Is Twitter turning TV into social media's hot new hub?

The Globe and Mail

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This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

The day Americans picked their president, I went to an election-night house party in Toronto. The serious vote watchers spread out in front of a large TV, chatting and sometimes looking at smartphones to check social media or to tweet their thoughts. The TV screen continually flashed graphics and scrolled information, but the volume was turned way down. We had better things to do, in person and online, than listen to the broadcasters’ words.

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Live-tweeting the vote may have been the most portentous activity of the night. A new report from Bluefin Labs, a Boston company that tracks and analyzes social-media awareness of TV, says that election-night coverage prompted 28.5 million comments in the United States. That’s almost one-quarter the number of ballots cast for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The great majority of comments – around 95 per cent – were posted on Twitter.

With surprising speed, Twitter emerged this year as the engine of a revolutionary change in the way we watch, make and think about TV. Nielsen, the U.S. rating agency, said as much earlier this week, in announcing a joint venture with Twitter to produce Twitter TV ratings by the start of the 2013 fall season. The new ratings will measure the extent of unique tweets about specific U.S. programs, and the reach of those messages throughout the Twitterverse. According to Bluefin, the volume of social TV comments more than tripled during 2012.

Decades after media watchers began fretting about the pacifying, desocializing effects of TV, Twitter is making the box sociable as never before. With a smartphone in hand, even a solitary couch potato need not watch alone. But it’s far from clear that the small screen is just a companion device. “I can’t wait for the debate,” tweeted one person I follow, before the first presidential showdown. “Twitter is going to be amazing!”

By disrupting the one-way relay of information, and making television party to a vast uncontrolled conversation, Twitter is working a profound change in our relationship with the box. Or perhaps it’s just releasing the interactive potential that was always there and often overlooked.

“TV is above all a medium that demands a creatively participant response,” wrote Marshall McLuhan in 1964, in Understanding Media. “The banal and ritual remark of the conventionally literate, that TV presents an experience for passive viewers, is wide of the mark.”

Yet that was the majority view for a long time to follow, even among the best of the conventionally literate.

Two decades after Understanding Media, Neil Postman’s influential Amusing Ourselves to Death insisted that the boob tube bred disjunction and passivity, and that only print could get people to think and take action on their conclusions. Neither man could have foreseen the collision of text and TV that Twitter has brought about. And although tweets are always short – 140 characters max – the chains of conversation they prompt can be long, and reach beyond usual social boundaries. Unlike a written TV review, Twitter is dialogical. With a little compression, Plato could have written The Symposium with it.

Like the Grammys, which drew 13 million social-media comments, U.S. election night reunited an audience fragmented by the TV multiverse, PVR recording and online streaming. But live-tweeting TV is happening all the time. While I’m writing this, on a weekday afternoon, SocialGuide.com (co-owned by Nielsen) is charting live tweets about MTV’s week-long Jersey Shore marathon, second in volume only to those about a sports-chatter show on ESPN. Nothing Socratic has gone by yet, but that’s the nature of social life, in-person or virtual. Part of the point of conversation is that you are having it, completing an experience by sharing it with another person.

Live-tweeting can even convert a negative experience into its opposite. Some shows, such as Smash or the recently cancelled 666 Park Avenue, gain a following among people who actually despise the show, but love to “hate-tweet” it with others.

There probably won’t be a hate-tweeting index attached to Nielsen’s Twitter TV ratings. Broadcast types are looking at social media principally as a means to tighten their hold on existing audiences, and possibly to sweeten the deal for advertisers. The conventional view within the industry is that the cash value of a strong Twitter following is still highly debatable.

“A higher level of engagement on Twitter doesn’t necessarily translate into blockbuster ratings,” says Lisa Eaton, a vice-president at BBM Canada, which measures TV-audience share in this country and has no current plans to study social TV. Jim MacLeod, BBM’s president, says that unlike the carefully sourced data used by ratings companies such as his, social-TV activity may include retweets and comments by people who aren’t “in the wheelhouse for that particular program.”

Some people who do social TV are more active than others, and it seems that women viewers out-tweet men. The London Olympics and the U.S. presidential race were both more heavily tweeted by women by about 10 per centage points, according to Bluefin. The U.S. social-TV audiences for this year’s most tweeted broadcast show (The X Factor) and cable program (Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta) were both three-quarters female.

Kirstine Stewart, head of English services at CBC, says that for her, social TV is about engaging the audience, by getting casts to live-tweet their own shows (as happened with the CBC comedy series Mr. D), by running on-screen Twitter feeds, and by offering multiple platforms for audience voting on such talent shows as Cover Me Canada.

“There was a fear at one time that audiences would migrate from one kind of screen to another, and television would be abandoned,” says Stewart. “What we’re finding is that the second screen enriches the experience for the viewer.”

In another way, of course, the “second screen” acts as a distraction engine. As a recent tweet by @dailyteenwords put it, with maybe a hint of exaggeration, “Why I turn on the TV: 10 per cent watch TV, 90 per cent use it as background noise while on Twitter.” A smartphone may be just as effective at shutting down a commercial as the mute button. The paradox of social TV “engagement” is that it may simultaneously undermine the audience’s attention – but only if you let it, says Stewart.

“Good programming will always be watched,” she says. “Twitter turns people into instant commentators, and they really have to get into the show to be ready to comment in a meaningful way.”

Distraction has always been part of the TV experience, she says, whether the means is a smartphone or an ironing board. Distracted viewing was the impetus for past innovations such as the instant replay, she claims, invented to show what you missed when you were doing something else.

As the TV experience involves more devices and apps, there’s an inevitable drive to direct the flow into one easily monitored channel. Last year, British company Zeebox launched a free app that lets you do social media, see what others are watching, get added content from broadcasters, flip to keyword-triggered Web info, and buy stuff. It’s a regular social-TV mall, and may have more to do with the marketing ambitions of its client investors (which include NBC Universal, Viacom, HBO and BSkyB) than with the unruly behaviours of the Twitterverse.

My bet is that the next TV revolution will be less tidy, and harder to manage from the top. The audience is talking amongst itself, and doesn’t need anyone’s guidance to continue doing so.

“With TV, the viewer is the screen,” said McLuhan. He meant the physical experience of being bathed in cathrode-ray light, but in another way, he was nudging up against the emerging reality of the medium as we know it. The viewer has come into sight as never before, as the dynamic living screen for TV’s next act.