Twitter and the myth of the “second screen”

With it’s expected IPO coming this week, Twitter has put back the concept of the “second screen” on everyone’s radar it seem. I have heard more discussion about it in the last couple of weeks than in the past year, I think.

Thrust marketers to create buzzword and try to make money out of everything. I have been using my portable with wifi to access the Internet while watching TV since 1999, years before they coined the term “second screen”.

The logic behind the second screen hype is that your will watch a show on television on your “big screen” and you’ll use a second screen (a laptop, tablet, phone) to interact with that in some way. The second screen concept s that it would bring extra interactivity or content that is synchronized with the show.

As you can see, this is a very TV centric view of the world. It is as if TV is still the centerpiece of our life and everything that I will do or think revolves around it. While this view is convenient for those that can gain from it, especially the broadcasters and the providers of “second screen” technology including “social media”, it is far from what I have done myself or watched people do.

For instance, as I am typing this, I am sitting in my living room using my laptop in front of the TV. My main focus is not the news that are currently on TV but the text I am writing. I am listening to the news in background, just in case something there would peak my attention. If it does, I will stop my writing for a while and put my focus on TV. If the subject really intrigue me, I will switch to my browser and search more details on the subject, probably looking at the site of “La Presse”, a Montreal newspaper if it’s local or the New York Times if its in the US and so on. Would I connect to the station site or search for a second screen app? Certainly not. My mind is taking me in directions that are not necessarily the ones that the second screen apps wants me to go.

My behavior can be slightly different when I watch a fiction. The show may peak my interest about an actor and I would look for more informations on IMDB. A word may intrigue me and I may look-up the definition. A city name may intrigue me and I may look at the location on Google map and what’s around etc.

I have tried to do the behaviors that are expected of me by the second screen tenors some time, just to see. I have watched political debates on TV while looking at the reactions on Twitter. I found the experience very annoying. Not only is it very hard to follow the debate seriously, but most “tweet” are a wave of people repeating some phrases from their pet candidate and just reacting positively or negatively to those comments, mostly with very similar and expected reactions. Once in a while, one person would do a clever reaction and then hundrends  would “re-tweet” it. A truly annoying and useless experience.

That is why I am considering second screen as a myth. The people are not using those devices the same way or the way that people wants them to use it. Restricted interaction is not very appealing or useful. It reminds me of the “Interactive Television” experiences done by Videotron in the early 90s that were offering four interaction choices.

Twitter is an interesting case. I don’t really see it as a social network as its use is rather unidirectional. However, it is in fact remarkably similar to mass media. A user will subscribe to another user and receive unidirectional messages. It is a good way to follow people or organizations in real-time about what they want to communicate. Clearly it is part of the “social media” landscape.

In fact, it is so well in sync with traditional media model that they have been very quick to embrace it. After all, it’s a good way to promote their information and breaking news and to link it to their own website. It does not require much interaction at all is essentially one way from the media to the subscribers.

The search features of Twitter are also a good way to find out reactions of the users to an event. One can view how people do react very quickly. The first time that a media used this property of Twitter on the air was at Current TV for the vice-presidential debate of the 2008 US election between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. We had to negotiate a deal with Twitter to be able to access the real-time data and use it on TV. Chloe Sladden was the person at Current in charge of negotiating the deal with Twitter. She later joined Twitter as their “VP Media”. Twitter now has a complete set of APIs (Application Programming Interface) for developers but at the time it did required custom programing work from both Twitter and Current to make this possible. During those kind of mass media event, the number of comments on Twitter are so large that it does require a full team of humans to browse through the comments and to moderate what are the most relevant comment and can be presented on-air.

Quickly, celebrities and organizations have found Twitter to be a good way to by-pass the mass media and to promote themselves directly to their fans and followers. Twitter success with the fans has been partly due to the often spontaneous messages of celebrities. While this create a lot of attention, it is sometimes embarrassing. However, with time, we can observe that more and more “celebrity” account are no longer managed by the celebrity themselves and more by public relation specialists. This makes it less likely to have an un-filtered comment and content will be more “doctored”. In turn, this will likely makes the platform less interesting to the users.

Given the nature of Twitter, it remains unclear how it can make a strong case for advertisers. The more they include advertising in users feeds, the less it is a compelling product. By becoming more or less a PR news wire it may succeed in generating revenue but it is hard to see user keep watching and keep been engaged with Twitter on the long term.

The free form nature of Twitter with it’s 140 character in limit per “tweet” makes it convenient on one hand for television to use it’s content on air. On the other hand, it is seriously limited as it is hard to know the nature of the commentator or to try to draw conclusion on any situation from looking at message content. It is however somewhat a good tool to gage the general level of interest through the volume of “tweets’.

So, how will Twitter an organisation that has not yet figure out how to turn a profit will do with their IPO? How much money they will raise and will that be enough to enable them to find profitable models? Good question and we shall have some of those answer soon. From a media and technology stand point, I would not bet too much on it but from an investment and speculation outlook, who knows? This is often more about perception of the investment market than any of the business fundamentals!

Cheers and good luck to Twitter and everyone involve!

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