Surfing’s Social Future Is Bright And Strange, Or Day Two At J-Bay
Keyboard jockeys continue to whine, and praise, and like, and heart, and send smileys, and assault the comment section.
While my esteemed colleague gave yesterday’s Win to the Internet, today’s surely went to Facebook.
Or to Sophie, for brokering the deal. Or to Zuckerberg for using our unbreakable addiction to professional surfing to syphon data and sell it onto marketeers.
In any event, today the experiment worked. The stream was smooth; it was convenient. The comments feed was… interesting. Above all, it was beamed around the world, in three languages, and despite the organisation’s perceived financial difficulties, it remained triumphantly Free.
I wasn’t always so convinced of the viability of this brave new format. My morning started with broadcast glitches, around the same time Kelly glitched against Jordy Smith. I was unsure whether it was the new equipment that was to blame for both the stream and Slater’s performances, or if it was the very same stuttering endemic to this sport and spectacle.
Turns out that the broadcast’s morning sickness was likely due to my own connectivity, and after the first couple of heats Facebook streamed at the quality I was used to.
Likewise, Kelly was simply unlucky to surf J-Bay with a devilish wind ribbing up the face, as opposed to later in the day, when the more favourable conditions would have suited his foot, and board, better.
Then there was the assault from the Commenters rifling up the bottom right corner of the feed. This first presented itself as an in-competition example of the worst of Facebook, and the world – largely an inane stream of semi-formed consciousness, unasked for, overly self-important opining.
Everybody was sure that Ian Gouveia was ripped off against Owen Wright, unless of course they were equally sure of the contrary. Then there was the relentless bashing of the fact we had to watch the spectacle on Facebook, given an exclamation point by the deluge of angry emojis flowing up into the lineup, or across it, depending on your device and its aspect.
A couple of heats into the day and everything began to grow on me; the glitches all but ceased, the devil wind backed off and the swell seemed to pick up. The spectacle was looking nothing but polished, and by the time Adrian Buchan beat Michael February any commenters left complaining looked as out of place as the South African’s transitions between bottom turns.
February is going to have to work on that side of his surfing, as his top turns are supremely beautiful to behold, just as the WSL and Facebook have a charm offensive to go on to stop their union being blamed for issues that were absolutely present when we viewed surfing everywhere else. Unfortunately for Mike, his awkward lead-up to bottom turns are probably as built into his surfing as Facebook’s guilty public image.
By the time Wade Carmichael demolished Joan Duru, I was sold. I had worked out how to navigate the new format’s features and limitations, just as I’d previously adapted to the app. On desktop one could use the Facebook stream and the WSL’s website to view previous and upcoming heats. Commenting on goings on became a source of either participatory pleasure or spectator’s delight, while the quality of the stream was wonderful. Never been better, I don’t think, and will only get better. Faced with pay-per-view, or those annoying ads that accosted us every time we hopped out and back into the WSL app, this relatively ad-free, cost-free spectacle was rather a delight.
As Stab knows, having a constant stream of comment is an asset that is very well suited to the age, even if, when left unfettered, it can get a little feral.
The Facebook commenters, with their cavalcade of utter garbage, became a sideshow to the surfing. The shit talking was relentless, but it was also almost gentlemanly, or at least it wasn’t too cruel. The WSL, whether they are separating gangs in the exercise yard, or hiding the real number of viewers, (or for some other less conspiratorial reason) have separated the channels into four location-locked streams – worldwide English, worldwide Spanish, Brazilian and the United States. Because of this the much anticipated replay of the carpark kerfuffle, Mikey Wright versus Jesse Mendes, was for the most part violence free.
In the water Mendes and the Mongrel maintained a sponsorship-mandated distance from one another, letting their surfing and not their hassling do the talking. Equally, in the comments section, there wasn’t so much bile being flung around due to our being separated by geolocating, although there were some Portuguese speakers who slipped through the barrier, likely members of the vast Brazilian diaspora, when Mikey took out that heat and reaffirmed his worthiness as a wildcard recipient. This sentiment was echoed by the mostly Aussie audience on the worldwide English stream, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t echoed on Facebook Brazil.
On the stream made available to me, the 10,000 or so concurrent viewers ignored, put up with, or somewhat jovially rebuked the Facebook comment feed’s own Joiny, a man called Aaron (last name redacted) who lacked the social nous to know that his incessant commenting wasn’t interesting or entertaining. “Facebook Joiny” relentlessly barracked against the Australians, purposely antagonising his antipodean stream-mates. He shamelessly got it wrong when Connor O’Leary beat Zeke Lau in the penultimate heat of the round, while claiming powers of premonition when Tomas Hermes beat Wilko in the backend of a marathon heat that saw both surfers forced to swim in due to equipment malfunctions. It’s not clear if the comment stream is moderated by Facebook, the WSL or at all, but there was little savagery despite Aaron and others being constant, Joiny-esque annoyances. Love you Joiny.
By the time we were onto round three, the waves and the platform were firing. Of course, the slow to adapt were continuing their campaign of complaint against the Facebook stream, but without any discernible reason. We watched, in high definition, Parko and Michel Bourez have a high scoring sprayfest in the opening heat, with the Tahitian putting up a good fight despite the wave being practically produced for the swansonger’s brand of pointbreak produced down-the-line surfing. When Conner bested Ace in another high scoring, evenly matched, yet oppositely approached heat I chose to spend the 35 minutes without the constant feed of unformed opinion and slid it right to shut it off, crawling back from time to time to catch up on the banter. The comments section of the broadcast really is a great part of the spectacle, and one that makes the WSL unique in professional sports broadcasters – there’s no way to engage in the spectacle without being one swipe away from any fan’s opinion, and while this is unheard of, it is an amazingly modern way to watch pro surfing.
In this age of populist power, the puerile opinions of the people can still shake the foundations of civilisation and have the establishment rattling in its booties. The WSL, an organisation infamous for often acting above the opinions of its fanbase, can’t ignore this constant stream of criticism flowing through its marquee product, and while it would behove them to ignore the vast majority of garbage flooding the feed, there will be some unignorable opinions that present themselves.
Judging discrepancies can no longer be unaddressed, and at some point commentator criticisms have to be improved upon (the Condor saying that any viewers from Africa would probably be at the beach was a really avoidable diminishing of the continent’s size and importance). This very social spectacle offers us plebians the opportunity to be heard, and so it’s strange to see the same plebeians relentlessly rubbish the new platform, desiring a return to the days when we watched and weren’t heard.
Just before the last heat of the day big-fish protocols recalled the surfers for a spell, while some wildlife cruised too close to the competition. The great, white conundrum that the WSL has to deal with now, is whether they let this unencumbered source of information flood across the product – and to which degree they take on the criticisms and complaints of the great watching unwashed.
As Jordy Smith quite rightly demolished Tomas Hermes in the second heat of the day, it’s tough not to be a little concerned about this brave new spectating world. Complete democratic access can lead to a diminishing of expertise, to a Marvelisation of popular culture, where we give the people what they want, and not what we think they need, winding up with manufactured musical acts and a cinematic schedule bereft of anything that isn’t action heroes. Now the floodgates of opinion have been burst, does the WSL listen to the fanbase’s every whim, and score airs like Kolohe’s in the final act above all else, or do they tell us all to eat Morais’ reliable rail cake? Well, in the end Fred won, so for now the WSL is sticking to their guns, but if we’re persistent enough on the new platform, perhaps that won’t be for too long.
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