The kleig lights blare down on the small set. The overwhelming hue is blue. There is a small round table and seated at either end of it are the host of the show, the world-famous sportscaster Donald Highsmith, and 5-time Gold Medal Winner James Hodges.
Highsmith is a man in his late 40s, of solid build. His complexion sports a perfectly calibrated tan, his jawline is perfect, his face solid without being fat. His eyes are framed by sharp-looking eyeglasses that try to – and succeed at – making him look smart. His head is shaven clean and coated with some matte finish so it doesn’t gleam in the cameras. Finally, his chin is capped by his trademark brown goatee. It is the only part of his appearance that didn’t convey consistency, knowledge and control. It creates a mysterious allure. In it’s own way, it has driven Highsmith’s career.
Hodges, on the other hand, is from another world. While tall, he is clearly overweight. And while the makeup men have done the best they could, his is not an attractive face. Looking at him, Highsmith regrets all that happened to sports in recent years. Hodges is not the kind of man who should have been any kind of Olympian.
Behind the interviewer’s table is a bluescreen – perfectly calibrated to have a video feed of the Olympic Pavilion superimposed on it. For the viewers, it will appear that Highsmith is interviewing Hodges from within the Pavilion itself.
A hand signals the countdown – 3 – 2 – 1 and then Go!
Highsmith turns towards the cameras and his trademark voice, gravelly with authority, rings out over the set.
“Welcome to the marquee event of these Olympic Games, the Group Build. As we prepare to witness this year’s iteration of one of the most complex events in the Olympics today, we have with us 5-time Gold Medal Winner James Hodges. James, welcome to the show.”
James Hodges has a surprisingly clear voice with a smooth Australian accent and well-paced delivery, “Glad to be here, Donald.”
“James,” continued Highsmith, lying through his teeth, “This is an exciting event and one that is always awaited with eager anticipation. Of course, you’ll be providing color commentary as the event itself gets under way. But can you explain how it actually works?”
“Absolutely, Donald,” replies Hodges, “But first a little history. The Facebook Olympics began almost 8 years ago. There were a number of events at that initial meet – and there was no telling which would become the premier event. But the Group Build, with its intricacies, fast-pace and excitement, quickly established itself as the marque challenge for Facebooker’s globally.”
“So,” asked Highsmith, “For those Luddites who’ve never watched a Group Build before, how do you win?”
“Well,” answers Hodges, “You win by getting the most points. At the beginning of the 30-minute exercise, you establish a Facebook Group. Then, you see how many people you can get to join the group by the end of the period. That sets the Base Score. With that alone, this event would be like many other Facebook Events, but the Group Build takes it to another level entirely. You get what are called ‘Bonus Points’, for geographic diversity of members, for comments, for actual conversations on the group’s Wall and, of course, for the posting of videos. Finally, the judges examine the quality of the content attracted and award Style Points. There are three criteria that are used: Relevance, production values and diversity. In summary, attract a large number of group members, get them to participate and score well in all three contribution criteria and you’ll be the winner of the Group Build event.”
“Wow,” says Highsmith, the awe in his voice totally masking his own lack of interest, “That sounds amazingly difficult.”
“It is,” says Hodges, “But it is an incredibly engaging event. You can never tell where it’s going to go.”
“How do you train for this?” asks Highsmith, “You can’t exactly go to the gym and lift weights.”
“Actually,” says Hodges, “It may not look like it, but that is something we do. Just like Golf and ping pong, we are subjected to a fair degree of ridicule. But this is a real sport. It is an intense event and it demands all of your mental and physical capabilities. If your body doesn’t play along – if you’ve got distractions, pain or simply can’t take the stress – then you will lose. And, of course, your fingers need to fly.”
“You lift weights,” says Highsmith, allowing a touch of dumbstruck into his voice, “I wouldn’t have guessed. What else do you do?”
“We do all sorts of training,” says Hodges, “Most fundamentally, we build strong networks of friends. But we also do regular drills. For example, I start at least one group a day. I don’t trot out my best ideas for these drills – those are saved for competition. But starting groups allows you to really work on all sorts of fundamentals.”
“Such as?” asks Highsmith.
“The most basic is called threading the vein,” says Hodges, “And there’s no way to learn it but practice. Every competitor uses a different Stat-Cranker. But you constantly analyze your new membership and the activities of the existing members – and you try to find veins. You might start a group thinking it is a perfect for Bible Study and quickly discover that it is picked up by right or left-wing political blogs. Or some subset of your membership might provide the best content. If either of those things happens, you need to be on it. You need to recalibrate your group to bring out the best (and most) of your new membership vein.”
“Can’t you serve multiple groups.”
“You can try,” says Hodges, “But it’s fool’s gold. First, you don’t have time to reach out in more than one direction. Second, if you do, your bonus points will suffer. If your members don’t know what they’re supposed to be talking about, then they won’t talk.”
“Amazing,” says Highsmith, turning to a new camera, “And now a word from our sponsors.”
A Coca Cola ad follows. Highsmith and Hodges sit silently, not wanted to ruin any upcoming thread of conversation.
3 – 2 – 1 – Go!
“We’re back with James Hodges, 5-time Gold Medal Winner in the Group Build. We were just talking about training for the event, but I want to take the conversation is a new direction.”
“Go ahead,” says Hodges.
“Why aren’t you competing this year?”
Hodges is a bit surprised by the question, but it isn’t the first time he’s been asked. “Donald,” he replies, “This isn’t the kind of sport that you can perform well in for long. You tap out your network, people get tired of friending you, and you’re done. I just wanted to go out at the top of my game.”
“So, you think you’d lose if you competed this year?”
“Donald,” answers Hodges, “Anything is possible. This is a dynamic event. I think I’d perform quite well. But it’s like planting crops – the field has to have time to rest.”
“So you see a return to the sport in the future?”
“Again, Donald,” says Hodges, “Anything is possible. I was hoping maybe to get some real friends and maybe develop a romantic interest during the downtime.”
“How’s that coming?” asks Highsmith.
“Poorly,” says Hodges, with a smile.
“So,” asks Highsmith, the humiliation segment of the interview past, “What would you recommend for young people interested in getting into this event?”
“First,” says Hodges, “Start with the simpler events. Really master your skills at friending, at thread building, at videoing and at tweeting. Only after you are proficient in all those areas should you step into Group Building competition. As a part of that early training, remember to really build a quality network, not just a large one. You want people who will be interested in what you have to say and who will be interested in helping you out in competition. Once you’ve got a quality network, and once you’ve mastered the other skills, you can begin to compete. Start out entering local tournaments and then just climb the ladder. Of course, there are events, even at the Olympic-level, for people in lower friend-classes. You can compete in the <1,000 friend class, the 1,000-5,000 friend class, the 5,000 to 50,000 friend class and the unlimited class. Once you are really skilled you can compete in the top classes even if you don’t have the friends to ‘officially’ belong.”
“Earlier,” says Highsmith, “You mentioned saving your best groups for competition. What makes a great group?”
“It has to be catchy,” says Hodges, “It has to be something that is unpredictable – to allow multiple veins to begin. There is nothing worse than having a dud with no chance of branching out in unexpected directions. If you want Bonus and Style Points, you need something that will attract passion and involvement. And, especially in an International event like this, you have to avoid national groups. You are representing your country, so it will get you lots of points fast. But your group will suffer for a lack of geographic diversity and style.”
Highsmith nods. “Speaking of national impacts,” says Highsmith, “This is the first international sporting event where actual numbers of supporters can directly impact outcomes. How does the Federation work to level the playing field between, say, competitors from the USA and China and those from smaller nations like Trinidad.”
“An excellent question,” says Hodges, “And the answer it that we can’t totally level the field. In the first years of the event, the US always won – and then the Chinese lifted their Facebook restrictions. It took them a while, due to the rigorous training required, but before long, they began to come out on top. People were really concerned that inferior competitors were being lifted by their national populations. So, the Federation took a few easy steps. First, Bonus Points were given greater weight, particularly those for geographic diversity. If you had a straight national appeal, you’d lose. Second, the events were tape-delayed so television viewers wouldn’t know which group was being started by which country. You were also prohibited from mentioning your country or the event in your group. Basically, you could leverage your existing friends, but you couldn’t take advantage of national population to dominate a competition.”
“Has it worked?”
“For the most part, yes. I won a number of times in a row and I’m from Australia.” He gives a light chuckle.
Highsmith smiles, “Of course,” he says, “You mentioned the TV delay. In fact, the event is going on as we speak. The replay and judging will be coming up in only five minutes. In the meantime, how have TV and the live audience impacted these games?”
“It makes a total difference,” says Hodges, “At first the competition was totally virtual. But when there are 20,000 screaming and friending fans watching you, it can make a huge difference. There’s the obvious benefit of having your supporters growing your group live, but there’s also a moral boost and an electricity in the air. And knowing that tens of millions more will be watching the event in only minutes builds even more excitement. It can be hard not to break under the stress.”
“I can only imagine,” says Highsmith, “How does the sport deal with homecourt advantage?”
“The host country is only allowed to fill 20% of the available seats. Homecourt advantage can be a major boost, but it isn’t a game-ender.”
“Okay,” says Highsmith, “Before we go to the Replay, any comments on how this event has changed in recent years?”
“The complete rise of Olympic Facebook cell phones,” says Hodges, “Is the single largest game-changer. Everybody can rapid Facebook on these new devices. It is really amazing. And, of course, our viewership has shot up by hundreds of percent each year. There is no more watched sporting event in the world. But I do have concerns about saturation. This event requires participation, not just observation – and if people get tired of Facebooking or joining groups, its meteoric rise will come to an end.”
“On that note,” says Highsmith, turning to a closing camera, “We will go to our sponsors once again. But stayed tuned, the Replay – with color commentary by James Hodges – is just around the corner.”
The segment is over and the commercials are running.
Highsmith turns to Hodges and shocks himself. “So,” he asks, “Can you recommend a local tournament?”
Hodges just smiles. He knew it would happen.
The Group Build is just that addictive.