Is the internet bringing us together or keeping us apart?
2nd Nov 2013 | 10:00
Is there any satisfaction to be had from a digital book signing?
If ever there were a phrase that summed up the point to which the internet has brought us, it is "digital book signing".
It's a phrase that takes three analogue elements - a book, an autograph, a personal interaction with a celebrity you admire - and turns them into something quicker, cheaper and less valuable.
"It's a world first and I always like to try new things," says David Beckham awkwardly at his digital signing which has been set up through his Facebook page. He mentions the technology amid compliments on his hair, invitations to Brazil, discussion of his favourite goals, his family, his tattoos and the photos that make up his book.
Beckham is smiley, friendly and charming but even his media training and expensive tan don't hide the inelegance of the event itself. Fans pop up on a screen in front of him and he half pays attention to them, asking how they are at the same time as they ask how he is during stilted video conversations that stop and start and overlap, and end barely 30 seconds after they've begun.
The rest of Beckham's attention is on the iPad in his lap. The iPad screen shows the cover of his new photo-book and the hasty autograph he's scribbling on it using a stylus, glancing up to check the spelling of his foreign fans' names. He signs his own name first, then fills the "to" part in after.
It's as backwards and weird as this event which is taking place in a north London studio space that feels like a school hall. There are cameras on dollies, an expensive-looking set and Jake Humphries capering in front of a live audience begging applause. It's like a TV show, but it's not. It's like a meet and greet, but it's not. It's like a book signing, but it's not.
And that's the dichotomy of the internet really - it brings people together, literally "connects" them, and keeps them far apart all at once.
Content, content, content
But people seem keen on this virtual event - David Beckham has 30 million fans on Facebook. He was on 29 million a week ago, but Glenn Miller, who leads entertainment partnerships for Facebook across Europe, told us, "It's been a little over a week since we announced it - he gained half a million fans on his page that week."
Half a million new fans can't be wrong. Right?
Facebook hopes not - it's doing more 'entertainment partnerships' than ever before to "connect [celebrities] with their fans" and help them "get [their] content in front of [their] fans". The first UK event was with Jessie J some weeks ago, but Katy Perry, Madonna, Oprah and even President Obama have worked with Facebook in the US.
Beckham's event may be taking place live in London but it spans the globe: fans could tune in to watch the hour-long on-stage chat through Facebook from wherever they were in the world, but a select few hundred also won the chance to go to Facebook's offices in India, Brazil and New York City to get a personalised digital autograph and thirty-seconds of video chat with their idol.
"On the back end we were setting up RFID bracelets so everyone who came to the locations registered their Facebook profile with the RFID bracelet," Miller told us. "And once they registered it [at the event], it pushed out a message saying "I'm at the David Beckham digital book signing in..." whatever city they're at."
While a flurry of likes flood their notifications bar, Facebook's custom app is queuing up fans' personal details for Beckham himself to see once their turn to chat with him comes around.
"We had a custom app built so when you took that RFID and you tapped in that you were going to get ready to meet him, it showed him on the video screen your name and your location, and on the app it also had your name and location. So he was able to sign it and hit next and it pushed it [the digital autograph] straight to your timeline."
Facebook chose the locations based on David Beckham's Facebook insights - India, Brazil and the US were in the top six countries that his fans come from. Beckham has never been to India, so it gives fans there a chance to interact with him for the first time. And that would be great if this were an "as well as" situation, but it feels like an "instead of". Instead of visiting India, Beckham's visiting Facebook.
We mention how tooth-grindingly awkward the video chats Beckham had with his foreign fans were, but Miller doesn't seem to think it was awkward at all.
"I think fans when fans get to connect with who they look up to it's one of those moments that you can't explain. And I think with this type of technology you actually got to see it happen through technology, versus sitting there seeing it through, you know, sitting in a bookstore or just doing it through text and having someone like Beckham reply to you through Facebook.
"You actually got to see what that interaction was like. So I think it was probably the most authentic type of reactions you were able to see," he said.
But can making small talk with David Beckham through a screen as he scribbles pixels on a jpg really compare to the experience of meeting him in real life? You can't burn or lose a digital signature but unlike your own personal autograph on a bit of paper or a printed book, this digital signature can be endlessly replicated. It can be printed out, screen-grabbed, copied and pasted. It hasn't even been touched by Beckham.
That autograph is just pixels on a screen, like you were to Beckham when you sat in front of that camera and asked how he was. Pixels on a screen like the words you're reading now.
We wonder what he makes of it all, this David Beckham. "No, you can stay," he tries to tell far-flung fans as they're hurried out of the hotseat and offscreen, but they can't hear him or they aren't allowed to stay put, replaced by the next in line before he's even had the chance to answer their one single question.
"Well, that was fast and furious," he says to the crowd in London during a break. Not harassed, but bemused. Fast, furious, but not all that satisfying.