Last night, I watched the State of the Union address in a new way: without Twitter.
Wow, I’m such a saint! But not looking at my laptop was harder than it sounds. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I watched a major live event without Twitter, be it the 2012 presidential debates (lush ground for easy Mitt Romney jokes), the Oscars, or a prodigious historical moment like the election of Pope Francis. For the past few years, I’ve been among the horde live-tweeting major events with painstaking, almost cult-like determination. The routine has become a comfortable Hail Mary prayer for me: sprawl out on the couch in front of the TV, balance MacBook on lap, keep my phone in close distance to hear notifications. As soon as the debate or awards ceremony starts, my TweetDeck columns start rocketing by like that big wheel on The Price is Right. The goal: to slip in a joke funny enough that people will pluck it out of the chaos and either favorite it, retweet it, or in the best case scenario include it on a tweet roundup the next day. That’s how I spent last year’s State of the Union address, anyway. And probably the year before.
But last night, I didn’t do any of that. In fact, technically, I watched the State of the Union in two new ways: I couldn’t even drink to stanch the tedium that often comes with a 90-minute dose of federal politics. That’s because I was on the treadmill at the gym, where I watched President Obama’s speech on the tiny treadmill TV. So I watched. I jogged.
I didn’t try to be an armchair Jon Stewart.
The second screen, i.e. the laptops we hover over in the living room, has for many become a competitive real-time reality show more important — and perhaps even more entertaining — than what’s actually playing out on the television. Many broadcasters stoke this fire themselves by creating official hashtags and then streaming the savviest live-tweets onscreen for the world to see. During these events, social media engagement almost relegates reality to second place.
It gets even worse when the tide pool for Twitter attention is much smaller. For those of us in media, Twitter often transcends its de facto function as a live news source and turns into something more like a virtual SNL “Weekend Update” audition. This isn’t surprising, because media is a rarefied ecosystem where Twitter is vital to networking, especially as a creative medium on which you’re constantly supposed to be showing off drollery and skills that could get you hired.
But on those livetweeting nights, as I strain to parade my wit in front of Twitter and God, I rarely hear anything the president says, so engrossed am I in strip-mining every sentence and peccadillo for joke fodder that I can quickly churn out in 140 characters. I’m sure this experience is different for those who work in political media, who watch speeches like last night’s to cover them. I watch the State of the Union with Twitter the same way I watch the road if I’m texting while driving: dangerously distracted.
Last night, unburdened by TweetDeck and by the worry that other people were getting to the good jokes before I did, I noticed something different: I really, truly, watched the speech. I watched as the president wove his way down the aisle, stopping to hug Justice Ginsburg on the way. I listened to his predictable anecdotes about farmers and schoolteachers. I watched the Democrats give their standing ovations and the Republicans tepidly stay seated. It was all the usual shtick. But as I watched without Twitter one-liners streaming into my brain, I felt more present, more engaged, like I was inscribing this moment into a memory to be tasted years from now, of being 29 and living in Brooklyn and watching the then-president in 2014 tell us about Syria and the slackening recession.
I don’t mean to pat myself on the back for “unplugging,” or to weave my way into a humblebrag about going to the gym. (I am very, very bad at going to the gym.) The evening made me realize, though, that I’ve come to use Twitter jokes as some sort of simulacrum for the event itself, a way to avoid internalizing and engaging mentally in these huge broadcasted events. Neither the Golden Globes or the Super Bowl hold the gravitas as a presidential speech, but to enjoy them in the moment, away from the constant hum of the Twitter hivemind, can be just as refreshing, if only because by nature they happen just once in a lifetime.
Maybe some of us would do well to “graduate” from live-tweeting, because the constant pressure to find punchlines in everything can be exhausting and distracting. After a while, you realize you’re not only paying less attention to the live event itself, but you start to feel like you’re winking into the ether along with everyone else, just one more person who’s also said goodbye to her work computer and hello to her home computer for the night.