The mass TV-watching phenomenon is back with shows like The X Factor. Combine those audiences with the immediacy of Twitter and you have a powerful cultural shift, says Tony Hallett.

I spent a lot of Mobile World Congress this year using Twitter – both reading what other people were saying, from or about the event, and posting updates. But that kind of interaction with a live event is nothing compared with what’s happening as social media and live TV increasingly collide.

The evening of day one was my first chance to hear relatively new Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. He was one of the more entertaining speakers at the show – and possibly one of the least relevant.

He said: “Twitter already works on almost everything you’re going to hear about this week.” And he argued for greater consistency of experience from one device to another.

A couple of stats stand out from his presentation:

  1. Some 40 per cent of all tweets come from mobile devices.
  2. Some 50 per cent of active Twitter users tweet from more than one platform.

I can see how those points are true – and the percentages are likely to increase. There are plenty of us with a work laptop, personal laptop or computer, smartphone and perhaps a tablet or a netbook. Switching from one to another, often using a Twitter app rather than the site, doesn’t warrant a second thought.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says 50 per cent of active Twitter users tweet from more than one platform

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says 50 per cent of active Twitter users tweet from more than one platform
Photo: David Berkowitz

Where mobile and Twitter do profoundly meet – and it might be via a tablet or netbook on a lap in the living room rather than a phone on the move – is when people watch TV.

Over a number of years, television watching has become time-shifted. The big change was the emergence of the PVR to supplant old video recorders – a lot of PVRs are more DVRs, but that’s another conversation.

Social media and mass audience success of reality TV

We have heard a lot about the value of live sport as content that is un-timeshiftable. That’s true – and a reason why an organisation such as Sky pays so much for its Premiership football rights. But recent years have also seen the mass audience success of…

…reality shows such as The X Factor.

It wasn’t too long ago that a shared TV-watching experience on a large scale – sometimes with more than 10 million viewers – was seen as an anachronism, like memories of Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials or, at best, an England football team making the semi-final of a major tournament. Try programming that to happen.

Today, large-scale TV-watching happens on a lot of Saturday nights. And Twitter makes it doubly interesting.

Where once we were just encouraged to text in our votes, now whole real-time communities of interest have sprung up. Twitter isn’t the only platform that allows it, but it’s arguably the most interesting over numerous devices.

Live TV commentary on Twitter

But beyond sport and reality stars, where is this trend heading? A few weeks ago, a US HBO channel reran the Howard Stern biopic Private Parts. No big event in itself, apart from the fact that Stern himself was watching and started firing off tweets about what was behind certain scenes. It was a live commentary from the film’s star and subject – and he certainly has clout on Twitter, to the tune of more than 300,000 followers.

The result was viewing figures far higher than network bosses could have expected. So, what if networks, cast and crew started to interact with all kinds of shows?

Applications such as Twitter have spawned much talk about the second screen – or even the third, fourth or fifth in some households. Online has spent a number of years supplanting older media such as TV, radio and newspapers, but what happens when two of these become symbiotic, at least at certain times of the week? Both benefit, you could argue.

These are broad cultural shifts, not just in how we have fun but in how we learn, communicate and live our family lives. And that means they are relevant to everyone.

Tony Hallett is the publisher of and you can follow him on Twitter.