Following the royals in an iPhone world

The number of people expected to watch Will and Kate's vows on April 29 is two billion. What's equally astounding is the myriad ways they'll be able to consume it.
Two billion people are expected to watch the wedding of Kate Middleton, pictured, and Prince William, on April 29, through an array of modern means, from the TV to their computers to their smartphones. (Alastair Grant/AFP/Getty Images)

Commoners are still largely barred from attending royal weddings, but over the years, advances in technology have brought us ever closer to the majesterial couples on their big day.

When Prince Albert (later King George) married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mum) back in April 1923, the plebes pored through newspaper reports and queued up to watch a silent newsreel released in theatres days later.

When the future Queen Elizabeth wed Prince Philip in November 1947, the BBC broadcast it live on radio to approximately 200 million people, and aired silent video footage later that day.

On the day Charles and Diana got hitched in 1981, 750 million people globally saw it on TV. The estimates for the number of people expected to watch Will and Kate’s vows on April 29 is two billion — a third of the world’s population.

What’s equally astounding is the myriad ways they’ll be able to consume it.

No longer limited to huddling around their radios or television sets, royal fanatics will be able to live-stream it on the web, gab about it in live chats, follow on-the-ground journalists via Twitter, register their opinions on Facebook, view amateur footage on YouTube, peruse pictures on Flickr — and blog about it ad nauseam.

One such enthusiast is Ella Kay, a 27-year-old teacher based in the midwestern U.S. who runs the blogs The Daily Kate, Mad Hattery and Royalty with Ella Kay.

"I love the pomp and circumstance and the tradition around major events and appearances," she writes in an email interview. She’ll be up early on April 29, not only to watch the service on TV, but to live-blog about the outfits on Mad Hattery and post her bon mots to Twitter.

Modern technology offers an array of access points to watching the live event, but a wedding is nothing without a few keepsakes — and this one has already become an unprecedented cash grab for the makers of royal-themed trinkets. There are also plenty of mementoes to be had in the digital realm.

The classical label Decca will be live-recording the vows and selling the audio on iTunes just hours later. (Music publicists are already frothing at the possibility that this piece of spoken word could hit the top of the iTunes music charts.) The "iVows" will also be part of an hour-long album of the ceremony that Decca will release within a week of the wedding.

Will and Kate’s nuptials have also inspired several smartphone applications, including the Royal App, a collection of facts and trivia sanctioned by the House of Windsor itself, and the Abbey 3D app, which offers a virtual tour of Westminster Abbey, the wedding venue.

One of the biggest differences between this wedding and Charles and Diana’s nuptials is the amount of self-promotion by the Royals. The official wedding site is only the start.

"Social media is definitely something the royal house has embraced," says Chris Sorensen, a business and technology reporter for Maclean’s. "They have a Facebook page, they have Twitter accounts, they have Flickr accounts."

This photo illustration demonstrates the Abbey 3D App, a £2.99 interactive guide to Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and Kate Middleton will marry on April 29. (Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

But it’s about more than just being au courant. The Royals, says Sorensen, are in the social media space "for the same reason that companies, from a marketing perspective, are on Facebook and Twitter: it gives them a direct pipeline to their customers — or, in this case, to the public or their followers."

Leslie Chan, a professor of media studies and international development studies at the University of Toronto, says that part of the reason the buzz for the royal wedding is so deafening is because so many parties are using social media for their own ends — whether it’s companies hawking tie-in products, media outlets hoping to snare more viewers or the Royals themselves, simply trying to stay relevant.

"To a large extent, [social media] are being co-opted by those who are running these events as a way to drive attention to it," says Chan. "Most of the social media are platforms for selling one thing or the other."

While technology and social media have made it easier to follow the royal wedding, Chan isn’t sure it means that there’s a spike in actual interest. He says he has discerned "a new social anxiety created by social media."

"I notice among my students, when I talk with them, there’s this anxiety of not being a part of something that’s going on," he says. "It’s not that they’re necessarily interested in the event, they just want to be socially included."

Chan feels it’s a tendency tied to all major events nowadays.

"This [anxiety] is showing up in things like social protests, like the G20 and so forth. You’ve got people saying, ‘Oh yeah, we support this and we support that,’ and they make a check on their Facebook page and it’s as if somehow they participated. So social media gives us a false sense of participation."

Chan also cautions that web statistics about social engagement aren’t always accurate.

"If I have my RSS feed subscribing to one of these events, I’m sure [the organizers are] counting me in as part of the audience, even though I may not have looked at it," he says.

Social media has in some ways brought us closer to the Royals, but even some diehards are finding it to be overkill.

"There's really been a saturation of coverage that's overwhelming and almost unnecessary.  I say that as a person who is interested and is excited to watch the event – I can't imagine what it feels like for those who are only casually interested or who don't care at all," says Ella Kay.

"I've actually tried to limit my news about the wedding to only some stories from a few fairly reliable outlets, otherwise I think I'd be sick of the whole thing before it even happened."