Thoughts on the MTV VMA coverage (and a little bit about the future of TV)

This is my response to the coverage of the MTV VMAs 2011, and the news that Beyonce & Jay Z are expecting their first child.

On the year that MTV’s Video Music Awards celebrated record viewing figures, Twitter’s PR account announced that they’d received a record number of tweets after Beyonce’s mid-VMA confirmation that she is, in fact, with child. Despite the probable musical demigod status of said child, this record bump (no pun intended) of 8,868 tweets per second was more down to MTV’s juggernaut-inspired social media strategy for this year’s ceremony than a genuine collective outpouring of joy for Mr & Mrs Z, or the belief that this is the most worthwhile thing to talk about since March 2006.

Excessively enthusiastic I may be about the inclusion of social networks with everything in the world, but host Jim Cantiello’s repeated pushing of their ‘Twitter Tracker’ throughout the hour-long Black Carpet coverage made me uncomfortable. Rather than coming across as a gentle nudge towards an enhanced viewing experience, he seemed to be more concerned with making sure that his photos of the ‘star guests’ were widely retweeted and that the entire audience had checked in on foursquare. Regardless, the MTV Internet rampage was successful, and as was inevitable, the VMA onscreen prompting pushed the VMA online traffic up, and vice versa. And so the VMAs achieved their annual task of spectacularly outdoing themselves, this time without even arranging any reactionary performances.

The integration of television and online communication is not a new thing; communal viewing and conversations responding to television shows as they air developed organically between followers with similar interests and are simply aided by dictated hashtags and twitter handles across the bottom of the screen or on network accounts and websites. I salute MTV’s enthusiastic incorporation of social media into their VMA coverage with such monumental clout, but there was a blatant prioritising of online validation through real-time self-analysis over viewer satisfaction. As Guy Aitchison put it when I vented to him on Facebook Chat, “the vacuity of postmodern culture hits new heights.” Alternatively, to me it seemed, for want of an extensive Social Networking Etiquette vocabulary, vulgar. I wonder, if there hadn’t been a well-placed piece of celebrity gossip to collect all of the VMA ripples, would the only noticeable bump on twitter have been the utter pointlessness of those ripples.

Despite my issues with the execution of their onscreen/online integration, with its intuitive and user-friendly format and its simple tri-focus on the top VMA-related trending topics, most retweeted photos and a map and rank of celebrities tweeting from inside the venue, the specially designed Tweet visualizer itself was a largely unflawed application for the evening. The appeal to both regular and non-Tweeters was apparent, and the reasoning behind their bombardment strategy was not misguided. The popularity of livetweeting television only exists because of our social natures and the enjoyment of the collective experience. The Big Lebowski this month became the first film available to rent through the new Universal/Facebook tool, ‘Social Theater’, which encourages users to enjoy the film ‘while engaging with friends’. Clay Shirky perhaps gives us the clearest insight into why this may be during his talk ‘Why Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World’.

“The media landscape in the 20th century was very good at helping people consume, and we got as a result very good at consuming. But now that we’ve been given media tools, the internet, mobile phones, that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be, we were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to use. We still like to consume of course, but it turns out we also like to create and we also like to share.”

Obviously this whole concept has logistics to consider – for example, I personally find the thought of a movie obscured by multiple windows more irritating than exciting – but the huge spike in interactive television viewing at the VMAs this weekend may be the strongest proof yet that the most passive of pastimes may have passed its laziest day.

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