When Ellen DeGeneres handed her phone to Bradley Cooper during the Oscars, I was in my Andersonville basement, tweet-snarking my way through the awards like everyone else. Yes, your boy was on fire, crafting snotty one-liners for 2,600 followers and counting every three or four retweets like a miser with a sack of shillings, too punch-drunk on his own success to extend the same courtesy to anyone else.
No time for civilities, yo. It’s Oscar night! The one evening a year when Twitter rewards sarcastic creativity, a shitshow shindig that includes us all, where everyone seems clever and hilarious and united by a common desire: to ridicule celebrities in the optimal forum for just that. Midwesterners relish this ritual; Chicagoans, in particular, love it. We’re free to indulge our unchecked envy and be the ugliest Americans we can—encouraged to, really—and we still get to claim we love movies the morning after expressing our disgust for the people responsible for them. It’s Christmas for the catty, and man, I was killing it.
Then Ellen had to ruin everything.
“Yeah, Let’s take a candid photo right here in the middle of the ceremony with, like, ten of the biggest movie stars in the world—yeah, you get in there, too Angelina—all of whom will have their eyes open, their smiles perfect, skin unblemished. No one will look drunk or stoned or throw gang signs or make a duck face or stick their tongue out like Miley Cyrus. Great. Now let’s send it out to my 27 million followers and get the world to retweet it and see if we can break Twitter. You know, just to say we could. It’ll be so humanizing. So meta. So now.”
Poor, misguided Ellen, I thought. An overt directive to create an internet sensation? From a selfie? A trend so hackneyed and common that my father-in-law does it from his nursing home? No, Ellen, that’s not how it works. I may as well stand up on the Red Line and yell, “Hey, everyone, let’s do a big Harlem Shake!” If you think we’re not savvy enough to see through this transparent ploy to . . . well, I don’t know exactly what kind of ploy it is, but we’re not falling for it. No, siree. We’re not your sheep, DeGeneres. In fact, I’m going to fire off a tweet right now about how I won’t retweet your photo. There. Done. That’ll show you celebrities that Twitter is not for you tonight. It’s for us, so we can talk about you. . . . Wait. What’s going on here? I’ve got a great line about Charlize Theron’s dress, and Twitter’s not letting me post it. Dammit. Is your Twitter working, dear?
Oh. Ellen’s selfie.
That’s the moment I turned against the Oscars in earnest. And I assumed the rest of the world would do the same, spurning Bradley Cooper and Brad Pitt for good measure—and most of all, Jennifer Lawrence, whose aw-shucks-I stumble-and-fall-down-like-the-rest-of-you shtick is every bit as phony baloney as Meryl Streep’s modest matron act. Instead, 3 million people turned toward them. They retweeted the photo. With one click of Ellen’s Samsung, Twitter had been effortlessly hijacked by the very people I’d spent the evening so gleefully eviscerating.
When I saw the photo, my heart sank. It was a great shot, funny and familiar, full of the kind of infectious joy that almost makes these stars seem like real people with discernible personalities. Even Angelina Jolie. (Then again, these are very good actors we’re talking about.) And it’s got Peter Nyong'o, the brother of 12 Years A Slave actress Lupita Nyong'o—basically a random Florida college kid who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His giddy smile says: Greatest Night of My Life! His presence is wish fulfillment personified. (Liza Minnelli was apparently standing behind the group on tiptoes trying to get in, but was too short. Her exclusion makes sense; the photo would have had a different meaning had Minnelli appeared in it.)
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 3, 2014
In short, the photo looks like fun. But it also looks like a glamorous party to which I’m not invited, and try as I might, I cannot envision myself in Peter Nyong'o’s place. The Ellen Selfie didn’t just ruin Twitter for the rest of us, it subverted the illusion that the Oscars are a celebration we all get to attend, even if it’s from our own couch with our laptop. And Ellen didn’t subvert anything. We did, by disseminating the photo for her.
My tweets were never the same after the Ellen Selfie. Begging for scraps of feedback from a handful of strangers? A few of my Chicago compatriots offered solidarity in the form of half-hearted retweets, but it suddenly seemed horribly perverse and desperate, which of course it always had been, only now it had a shiny, happy photo to underscore the timesuck pointlessness of it all. I felt a strange emptiness at the end of the ceremony, partially because the most famous photo in the history of Twitter reflected my outsider status and impotent misanthropy, but also because Ellen DeGeneres hadn’t misjudged the public. I had.