I used the CNN.com/Facebook application to watch the inauguration live. The image at top is a screenshot from my experience. The video was streamed live, and on the right, you could see status updates from your Facebook friends and or all of Facebook. This is similar to watching the Twitter stream go by, but Twitter was so clogged during the inauguration that I mostly ignored it.
Watching the video plus status stream was an incredibly social experience. I was sitting alone in my cabin in the woods, but I felt like I was at a party with dozens of friends and colleagues around the world. We talked about the atmosphere in our offices, classrooms, and homes. We cheered and booed, questioned some parts and added additional content about others. While the viewing of the speech and related ceremonies would have likely been more powerful in person, the discussion and social engagement around the speech was as good as at any live event I've ever experienced. Not only could I feel the excitement of the crowd, I could also get direct, specific messages from individuals--the equivalent of people whispering in your ear. I could also tune them out at my discretion without being rude, and so I alternately drank at the social media firehouse and focused fully on Obama. I didn't have to choose between the noisy chatter and the highly produced push content. I could have both, instantaneously.
Some features of the CNN.com/Facebook platform worth noting:
- The focus on status updates, rather than open chat, encouraged people to share their own original expressions rather than getting caught up in digital discussions that could easily spiral away from the experience at hand. This was a "me-to-we" experience rather than one big "we" chat room.
- You could comment on someone else's update (see example about the celebratory bottle of wine), which provided a limited chat-type interaction. This enhanced the sense of connecting to other people and their experience of the event.
- You could access the historical updates via the scroll bar on the right. You could experience the chatter in real-time and asynchronously.
- URLs typed into the status updates were all live. While Facebook is in many ways a walled garden, they let you jump out to explore links easily.
- You did not have to be watching via the CNN.com/Facebook portal to have your comments included in the live feed. Of the four friends whose updates you see in the screengrab, only Darius' were made via the CNN.com portal. The others were folks who were using Facebook real-time to comment on their inauguration-viewing experience (which they were doing via another stream or on TV). In this case, this is an example of Facebook not creating a "wall within a wall" and restricting the activity to people only using the portal. Among my friend group, it appeared that only about 5% of friends who were updating their Facebook statuses were using the portal, so the experience would have been significantly less active without this openness.
- There was advertising (Vicks ad, top right) and two commercial entities were presenting it. My social experience was brought to me by CNN and Facebook. This does not thrill me, but I understand that commercialism is the reality of the social media landscape.
This isn't true of most live events. When museums and theaters try similarly to create a back-channel digital feeds for live events, the content and impact is heavily determined by the (relatively small) number of participants who actually use the platforms as creators and as spectators. This diminishes the sense of "live presence" that I felt during the inauguration into something choppier--the sporadic reports and interactions of a minority.
So what can a museum, arts organization, or event host do to create opportunities for experiences as rich as the one I had during the inauguration without millions of eyeballs?
- Promote a sense of drama or urgency. If the event feels like it must be experienced live, people will be more likely to tune in at the same time rather than watching a recording later.
- If it isn't live, make an event out of it. On Wednesday, the Center for the Future of Museums will be streaming Jane McGonigal's talk in December on Gaming and the Future of Museums. This is decidedly not a live talk, but the CFM is hosting a real-time screening (with chat opportunities) as a way to connect people with each other and the experience (and don't worry, the video will be available on YouTube as well).
- Let people know in advance and give content creators perks. Check out this account of how a Portland theater set up an intentional live blogging/twittering experience for a recent play. They didn't just expect people to come and start typing--they set up a special area and way for them to do so.
- Find ways for people to engage with friends they already know. I was not interested in the "Everyone Watching" feed on Facebook, nor do I care for the public timeline on Twitter. I find social network tools valuable because they connect me to people I value, not faceless masses. Similarly, I care much more about connecting with my family, colleagues, and friends during live events than with strangers.
- Use the simplest platform possible. I use Today's Meet to create back channel chat rooms for live lectures because it doesn't require users to register accounts or learn a complicated system.
- Integrate as many platforms as possible. The most powerful way to visualize all the conversations around an event is to find a way to capture them where they happen, walled gardens be damned. Digitally, this can mean using APIs to pull data from multiple feeds, but conceptually, it just means finding ways to retrieve and display content in many ways. If you have only one kind of feedback mechanism (i.e. comment cards, phone message machine, Facebook, etc.) you will only hear from the people who use that platform comfortably.