Yes We Can: The Betty White Effect

White's “SNL” triumph puts the “social” in “social media” as gig draws countless comments on the site that made it all happen: Facebook

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, May 10, 2010  |  Updated 6:35 AM CDT
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Hollywood Meets D.C. at White House Correspondents' Dinner

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Betty White is still the talk of Facebook.

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The reviews started pouring in on Betty White’s heavily hyped “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig the moment she began riffing about the force that catapulted her to center stage at Studio 8H: Facebook.

“I didn’t know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time,” White quipped in her opening monologue. “I would never say the people on it are losers, but that’s only because I’m polite…

“Facebook just sounds like a drag. In my day, seeing pictures of people’s vacations was considered a punishment.”

As White cracked jokes, hundreds of the more than 500,000 fans who participated in Facebook campaign to get the 88-year-old TV legend on the show, offered running commentary via the social networking site:

“She is already making me laugh and its (sic) barely the intro… Thanks SNL.”

“Yay, we got recognized!”

“WE DID IT”

The last poster didn’t need to use all caps to make the point.

Facebook users weren’t satisfied to get White the job – many decided to participate, online, during the show and after. What played out was a virtual water cooler conversation – or, perhaps more aptly put, a communal couch of commentary.

Throughout the show and well into the next morning Facebook users offered overwhelmingly positive reviews that often dipped into the corny (marriage proposals and multiple variations on “Thank you for being a friend”). Even before “SNL” aired on the West Coast, many folks posted video clips, quoted punchlines ("My muffin hasn't had a cherry since 1939") and referenced favorite sketches (“The Wizard of A--!”)

The tweets, meanwhile, flew on Twitter, where “Betty White” was the third most popular trending topic Sunday morning, after “Happy Mother’s Day” and “Justin Bieber.” The program reportedly earned "SNL" its highest overnight ratings since the last show before the 2008 presidential election.

White's "SNL" appearance and the unlikely story of how it came to be underscored ongoing shifts in the relationships between TV and viewers, between entertainment and the Internet.

There’s something empowering about not only having a voice in what you want to see, but helping make it happen and then sharing your thoughts with a wide audience as the event unfolds. While the proliferation of cable outlets and the lure of the Internet have cut down on mass audiences for network television programs, segments of the public are using social media to create their own large-scale communal experiences.

None of this is lost on the still-hilarious and sharp White, who began her career seven decades ago as radio became the first electronic mass medium to instantly connect people across wide swaths. In her “SNL” opening, she ticked off highlights of her career in radio, movies and television.

“Now I’m here tonight because you wanted me to be,” she said.

It was the one non-laugh line of the monologue. But the combination of heartfelt sentiment and simple of statement of an extraordinary fact packed wallop as a meta moment for our media age, while celebrating a performer whose appeal remains ageless.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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