Double The Glow: Will Second Screen Apps Change the Way We Watch TV?

Will social media change the way we watch TV with friends?

Part of the assumption in this month’s GOOD challenge to unplug at 8 is that we’re robbing ourselves of valuable human contact when we’re online. But if plugging in lets us add social experiences to otherwise-solo pursuits, it might change the equation.

That’s the idea behind a wave of apps that are designed to take your solo media consumption—whether television shows, movies, books or music—and let you tell your friends all about it. And if you’re catching a TV show at home on a weeknight, why not use the Internet to rope in some geographically dispersed pals?

Services including GetGlue, SocialGuide, Miso, and Tunerfish, among several others, allow people to use their computers, tablets and phones to check-in, foursquare style, to their entertainment of choice, then rate it.

Users' choices and ratings are broadcast to friends gleaned from Facebook and Twitter and recorded in the app’s database. All that data is leveraged to provide personalized recommendations, as well as analytics about who's watching what where and when to each firm’s partners.

But do such services really a rewarding social experience, akin to getting your friends together to watch a show in the same room?

Limited GetGlue exposure suggests the product doesn’t make the real-time viewing experience all that more robust. While founder Alex Iskold tells GOOD he hoped to create “a digital water cooler” for the site’s 1.4 million and growing users, most viewers who check in to a show only offer the occasional commentary, nothing like the kind of conversation you’d have in your living room, or even on Twitter.

(Samples from an episode of Ellen DeGeneres show: “Snooki gets scared by a giant poof,” “pouf!”, “giant poof”; samples from Nickelodeon classic Doug: “porkchop,” “porkchop!” “I love porkchop.”; samples from HBO’s Entourage “can't believe it's the last season....,” “ari gold,” “This season just keeps getting better.”)

The personalized recommendations and organized way to see what your friends are into certainly offers a good way to expand your media diet in pleasant directions. Still, the services can’t compete with the old fashioned “come over and watch Jersey Shore with me” model of social TV, except as a useful kind of a notification service—"hey, Amina’s watching Jersey Shore, too, I should Gchat her about Snooki’s poof."

“If I check in and say I’m watching Game of Thrones, that’s a social gesture, it’s very friendly,” Iskold says. “If you’re my friend and see that I’ve checked in, you have a positive response and start a conversation about the show. It’s good for the brand because it’s a promotion of the show.”

GetGlue has been working with content producers to help provide incentives for folks to check in and watch shows when they air, generally in the form of “stickers”—online badges that also are sent to users in real life—and various promotions, like one with the show Fringe that let viewers win real props from the set when the show was in danger of cancellation.

For cult or up-and-coming shows, GetGlue can provide a voice for fans trying to convince networks there’s real interest in their product, and vice versa. Rabid Doctor Who fans (are there any other kind?) convinced the BBC to partner with GetGlue by demanding more ways to socialize around the show.

The ultimate goal of GetGlue and its competitors is to drive advertising to the so-called second screen—whatever device you have in your hand or on your lap while you’re watching the show. If Pizza Hut is advertising during an episode of Parks & Rec, you might get a coupon for a P’Zone on your iPad if you check in. That’s a win-win for content producers and advertisers, even if targeted ads like that set off your privacy alarms.

If the socializing aspect seems neglected compared to the recommendations, analytics, and ads, that’s partially because the technology hasn’t caught up yet.

The model social-media-watching experience, so far, comes from Google+’s hangout feature, which lets video-chatting pals pull up YouTube videos to watch together and talk about in real-time, but even that limited to whatever users post. Anyone’s who’s killed an hour or three on YouTube knows there’s a lot there, but it’s not quite the same as streaming a movie on Netflix or catching the premiere of the next season of Survivor with your friends.

If you’re looking to add some human experience to your TV diet while still plugging in, your best bet might be to fire up Skype or Google+ and just vid-chat while the show’s on—that's the best solution for those of us trying to catch Airwolf on Hulu with friends across the continent.

Otherwise, resign yourself to the fact that if you want to watch TV with your friends, you’ll have to actually hang out with them.