When Mark DeBonis was asked by a talent booker to think up an idea for an entertainment show at the last minute, DeBois spit out the first thing that came to his mind: a Twitter Gong show.
At the time, DeBonis—a stand-up comedian—was half joking; he wasn’t really sure exactly what a Twitter Gong show would look like, or if the concept could work, but he suggested it anyhow.
Uncertain, the talent booker said no, and nothing happened of it. Now there was just this idea idea stuck like gum to the back of DeBonis’ curly-haired head.
It wasn’t until later, when he mentioned the idea to friend and fellow comedian Garrett Jamieson that things started to take off.
The two organized and promoted the event through Facebook and Twitter, using their social media skills to make things happen. “The internet makes the world small” Debonis told me in a Facebook exchange.
Debonis and Jameson wanted to take all the elements from gong shows past and combine them with the spontaneity and reactiveness of social media. “We wanted to put together a fun night” he said, so we booked a time slot at the Rivioli in Toronto and tried it out.”.
More than seventy people showed up to the first Twitter Gong show, which took place in early September. “There were hundreds of tweets that night.” Eytan Millstone told me. He would know—Millstone won the first Twitter Gong show with the rap skills he’d honed as a regular on Toronto’s open mic circuit.
Millstone, who performs and tweets under the name Eytan Crouton, was invited back to the second show as the feature performer. He told me that the first gong show generated so much buzz that the hashtag #TwitterGong was a trending topic in Canada. Not bad for a passion project.
While Gong shows aren’t new, the concept of a Twitter Gong show is certainly unprecedented. Gong shows were popularized in the seventies with the NBC program “The Gong Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1989. The program’s main staple was Jonny Jacobs, who hosted from ’76-’80. Charlie O’Donnell was later brought on for The Gong Show’s revival in the late ’80s.
The program featured a line-up of unique and quirky guests: you had your traditional talents (think musicians and magicians) as well as your not-so-traditional talents (think a man who manipulates his face into ugly and bulging expressions).
In the show, if an act was particularly bad, the judges could strike a gong, forcing the performer to stop. The gong was a trope adapted from the long-standing radio show, the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.
The Gong Show featured celebrity judges (Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Steve Garvey, to name a few) and regular guest personalities, such as The Unknown Comic, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and Larry Spencer.
Unlike other variety shows of the time (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Hollywood Pallace), The Gong Show sought to entertain audiences rather than showcase exceptional talent. As blogger Gravy Beard explains, “a bad act on the Gong Show was just as likely to win the prize as a good one. In fact, some talented people were gonged off the stage while some truly awful acts evaded the boot”
Fast forward forty years, and the same tactics—a charasmatic host, guest judges, unlikely prizes, and of course, at the center of it all, a gong— can be seen in DeBoin’s show, only now we have the added flavour of new media.
A Twitter Gong show operates like a regular gong show, only the audience can tweet their opinion of the performers from their smartphones, iPads or laptops. Tweets are screened behind the performer, so the everyone can read what the audience is tweeting—everyone except the performer. The whole event hinges on Twitter’s hashtag function, which allows tweeters to group conversations together:
If attendees added the hashtag #TwitterGong to their tweets, their comments would appear on the twitterstream, taking stage just behind the performer.
Tweeters can praise the performer, criticize them, or crack jokes about their outfit—anything goes in a Twitter Gong show.
Because the tweets are on stage and available to everyone, the audience becomes just as much a part of the show as the performers.
In addition to sharing their opinions, audience members also have the power to gong performers off the stage by tweeting the word GONG in capital letters. Once five tweeters have written GONG, the judges sound the real gong, and the performer is cut.
The whole night was streamed live on Facebook, so people all over the world can tune in and watch the show. They are also welcome to share their opinions, since the hashtag #TwitterGong can be accessed from any Twitter account.
Just like the TV series The Gong Show, the lineup for the Twitter Gong Show featured a series of unusual entertainment acts: think comedians, burlesque dances, rappers, and, of course, what would a live show be like without a drag Lady Gaga?
We’ve all witnessed the success of popular TV shows like American Idol, where viewers vote for their choice performer via texting in a process moderated by a panel of B-list celebrity judges: the Twitter Gong show is quite similar—only the feedback is instant, the acts are varied, and the judges are actually funny. (For example, Jameson, who cracked up the audience with his odd and unusual humour; think Zack Galifianakis in The Hangover).
On one level, the whole event is just a fun night out, but on another level, Toronto’s Twitter Gong Show—and it’s burgeoning popularity—dramatizes important lessons about social media
First of all, social media enhances social experiences. When social media was growing popular in the early 200o’s, many feared that spending so much time online would actually inhibit people’s real-life social skills. The Twitter Gong show demonstrated quite the opposite: while the whole event—from its promotion to its execution— relied on social media for its success, it also relied on a gathering of people coming together to entertain one another and have a good time.
Second, a simple formula: new media + old media = success.
The unique combination of a seventies-style variety show and the microblogging service Twitter gave the audience something familiar (a talent show) while offereing them something new (the chance to participate real-time), making the event a one-of-a-kind experience while still giving them something inside their frame of reference. And one, final take home …
We are all a part of the show. Earlier this year, The Economist printed an article entitled The People Formerly Known as the Audience. The piece was a part in a larger introspective on the future of news in the digital age. The article argued that with the rise of new media outlets such as Twitter, WordPress and Facebook, the definition of media itself as changed. News is no longer something “gathered exclusively by reporters and turned into a story but emerges from an ecosystem in which journalists, sources, readers and viewers exchange information.” I’d argue that the same is true for entertainment media. Just as social media has transformed the way we produce and disseminate information, it has also changed the way we consume, create and share entertainment media. Where the category of “entertainment” used to be restricted to a class of people (comedians, musicians, singers, dancers, etc), we now all have the tools to produce entertaining media and be a part of the show.
Just yesterday, Yahoo reported that during commercials, 75% of people surf the internet from their tablet or smartphone. The stat evidences the fact that people no longer want to be passive consumers of media—I suspect we never wanted this, though we lacked the tools to know any other way. The swell in social media use shows that we want to take part, to give our opinion, to share the stage. If the Twitter Gong Show teaches us anything , it’s that the next generation of media will be open-ended and participatory. If it’s not, it will get #GONGed off the stage.
I asked DeBonis what’s next for #TwitterGong. Here’s what he had to say: “I’d like to see the show turn into a staple of the Toronto comedy scene. With the internet being the way it is, there’s really no limits to how far you can take things.”
The next Twitter Gong show hits the Rivoli December 27th. For more more information on Mark Debonis, check out www.iamnotmarkdebonis.com and follow @themarkdebonis. For more information on the show, check out the Gong Show on Twitter @livegongshow and Facebook at “Twitter Gong Show.”