At a time when there are more televisions than people in the United States, one of the loneliest things you can do is watch TV. There was a time, long ago and far away, when the entire family would gather around the communal television to tune in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But now, with TV sets in almost every room, people today generally watch TV alone.
There is, however, an antidote to the feelings of anomie that sometimes arise from the solitary TV experience: live-tweeting. This is the practice of using Twitter to comment on events in real time while simultaneously checking to see what other people around the country are saying about the same thing, usually under a commonly agreed upon hash tag (e.g., “#idol” or “iowadebate.”) It’s like the old-fashioned chat room on steroids, and it helps you feel part of a wider, wittier community.
There’s a reason they call Twitter and Facebook “social media.” These platforms help us use the computer to achieve the personal connections that are increasingly elusive in today’s fragmented world. Maybe it’s sad that we’re using Twitter to forge relationships that we can’t make in real life, but sometimes artificial connections are better than no connections at all. (And if you want to follow me, I’m at @garyholmes.)
I don’t want to overstate the quality of live-tweeting. The Twitter feed is usually just a gush of comments that are nearly impossible to keep up with. You can quickly scan 50 or so at a time to get a gist of what people are saying -- and, frankly, most are mundane and some are stupid. But the few that are witty and insightful can add to your understanding and enjoyment of what you are following.
When live-tweeting TV shows yourself, it’s much better to do so while watching the show “live” (i.e., not time-shifted). If you’re even a minute behind the live action, your tweets are out of date, making you seem like the social goofball who comes up with the snappy retort several minutes after the rest of the group has moved on to another topic. (This is part of the reason West Coast viewers protested decision to tape-delay the Grammys Sunday night; any West Coaster who glimpsed Twitter or Facebook while the show was being broadcast in the East would have been tipped off to the winners.)
Although you can live-tweet almost any TV show, the best genres are live events you wouldn’t want to timeshift anyway, including sporting events, award shows, political debates, election returns, royal weddings, hurricanes, celebrity trials, beauty pageants, and Presidential funerals.
It is my own personal opinion, based on no scientific evidence, that the cleverest live-tweeting occurs during political reporting (as in this tweet when the results of the Florida primary were rolling in: “BREAKING: sources in florida tell me Morty Seinfeld will win the Del Boca Vista condo board elections #flprimary.”)
Conversely, the lamest live-tweeting seems to be during sporting events (although baseball tweeters are better than football tweeters.) Falling someplace in between is live-tweeting on award shows.
Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but I find that the less engaged I am with a program, the more likely I am to tweet about it. That’s because sports, news, award shows and other live events have blathering commentary, so I don’t feel like I’m missing anything if I turn to Twitter. But during a great drama or comedy, I am usually too absorbed in the show to do anything other than watch the TV set. I can’t imagine myself tweeting during “Mad Men,” for example, except possibly during a commercial.
In this regard, the norms of live-tweeting are a lot like watching TV with your friends. It’s OK to shout out witticisms and wisecracks during sporting events and political debates, but during an intense scripted show you don’t want the distractions.
This engagement conundrum illustrates the problem with using Twitter for any kind of audience measurement: Twitter might work fine as giant focus group, but the total number of tweets doesn’t necessarily correspond to viewing levels or even levels of engagement. Twitter skews in favor of live programming and against shows that are heavily DVR’d. Shows with the same number of viewers can have vastly different tweets.
Then there’s the fact that a great deal of live-tweeting occurs during commercials -- how do advertisers feel about that? Do a lot of tweets reflect greater or weaker involvement with advertising?
Twitter may or may not have utility as an analytical tool, but it has clearly shown its usefulness as a social tool. Looking ahead to the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, I have not been invited to any Oscar parties. In years past, I might have felt sorry for myself, but now I am almost relieved – I’ve got my tweeps to keep me company.