Years ago, the Web transitioned from a utilitarian tool into a place, almost a water cooler, a cool-kids hangout. The more tapped into it you are, the more you know about it and its secret codes and dark pockets, the wiser (and arguably, more jaded) you become. Trolling Reddit, Tumblr, and Tor are like rites of passage for those who want to be as tuned-in to Internet culture as possible. And as more and more of us seep into these once-rather-exclusive places, the secret handshake that comes with them has become less and less of a secret. The cool factor and cred they bring are well-known, and Internet users aren’t the only ones taking advantage of that – other media are too, including television.
Formerly the great media past time of America, television has stood rather idly by while the Internet gave it plenty to be worried about. Instead of standing around gossiping about Ally McBeal, we’re talking about Grumpy Cat. Instead of asking the four people in the office if they saw the hilarious flub on the nightly news, we’re watching and commenting as it goes viral on Reddit.
But instead of becoming obsolete, the formerly-cool, held-back high school senior who’s watching the new big man on campus claim his spot, television is very wisely adapting and integrating Internet culture into its broadcast plans. Because as we all know, the Internet waits for no one.
‘Twitterfied’ TV (and why it usually works)
In general, most shows are hashtaggable these days, from highly anticipated shows like #MadMen and #GameOfThrones to nationwide talent searches like #TheVoice or #AmericanIdol. Even TV personalities speak in a social media-ified manner – Mariah Carey says “Hashtag pow” on American Idol for performances she loves – and instead of names, television shows often identify people through their Twitter handles. This obvious crossover from our computer screen to the boob tube seems natural for television execs and spectators, if you take into account the amount of time anyone spends on the Internet; however brief, it’s definitely long enough to watch a YouTube clip of a show promo and also long enough to engage in a comment repartee about a recent episode.
The transition of our Internet obsessions to the small screen is a work in progress – sometimes the results don’t translate. @ShitMyDadSays was a Twitter sensation and became so beloved it was adapted into a television show starring William Shatner. But, to put it nicely, it bombed: After 18 episodes, it was canceled.
But the Twitter-to-TV (and vice versa) formula continues to be perfected. The recently concluded Shorty Awards – which pay tribute to the Internet’s best content and most promising influencers – awarded the show Pretty Little Liars the Best Use of Social Media for Television award for its successful #TheBetrAyal campaign. “Pretty Little Liars is a compelling mystery with plot twists & turns around every corner, and the perfect mix of romance, drama and suspense that really connects with our viewers. Once you have those ingredients in place, the internet, and the social media space in particular, provide a fantastic forum for amplifying the buzz and pushing the conversation viral,” says Danielle Mullin, Vice President for Marketing at ABC Family. “Social media provides us with an incredible toolbox that allows us to take a great piece of programming and spread it to the masses in a way that can be much more impactful than straight advertising.”
MTV’s Awkward is another ripe example of how online viewer response can catapult a show from little known to viral hit. “The Internet places a premium on relatability. We all tend to like, share, retweet, reblog, and engage with that which is familiar,” says Tom Fishman, Director for Social Media at MTV. And what relates to a youth-obsessed, always online audience better than Awkward, a show centralized around adolescence and the many issues that surround it? According to Fishman, the fact that the show tackles universal topics such as friendship, romance, sex, status, insecurity, family, and growth arms their community managers with an abundance of material that easily translates into sharable content. They currently have over 2 million likes on their Facebook page and over 200 thousand followers on Twitter.
Fishman also notes that another vital feature of the social TV intersection is space, or the time after a 22-minute Awkward episode concludes. “It affords our creative teams the breathing room to flesh out ancillary story arcs and characters that deeply resonate with fans. We believe extending the linear narrative into the between-episode and even between-season time periods develops a much stronger connective tissue between fans, show and talent,” explains Fishman. That’s what the show is trying to take advantage more of this season through a noir-ish take on a “whodunnit?” story arc involving the untimely demise of one of the characters. They’ve also launched Awkward’s official Tumblr account to better drive viral activity and cater to the show’s growing fan base (and let’s face it, create the GIFs we all love so much), which seems to be gaining traction as the third season progresses.
Television welcomes cybertrends with open arms
MTV has been particularly active bridging the gap between TV and the Internet, adding live voting via Instagram photos and hashtags for this year’s MTV Movie Awards, specifically for the Best Hero category. It was a pretty smart move on their part, using their growing popularity (with over 1.2 million followers) on the photo-sharing app as well as hashtag-innovator Twitter (with more than 7.7 million followers) to publicize the annual event and encourage maximum audience participation. They also launched The Giffies on their Tumblr page, where they paid tribute to the best moments the MTV Movie Awards had to offer this year through animated GIFs.
Animated GIFs are so revered by the Internet that broadcast television is beginning to build programming with their creation in mind. For an episode that aired earlier this month featuring the cast as puppets, NBC’s Community threw the very first Greendale GIF-A-THON competition that encouraged fans to create animated GIFs based on the show and upload them on Tumblr with the hashtag #Greendale GIFs.
The Oxygen Network is also ready to capitalize on GIFs, which Harleen Kahlon, Senior Vice President of Digital at Oxygen Media thinks “is an increasingly popular social expression that is captivating people’s imaginations right now.” They recently partnered with Tumblr – the holy grail for GIF lovers – and will showcase user-submitted GIFs when episodes of Best Ink 2 air this coming May. They also have caption contests ready to incite better audience participation. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve watched our fans create GIFs out of our programming and then share them, particularly on Tumblr. In terms of GIFs on our digital platform – like in the live Tumblr GIF parties that we do for some of our shows – the engagement level there has been quite good. It just seemed to be a social expression that was resonating with our fans,” shares Kahlon. “Just like when the tweet got popular and TV networks started putting them on air, we thought GIFs would be a really good example of a social expression that could work for us and that we should try it.”
You no longer have to stay glued to your TV screen when your favorite show is on so you won’t miss out on any important scene; the ability to preview television content on various portable gadgets has given viewers the power to watch what they want, when they want it, wherever they are. People no longer have to wait an entire day to discuss last night’s episode with their friends – they can now participate in TV-centric conversations in real-time while the show is on air, giving them content that may very well enhance their viewing pleasure. In fact, the Internet has made it entirely possible to expand fan communication exponentially by providing social media outlets that not only put you in contact with people you know in real life, but with fellow fans all over the world as well, creating a camaraderie forged by similar tastes in TV shows. “Technological innovations such as the ability to feature live fan tweets and live talent tweets during a broadcast offer a thoroughly modern way to engage with your television set. Twitter is the new water cooler,” Mullin remarks. “Today’s TV viewers are sitting on the edge of the couch with their mobile device in hand, waiting with baited breath for the next ‘OMG’ moment to air so that they can broadcast their thoughts to their 867 closest friends and followers.”
“The only thing I think any of us know for sure is that there’s a lot of new stuff popping up … it’s incumbent on us to be fast and nimble in playing with these new options.”
Even the way the television industry monitors viewer engagement is undergoing an overhaul of sorts, patterned to the Internet’s unique language and culture. “It’s one that’s familiar to most of the television-watching audience, even across more traditional cultural boundaries. TV content will have to be developed with that in mind in order to stay relevant and credible,” Fishman comments. And to be relevant and credible, television wants to be; this is highly proven by the fact that Nielsen – a company that provides reliable television metrics – recently acquired SocialGuide, its social media counterpart.
Kahlon believes that despite the Internet’s longstanding presence in our lives, it – along with the intersection of digital and television – is still a relatively new thing; the phrase “second screen” only became popular in the last couple of years. “I think we live in an experimental time and culture when it comes to how these different platforms interact with each other,” says Kahlon. “All these different things that pop up and gain popularity and disappear … it’s tough to predict what will stick. The only thing I think any of us know for sure is that there’s a lot of new stuff popping up, and for those of us who work in television, it’s incumbent on us to be fast and nimble in playing with these new options and coming up with interesting, enhancing ways to work with them.”
The merging of virtual trends with real-life: good or bad for Internet culture?
The boundaries of cyberculture may be a little bit difficult to draw – it used to be more like the Wild West. Now it’s a mechanism for PR and branding, so what does that mean for the community as a whole?
The Webby Awards is an award-giving body that honors outstanding achievement on the Internet, and some of the proponents recognized represent the television industry. “In 2009, we honored Stephen Colbert as the Webby Person of the Year for all the work that he had done online. He used his site and his online presence to engage with people who watch his show and expanded the experience of watching his show well beyond the usual 30 minutes. Last year, we honored the BET show 106 & Park for doing an incredible job of using Twitter and social media in real-time during their show,” says David-Michel Davies, executive director of The Webby Awards. “The Internet is essentially the major component of pop culture in the world today – it’s not surprising to see that television, movies, or even radio is using subject matter or ideas that are popular online – like memes. At the end of the day, TV shows are just trying to replicate and mimic pop culture at large, and that’s pretty normal.”
It’s a common cycle: What starts out as obscure and underground will eventually become popular and mainstream.
“Television’s relationship with Internet trends will continue to impact what we see as mainstream, and communities will shift trends and behaviors in response to that, some towards those trends and some away, and then as content creators and community managers we have to adapt to that all over again, and that dance goes on ad infinitum,” remarks Fishman. “If TV had a Facebook page, its relationship status with the Internet would read ‘it’s complicated’ … in a good way! With the right teams in place, the synergy there is undeniable.”
It’s a common cycle: What starts out as obscure and underground will eventually become popular and mainstream. What once was “Internet culture” is now just culture – and it’s only natural that another big purveyor of American media culture, television, is learning how to adapt and integrate this.
“I think the distinction between ‘virtual’ and ‘real life’ trends is becoming less meaningful as time passes,” says Fishman. And he’s right – the more the Internet becomes entrenched in our everyday routine, the more normal it is seems to talk in memes, hashtags, and webspeak. The World Wide Web is multi-faceted avenue that expands the range of opportunity for conversation and discourse to gigantic proportions. And television – originally a one-way medium – is just going to keep on exploring this dialogue-friendly avenue. Consider this just the beginning of the meme, GIF, and Twitterfied crossovers between TV shows and the Internet, because everyone stands to gain something here.