Sunday, April 29, 2007

The digital water cooler

One of the oft-presumed casualties of the digital, on-demand era is the 'water cooler moment' - that totemic discussion of the previous night's (normally televisual) entertainment, nominally carried out around the office water cooler. The Scotsman recently ran a piece headed 'Last chance to share a TV moment' in response to the launch of Sky Anytime on TV and bloggers are also starting to warm to the theme.

However the advent of digital isn't actually precipitating the death of the water cooler moment. To the contrary, it might just be its saviour. Whilst the explosion in choice that characterised the first era of digital has undoubtedly contributed to diminishing audiences for live linear TV, the second era of digital, focused around greater control for the user, is helping the water cooler moment evolve and adapt to the new media landscape. Below is a discussion of some of the key characteristics of the new digital water cooler.


One of the false assumptions of those decrying the death of the water cooler moment is that synchronous viewing is a prerequisite for water cooler moments. The Scotsman article references the Only Fools and Horses episode where Del Boy falls backwards through the bar. Whilst those lucky enough to catch this comedy gem live would no doubt have eagerly joined the water cooler discussion at work the following day, those who missed it would have had to wait till the BBC decided to schedule a repeat or include the clip in an compilation programme. Had that episode first aided in the digital era, it would have been all over YouTube within the hour and been emailed around offices up and down the country the following morning. Thus, the water cooler discussion is no longer limited to those who caught the programme live (you can view the OFAH clip here).

Another erroneous assumption is that the discussion also has to be synchronous. Pre-digital, the water cooler moment tended to happen just once, the day after the programme's first broadcast. If you were off sick the day after JR got shot then you would would probably have missed your chance to contribute to your colleagues' forensic dissection of events. The Internet enables those conversations to continue as new people discover the programme. Sites such as, Television Without Pity and Tape If Off The Internet create separate discussions around thousands of individual episodes, enabling you to join the discussion around whichever episode you've most recently watched.

In addition to enabling asynchronous water cooler moments, digital is also facilitating new types of synchronous viewing and discussion. YouTube recently starting trialling a feature called Streams, which enables users to set up a 'YouTube room' where they can watch and interact with other users in real-time whilst sharing videos. Sites such as and are taking this further with user-generated content, whilst new and established broadcasters are also starting to dip their toes in the water (e.g. NBC's Heroes Two-Screen Experience and Joost's chat widget. Factor in the increasing amount of unsolicited viewer conversation that goes on via SMS and Instant Messaging whilst people are watching TV and you start to realise that the communal viewing experience is being reinvigorated, not destroyed, by digital technologies.


Another key way in which the digital water cooler moment differs from its analogue predecessor is that the conversation can be a whole lot bigger. The Internet's fundamental disregard for territorial boundaries means that anyone with a broadband connection can access a programme premiered on a US television network either live or soon after broadcast and then instantly join the online debate. The water cooler has gone global.

As well as the macro conversations around the latest episodes of Lost and 24, the digital water cooler is also facilitating the most micro of water cooler moments. Asking around the office to see if anyone caught that interesting Tetris documentary on BBC Four last night is likely to be met with blank stares, but go online and you are sure to find groups of people having their own virtual water cooler moments about that very programme.

The challenge for broadcasters is to help facilitate water cooler moments of all shapes and sizes and in all locations (both real-world and virtual). Interestingly, Channel 4 has created a Water Cooler Moments page on it's News site although its disappointingly free of video and appears to be editorially determined rather than based on what users are actually talking about/rating/linking to. A more genuine gauge of water cooler moments are sites like which scans several million blogs a day to see which online videos people are talking about the most. It's interesting that the second most viewed video on the BBC's domestic YouTube channel to date is an 8-second clip of Dr. Who kissing Martha - a classic water cooler moment which became so before it was broadcast on TV.

The aforementioned Scotsman article contains a choice quote from one of their television critics, Paul Whitelaw: "While I think services like [Sky Anytime on TV] are a good idea in theory, I think it's a shame that watching television has become such an insular thing". An insular thing? What Paul is missing is that the advent of digital is broadening out the water cooler moment beyond its traditional temporal and geographical boundaries to create an ongoing, global debate around must-see video. Not, in my opinion, something to be sad about.