The Two Faces Of Social TV

To this casual observer of the Internet, two very strong and divergent trends are locked in a Manichean struggle, played out endlessly through a series of technological accomplishments pulling against each other. For simplicity let's call them the individual and the crowd.

At the recent UBS Media Conference, Glenn Britt, the CEO of Time Warner Cable, envisioned a world of the four "Anys" -- any content, any device, anytime and anyplace. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, for whoever imagined walking around with any book, on any device, any place at anytime? However, the dream not only appears to be technologically feasible, it strikes a chord among the long-tailed, proudly individualistic, Tivo-buying glitterati. Obsessed with choice, they relish in their dissatisfaction of the tyranny of the majority.  In college, I remember they smoked clove cigarettes and listened to Stockhausen.  I think these behaviors come from a desire to unfetter from the mainstream and hence watch those things normally not available, at odd times on any device - Personally I think the device part goes a little far. Would we imagine watching "Citizen Kane" on a bagel slicer?

The Web presents an opportunity and a challenge for this individualistic type of behavior. First, the capacity of the technology to present so wide a variety of content choices, regardless of whether that makes sense, reduces the physical and discovery barriers to finding and identifying content.  What's interesting to determine is whether "obscure" -- a word I relished when I was young as an identity card to a sovereign intellectual society  -- can still prosper on the Web. Even Karl Heinz Stockhausen makes the blips on Google trends, and Yelp can out the tiniest bistro in Brooklyn.

What of the crowd?

Elias Canetti, in his towering book "Crowds and Power," describes growth as one of the four fundamental aspects of a crowd. "As soon as it exists at all, it wants to consist of more people: the urge to grow is the first and supreme attribute of the crowd. It wants to seize everyone within reach... the open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as it stops growing."

All around the Internet, the mechanisms to grow crowds on scales Canetti couldn't imagine are prospering as they tap into our instinctual urge to be part of that surging, growing crowd. And whether those crowds manifest themselves in physical locations, such as the recent Twitter Snowball fight in Washington D.C., or online, like the giant chat room that accompanied CNN's live video coverage of election night, they tap into the same underlying phenomena. Sharing, comparing, joining, tweeting, whether obscure, or widely popular, we all seek to form and join crowds and demonstrate why the audience is often as important as the content.

For Canetti, crowds mostly required a physical circumstance to embody the moment when our fear of being touched transforms into the opposite, and when the behavior that marks us as individual melts away into an anonymous, indistinguishable surge that seeks the physical density of bodies packed together. Much of our consumption in theaters, and concerts, on booklists and movie openings has become formalized into crowd rituals.

For Social TV, the question becomes whether the various widgets, gadgets, and devices now at our fingertips will have the same transformative capacity  that being packed together in a sweaty club does, and whether that pull will be enough to keep us together.  It's either that or watching "Avatar" on your bagel slicer alone, in the middle of the day, in a motel room anywhere.

6 comments about "The Two Faces Of Social TV ".
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  1. Craig Leaming from Strategic America, December 29, 2009 at 3:13 p.m.

    Social TV can only trigger primal and learned instincs. They cause you to want more and provide a map for obtaining them. The problem rests in the fact that information alone can never bring you full circle and complete an experience. We stand in the information age and information can only activate a couple of our senses. If you figure out how to activate all the senses then you will bring and hold a crowd. Until then the crowd will always move to something new and on again to something newer. The group will alwys be left wanting more and not quite as satisfied with the experience as the last time. Social TV has become a weight supporting pillar, but can not stand alone. Social TV needs the pre-existing foundation that brouhgt it into existance.

  2. Cody Crane from CCH, December 29, 2009 at 4:27 p.m.

    From The Financial Times - an interesting corresponding thought:

    ...But the most paradoxical polarity to have opened up in the past 10 years may not be between anarchy and authority so much as between solipsism and community; between the iPod with its headphoned sovereignty of Me Alone and its apparent opposite: hunger for networking; the need for faces that are not just Facebook friends. A half century ago the US sociologist David Riesman wrote a powerful treatise on modern alienation called The Loneliness of Crowds. Robert Putnam, one of his successors at Harvard University, came to an even gloomier diagnosis about the collapse of community in Bowling Alone.

    But the history of the pioneering age of cyberspace has also been marked by a desperation to hook up, across the digital ether but also in physical spaces. Wherever you look – from theatres, concerts and festivals (not made redundant by podcasting) to live political rallies, football grounds and markets thronged with shoppers, the necessity of each other’s company has not quite vanished from the earth. The prospect of “The Cloud” ordaining what kind of person we are from our cyberchoices and marketing that profile to anyone who ponies up may – if we are lucky – spur a whole new generation of cyber-Thoreaus and Orwells who find a way to “Get Off Their Cloud”.

    Certainly, some spontaneous digital collaborations can be dangerously unguarded. Quis custodiet Wikipedia? If the liberation of the archive into democratic user-space has been a true Gutenberg moment, it is also a promiscuous and indiscriminate opening. The evil of falsehood can claim as much purchase on the credulous as the good of truth. But if I wanted to point to a brighter future (and I do) I would invoke the solidarity of the very brave – in the streets of Tehran for example, taking to the rooftops to signal their resolution when repression shuts down their cell phones and thuggery beats their bodies. The survival of the unauthorised community may yet be the first tolling of the bell for the ayatollahs.

    Simon Schama in the Financial Times

  3. Pooky Amsterdam from PookyMedia, December 30, 2009 at 12:48 p.m.

    "Sit back & Relax" has beome "Lean forward & Engage"
    and to me this means having the audience participate along with the show. I produce two weekly shows which "broadcast" over the Internet. One a weekly science show, The 1st Question"
    & one a dating Show, "The Dating Casino." It is virtual reality TV.
    And for all the right reasons the future of TV certainly Social TV. Even though the graphics engine might have some limitations it is incredible content.
    I do them live, and they have that remarkable feel that this is The Golden Age of The Internet. Live TV is incredibly compelling, people are at the tips of their fingers and edge of their seats. Producing game shows which the avatar based audience plays along with also means I can add a sponsor, enable a chatbridge and represent the product during the show. No pre roll, mid roll or end roll to miss - the product is in the show itself. The host, like Arthur Godfrey represents the brand, selling it with their belief and use of it.
    PookyMedia develops branded shows, series and more using the very cost effective 3D virtual platform of Second Life. It is incredibly rich an application and one which is so rich socially as well.
    The human model is still version 1.0, and responds to that which has meaning. Using real time Social TV engages and entertains. It can also educate and enthuse.

  4. Sefy Ariely from Orca Interactive, December 31, 2009 at 2:10 a.m.

    The more personalized (i.e. lonely) and unique the experience, the stronger the urge to share it afterwards. It is of no surprise (should it be?) that, with the propensity of the Internet for highly individual experience and learning, we are also witnessing an incredible outpouring of sharing. As the old philosophical question on a tree in the forest making a sound might be phrased today, "If I just discovered something on the web, and I don't BLOG it, is it still amazing?"
    As Social Networking on the web goes, so will Social TV; the more Personal the TV experience gets, the more there is to share with my friends. The flip side to that is that the more I share my TV experience with MY friends, the more Personalized it becomes. This leads me to believe that the Social and Personal aspects are actually not divergent, but rather that together they create a Constructive Interference.

  5. David H. Deans, December 31, 2009 at 3:02 p.m.

    Seth, perhaps the struggle that's more indicative of the transformation to Social TV is the decline of the legacy TV era -- with its inherently closed-market content scarcity model, an the evolving open-market of abundant IP Video that's available via the public Internet.

    The notion of a "mass-market" news and entertainment business model was always predicated upon the assumption that a few powerful big-media barons could use restraint-of-trade business practices to limit consumer choice. Thus, what was deemed "popular" content was always at risk, if and when open-market competition was enabled.

    Clearly, when people are free to select and aggregate content from a truly open-market, then the artificial closed-market must lose its mass -- mostly due to the audience fragmentation that occurs from that previously unfulfilled pent-up demand for alternatives.

    Now, when you add consumers sharing those niche content discoveries, and finding members of that same topic "community of interest" online from around the world, then it will likely further accelerate the increase of media fragmentation scenarios.

    BTW, for the low-cost high-quality content producer that could only dream of the day when they could aggregate their globally dispersed audience, this evolution to the open-market model is wonderful progress. Video content supply can finally be introduced to the real unfettered demand that has been dormant for the past 50+ years.

  6. Alan Schulman from SapientNitro, January 13, 2010 at 11:06 a.m.

    For the same reason people rave about seeing the Stones in smaller venues like the Roseland versus Shea Stadium, the obscurist ego seeks both the need for exclusivity while having some privileged connection to the tyranny of the masses as you call it - but I wonder if it's a social TV dilema, or just an increasing desire for instant gratification - the kind your kids expect when they press any button without wanting to read the instructions first... Great post.

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