C4′s surreal Twitter experiments

Here’s a piece on integrating Twitter with TV courtesy of C21 Media, written by Jonathan Webdale:

SOCIAL MEDIA 2010: Channel 4 new media commissioner Adam Gee says Twitter saved the life of one of the channel’s documentary makers and is responsible for resocialising TV. Jonathan Webdale reports.

As a UK public service broadcaster, Channel 4 has a remit to innovate and over in its factual department that’s exactly what new media commissioner Adam Gee (left) has been doing with Twitter.

Gee, or @SurrealThing as he’s known to his followers (more on this later), cites four projects, each of which illustrates a different use of the micro-blogging service. The first came in July 2008 with Osama Loves, a multi-platform travelogue that sent two people off around the world to find 500 people named Osama in 50 days in a bid to counter Muslim stereotypes.

The journey included visits to places with limited internet and mobile network access, so the stripped down simplicity of Twitter 140-character updates offered a means for the protagonists to keep the narrative going.

“We knew we would have bandwidth issues when they were in the middle of Nigeria or some corner of Indonesia and we needed a different way of communicating, so we used Twitter to tell the story,” says Gee.

Similarly, Alone in the Wild, a series that last year followed documentary maker Ed Wardle’s attempts to survive in solitude when abandoned in the Yukon, also employed Twitter as part of its narrative.

While Wardle wasn’t allowed two-way communication with the outside world, he was permitted to tweet just once a day, partly as a way of adding further perspective to his experience, but also to allow the production team to keep tabs on his progress.

Wardle was trying to last three months in the wilderness but failed to find reliable sources of food and his physical and mental health deteriorated to the point where he had to be rescued after seven weeks.

In one of his Twitter posts he said he was losing weight so quickly that his muscles were disappearing. Another mentioned that his heart was at 32 beats per minute, when 60-100 is considered healthy.

“I can’t definitively prove it but it saved his life because when he started struggling psychologically it first became evident in his daily tweets,” says Gee.

Two other C4 shows drew on Twitter to shape their editorial direction in real-time. A year ago, Surgery Live was a series of four one-hour live operations that ran stripped across the week at 23.00. Viewers were able supply questions to the surgeon via Twitter while he was carrying out procedures such as removing a pituitary tumour or opening a heart.

“I’m pretty sure that this was the first time a UK broadcaster deliberately used Twitter and integrated it into a cross-platform project,” says Gee. It’s probably pretty safe to say as well that few broadcasters other than C4 would have chosen such as initiative to pop their Twitter cherry.

“The system was such that you could tweet a question and that question could get from your mobile or laptop to air in 90 seconds. We had to have a slight delay on the live feed in case something serious went wrong, but it was an absolute thrill to have such a direct impact on the programme.”

Gee himself tweeted in some questions from home on a couple of nights using his then anonymous handle. “Those were before the days when you had your actual name on the Twitter account,” he says. “The reason that my Twitter identity is SurrealThing is because when I first saw it about three years ago I thought it looked like the end of civilisation as we know it.”

But Gee decided that he needed to get to grips with Twitter if he was ever going to be able to commission anything that made use of it. “So I was a Surrealist for the first year, tweeting about melting watches and stuff like that. I couldn’t get what it was for. But over time what emerged was a tool waiting for a mission.”

Through the three experiments listed above he feels he’s now pretty clear about what that mission is, as far as broadcasters are concerned.

The fourth project he notes, Embarrassing Bodies: Live, took Surgery Live a step further, transforming what had been a two-screen experience for viewers into one. Ironically, however, it used a “Twitter-like” interface that ran on C4′s own website, rather than actually integrated filtered messages from the public Twitter feed.

“We didn’t want an un-moderated stream of stuff being published to the site and in that particular instance it was actually easier to build the functionality and integrate it into our moderation system than to use Twitter separately,” says Gee, though he doesn’t rule out direct tie-ups in the future.

Live broadcasts are definitely where he sees Twitter having its greatest applications but he notes that it’s not relevant to all programmes. “You’ve got to be careful what you build your Twitter cross-platform activity around because if it’s over-complex or requires too much concentration it’s not ideal. You actually want something you don’t have to concentrate on too hard,” he says, giving awards shows as a classic example.

As a general observation, Gee believes that C4′s Twitter experiments have helped crystallise exactly what the micro-blogging service’s mission is from a broadcaster’s perspective. “It’s resocialising TV,” he says. “Once, you might have chatted the next day over a shared big TV experience, but with the much more fragmented TV world we have now it replaces that – which I think is it’s greatest strength. That’s where the value for the channel is.”

Jonathan Webdale
27 Apr 2010
© C21 Media 2010

Please note: C21 Media provides free daily email bulletins and their site is a mix of free and paid for content. This article is reproduced courtesy of C21 Media – click here to register (top right) for their free daily email

Embarrassing Bodies: Live was nominated yesterday for a BAFTA TV Craft Award for interactive creativity

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