Tweeting The Tube: Low-Res Joy In An HD Era

In the shadow of last week's CES conference, where techies touted the 4K TV screen without a hint of embarrassment or irony, it is well to appreciate a simple aspect of mobile media. In many ways, it is ultra-high tech serving up media experiences that are regressive and low-res of the sort we still want.

Considering how many “social TV” apps rely so heavily on Twitter for their content, you have to wonder why the micro-blog itself isn't getting more aggressively into the second-screen game. Twitter may be leaning in that direction with the company’s release of its TV Book. The report is based on analysis of UK TV and Twitter interactions and offers programmers and marketers advice on maximizing this channel. The company claims that during prime TV viewing hours 40% of tweets concern TV topics. The UK has about 10 million people on the social network, and 60% of them tend to use it while watching TV. And just in case there is any doubt left that Twitter is a predominantly device-based medium, 80% access the service via mobile devices.

In fact, for advertisers the most important takeaway is that all ads are tweeted. A holiday ad for grocer Morrisons generated over a thousand tweets without any promotion or callout in the TV spot itself. Twitter, however, claims the reach of those posts was over half a million. Hashtag integration in the ad has an obvious effect of raising those base mentions to 7,500 in one campaign. Add to that mix a Twitter purchase of a Promoted Trend and the tweets escalate to 15,100.

When it comes to the tweet habits of viewers, genre is everything and specific types of content seem to spark reactions. For a fact-based program with debate and reporting user tweets tended to spike around places that one might expect, the most striking revelations and events. Apparently, the spikes in tweeting may prove fairly predictable over time. In two separate showings of the film “Taken,” for instance, there was a huge spike at exactly the same point in the timeline. This suggests that there are some reliable triggers that programmers and advertisers could generalize over time in order to anticipate when, why and over what people will be engaging with their second screens.   

For a drama show (“Homeland” and “Downton Abbey”), advertisers and second-screen programmer may not want to bother vying for attention during the action itself. For both programs, user interactivity hit high spikes right before and right after the program itself, with a deep valley of only fractional interactivity between.

Predictably, commercial breaks are the natural points at which people discuss what just went on, and so we seek radical spikes during ad pods. In one sample series, Twitter observed that the TV viewing audience actually increased during the viewing hours as did the Twitter spikes during breaks. They suggest that online chatter helped spur tune-ins.

Twitter has so many natural affinities to social TV it is easy to forget its inherent weaknesses. What could be better than limiting a fellow viewer’s comments to 140 characters? And the hashtag, of course, makes easy work of assembling audiences at scale -- but very differently from TV itself. But there is also good reason why social TV apps are a necessary vehicle for many of us. Finding the right hashtag in a hurry is not always easy. The torrent produced by the hashtag is unwieldy and filled with an audience you would just as soon not watch with.  

Twitter and TV is one of those great unanticipated pairings of a technology with an impulse. One of the cool aspects of mobile platforms is how they keep serving up relatively low-res experiences that satisfy us in an age when so much effort is spent chasing hi-res. SMS was never meant for P2P communication at scale. And yet it becomes the early powerhouse in mobile in part because it is so truncated. Messaging on a numeric keypad was an incredible kind of torture that should have dissuaded any coddled remote-control-spoiled consumer from using long before the character limit struck them as antediluvian. But, as my daughter explained to me years ago, it beats actually having to talk to the person.

In an age of CD-quality digital audio and surround sound, what could be more regressive than a ringtone? And yet for years, this was the leading revenue source for mobile content, precisely because those crappy notes provided an invaluable service to millions of users -- personalization.  

Despite the fact that smartphone OEMs vie to pack in ever more pixels in the camera to rival dedicated digi-cams, look at how phone cams have revived both the importance and the aesthetic of the old snapshot. Instagram’s retro filters just productized a spirit that most of us already embraced: personal photography is about capturing moments, not nose hairs. There is a part of mobile media, from its diminutive screen size to lousy voice quality to stripped-down Web sites, that underscores how technology serves task -- that good enough often is best.   

And so Twitter, for all of its ham-handedness and short text format, is exactly the low-res TV accompaniment that many people like and tolerate in the living room. Low-res, but real-time, this back channel of human conversation is the antithesis of the over-produced, often manipulative but dazzling content of modern TV. Better yet, it not only lets in conversation, it modulates it. Or, to reiterate my daughter’s point about the value of SMS -- we want to hear (briefly) what all of these people think about what we are watching. But it is not as if we want to talk with any of them.  

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