Why two screens are better than one

2-screen is ‘social TV’; telly plus social media, or watching TV on one screen and chatting online on another at the same time. It’s something a lot of us are doing already via Facebook message threads or Twitter, while watching programmes like X Factor or live sporting events.

The TV people are already designing programming around the phenomenon, like 7 Days and The Million Pound Drop. And there’s a race to grab what could turn out to be a valuable commercial space, with giants like Google as well as brand new tech start-ups designing web app products aimed at enhancing and extending the 2-screen experience.

Mint Digital held their second UK 2-screen conference in London in October this year and key players like Matt Locke of Channel 4 and Kevin Slavin from Starling.tv showed us why the concept has such a buzz about it – and why it’s likely to be the focus of intense creative and design activity over the next year or so.

The internet hasn’t killed TV as some predicted – in fact we’re now watching more TV than ever before. For Matt Locke, acting head of cross platform at Channel 4, it’s all about “attention shapes”, or the different ways in which we pay attention. Attention is a finite resource with an increasing number of demands made upon it. Locke argues that 2008 was the year of “peak attention” (similar to ‘peak oil’), and that from now on attention is getting scarcer and viewers are getting much more careful about the way they use it up.

What we’re seeing is a shift in control away from TV – broadcasters have to compete with attention shapes coming from other sources like social media and gaming. The response to this shift has seen broadcasters focusing on what TV is uniquely good at – ‘event TV’ which grabs people’s attention en masse for big, live synchronous events like Strictly Come Dancing or the Superbowl. Once you’ve got event TV and loads of people watching the same thing at the same time, they’re going to want to talk to each other about it.

Which is where 2-screen comes in – along with new design questions of how best to facilitate audience interaction across large numbers of people.

They key thing to understand about 2-screen is that it’s not particularly new – it’s built on basic human behaviours – but it brings these behaviours into a new online space where new things can start to happen. The model is that of sitting on the sofa watching TV with family and friends. Think Morecambe and Wise or Top of the Pops in the 1970s. What made these experiences so rewarding was the sense of sharing them with other people and through sharing, connecting to each other. 

It’s what Kevin Slavin from Starling.tv calls “limbic resonance”. At the 2-screen conference, Slavin started with some great questions like why do people arrange to watch Lost together? Why do they want to be in the same room together? And could that same room be Twitter?

According to Slavin it’s all about the ‘limbic brain’, that part of the brain to do with empathy, community and social sense. Being in a crowd, being connected to others and sharing something together in real time makes an experience more fun and more meaningful. It’s why it’s so good to see a film with other people in a cinema. It’s why TV comedy shows add on a laugh track to trick us into believing we’re in a crowd of happy laughing people. Fake laughter – ‘laughter from nowhere’ – really does make comedy funnier if you’re on your own, as Slavin demonstrated by showing an excerpt of Friends without the laughter, turning light comedy darker, full of foreboding silence akin to Samuel Beckett. The laughter track is the limbic proxy, helping you feel connected to the crowd, even when there is nobody else there.

The laugh track is dead now, according to Slavin, because it’s been displaced by connected TV – or, rather, connected audiences. We don’t need fake laughter, we’ve got Twitter and all the other social media tools to keep us connected to the crowd. Which is where we come back to the question of design and, specifically, how to design 2-screen experiences which allow for large numbers of people to connect together in meaningful ways.

Right now the tools to connect masses of people together aren’t very good. Eighty million people watch the Superbowl. Worldwide audience for Eurovision is 125m people who speak lots of different languages. If Tweets are coming in at the rate of 4,000 per minute like do they do during the Superbowl, or if they’re mostly in a language you don’t speak, like with Eurovision, then Twitter isn’t going to help you feel connected.

Starling.tv is so named because the central metaphor is that of flocking behaviour, much admired by programmers and mathematicians for generating complex behaviour from a small number of simple rules. Starling does something analogous to flocking in social space, connecting you with people who are close to you based on your social media profiles. And it offers some enhancements to the user experience which make using it much more rewarding than chatting on Twitter or Facebook. Most important of these is that all chats are written on graphic cards and posted into a shared space. So if you’re watching X Factor you’ve got a library of cards including a Simon card, a Wagner card and so on. This makes the commenting a lot funnier than it might otherwise be and it becomes a form of visual competitive banter, with the wittiest cards getting ‘likes’ from other participants, generating new messaging threads.

Google are betting on Miso, a social TV app which feels a bit like Foursquare and gives you points for making comments. And Comcast have put their money on Tunerfish, another points based app. So the commercial reward for designing the platform which best delivers ‘limbic resonance’ by connecting large audiences in meaningful ways is likely to be enormous. Expect to see a lot more players enter this market in the near future.

And watch out for Facebook – right now chatting with your Facebook friends is the best 2-screen social TV experience you can have and they do have more than 500m active users.

Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in London

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