The growing importance of backchannel: or why the World Cup happened on Twitter and not in South Africa


When Faris Yakob tweeted this at the beginning of the World Cup final, he articulated something I’d dimly realised a couple of weeks earlier, i.e. for significant portions of the time I was more interested in what was being said on Twitter about the World Cup than what was happening on TV (not what was being said on TV, that’s a given, but the actual action). Even in pubs watching it with groups of friends, I’d have one eye on my phone to see what Twitter made of any particular incident.

Of course the biggest sin in strategy/planning is to take your own behaviour as a starting point for any insight. All planners are sinners of course, and while Faris’s observation was a personal one, is there any evidence that this is a view shared by the wider public? Well, it would seem that there is. A recently commissioned study from the Yahoo and Nielsen has found that 75% of American Internet users surf the Internet while they’re watching TV. That’s up 20% from a year ago. More importantly, the same report found that 54% of the multitaskers are “primarily focused” on the Internet rather than TV. So far so good, in a two screen scenario people are more interested in the Internet than the telly. However, the report does conclude that a lot of what people are looking at on the net has nothing to do with what they are ‘watching’ on TV. So perhaps, unlike Faris or I, they’re not that interested in the back channel. And I don’t dispute that this is true in aggregate, however, I’d like to bet that there is a much closer correlation between TV and Internet during big media events, e.g. big sports games, American Idol finals, etc. And of course the Internet is not the only, or probably main backchannel. SMS and chat were, and probably still are, the main backchannels, however, while both have group functionality, unlike Twitter, neither is a particularly efficient broadcast tool. None really admits interesting perspectives from outwith ones immediate social circle. I’m aware that Twitter is still a minority platform, however, Facebook isn’t, and there’s lots of evidence that people are turning to that in a similar way to Twitter.

None of this is anything like conclusive evidence that the ‘general population’ is more interested in the backchannel than the channel itself. However, it does ask a series of interesting questions about the social mediation of events. As I’ve written about before, television is a social medium.

Broadly speaking, I guess it’s possible to view this behaviour in a couple of different ways. Cultural pessimists would, I guess, point to the fragmentation of attention. Cultural optimists might praise the reintroduction of a social aspects to the consumption of media.

Personally speaking, I’m an optimist, I think the social aspects of the backchannel definitely outweigh any of the percieved negatives (I’d definitely rather spend a couple of hours messing around on Twitter instead of having to watch that Spain v Portugal match – that’s a couple of hours of my life that I’m never getting back).

However, it’s perhaps not the cultural but the commercial implications that are most interesting about this research It has some fairly profound implications for those buying TV ads. After all, it looks like half of your reported viewers aren’t even paying attention, and it’s probably worse than that, because they’re almost certainly paying less attention when the ads are on.

Anyway, there’s lots more questions in there, so I leave you with the question I asked Faris around the time Marc van Bommel was kicking his first Spaniard up in the air. johnquote

3 comments about “The growing importance of backchannel: or why the World Cup happened on Twitter and not in South Africa

  1. sandoz says:

    Interesting thoughts.
    Seems to me the practice of surfing whilst watching is a symptom of how we are at work: multiple information streams coming in at once. Also how we are on the bus surfing on our phones, or increasingly in real conversations where people prioritise a text or email over finishing a sentence. It’s getting quite hard to focus on one thing when all our other behavior is otherwise. It’s getting quite hard not to always be jumping to see what is new and if it’s exciting enough to pass on. That’s often how i feel, tv cannot satisfy the information desire, or disease.
    So it’s a trend that will surely grow. In fact it’s most likely a trend started by teenage girls on the phone and watching top-of-the-pops in the 70s. It’s just now more acute.

    The point about how brands respond is most interesting. Instead of disruptive content brands need to think about curating the communities that build up around content.

  2. john says:

    Hi Sandoz,

    I’ve seen quite a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about the notion that the recent rise of real-time, short form media is rewiring our brains, turning us into an intellectually superficial culture. I’m not so sure. (In part because new media always brings with it panics about it’s impact on culture.) I think we’ll find ways of adjusting to these changes.

    I suppose the question that underlies quite a lot of the discussion is whether it is ‘better’ sitting chatting to your friends on Facebook or sitting on your own reading Oscar Wilde or watching the BBC News? There’s enough in that question to sustain an entire PHD thesis or at least a whole episode of the Culture Show, but I’d say people are voting with their feet, the balance is shifting away from impersonal mediated content to socially generated and mediated content.

    The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a huge rise in mediated experience in part because industrial urban society made social links a lot weaker than they had been so we looked to the mediated experience of others, rather than that of our friends, (though as you point out we still discussed it when we could, but we were all pretty poorly linked).

    But it is a balance, people definitely still want big shared, communal stories – things to discuss beyond their own lives and experiences. So I definitely agree that community curation plays an enormous part in the future of organisations and brands, though I think that content still plays a big part in that, but it’s only a seed, brands need to create communities of interest and engage them in ongoing conversations.

    Anyway, none of this makes it any easier when you’re in the cinema and some tweenage idiot is on her mobile phone describing giving her mate a scene by fecking scene account of what’s happening on the screen.

    Bonus ball:
    All that talk of TOTP and the phone made me remember Dial a Disc.

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