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.