It’s an American institution stretching back more than 80 years, and a landmark television event for more than 50 of those years. It draws immense talent from far and wide to compete, and results in a high-stakes head-to-head final among only the best. It’s dramatic, full of intensity, and at times painful to watch.
It’s the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Last Thursday night, the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee made history by declaring an official tie for the first time since 1962. While five-time contender and 2013 third-place finisher Sriram Hathwar confidently maintained a lead throughout the bulk of the competition, second-time Bee speller and first-time finalist Ansun Sujoe held on through 23 of the 25 so-called “Winning Words” (including the last to be spelled, feuilleton) to also earn the honor.
But beyond an exhibition of fine spelling skills, the Bee has been a place to cheer on the unlikely — where typically nerdy kids between the ages of 8 and 15 with a thirst for knowledge get their moment to shine on national television. The viewing experience has only become better in recent years, thanks to the dawning of Twitter and the popularization of livetweeting events. Though many of the Bee’s contestants are not yet old enough to even have their own social account, the conversations taking place online, augments the viewing experience, showing how social media has become a vital part of national events.
Of course, the biggest driver in the online conversation this year was the Scripps Bee itself. Throughout the course of the Bee, the @ScrippsBee account on Twitter diligently updated not only to announce which competitors advanced to each round, but also to share the actual individual performance of each kid onstage. This year, each child was given his or her own unique hashtag based on their registration numbers at the Bee. For example, Hathwar’s performance was trackable under #speller154, while Sujoe was #speller237. While the account also attempted to engage users — particularly by asking them to tweet a selfie with the hashtag #spellfie — breaking out each individual speller gave users an opportunity to rally around their favorites and chat about them in real time.
The attention to individual spellers helped create breakout moments throughout the competition. For example, an early controversy bubbled when recent changes to the official rules of the Bee left spelling legacy and favorite Vanya Shivashankar locked out of the finals. Shivashankar, a former Bee finalist whose sister Kavya took home the trophy in 2009, spelled both of her words correctly in the semifinal round, but was knocked out due to a low score in the newly introduced semifinals test. Users took to Twitter to express their sympathy for the young speller.
But perhaps no one made quite the impact like Jacob Williamson, a 15-year-old homeschooled 8th grader from Cape Coral, Florida, whose excited outbursts during each turn on the microphone made him the most flamboyant, watchable character of the entire Bee. His hoots and hollers during every chance to spell and his dramatic collapse when he made the finals earned him his own special hashtag: #Team Jacob.
However, Williamson’s exuberance got the best of him when, in the finals, he rushed through his spelling of kabaragoya and was eliminated. The moment earned him a viral Vine video:
While Williamson’s behavior earned him a spotlight at the competition, he was far from the only speller to make an impression on social media. Whether it was the quiet respect of the only international finalist, Jamaican Tajaun Gibbison; the concentrated air-typing from eighth place finisher Kate Miller or the baby-faced cuteness of 11-year-old competitor Tejas Muthusamy , the earnest personalities of these kids made them ripe for social media adoration. Thanks to Twitter, users could follow their favorites, learn about them, and struggle with them throughout the Bee — reacting publicly in real time.
Social media’s presence in this year’s Bee amplified the very qualities that make the Scripps National Spelling Bee such a national landmark. While it’s been used to similar, more pronounced effect during huge mainstream events featuring celebrities like the Super Bowl and the Oscars, the Bee stands alone in that it helps to tell the stories of these finalists. Twitter, in particular, gave users the ability to follow these kids closely and learn more about them as they progressed in the competition, leading to a far richer event than a few preteens spelling obscure words.