Social vs Communal – or why TV makers are wasting time with Twitter

This morning, fellow journo Steve May tweeted about the new range of Sony TV sets; one of the things he asked about was Sony’s new transparent Twitter bar:

I honestly can’t say that I’m a great fan either, and as I said, I think Twitter is very much something people want on a second screen, like a tablet or their mobile phone, rather than on the main screen. The TV companies seem to think because Twitter is popular, and people use it a lot when watching TV, then since their sets have internet connectivity, they should build it in. And honestly, I think they’re really missing the point. What they’re trying to do is to turn a social experience into a communal one. Very often those are different things.

So, I thought I’d try and set down my thoughts on why. This isn’t specifically aimed at Sony; other TV makers have tried to do Twitter too, with some bizarre results – Panasonic’s 2011 Twitter implementation was full screen, so you couldn’t watch a program at the same time!

At least in that respect, the new Sony overlay is an improvement. But what if you’re watching a programme that has subtitles, or a ticker at the bottom of the screen? Perhaps you can move it, I don’t know; but it’s certainly going to be irksome. And unless Sony has figured out a way of composing a tweet easily, that problem too remains to be solved.

I don’t know, either, if you are forced to have your whole timeline scrolling past, or if you can select a specific hash tag to follow – without that, a lot of people will find this pretty annoying. Not just because you won’t be able to focus on the tweets specific to the programme you’re watching, but because you might end up with something spoiled too; what if you’re recording something on another channel, and you don’t want to see twitter spoilers? You might be out of luck.

But for me, I think the biggest problem is this confusion of social and communal. Yes, of course there are a lot of single person households, and they won’t face this issue as much, but a lot of people do still watch TV in groups. Even single people have been known to have parties for the Eurovision Song Contest.

And will everyone watching at the same time want the distraction of an on-screen twitter feed?

In my experience (perhaps I’m just weird), I very probably won’t want someone watching while I laboriously compose a message using the TV remote. I’d far rather my witty repartee appears, fully formed, so that everyone can smile in wry amusement at the same time. Using the TV to do that is a bit like having to stand at a blackboard and write your joke out laboriously, hoping that some smart-alec at the back isn’t going to shout out the punchline before you finish.

I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only person who may have more than one twitter account, used for different things. In my case, one of them is definitely smuttier than the other, but I might well be using both at the same time. The lewder comments about hotties in the song contest will go to one account, the more innocent to another. And just because I’m in the same room as someone doesn’t necessarily mean that I want them to see everything that I view on twitter.

Putting the feed on the screen like this is like putting it up on a noticeboard; everyone can read it. They can see whom you follow, or interact with. And yes, unless you have a private account, they could go on the web and do the same – but they’d have to make a conscious effort, and they probably won’t actually bother, because they have better things to do.

On the TV, though? The fact you’ve just interacted with a porn star is floating past, right in front of their eyes. It may be a perfectly innocent comment about the Bulgarian entry, but even so… Some things might not be secrets, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re things you choose to share with everyone in your living room.

Your phone or tablet can manage all this much better; you can easily switch between accounts, follow hash tags, mute particular topics, and tailor the experience in ways that a TV simply isn’t going to offer, unless the interface becomes even more complex. There’s certainly a place for social media in TV – but it’s really about people interacting about or with the shows. Not about using the TV screen to replace your phone or tablet, when it’s already busy with showing you the programme.

Social media isn’t, generally, a private experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a wholly public one, either. It seems to me that by putting it on the TV screen, and making it communal, TV makers are just showing they don’t really understand the difference.

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