Social TV and Togetherness

Matthew JohnsonIs technology drawing us closer together, or pulling us apart? When it comes to TV and digital media, the answer may well be "yes" to both.

There's no doubt that media technology has changed our lives. You could, of course, track this effect back to the printing press, which made it possible for formerly public activities like storytelling to be done in private, but the mass media technologies of the 20th century such as the radio, television and the Internet changed things much more quickly, and on a much larger scale. Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, argues that those communications technologies changed our society from one that was largely outward-focused, in which most people put a fair amount of their time and energy into their communities, to one more heavily focused on the individual. In that book Putnam looks at declines in many different elements of community activity, from voting to church attendance to club membership, but his signature argument is the one from which he draws his title: though at the time of writing more Americans were bowling than twenty years before, fewer of them were doing so in organized leagues This leads Putnam to conclude that our ideas of how we spend our time have changed from a focus on the communal to on the individual.

A more recent book that takes a similar view is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together. Turkle was a pioneer in writing about how we interact with digital technology, and her earlier works were more sympathetic than many to the idea of using digital media to communicate. By the time she came to write Alone Together, however, Turkle's views (and perhaps technology as well) had changed to the point that she now sees digital media more as an isolating influence. Unlike Putnam, she feels this is not because we are becoming more focused on ourselves but because the ways in which we communicate using digital technology replace more meaningful interactions. Her key examples are the preference she records among the teenagers she interviewed for texting over voice calls and for spending time on crafting a Facebook profile rather than spending time face-to-face with their friends. But digital technology has also taken many solitary pursuits and made them more social. A particularly interesting example of this is how the technologies that concern Turkle are changing how we use the technologies that worried Putnam, by making them a more social, communal experience.

There have always been social aspects to mass media: in the early days of television a sufficiently large number of people watched the top shows that they were reliable topics of "water cooler talk" the following day. As the networks' offerings grew, however -- and, in particular, with the explosion of cable channels beginning in the 1980s -- people's viewing habits grew more varied, with those sorts of communal viewing events growing fewer and farther between, and there was no longer any certainty that your family or co-workers were watching the same shows as you.

Today those water cooler conversations are happening again, through digital media. Not surprisingly, it was those shows that had the highest viewer engagement, such as Star Trek, whose fans began to find themselves online, in the prehistoric Internet of bulletin board systems. Even with the near-universality of Internet use, though, until recently most of the online water cooler talk was still about those high-engagement shows. It was only the introduction of smartphones and tablets, which removed the physical and logistical barriers to being online at the same time as you were watching TV, that a significant number of people began talking online about the shows they were watching: today a third of Canadians consider themselves to be "social viewers," and TV-related tweets make up a fair portion of Twitter's total traffic. As a result, Nielsen has announced plans to supplement its ratings with data multi-screening is associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Is "social" TV actually making us more isolated?

The question at the heart of that concern is whether our time spent on the social aspects of TV is coming at the expense of time we would otherwise be spending talking to people face-to-face. But the "virtual water cooler" seems to be largely provoking new online conversations, not replacing old offline ones. While we may worry about scenes where each member of the family is watching and talking on their own screens, recent Canadian research suggests that despite the relatively high level of social TV viewing, watching TV is still often a whole-family activity. Nor is social viewing just making people more deeply involved in their favourite shows; the programs that inspire the most online conversations are live, high-profile events such as sports or awards shows -- exactly the sort of common experiences, like the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show or the last episode of M*A*S*H, that until recently were thought to be things of the past.

As with all media experiences, we need to bring caution and skepticism to social TV. There certainly is the potential that it may lead to excessive screen time and an unhealthy level of viewer engagement, though as with video games we need to careful not to rush to judgment and confuse a temporary enthusiasm with a genuine problem. Moreover, there is the chance that it may have further positive effects as well. We have already seen how Twitter and Facebook have transformed the ways in which news is gathered, spread and interpreted, and while social media's effectiveness as a fact-checker has to be weighed against its ability to spread rumours, it has from Twitter.

It's easy to see what the TV industry gets from this: viewers are more engaged and loyal to the shows they watch, are easier to advertise to (a little under one in five smartphone users have done Internet searches about products they've seen advertised to and easier to promote new shows to (one in six Canadians has watched at least one TV show based on reading a tweet about it; last month The Walking Dead, one of the most talked-about were shows online, was also the most-viewed show in its time slot despite being aired by cable channel AMC.) But are these online conversations replacing more meaningful forms of communication, as Turkle might argue? Social TV viewing is almost always associated with using two or more screens at once (it's much more common among smartphone and tablet owners) and certainly made people more aware of the necessity to be skeptical and question what you see, read and hear. If social TV can get people talking about the shows they watch, perhaps we will see the media literacy work that's already happening online -- on topics like diversity representation, gender stereotyping, and advertising -- move into the mainstream conversation.

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