Video Wants To Be Social

When you watch media with other people — that is, live and simultaneously — it’s impossible not to be affected by their giggles and groans and analysis. That’s kind of what I was hoping to find out more about when we started the Pier Screenings series this spring. Five editions later, we’re done with the series (for this year anyway), and it’s been hammered home in more ways then one. And the whole experience has me wondering about the potential for social video viewing to be extended on the web.

I am terrible at predicting how a crowd will react to a screening. I had no idea The Real World Ikea would be such a huge hit at our parody-themed screening, and I shouldn’t have worried that Alive in Baghdad would be too slow and serious for the crowd at the citizen news edition. I also hadn’t a clue that the Burg and Alamo Heights SA would completely bomb with our audience (both are longer-form serials, though).

And last night, when most of the “love stories”-themed finalist shorts were funny and touching — but probably far more funny and touching to the friends and family of their creators — the crowd let us know (see this live blog to get the idea). As an audience member, I felt the lack of sizzle too. If we had been watching online, we wouldn’t have had the social obligation to keep the stream going. But being physically present is a much greater investment, and we were rewarded with some hilarious commentary from the judges. It was a million times better than cruel, disembodied, and asynchronous text comments you see on a site like YouTube.

Can that feeling of collective experience be replicated without actually being in the same place? A lot of people are making technology with that very goal in mind, such as live chat, telepresence, life-casting, and so on. Here are some examples of how such technology is already being used:

  • Sarah Meyerslive-broadcasts her life with a handheld webcam on She was at the screenings last night, but when the post-party gang was holding her up, she said she really had to leave as she’d told her viewing audience she would also attend the Halo 3 release in Times Square. They were waiting for her — if only virtually.
  • PalTalk is doing some neat stuff on this topic, creating web shows and hosting live webchats when they air. It requires a Windows-only download and you have to pay to see other chatters’ faces, but the idea is pretty cool.
  • For OldTeeVee, Seattle-based BuddyTV (recently bought by Comcast CMCSA) provides a feature it calls “TVj” where users can attract audiences during the live airing of a show for their expert critical analysis or obsessive fan gossip, provided via chat.
  • Sports, the ultimate appointment TV, has another twist on the social watching theme with Yahoo’s (YHOO) fantasy sports league — members can talk smack with one another as they watch the game on their own media centers (see my coverage of this on GigaOM from last year).
  • Emerging Internet TV platforms like Jaman and Joost are building chat right into their products.
  • Boulder, Colo.-based startup Me.dium makes a browser plug-in that lets you find and follow other users around on the web, viewing the pages they’re looking at, in real time. The company has recently come upon the strategy of using celebrities as curators — for instance Dr. Tiki of Tiki Bar TV — to watch shows or tour the web together.
  • Dina Kaplan of let it slip at the screenings last night that her site will be releasing features in this vein soon, allowing for synchronous communal video watching.

Though we may stare into our laptops or televisions for hours on end, people are social. Web video, and TV for that matter, satisfies our desire to create a zeitgeist, or a community, for the time when we can’t stop talking about Miss Teen South Carolina or The Sopranos finale. Can web tools make that experience even better, by enabling us to hear from anyone around the world who can provide funny or expert or personal commentary, with that commentary overlaid live and/or synchronously on a video as we watch? I think so.