

Social media responses tend to polarise around positive and negative evaluations of an event in progress. As I have noted before, memes are especially interesting indicators of the nuances of such evaluative sentiment. The Olympics are no exception in general, but this became very pronounced over the course of the opening ceremony.

Winners: James Bond and the Queen

There had been much speculation that James Bond would participate in the opening ceremony, and about just what his role would be.

As it turned out, his role was to collect the Queen and bring her to the ceremony in a spectacular manner.

James Bond collects the Queen.

The posts showing such moments often involved Instagram shots of television screens, which was itself what we might call an infra-structural meme.

Instagram image of the Queen and James Bond.

In a combination of pre-filmed and live footage, Bond escorted the Queen to her helicopter, allowing for much speculation on their relationship.

Twitter discussion about the relationship between the Queen and James Bond.

Then, above the stadium, Bond escorted the Queen out of the helicopter with a parachute. This was rapidly packaged into image macros of the jump captioned with memetic acronym YOLO (“You Only Live Once”).

The Queen meets the YOLO meme.

This set the tone for images of the Queen as extremely tough, a sentiment strengthened by what can only be described as her somewhat dour expression throughout the ceremony. However, rather than attacking the Queen, these image macros tended to celebrate the sense of being tough despite age and to side with her apparent displeasure during the long parade of athletes.

Tough Queen Image Macro.
Tough Queen Image Macro.

The amusing concept of a tough Queen was surely calculated based upon the skydiving stunt, but whether the later memes were considered a likely outcome will remain a mystery. From the perspective of the social media sphere, fodder for memes is welcome, as it allows for folk-repackaging of the broadcast material.

The Queen meme was also reinforced by consumate Twitter faker @Queen_UK, whose stream of responses worked with the the image macros to create a very strong sense of the Queen as an important character in the social media version of the event, despite an officially rather small role in the televised version.

Twitter: @Queen_UK

Winner: Mr Bean

The other character of most memetic value in the opening ceremony was UK comedian Rowan Atkinson’s character, Mr. Bean. During the ostensibly solemn tribute to athletes, using the Chariots of Fire musical theme and film, Mr. Bean took the part of a disgruntled and bored pianist with a single repeating note to play, with increasingly outlandish antics.

Mr Bean is bored during Chariots of Fire.

This was amusing in and of itself, but his boredom during the song became part of the later meme of audience boredom at the very long progression of athletes. Versions of his image checking his watch or otherwise engaged were treated increasingly frequently during the parade.

Mr. Bean B&W image used to indicate boredom during the parade of athletes.

Winners in the fiction category: Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter - Loser: Dr Who

As the opening ceremony got underway, its sense of magical realism started to remind many social media users of recent fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings featured strongly in initial responses about how much the “green and pleasant land” reminded people of the Shire.

The Lord Of The Rings responses.
Lord Of The Rings responses.
Lord Of The Rings responses.

The Hunger Games also received apt nods.

The Hunger Games responses.

Dr. Who, the classic UK science fiction character, was expected but never appeared (well, only tangentially, as one Who fan noticed, in the form of Rowan Atkinson).

Dr. Who responses
Dr. Who responses.

And, finally, there were many Harry Potter links, although these were in part driven by the participation of JK Rowling.

Harry Potter responses.
Harry Potter responses.

Although the Harry Potter character Voldemort was not officially part of the proceedings, he was linked to Mary Poppins when a flashmob mass of Mary Poppins clones appeared to vanquish one of the odd monsters in the ceremony.

Mary Poppins linked to Voldemort of Harry Potter.

Winner: NHS - Loser: conservative politicians

Boyle included a stirring tribute to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) as a cornerstone of British values. Images of the NHS initials spelled out on the stadium floor were rapidly retweeted, along with politicised comments about the value of the service, including images of David Cameron wincing upon seeing the lauding of the service.

National Health Service becomes politicised.

One conservative politician, Aidan Burley MP, was unhappy with most of what he considered to be a very left-leaning opening ceremony.

Aidan Burley, MP, tweets unhappiness about the “leftie” opening ceremony.

US Republican Presidential Mitt Romney, who has made few friends with his apparent criticism of the handling of the Games, received a few stings about both the quality of the opening ceremony and the health-care issue.

Mitt Romney receives a stinging barb about criticising the organisation of the Games.
Mitt Romney receives a stinging barb about health care.
Mitt Romney receives another stinging barb about his lack of attendance.

Winner: Czech gumboots, female athletes - Loser: athletes in general (especially from lesser-known countries)

Remember the athletes?

The athletes parade is historically one of the less exciting aspects of the opening ceremony, and many posts indicated unhappiness with the length of the ceremony along with mystification about many of the nations involved.

Evaluations of the athletes walk as dull or mystifying.
Boredom at the parade of athletes.

Eventually the sentiment of boredom began to mash-up memes developed during the ceremony itself, becoming both inter-textually and self-referentially amusing.

Boredom at the parade of athletes meets the Queen and The Hunger Games.

However, there were some stand-out winners in the athletes parade. Female athletes, especially those from more religiously conservative nations, were welcomed in many tweets and retweeted images.

The Saudi Arabian team includes several female athletes.

Fashion do’s and don’t’s were also a common topic of posts. The Czech Republic were probably the recipient of most discussion about their uniform choice, especially by Australian tweeters.

Plaudits for Czech gumboots.

Loser: Germany

Germany suffered an unfortunate salute malfunction during the parade of athletes. One of its dignitories raised his arm in salute and the Twittersphere went full Nazi.

Salute malfunction for Germany.

The biggest loser: NBC - because of the internet

NBC, which had decided to follow a long-standing tradition of providing only highlight packages rather than live broadcasting of foreign Olympics, felt the ire of Americans, who were seeing the world live-tweet and blog about this amazing ceremony.

NBC loses face over its lack of live broadcast.

The biggest runner-up: the internet

Inventor of the protocol upon which the Web is based, UK scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, live-tweeted from the stage.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee tweets from the stage. Tumblr
Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s live tweet from the stage.

The tweet was displayed in lights in the stadium, as well as going out to Twitter’s global audience.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s tweet displayed in the stadium

This was the most symbolic representation of the arrival - and now permanent residency - of the #socialympics.

The biggest winner: the UK

By the end of the opening ceremony, the building consensus of enjoyment had become a tidal wave of pride for the UK and admiration from the world. These, too, were expressed through memetic appropriations.

Memetic appreciation - including some self-congratulation.

Additional material: Storify pages

The following Twitter pages provide a stronger sense of the narrative progression of the trends discussed above and other social media trends during the opening ceremony.

Sean Rintel

Kathleen Noon

Rodney Hudson

Mashable: SPOILER ALERT: This Is What The Opening Ceremony Looks Like

Additional contributors to this story

Kathleen Noon, Rodney Hudson, John O'Hare, and Nancy Upadhya from the University of Queensland School of Journalism and Communication participated in collecting material and providing trend information for this story.

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