Twitter On TV

22/09/2011 10:28 BST | Updated 18/11/2011 10:12 GMT

The West Wing's venerable Leo McGarry had a fairly glum view of modern technology: "My generation never got the future it was promised. Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don't even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped. (The personal computer) is a more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography. Where's my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?"

While he has a point, and while "Where's my jetpack?" is a question humankind should never stop asking, technology certainly hasn't stopped. In fact, such is our symbiotic relationship with the gadgets that surround us that we're on the edge of empathy for the bad old days when people had to make plans in advance and stick to them, and ascertaining personal information and photos about someone you only know the name of was next to impossible unless you were a spy.

And we may not have moon neighbourhoods just yet but social networking has made it much easier to contact the people who live on the various ones we have on earth. Not only that, it's completely changed the way we view TV.

At the start of last year Nielsen, the firm who analyse TV ratings, reported a rise of 35% in the practice of watching TV while surfing the net in the US, numbers which are inevitably rising. This level of media interconnection can have some pretty stunning effects: After a performance on the US version of So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol singer Pia Toscano saw sales of her single rise by 912%.

Twitter has also seen a remarkable democratisation of the way people interact with celebrity folk, free of stamped letters, publicists or any middlemen twisting words. If Ringo Starr was on Twitter, he probably wouldn't have needed to warn his fans with peace and love. I've even had a starstruck moment on there myself: once after making a comment about a favoured Nick Drake tune of mine, I noticed it had been retweeted by Bob Harris from The Old Grey Whistle Test. I haven't washed my laptop screen since.

It's not just the realm of impulse buying and getting electronic celebrity autographs that internet and telly synch-up have affected. The type of conversations mates have been having round the TV for years has now been opened up to the world, and the world is open to them too. People used to discuss "water-cooler moments", but thanks to Twitter hashtags it's like the TV now dispenses zeitgeist-flavoured H2O as we're watching.

Current affairs TV has benefitted particularly, as the debates going on in studios gets mocked or celebrated, dissected and developed upon before a panellist has finished their sentence. It's a phenomenon that current affairs producers are picking up on, and the Twitter element has been incorporated into all manner of discussion shows in all manner of ways. And I have first-hand experience of that.

In May of this year, I attended a feminist debate in Belfast at which there was a BBC camera that I invariably got my mug on. A series of steps later (one of which involved a screen test not dissimilar to this) and I found myself being a part of a live social media correspondent double act during the TV coverage of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, with the two of us along with one of Northern Ireland's main newscasters offering an in-studio roundup every so often of what people were discussing on Twitter and across the blogosphere. The audience were put in the unprecedented situation of watching someone who was watching people watching their coverage, and then reporting what they were saying.

At first, reporting on TV about Twitter was like shining a light in people's eyes after a few hours in the cinema, but as the slot developed people warmed to it and treated it the way it was intended: as a compliment to our own coverage that helped focus attention on the wider conversation that isn't usually made audible. It also gave us an opportunity to discuss the comedy incident of the election: a follower of high profile MLA Basil McCrea gazing lovingly at him like he's John Travolta in Grease.

Of course, there are still a few obstinate and wilfully ignorant heads, some of them lamentably high-profile, who seem to think Twitter is nothing but a repository for notifications on breakfast choices, and revel in their own old-fashioned frumpery. But, much as they resent the motor car for undermining the velocipede, from now on the hashtag is just as important as the remote.