The end of the individual experience

A few years from now, my kids will be old enough to ask me questions that will require a lot of explanation. Like, for example, what the internet was like when I was their age, how I survived without a mobile data device, did I watch TV in black and white (interestingly enough, I did, but only because the TV was black and white), and what did I name my pet dinosaur (‘cuz, you know, every kid makes that joke of their parents).

One question I also expect them to ask is how I watched TV without having my computer in front of me, firing off notes through Twitter, Facebook, or whatever social media network will be in vogue in 5-8 years from now. I’ll look at their cute, adorable little faces, and tell them as seriously as I can: There was a time when we watched TV on our own. We went to sporting events in small groups, we went shopping without telling everyone what we were doing, and we could vanish for hours on end without anyone knowing where we were.

The idea that we exist solely as individuals is rapidly becoming extinct.

I’ll freely admit that I’m on the leading (okay, okay, obsessive) edge when it comes to Twittering et al. I’ve been broadcasting status updates (in one form or another) for a couple of years, in frequencies varying from every few days to every few seconds — those of you following me during the 2010 Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey gold medal game or during last night’s Oscars know what I mean. That means I’m not only keenly aware of the potential these services offer, but also the potential impact.

Let me rewind a couple of weeks to the start of the Olympics on 12 February. While most of you watching the opening ceremonies might have had a word or two between you, there were a few of us (I’ll estimate at least a few thousand) who were offering up our views as the show proceeded. In real-time. Publicly. You could track the entire thing under hashtags, or even by following a few people.

As the Olympics proceeded, the effect only continued to grow. For me, it was a way of communicating — and to some degree, even participating — with the games through friends who were actually there. (Of particular note is Canada’s unofficial Lucky Charm, my friend Katrina, who was present for no less than two gold medal wins.) It was a real-time feedback, and a way for me to feel that I wasn’t just trapped here in Calgary, unable to witness it for myself.

And lest we forget the Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey gold medal game between the USA and Canada. All epic-ness of the game aside (I stand by my statement that the game is the Summit Series of my generation), the game probably produced the largest amount of Twitter and Facebook traffic from Canada this year (and that includes all events yet-to-come). You almost didn’t have to watch the game on TV (although, really, it was one of the best-ever hockey games) — follow a few people, and you almost got the play-by-play, along with healthy doses of (periodically profane) comments about plays, shots on goal, and so forth. The only thing that would have made it better is if Don Cherry were tweeting it.

Which, interestingly enough, was what happened last night on the Oscars. Except it wasn’t Don Cherry, it was Roger Ebert. Though not nearly as copious with comments as I had expected (he was live-blogging as well, which I didn’t have access to), events were still punctuated with exceptionally-timely thoughts, all backed-up with his decades of experience in the industry.

Okay, so what does this all mean?

I didn’t watch alone. I might have been alone in the room, in front of my TV, but my network of friends and contacts kept me company. For years, people had talked about interactive TV as being a major shift in the industry, but to virtually no fruition. The act of side-conversation might not be the interactive we all had in mind, but imagine the joy of side-discussions (and even trash-talking) with people who have the same interest, without the ugliness of having to pack everyone into a small room at once.

I don’t see this ending soon, either. While I don’t watch a lot of TV (I generally avoid everything except MythBusters and Dirty Jobs), this sort of thing would definitely play out for regular sporting events (hockey, football, basketball, and even — dare I say it? — golf), reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother, soap operas, and similar genres that tend to collect an obsessive and conversational bunch (imagine if Star Trek: The Next Generation or the rebooted Battlestar Galactica came out now).

And, of course, this goes beyond televised events. People in the stands of the game, people following poker tournaments, people watching parades, let alone people broadcasting the latest disaster (follow the #temblor hashtag sometime — the USGS does).

This is the promise of social media, folks. We always thought it was just about bringing people together. In reality, it’s about keeping us from feeling alone.