Cooking up Social TV in NYC

I got out of the cab. It was hazy, humid and nearly 80 degrees--all before 9:00AM (...ah, summer in New York!). I dashed into the impossibly small entrance to the Hudson Hotel on West 58th Street. The temperature dropped, the lights got dim, and as I stepped onto the escalator I was surrounded by yellow neon light and JayZ's version of the 1984 Alphaville pop song, "Forever Young." The escalator slid me into the cavernous hotel lobby. Everyone was skinny, pretty and dressed in black. The ceiling was covered in ivy, but in the early morning light I couldn't tell if it was fake or not.

The cool dark lobby at the Hudson Hotel (Photo: Frank Gruber)

The small, dark, paneled elevator opened on the third floor and suddenly it looked like a new hotel. The walls were covered with flowing white drapes. Precise lights made discreet pools of light on white leather furniture. Out of the elevator and to the left was the Intel Insiders Summit. This program brings together early pioneers in the usage of social media who are actively engaging in lifestyle and parenting conversations online. 

I was at the Summit for a specific purpose. I needed help. In my book, Screen Future, I broke down the future of TV into four distinct experiences: Informative TV. Ubiquitous TV. Personal TV. Social TV. It's my job at Intel to look out into the future and model how consumers will act and interact with our products and platforms. The first three I could envision. Social TV, that was a whole different ball of wax.

I explored the experience of social TV in the book, but the chapter was an exploration of possibilities, guidelines and implications rather than a clear-eyed extrapolation of the future and the experience that consumers might have.

My point is a simple one--TV is social. Entertainment is social. The nature of the social activities are as vast and complicated as the people around the world who are watching it, but make no mistake, TV is social.

Why is this important? Well, in our previous chapters we have seen how the experience of watching TV and entertainment is going to change. When entertainment is delivered to a computing device (think Informative TV) that's connected to the Internet (think Ubiquitous TV), then that device is not only a means for personal entrainment and commerce (think Personal TV) but it's also a way that people can communicate with each other.

People like to talk to each other. We need it. Our families and social networks keep us company; they give us strength and purpose. It should be no surprise that if you give a person a device that can technically reach another person, then we're going to figure out a way to use that device to talk to our friends and family.

Now when this whole thing gets interesting is when we combine this technology to connect people with an experience that is at its very core social: entertainment. It seems both natural and inevitable.
TV is social.
Entertainment is social.
People like to talk.
Add those very simple, very basic components together and the sum is fascinating and full of possibilities. How will people talk to each other through their TVs?..

This is the strangest of all the chapters. Being social is something that humans do and something that technology can enable. Typically what happens is the technologies are released for a single purpose. Then people adopt the technology, adapt it, and remold it into something new. Usually this new thing is unforeseen by the creators of the technology or service. The VCR is a great example of this.

"The first video cassette recorders were promoted in the 1970s as an extension of broadcast television technology--a time-shifting device, a way to tape TV shows. Early advertising for Sony's Betamax told potential purchasers, 'You won't have to miss Kojak because you're watching Columbo.' But within a few years, the VCR had been transformed from a machine that recorded television into an extension of the movie theater into the home." (From Betamax to Blockbuster. Joshua M. Greenburg. 2008. MIT Press)

In Greenberg's book he explores how local "mom and pop" video stores along with "videophiles" really took the VCR's technology and turned it into the movie experience we know today. He points out that it wasn't the technology manufacturers, TV or movie studios that did this but that it was average people who took the technology and used it in a completely different way than it was originally designed...

[As we think about social TV] it's important for us to work in broad strokes so that we leave room for innovation. Earlier in the book, in my conversation with Henry Jenkins, he made the point that people must have the ability to make and remake technologies to suit their lives. As their lives change or the technology is adopted by others with different social requirements, the technological, business, and economic infrastructure we put in place must be able to account for the complexities of people's social lives.

Excerpt from Screen Future
Chapter 3: Social TV

I needed help and I had come to New York, the Hudson and the Intel Insiders event. I figured that if there were any people in the world who could talk to me about how we might make TV social these were the people.

Mighty Girl Maggie Mason, SheGeeks Corvida Raven, Blissfully Domestic Alli Worthington and Manic Mommies Erin Kane (Photo: Frank Gruber)

In the room we had lifestyle bloggers like Mia Kim and Maggie Mason, parent bloggers like Erin Kane, Alli Worthington and Jeff Sass, SheGeeks like Corvida Raven, entrepreneurs like TECHCocktail founder Frank Gruber and YouTube superstar iJustine. Many of these folks made their living on the Internet using social media. Their viewers, followers, fans and social network were an integral part of their personal and professional lives. And these people were not new to the scene. Most had spent the last decade using the Internet to connect with an increasing audience. They were true "netizens." They had no advertising departments, no PR people; usually it was just them and a computer. Who better to help me explore what the future of social TV might look like?

I spent most of the day listening. As the summit drew to a close, it was my turn to talk about a vision for the future of TV and ask for their help.

Screen Future at the Summit

I did my thing. After the day of presentations and discussion we went to Cooking by the Book, where the group broke into four teams and each cooked one course for the dinner. I was put on the appetizer: mac and cheese.

During the cooking we started to talk. As I sauteed the mushrooms I asked, "So what does the future of social TV look like? How would you use the TV and the Internet to connect to your people?" The conversation started there and lasted through dinner.

This is what I learned: First, everyone was genuinely excited about smart TV and the future of TV. But quickly after that they focused on something that surprised me. I was expecting to have a technology discussion; maybe a chat about social networking applications or services...maybe some clever new applications to connect with people. At the very least I thought we'd talk about how they would use this new screen to connect with their audience. It was nothing like that at all.

Intel's Joe Zawadsky, popgadget Mia Kim, Intel's Danielle Mann and Manic Mommies Erin Kane.

We spent dinner talking about people. We talked about what was appropriate behavior on the TV as opposed to similar behavior on the Internet. What kinds of things were appropriate to do on someone's TV? Because it's very different than a laptop or a smart phone. What was the best way to connect with someone? Were there things you definitely shouldn't do? What was taboo? What was creepy? What was stalking? Then the conversation turned even darker.

Dinner and social TV discussion: BDJ talking with Blissfully Domestic Alli Worthington

They talked about what worried them about a connected TV. If you had a personal TV, how personal did you want it? How much did you want it and other people to know about you personally? It seemed that the TV and the living room was even more personal than a laptop or smart phone. 

Would you ever use your TV to go on a first date? And if you did, would you want the person to see you in your living room? Would you want them to see your living room, literally inside your house? Didn't that seem dangerous to anyone?

It was amazing. We were talking about social TV just like I hoped, but we were talking about people not technology. They were more concerned with the dos and don'ts than the apps and stats. We were talking about the "social" part of social TV. The people part. The culture part. The delicate part that hasn't been worked out yet.

By the time the outside-in-red velvet cakes arrived my head had been completely turned around. I saw that the potential for social TV was even more complex than the complexity and opportunity I had originally thought. We still had so much more work to do. But the only way to do that work was to get the technology into the hands of these people. They were the experts. They were the ones who had been living and breathing online for years now. They were the ones who were actually going to make TV social, and although I could see that the future of social TV was even more complex that I had originally thought, I could also see that it was really going to happen and that it was going to happen in ways that I had never imagined. It was a truly amazing night.

I'm back on a plane now, flying out of New York. The weather looks clear and it should be a smooth flight. Next Stop: Seattle, Washington and the PAX conference. That stands for: Penny Arcade Experience. Three days with 45,000 hardcore gamers and developers. I need their help as well: gaming is an integral part of our screen future and it's time to get neck deep into it. I wonder if I can make them all mac and cheese?

Macaroni and cheese with mushrooms, prepared by BDJ



The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a Consumer Experience Architect he develops future products for Intel Corporation, a global microprocessor manufacturer.

Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool.

He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.