The Internet and Entertainment: Part One – The Watchalong

In this four-part series, we’ll look at how the internet has affected the way we experience and enjoy entertainment like books, films and shows. Technological advances in the last few decades have transformed the way we interact with the world. But what does all that mean for traditional media?

Earlier this evening, I sat down to watch an episode of my current obsession with a friend. (NB: That’s not a show called My Current Obsession, although there probably is one out there.) We sat and laughed at our alternative nicknames for various characters, sniffled at the emotional parts, got excited in the lively moments and screamed “Kiss the girl!” at the screen at the end of the episode, despite knowing it was never going to happen. The usual fan experience of watching with a friend. Then I went downstairs and told my parents – who I’m staying with for the summer, and who really ought to be used to this sort of madness by now – what we’d been up to. My mother was completely confused; after all, the friend I’d just spent an hour mucking about with lives 461 miles away by Google Maps’ most conservative estimate. What was this sorcery?

If you’ve been around in fandom online for a while, you might not be as confused as my mother, but for the sake of getting us all on the same page, let me explain. What my friend and I had just experienced is known as a watchalong, and it’s something I recommend everyone try at some point. Basically, it relies on you both having access to the same film or show – for example, anything available (however temporarily) on catch-up TV websites is perfect for a watchalong, as is any film or show you both have on DVD. You get to the start of the media, and then – by instant messenger, Skype, or phone – you make sure you both press ‘play’ at exactly the same time. That instant messenger window, Skype call, or phone connection? That’s going to be your conduit for all those thoughts and feelings fans are so prone to when watching something.

From there, it’s like the old days, when you used to invite a mate round after school and sit there watching children’s telly together. Except you get the whole sofa to yourself and your parents aren’t nagging you to offer your friend a drink – you got those in advance because pausing during a watchalong is far too much hassle to be done for such a thing as drinks – and best of all, you don’t even actually have to haul yourself out of bed to do it. You might have to schedule your watchalong around meals but there won’t be any concerns about when you ‘should get home, it’s getting dark’ because you’re travelling by modem.

Now, I remember watching children’s telly with friends I’d invited back from school, and honestly it tended to be a pretty dull, if not just plain awkward, experience. What makes a watchalong different? Well, for one thing, you choose what you’re going to watch. For another, you’re watching it with someone who’s also interested, and who wants to play off the piece as much as you do. Because – in my experience, anyway – the film or show you’re watching is only half the watchalong experience.

When I first saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at my local cinema, it was one of the first showings and there was a faintly playful atmosphere in the room. My overwhelming memory of that first look at the film isn’t any piece of cinematography or any plot detail that was included or missed – it’s the moment that Cornelius Fudge finally admitted “He’s back!” and a loud, boisterous male voice shouted “Genius!” from the back of the audience. We all laughed, we all shared that special moment of interaction not just with the other human beings watching the film, but with the film itself. That experience is what a watchalong excels at.

If synchronising playback sounds like a lot of hassle to you, it’s because it is. Why not just chat about a film or episode you’ve both seen, based on your memory of it? There are several reasons. For one thing, if you’re introducing a friend to a TV series on-demand, for example, you can experience all their reactions in real time. If it’s something like Sherlock, for instance, you both – or all, because there’s no rule that says a watchalong can’t involve more than two people – get to share in the misapprehensions and wrong guesses a first-time viewer inevitably makes along the way. It’s a great way to experience and record first impressions.

But even if you’re not watching for the first time, both being at the same point means that you can react organically to what’s on the screen. Rather than typing “When Lestrade said it wasn’t his division, I couldn’t work out what his division was”, you can just say “What is his division?!” which is much easier on the old typing fingers. Personally, I seem to find myself writing humorous alternative dialogue with my friends more often than not – it’s a great way to be spontaneous and creative without the time to second-guess yourself that you get when you’re writing a fanfic.

There’s another benefit to synchronised playback; you can talk about things you’d never remember by the end of the film, as they happen. Whether that’s “I thought they were going to kiss for a moment there” or “that shot is ridiculously gorgeous”, it’s great to be able to discuss the little things along with the big. I work backstage in a theatre, and the tenet there is that unfortunately, the audience only notice the creative’s team work if it goes wrong. The same is generally true of TV and film – when you walk away from it you don’t usually look back and say “you know that third scene, where the vampire was rising from his coffin? That was really well lit.” In a watchalong, though, you’re far more likely to say “Ooh, that shot’s gorgeous” – and if your friend responds, you might end up having an artistic or technical discussion you never knew you were capable of having.

In the context of livestreams – which are effectively really big watchalongs, usually coordinated via forums and fandoms on the internet – this gives a really useful tool for the people who make the show or created the film. They can see what fans are commenting on to each other and know their work’s been appreciated – and which bits of it are being appreciated most, and why. That kind of feedback is valuable; Soundcloud, an audio website, is specifically designed to encourage that kind of feedback on the work users upload, through timed comments. Knowing when someone thought something as well as what they thought – knowing what inspired that reaction – is increasingly being recognised as a really useful tool.

There’s one more essential function of a watchalong that I want to talk about. It all comes back to that sitting with a friend watching TV thing – I can ramble on for hours about how we’re more creative together, and how specific feedback and the ability to share new things easily is important to the development of the world, or whatever. But the most important thing, for me, is that it’s no fun playing alone all the time. In a world where kids aren’t allowed to play outside on their own and teenagers frequently get ‘moved along’ if they try to gather in public, travelling by modem means young people can still make friends. And even those who don’t have those kinds of restrictions on them can benefit from making friends based on common interests rather than quirks of geography.

My first real ‘online friends’ – the ones I still consider very close friends three years on – are people I met on a roleplaying forum. Not long after I made their acquaintance, they messaged me and said “We’re doing a watchalong of Repo: The Genetic Opera tonight. You’ve just got the DVD, right? Watch it with us.” Once they’d explained how that was even possible, we watched the film together. We watched it three times that week, in fact, and by the end of it we’d bonded as a group. The film – any film we’d chosen to watch – served as a focal point. By looking at it, we weren’t looking at each other, afraid of judgement; by responding to it, there were no awkward silences. We pressed ‘play’ as a collection of vaguely familiar usernames and watched the final credits as friends.

So why have I started this series by going on about such a simple thing as watching a film or a show together? Because it’s a simple illustration of the power of the internet. Watching TV used to be a sociable thing, and a structured one – the family would sit around the TV in the living room and you’d watch a show from start to finish (unless the football was on the other side and your dad got hold of the remote – or was that just my house?). These days, everyone seems to have a TV or laptop in their room and it’s easy to shut yourself away and make mass media an extremely isolated experience. The watchalong breaks those walls down, and it breaks them down big time. I even did a watchalong last week with my family, in my living room, and my friend hundreds of miles away.

Much of what we’ll be talking about over the coming weeks in relation to the internet’s effect on media is going to be to do with that social aspect, the lack of borders – the sharing. And the sooner we all come to embrace and understand that spirit of sharing, the better, because it’s something the internet is really, really good at.

Next issue, we’ll be looking at how Social Media is changing the way films and shows are made and enjoyed, so don’t miss it!

Correction: Next issue we’ll be looking at transformative works such as fanfiction and fan art. We’ll get to Social Media later… [03/07/2012]

Eleanor Musgrove

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

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