Moving PC experiences to the TV screen makes sense. Nearly 60% of TV viewers now go online at least once a month while watching TV. Meanwhile, sales of Internet-enabled TV sets are expected to grow 125% this year.
Moreover, when Facebook is more popular than Google, Twitter defines itself as a "source of news," and YouTube daily views are double that of all three U.S. prime-time networks combined, social networks are the perfect way for users to find the content they want, when they want it -- whether that's information or entertainment.
But can social networks satisfy users' needs on the TV just as well as on the PC?
Aside from the fact that making use of these services with the average TV remote is awkward, it's not clear that social networks, presented as is, can help users with the most basic TV challenge they face: What to watch?
The question is: how well do your social networks understand your tastes? I didn't choose my friends based on their TV-watching habits, so we have diverse preferences and (most) often disagree.
As for the Facebook connections I've picked up over the years, I don't have any idea what most of them enjoy watching. If everyone checked into the TV show they're watching now, the resulting recommendations stream would be noisy and utterly unrelated to what I like. Is would be no better than channel surfing in hopes of finding something appealing to watch.
Moreover, most unfiltered social conversation is about popular, short-tail content. That's why "Inception" and "The Last Airbender" were recent "trending" topics on Twitter. But recommendations of what to watch also expose users to lesser-known content.
In short, there are significant limitations to what social networks, unaltered, can accomplish in matching people with entertainment they'll enjoy, based on their current moods and personal tastes. Yet these social connections can play a key role in personalizing the TV experience -- if they're leveraged in a way that fits the needs of the context. I see two main applications:
A TV-oriented version of social recommendations might combine social networks with algorithms. The system would identify "neighbors," or people who share some of the user's entertainment preferences - whether or not they're connected on Facebook. The user could then receive recommendations of new shows via the viewing choices and content ratings of these "neighbors." In this case, the social network provides data that, once interpreted to meet the needs of the situation, can generate highly relevant social recommendations for the TV.
Social networks are also ideal for creating a social context for TV viewing. A social TV experience might show the user which of his/her coworkers is also watching Mad Men. S/he could then ask them what they think of the episode, either in the moment or the next day. This is about satisfying the communal aspect of entertainment -- the desire to discuss and commiserate about what we watch -- and social networks are perfectly suited to this.
Social networks can and should be an integral aspect of social TV. But their role needs to be rethought and reconfigured to suit the platform and context.