Q&A With Twitter’s Robin Sloan: Tweets Transform TV

Watch Twitter’s trending topics any Tuesday night, and you’ll likely find at least one reference to Glee. Check back for a live sports event, and you’re gonna get the feeling Twitter is only used by baseball or soccer fans. TV has a huge influence on what people are talking about on Twitter, but increasingly, the opposite is true as well: TV networks listen to Twitter, use tweets as feedback for their programming and even put some of them on the air.

Closely connected to this growing bond is Robin Sloan, who works on the media partnerships team at Twitter. Sloan will speak about his work and his vision of Twitter as the new global watercooler at NewTeeVee Live 2010, coming up on November 10, and we thought it would be a good idea to give you a sneak peak in the form of a Q&A.

Twitter has been cooperating with a number of TV networks, most recently MTV for the VMAs. What goes into the production of such an event from your side? I’ve heard about folks sweating in trailers…

Robin Sloan: For a lot of big TV events, we provide strategy and support from afar. But for a few select events every year, yeah, we go into the trenches with the production team. The VMAs and Obama’s town hall are two recent examples. We mainly do this to learn: What do big live events look like down on the ground? What problems are producers facing with their Twitter integrations? What are they seeing in the tweets that gets them excited? What’s getting the audience excited?

The work related to the VMAs was all about direct interaction with the audience, and maybe also about adding a visual component to the show. How else can TV networks utilize Twitter?

Sloan: A lot of folks focus on using Twitter as a marketing tool. They’ll have a bump that says something like “Tweet about the NewTeeVee show! Use the hashtag #newteevee.” And that’s great — folks should definitely do that. What gets us really excited, though, is when they go an extra step and start to transform tweets into TV content. So this can mean MTV visualizing the crazy conversation around the VMAs; it can mean ESPN highlighting pro athlete tweets on SportsCenter; or it can mean Oxygen throwing “social viewing parties” and tossing funny tweets up on the screen, live, as a show airs.

The truth is, there’s a lot of really wonderful stuff in the 90 million tweets that come through Twitter every day — but it can be hard to find. That’s an opportunity for TV networks, and all kinds of media companies, really, to do the things they’re good at — filter, focus, curate — and turn tweets into content. And doing that puts interactivity at a show’s core — instead of off to the side as a gee-whiz gimmick.

Twitter has had some problems staying up and running during the world cup. Can the sheer magnitude of TV be overwhelming?

Sloan: This kinda relates to the last question, but I’d say the scale of TV is more of a challenge in terms of content than in terms of code. Even when everything is running perfectly — and increasingly, it is — big televised events become almost a victim of their own success. If you did a search for “VMAs” during the VMAs, the good news for MTV is that there were literally millions of tweets. The bad news for users is that it was way too much to keep up with. I think this is actually a really interesting challenge; it’s one we’re thinking a lot about, and of course encouraging our media partners to think about, too.

Has Twitter changed the way you personally watch TV?

Sloan: Yep, absolutely. I mean, I remember using a Sunday paper TV guide as a kid to figure out what I wanted to watch. More recently I remember using the cable system’s programming guide — and hating it. Nowadays, Twitter is my programming guide. Most nights, there are at least one or two TV shows trending; that’s often a clue that there’s something worth tuning into — or at least knowing about. That, and I tend to listen to what @bastardmachine has to say.

Connect with Robin Sloan and other key influencers at NewTeeVee Live 2010! Check out the schedule for details, or book your tickets now.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robin Sloan.

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