Twitter and the Tube: Social Media Meets Interactive TV

by Brian Blum on December 17, 2009

in Advertising,Interactive,Social Media,Television

Television_remote_controlInteractive video has been one of my passions since I worked as a “multimedia producer” in the early 1990s creating CD-ROM titles in edutainment and healthcare. In 1994, I led a team that produced “How Multimedia Computers Work,” an immersive interactive environment that plunged viewers into a virtual 3D computer. We followed that up with “How Your Body Works.” Both were co-published in a book-CD package by Ziff-Davis Press.

In recent years, interactive video has been used very effectively for advertising and marketing. Carnival Cruise Lines employed it to help bring a cruise ship alive for would-be (and high-paying) passengers. Mars created an entire mini-commercial called “Get the Girl…An Interactive Love Story (Sort Of)” for its Twix brand where the viewer gets to choose what happens next. Even The New York Times got into the act with an interactive David Pogue sharing insights on consumer electronics.

But the Holy Grail for we interactive pioneers was always marrying it with broadcast television. It was the late 1980s, though, and technology never kept up with our creativity. Now, though, with the advent of social media, that day may have arrived. But with what consequences?

I wrote in my earlier post about Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference” which paraded a veritable cavalcade of social media luminaries on stage to talk about all things Twitter and Facebook. One of the panels at the event was on “social TV.”

Veteran Israeli media consultant Dror Gill described how TV and Twitter are already mashing up. A growing community of users are tweeting while they watch the tube, he explained, sending their comments, theories and criticisms into the social ether for others who are following the same program at the same time to reply to or re-tweet.

Gill called this phenomena 2-screen interactive TV (there are cable operators that have already integrated similar social media tricks into a single screen).

The experience, Gill explained, in some ways recreates a bit of what was for me an integral part of my childhood: sitting together as a family, laughing at dead parrots and silly walks, or cringing at another one of Mary Tyler Moore’s insecure faux-pas’s.

These days, it’s rare for members of a family to even find time to eat dinner as a cohesive unit. Twittering together, apparently, is the next best thing…even if your fellow schmoozers are on opposite coasts (or even different continents).

Conference host Pulver related his own social TV experience. A big fan of the NBC show Heroes, one evening, Pulver found himself away from the TV trolling the aisles for canned corn or some other delicacy in his local supermarket.

Distraught over missing his favorite guilty pleasure, he pulled out his cell phone and was able to follow the show by scrolling through the real-time tweets that neatly summarized the main plot turns.

How Pulver got his shopping done I don’t know…I also have to wonder why the one time founder of VoIP giant Vonage didn’t just TiVo the show, or at least watch it later on Hulu. But that wouldn’t have made for such an illustrative story.

Despite the fact that a number of the participants at the conference praised social media for making the post-modern world a little less lonely, the entire experience seems to me to be exactly the opposite. Where once we gathered in a shared space, we now sit alone opposite our 42-inch plasma screens tapping away to strangers thousands of miles away.

But for advertisers, this real time web can perhaps be seen as a hopeful trend. Broadcast television has been inching inexorably towards time shifting. The number of viewers watching a show at the hour it’s actually aired has been steadily declining in an online world where you can instantly stream that same program on any number of sites or – heaven forbid – download it for free.

The social media interactive experience, by contrast, requires participants to watch live. Tape delay ruins the whole thing. Moreover, not only can’t live viewers fast forward through the commercials, TV Twitterers may be less likely to jump up at a commercial at all. With all the real time excitement, a social media conversation may actually evolve about the ad itself. That puts the onus on the advertiser to make sure that what they’ve created can withstand the withering comments of a live Twitterverse.

The game for advertisers, as a result, gets even more complicated than it already is in a globally connected world. Companies must make sure they have assigned a staff person to monitor Twitter and other social media channels whenever their ads play in primetime. Because, when the masses won’t put down their keyboards even during the once sacred passive TV experience, the necessity to remain vigilant, to jump to attention and enact damage control if the need arises, becomes an integral part of the job.

It’s been said before by techno-luminaries far more prolific than me, but social media can no longer be seen as a “nice to have.” This makes it at once both terrifying and a terrific opportunity. But it’s one that must not be ignored.

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