Are we referring to social media correctly on-air?

Posted on August 8, 2010

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Who’d be a TV (or radio, for that matter) scriptwriter? TV especially demands more efficiency. There aren’t endless hours available to the presenter to clarify exactly what was meant by something uttered in a voiceover. It’s one shot. A handful of words. TV is as unforgiving as that.

Which is why I’ve been wondering about how the BBC and other broadcasters refer to social media on air. In our rush to be seen as the most successful brand to establish and maintain a vibrant online community, I wonder whether a few things are being overlooked.

Take the thorny issue of how to offer a call-to-action for Twitter users to participate in a conversation during a TV programme. It’s happened twice on BBC programmes I’ve watched recently and on Channel 4.

Do you make an on-screen announcement encouraging people to follow your TV programme’s Twitter ID, or direct people to participate in the conversation already going on online by referring to the hashtag?

If you refer to a hashtag must it be a BBC established hashtag (or conversation, how ever you want to look at it)? Do media people really believe that Twitter conversations really can be ‘owned’, moderated or steered? And if they do believe that are they guilty of eclipsing the organic joy inherent in most activities online with a redefined view of the world with all its anodyne consequences?

Maybe using the Twitter ID – and advertising that using on-screen graphics – is the way forward. After all, that truly is the broadcaster’s responsibility. With responsibility comes the right to advertise it.

But if you encourage people to “Tweet @bbc .. whatever” surely you’re in danger of tripping up, aren’t you? First off, the call-to-action is extremely unlikely to encourage newbies to Twitter. TV viewers aren’t about to sign up to Twitter just because they’ve heard a presenter say so. Consequently, those announcements are only really going to appeal to the cognascenti. And if that’s the case, the cognascenti are probably going to question whether they should tweet with “@whoever” in the message when accepted practice is to use the hashtag to denote how your tweet is part of a global conversation on the subject.

If you insist on using “@whoever”, are you in fact asking viewers or listeners to merely send you messages which no-one else on the internet can see (unless they follow you the broadcaster with the Twitter ID and the person originating the tweet. In other words, if you’re saying to the audience: tweet using “@whoever” are you actually precluding everyone else (ie the mainstream/part-time Twitter users) from seeing the emerging conversation. Are you – just to fuel my paranoid side – actually then ‘controlling’ the conversation?

Obviously, these are the paranoid ramblings of someone who doesn’t have anything else to blog about. We should remember that. Even so, the question still remains about how Twitter calls-to-actions should be handled.

For my money, I’d advocate this method. If you want people to tweet then you are – in a sense – preaching to the choir. Twitter users – hard core Twitter users – will know the syntax is that one has an ID and that with that ID we participate in a conversation. So, if you the broadcaster is trying to establish a conversation or wants to be seen as hosting or curating that conversation, then the Twitter hashtag you’re sanctioning is the thing to stick on-screen or repeat on-air.

If however you’re keen to use Twitter like its just a postcard to the studio limiting its author to 140 characters, then presumably insisting users tweet the ID in their message is the way to go.

The latter feels a bit unpleasant to me, not least because it runs the risk of showing people who don’t understand the medium up amongst the very audience their seeking to recruit.

This problem exists in all broadcast output across networks and broadcasting organisations. To be clear, no one is being signalled out least of all other members of staff. Just so we’re clear.

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Posted in: Internet, TV