Watching Twitter on TV

February 25, 2010
By | 21 Comments

Ever since the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) closed its doors in early January the gadget press has been nearly unanimous in identifying 3DTV as television’s “next big thing.” But lost in all the hype surrounding 3D is a potentially far more exciting development: the inclusion of web widgets into television sets’ operating systems. Widgets are the mini-apps that bring weather forecasts to our computer desktops and display real-time news headlines and stock tickers on blogs. With the introduction of web-connected television sets with built-in widgets, the same functionality comes to television, so that instead of changing the channel during an insufferably slow segment of an American Idol elimination show, you’ll instead be able to hit a button on your remote to bring up your Gmail inbox or to play a quick game of Lexulous. In other words, you’ll do what a growing number of viewers already do on laptops, only without having to shift your attention away from your television set to do so.

Compared to 3D, widgets promise to have a much more immediate and meaningful impact on television’s programming, audiences, and economics. For while few current programs would benefit from presentation in 3D – in fact, more than a few would actually suffer, many shows will become vastly more appealing when overlaid with dynamic web content. I first realized this when I started watching television with some of my colleagues at other universities and colleges. Mind you, I wasn’t actually in the same room with them at the time. In fact, technically speaking I’ve never “met” a number of these people. Rather, when I say that I’ve been “watching television with my colleagues,” what I really mean is that I’ve been following – and responding to – their Twitter updates as we watch television on our own.

Each night between 8 and 11 pm EST, Twitter lights up with television-related chatter, making my TweetDeck “All Friends” column look like a meeting of the SCMS TV Studies Special Interest Group. These nightly discussions have brought media studies professors and students into closer contact with some of the nation’s smartest television critics, including The Onion’s Todd VanDerWerff and the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, as well as the thousands of fans who provide running commentary on their own viewing via Twitter. Throughout the night links are exchanged and retweeted, plot twists are dissected, evictions are second guessed, and past and present NBC executives are excoriated, all in 140-character bursts. By the time the 11 pm local news has begun, tomorrow’s columns or blog posts (or next year’s SCMS panels) have already started to take shape.

It makes sense that Twitter widgets, along with other social networking apps, promise to be major selling points for the new web-connected televisions, in so far as television, along with celebrity death rumors, already seems to be Twitter’s main topic of discussion. The launch of these widgets is also in keeping with ongoing efforts by television networks to incorporate real-time text-based viewer feedback into their own programming. The advantage of Twitter widgets over past programming gimmicks is that widgets enable us, the viewers, to select the feeds that will be overlaid on our screens, as opposed to leaving it to the network to make these selections for us. So while we still can’t use digital technologies to customize the television programs we watch, we can at least use them to chose who we watch with. The outcome, I would wager, is no less satisfying.

Having pretty much given up on “live” (that is, not time-shifted) television when I first got a TiVo in 2004, I now find myself motivated to tune in on schedule by the prospect of participating in these nightly Twitter sessions. Even more surprising, on a couple of occasions I’ve actually turned on my set to check out a program that I thought I had absolutely no interest in to see what’s making “Vienna” or “Merle” or some other meaningless-to-me term grow larger in the TwitScoop tag cloud. Mark Andrejevic has argued that within the contemporary media mix television programs are but “the raw material to which value is added” by the individuals who analyze, debate, and ridicule them online. The new web-connected, widget-equipped sets acknowledge as much, affording what are ostensibly secondary forms of televisual discourse a place of prominence on the television screen. By doing so, these new technologies make a compelling case for the old argument that television’s real attraction is not its programs, but the discussions they inspire.


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21 Responses to “ Watching Twitter on TV ”

  1. Derek Kompare on February 25, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    Great post, Max. I’m ruminating on how my new set has changed my viewing as well, and it does have several widgets. I’ve only used the weather and YouTube apps thus far; the latter is interesting in that has extended our TV viewing into YouTube browsing, on the same screen (though the interface is not as smooth as keyboard and mouse). I haven’t yet tried the Twitter widget, but only because it would annoy the hell out of my SO if I did! So what in your view (and maybe mine) is an enhancement to viewing, in hers is an abomination, an obstacle to viewing. Which is more or less the theme of the post I’m writing…

    • Max Dawson on February 25, 2010 at 2:10 PM

      Thanks for your feedback, Derek. Your comments highlight something that I regret not addressing in my post: specifically, that watching live TV with distant colleagues via Twitter can mean paying a lot less attention to the person or people who are sitting right there on the couch next to us! That said, the on-screen Twitter widgets promise to make TV multitasking a more communal experience, as opposed to the solitary one many of us engage in front of our laptops. Expose your partner to one night of @crsbecker live-tweeting the winter Olympics and let me know if the attitude in your household doesn’t change toward “enhanced” TV!

      • Christine Becker on February 25, 2010 at 4:43 PM

        Thanks for the shout-out , Max. 🙂

        I live apart from my spouse right now, and I do wonder how my tvitter life (yes, I’ve attempted to coin a new word: to tvitter, to watch TV while twittering) would be different were that not the case, since I have no one else to talk to while I’m watching TV. Of course, he doesn’t watch nearly as much TV as I do, so I’ll probably still be inclined to tvitter when we’re back in the same home again anyway. Which will be funny: sorry, hon, I know we’ve been apart for years, but I totally have this funny thing to say about what’s on TV right now, so just leave me alone please.

  2. Chuck Tryon on February 25, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    I noticed a version of this return to liveness during some of the 2008 presidential campaign when I would live-tweet Obama’s DNC speech alongside all of my friends or during presidential debates or even the election night itself. I also witnessed (and participated in) this phenomenon during some of the recent Oscars ceremonies.

    Obviously these are marked off as “special” events, but I think it makes sense that some version of live-tweeting would make its way into broadcast television, especially for shows that encourage discussion or reward close viewing.

    • Max Dawson on February 25, 2010 at 2:19 PM

      Chuck, you’re definitely on to something here. That said, in my experience I’ve found that during shows that “reward close viewing” my Twitter feed slows down to a halt. Immediately after these shows finish is a different story altogether: at 10 pm EST on Tuesdays my feed is inundated with links to lengthy Lost recaps! So far, the most Twitter activity (and the most entertaining Twitter activity) seems to coincide with programs that don’t make particularly strong demands on their audiences’ attention – specifically, uneventful “event tv” like the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, the Golden Globes, etc. On these occasions, Twitter becomes something of a live, text-based version of Mystery Science Theater 3000!

  3. Myles McNutt on February 25, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    Obviously, as a fairly substantial contributor to these types of discussions, I love the critic/scholar/student/fan dialogue that Twitter creates about television.

    However, I’m also way too spoiler-wary to be an outright advocate of them within the Primetime corridor. I get that there is value to having these discussions while episodes are airing, but if I don’t get to Survivor in time and yet still want to be able to use Twitter for its various other functions, I find myself having particular moments ruined by people who are live-tweeting – as Max may well have noticed, I actually had to unfollow him briefly for a period last Thursday, as I was watching the Olympics live and letting Survivor buffer for a while. The problem was that I wanted to follow the ongoing Olympics conversation, but I didn’t want to follow the Survivor conversation, and the nature of Twitter is that we can’t (easily – there are mute functions in certain clients) filter out conversations we don’t want.

    I think there’s a lot of value to Twitter in terms of “event” programming: award shows are far more tolerable, the Olympics have been improved, and the Super Bowl commercial responses were immediate while remaining clever. However, for “Television” in its narrative form, I find Twitter a distraction while watching it, useful after the fact instead to talk with Todd, or Mo, or Alan, or Dan, or Jace, or James, or Jason, or Max, or anyone else about what we watched the night before, what it means, and what tidbits and conversations didn’t quite make it into individual reviews or comments on those reviews or anywhere else.

    As Max points out, there’s a great point to be made about how these conversations create some fascinating ideas that get taken in a lot of exciting directions. I remember a particularly enjoyable (and lengthy) conversation with a collection of critics one night, and I commented that “where else but Twitter could we have a conversation like this?” And, I think it was James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) who answered “a bar,” which is both very true and very telling; I don’t know about anyone else, but I wouldn’t want to watch a television show while in a bar, and so I don’t tend to watch narrative-based television while tweeting either.

    But then again, I’m furiously taking notes to write reviews, so I may not be the best sample.

    [As for Widget TVs, I’m laptop dependent, and don’t expect that to change anytime soon.]

    • Anne Helen Petersen on February 25, 2010 at 3:10 PM

      The intermingling with critics is a real attraction here — one that both you and Max bring up. I love eavesdropping (eavesTwittering?) on the conversations between you and various TV critics; I also love that Dana Stevens and Anne Thompson Tweet back to me. It’s like having the golden light of authenticated criticism shine on you and your thoughts — it’s an ego boost, and makes us feel part of the conversation.

      As I think about it, it’s breaking down the gap that’s long separated ‘popular’ and ‘academic’ criticism — which is pretty fantastic.

    • Max Dawson on February 25, 2010 at 3:52 PM

      Ha! Myles, I was wondering why you unfollowed me last week! I thought it might have something to do with my endless complaining about the current season of Lost!

      All joking aside, as Anne points out, the dialogue that is taking place on Twitter between academics, press critics, grad students, and people who like Myles and Cory Barker (@corybarker) straddle these distinctions, is doing a tremendous job of closing the gap between academic and popular tv criticism. From my perspective, this dialogue is far more interesting and productive than the crossover academic tv criticism titles that have been flooding the market in the last few years. Is it too soon to start looking forward to an SCMS workshop session next year featuring critics from both fields? Maybe not!

      • Anne Helen Petersen on February 25, 2010 at 3:56 PM

        You know, we tried *really* hard to make this happen at the Flow Conference in 2008, but to no avail. Maybe the fact that so many of us are more conversant with such critics would encourage them to actually attend? Even without big stipends? Maybe, just maybe?

        • Jason Mittell on February 26, 2010 at 8:06 AM

          I think there’s a better chance for such invites to work now – I certainly feel the journalist/academic critical barrier is much more fluid today than 2 years ago, mostly due to the Twitter. So try again this Flow & enlist help of the tvitterati!

      • Cory Barker on February 25, 2010 at 7:01 PM

        Oh! Thanks for the shout out Max.

        As someone who is trying to break into the field, I’ll be honest that there are only a few things that excite me more than getting an @reply from people I admire or read on a daily basis. When I did a post recently that was RT’ed by Christine, then mentioned by Myles AND then by Max, it was just a glorious day for me. And without Twitter, I don’t think that could happen. Sure, I’ve taken a class with Max and so we could trade e-mails, but I wouldn’t be able to get to the attention of people like Myles unless I pestered him with comments or personal e-mails.

        As Myles suggested, it is interesting how the want to follow Twitter during a program is based on a relationship with spoilers. For me, last night’s Idol was great to watch with Twitter — because it was so bad that I just had to see what people like Dan Fienberg were saying. But if it’s Lost, I actually shut my computer off to completely avoid the temptation and when I open it again to write my recap, I avoid starting TweetDeck because I don’t want to be influenced by others’ opinions until I’m finished. But then I can’t stop looking at tweets from Myles, Mo Ryan, Sepinwall or even the now-ambivalent Max. Just like this discussion here, I’m just glad to be involved.

    • Erin Meyers on February 26, 2010 at 9:06 AM

      I think the spoiler factor of live tweeting is relevant to re-thinking how online fandom itself works. But more than simply having a time shifted show spoiled, do those fans that can’t/don’t watch a show in real time lose the chance to comment on it?

      I’m not a Twitter user, but I think this is relevant to other online fan spaces, like blogs. On nights when I time shift Lost or Project Runway, I then avoid reading about them on various blogs. But if I don’t get to them for a couple of days, the chance to participate in the discussion seems pretty diminished, depending on the blog. So many comments have already been posted and, particularly on blogs that are not solely focused on those shows, others are no longer actively participating in conversation (or likely even reading what is contributed 3 days after the original post). I certainly still enjoy reading updates, recaps, and commentary days later, but that’s not quite the same as participating in the discussion of the shows on various blogs.

      Does this create a sort of hierarchy of online fandom? Sure, anyone can participate in there various online discussions, but seems the window for active discussion is somewhat limited. I think Anne’s comment below about time zone issues is relevant here as well.

      • Derek Kompare on February 26, 2010 at 11:58 AM

        That’s been my experience as well, for quite some time. While one can certainly “do” fandom at almost any speed and intensity, it’s very difficult to engage in real-time or immediately after the fact discussion if you’re watching in real time. We’ve used a DVR since 2001 (I think we’re on our fifth or so by now), and rarely watch anything live, including sports!

        My experience with Doctor Who is indicative of this. One of the great ironies of the show’s successful resurgence since 2005 for me has been how I’ve retreated out of active fandom simply because I cannot keep up with it. True, because of, um, certain software applications, I can obtain the episodes within hours of their UK broadcast. However, more often than not, I don’t get around to watching it for a day or two. I’m now in the habit of steering well clear of my old fan haunts in order to avoid getting spoiled (technically, after-the-broadcast discussions are not “spoilers,” but they are on a personal level if you haven’t yet seen the episode). I miss talking about it online, but I don’t miss the disruptions it would cause to my life. It’s kind of like how I still love indie pop, but no longer pay any attention to shows or release dates; 2007ish is still new enough to me!

        Oddly, I’ve found it more satisfying to participate in online TV fandom *between* seasons, where we’re all (more or less) on the same schedule, and can ruminate more broadly. Again, lots of ways to “do” fandom; YMMV, though I wonder if we (as in academics) are validating/defaulting too often to “real-time” fandom in our assumptions about media engagement?

  4. Anne Helen Petersen on February 25, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    I, too, have found myself appointment viewing so as to participate in the live-Tweeting…but I also very frequently feel left out of the club, as I live in the PST and everyone’s gone to bed by the time I get to the show. (Think about it: for whatever reason, most of the people that make up the SCMS Television Studies Interest Group Twitter Club live in either EST or CST….) Just imagine if I lived in MST! The horror!

    What I’m really trying to say is that the illusion of mass audience and mass tweeting is still necessarily segmented by time zoning and the fact that very few events — the Globes, the Oscars, the Super Bowl amongst them — are actually broadcast live. (It’s no coincidence that those were the most fun ‘live-tweeting’ events in which I’ve participated). I think that the Twitter component might influence how producers decide to tape-delay (the Grammy’s, for instance, was only live on the East Coast, and tape delayed elsewhere, resulting in staggered and far less unified Tweeting) but I’d be curious to see if the use of Twitter widgets takes off in time zones in which many others (including critics, amateur and professional) will be watching as well, but has a much slower adoption rate in MST, Alaska, Hawaii, etc.

    • Noel on February 25, 2010 at 6:29 PM

      Take a step further: Twitter’s about a global, public conversation from all walks of life. I have a Brit or two who follow me, and they tend to avoid Twitter for a day or so because they don’t want things spoiled. And it’ll work vice versa because I’ll have to avoid them due to the Doctor Who two week lag time (which is still significantly shorter than it takes many US shows to arrive overseas!)

  5. Jason Mittell on February 26, 2010 at 8:02 AM

    Great post & conversation (and a reminder that such conversations can exceed 140 characters!). I am wondering about the potential limits of TV screens though – even with larger & higher-def screens, the cultural norm is that television is a “full screen” form, not a windowed app. Maybe it’s my old-school medium specificity, but I cannot imagine watching TV on my TV in a window with other apps running, as I do on my laptop. If such practice takes hold, I think it will create a need for some furniture/room design adjustments, as the proximity needed for full-screen viewing and tvittering seems quite different. But as of now, the dual screen model – which resembles the older tech practice of talking on the phone while watching TV – seems much more “normal” within our media environment.

    • Max Dawson on February 26, 2010 at 11:35 PM

      Jason, you’ve raised some interesting questions about screen specificity and real estate. I’d imagine viewers of different generations will have very different takes on these matters. On the one hand, I’m tempted to say that people who grew up watching TV on laptops and computer monitors (i.e., our students) wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing full screen TV for the opportunity to keep multiple widgets running while they watch. (Heck, even old timers like us are pretty comfortable with fractured TV screens from watching CNN, ESPN, The Weather Channel, etc. Drama is another story, though…) On the other hand, I’m equally tempted to imagine that these same viewers would regard TV widgets as a sorry substitute for the sort of windowed multitasking that computers perform so elegantly. At least until TV input devices (remote controls) become more full featured (or until we start using our smart phones or tablets to control our sets), I can’t imagine heavy Internet users trading their laptops for web-connected, widget-equipped TVs…

      All this makes me think that Pew could have added a question to their millennials quiz about screen/medium specificity and television. Perhaps something along the lines of:

      Do you primarily watch tv on a

      a) TV
      b) PC or laptop
      c) what is this “TV” of which you speak?

  6. Mark Stewart on March 1, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    A short, and not completely thought through comment…

    I find this whole concept fascinating, but feel that it raises a significant issue around location. It has to be remembered that a huge number of people (media and TV scholars included) live outside of North America, and as such, have no way of participating in such a discussion without being spoiled. Even those of us who manage to catch up fairly soon, through various nefarious means, still often find that discussion has lulled. Whilst the digital nature of entertainment has shrunk the gaps between the US and the rest of the world (New Zealand is getting Lost about a week later at the moment), the ability for pseudo-real-time communication has meant that these discussions are also well out of reach. The transient nature of Twitter means that those moments which don’t become blog posts are lost to us for ever.

    My only consolation comes from having watched 5 seasons of Outrageous Fortune before Scoundrels has hit the air…

  7. The Chutry Experiment » Anticipating Oscar on March 5, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    […] But the Oscars are also fun because they invite the same water-cooler discussions associated with other forms of “event TV,” such as the Super Bowl and, to a lesser extent, the Emmys and Golden Globes, an issue addressed in Sheila Seles’ Convergence Culture Consortium blog post.  Like her, I enjoy live-blogging (or, more likely in our evolved social media climate, live-tweeting) the Oscars and sharing my fascination about the awards with others.  Seles mentions in passing a New York Times article that reports that many of these TV event shows have been receiving record ratings.  This past Super Bowl even surpassed the final episode of M*A*S*H for total number of viewers, a fact that would likely bother me slightly if I wasn’t a huge Drew Brees fan.  The New York Times article attributes this reversal–TV ratings for top shows have been declining for some time–to the “water-cooler effect” associated with social media tools like Twitter, a phenomenon echoed in Max Dawson’s discussion of “watching Twitter on TV.” […]

  8. The Chutry Experiment » Oscar Wrap on March 8, 2010 at 11:37 AM

    […] guessing that even with a large volume of Oscar tweets, the percentage of people who were “watching Twitter on TV” was probably relatively small, at least compared to the vast “silent majority” […]

  9. […] watch their friends’ reactions to on-screen events in real time. A number of televisions are shipping with this functionality on-board as well. And finally,  Google TV promises to bring the social […]