The digital revolution threatened to make TV viewing an isolated and solitary experience, but now thanks to Twitter and events like the BBC Question Time Watchalong, it's becoming a social activity again, in an entirely new way
When I was young, there was a sense of occasion to TV viewing; you would come into school the next day knowing that everyone had seen the same episode of Byker Grove as you, and the idea of anyone not tuning into Eurovision or Children in Need seemed frankly ludicrous. Television was a part of our national consciousness, something that is still reflected in the nostalgic weakening-of-the-knees whenever you mention the Blue Peter garden, the broom cupboard or the theme tune to Round the Twist (generation depending, of course).
But somewhere along the way, television-watching as a collective activity died. With far greater choice of TV channels, and a growing number of simple ways to catch up on shows at a later date (can you even imagine life before the iPlayer?!), it stopped being something you planned your evenings around and became something that you’d get around to later, maybe, if you had a spare minute. Suddenly, as TV shows migrated to computers and computers migrated to bedrooms, watching television programmes became a solitary pursuit; something grubby and slightly self-indulgent that you only got up to behind closed doors. (Apart from Doctor Who, that is; Doctor Who was always the exception. Moffat willing, Doctor Who will always be the exception.)
And honestly, I didn’t think I missed that collective experience. You read a book alone, after all – why would you want to watch TV with other people?
Then Twitter came along and reminded us what we were missing.
Suddenly, I found myself tuning into things when they were actually on so that I could chat about them on Twitter at the same time - and enjoying it far more than I would that illicit, late-night fumble with iPlayer. And from the sudden outpouring of hashtags, from #xfactor to #PMQs to #thearchers, it was clear that I wasn’t alone (it wouldn’t have been any fun if I had been).
In just a few short years, Twitter has completely revitalised telly viewing for me. I almost can’t remember why I ever even watched TV back in the day; what on earth was the point, without the opportunity to snigger behind a screen, making bad jokes about people’s hair and retweeting pithy one-liners from people far funnier, cleverer and probably hotter than I am? Dubbed the “second screen” phenomenon, it’s something which has received growing attention from the media, and has the ability to liven up even the dullest and most ridiculous of programmes.
One of the most notable of these “second screeners” is Question Time, which has the ability to turn every Thursday night on Twitter into a tangled, brawling mass of politics and parody and cynicism and satire and yelling and laughter. Twitter does tend to suck you into things (I accidentally watched an entire series of X Factor a couple of years ago, entirely against my will), and you do get the impression that people initially tune in to join in, and then get hooked.
This was the case with me and Question Time. When I first started using Twitter I was barely politically engaged at all, but I rapidly found myself becoming an incurable news junkie; looking forward all week to my Thursday evenings, sat alone-but-not-alone in front of my computer with a bottle of wine. In time, a whole culture built up around those Thursday nights, centred around admiration for David Dimbleby’s ties, the Question Time Drinking Game, silly in-jokes and enormous lashings of satire. It was like a massive episode of Have I Got News for You, but with hundreds of people on the panel.
So when I found myself taking things back from the virtual into the physical and setting up a Question Time Tweetalong night, it seemed like an inevitable next step – if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. The night is shambolic but (hopefully) good fun - something that is reflective of Twitter itself – and was put together entirely using crowdsourcing: in other words the central ideas are ones which were born on the internet, and poster art, sponsors, tech support, venue ideas and website hosting were all suggested via Twitter.
Opening with a mixture of comedians and political speakers, accompanied by a live Twitter-fall projected onto the wall, the night then turns to Question Time proper and descends into pantomime booing, yelling at the screen and Dimble-dancing to the theme music. For something so esoteric, it’s strangely popular – and with branches planned in other cities around the country, it’s something which (much like a tweet gone viral) seems to have taken on a life of its own.
There’s no denying, though, that it does make for a slightly strange atmosphere at times; even though you’re physically in the same location as the people around you, you only really feel connected to them when you open up your Twitter client and tap in the appropriate hashtag. But if nothing else, it’s a perfect haven for the more socially inept among us, who quite like being around other people but don’t like the social pressure of having to actually speak; it’s one of the few places where it’s perfectly acceptable to spend the entire evening staring at your phone.