You Aren’t Watching TV if You’re Watching TV Without Twitter

A look at 2012 in tweets.

I probably don’t have to tell you that President Obama’s post-victory tweet was the most retweeted message of 2012, because you may have been one of the millions who shared it. This week, Twitter announced the number of users has grown to more than 500 million, up from 140 million just six months ago.

Twitter and other sources cite the presidential elections in several countries besides our own, as well as the summer Olympics. I think a contributing factor is that people just want to be at the party. In its short six years of existence, Twitter has become as omnipresent as cell phones and email, with the “need” for an account almost as pervasive.

It’s hard to not be on Twitter when everyone from the President of the United States to Neil Young are there. While Google claims itself the arbiter of cultural zeitgeist, Twitter claims the “Pulse of the Planet,” and beyond. Live shots of Mars, live shots of Hurricane Sandy from space, and photos and status updates of the artificial insemination of Mei Xiang, the 13-year-old panda from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.—all only happened on Twitter. (I like to picture the person who was present at the insemination, but had his or her thumbs free to tweet details like “They shifted the table and are positioning Mei’s head lower than her pelvis. Gravity’s important here.”)

Have you ever been at a party and wished you could be invisible? Able to float in and out of other people’s conversations undetected? Well, data shows that’s how half the registered users behave at the Twitter party: they don’t tweet, they just tune in. And they tune in while watching television, which gave us the new term “Social TV.”

I thought the only combo of TV viewing and social media participation was “hate-watching,” but apparently 36 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds and 44 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds use their tablets while watching TV—even those shows they like. This phenom has led Neilsen and Twitter to team up with an exclusive multi-year agreement to create the “Nielsen Twitter TV Rating,” a syndicated-standard metric available for the fall 2013 TV season. Announced this week, the tool will allow producers to measure “split-screen” viewing, taking our #sofalising to a new level. Television show producers have been savvy enough to suggest hashtags in pop-ups on screen—“let’s get organized people!” and now Neilsen and Twitter are savvy enough to monetize this organically occurring use.

In 2012, Twitter can also claim to have some positive impact, and influenced too many incidents to rehash (yeah, pun intended) here. There was awareness building: “SOPA”grew from 106,000 mentions to 3.5 million in 24 hours. The Komen Foundation’s decision to no longer make cancer-screening grants to Planned Parenthood caused a Twitter uproar that sparked a much larger national conversation. Aetna realized it did Arijit Guha wrong and paid his mounting medical bills. And Hot Pockets heard Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s pleas for help, and sent hundreds of coupons to Newark residents after Hurricane Sandy.

Maybe we can focus on the good Twitter can do, rather than the controversy, fights, mistakes, and general ugliness it can cause. After all, just last week, Pope Pius XI started tweeting as well, garnering one million followers on his first day. The Vatican has always been ready to flow with the times, starting Vatican Radio 80 years ago, and, in this chronological order, its own newspaper, television service, website, and YouTube channel. So, of course, the Pope tweets: One of the most popular hashtags of 2012 is #blessed.