Tune In, Check In, Tune Out

Originally published in MediaPost’s Social Media Insider

A tweet from Sunday night: “@johnmccrea oh come on, will all these apps merge already?! 🙂 and yes, giving it a try now.” It was a long day of checking in, and I was reaching my breaking point.

At the time, I was online checking out Comedy Central’s roast of David Hasselhoff. I heard there was some badge for it on Philo, one of a genre of entertainment check-in apps proliferating so rapidly that they bear a resemblance to the spread of cholera bacteria I’m reading about in the book “Ghost Map.” I checked in on Philo only to have my friend Somrat Niyogi of Bazaar Labs telling me his app Miso offered a Hasselhoff badge, which I duly earned. By the time John told me about Tunerfish, I was ready to check out. My mobile Internet connection went on the fritz or I would have had to visit TV.com’s Relay site too.

Earlier that day, I went to see the movie “Cairo Time” and, before the previews started, checked in with my usual Long Island Iced Tea of location-based apps: Foursquare, Whrrl, Gowalla, Yelp and SCVNGR. I still had some extra time, so I went to Miso and then GetGlue to share what movie I was seeing. Later I posted a note about the movie to Hot Potato.

While for many people a single check-in is a check-in too many, I enjoy some of the benefits that check-in services provide. Yet checking in somewhere is different than checking into a TV show or some form of recorded entertainment. Here are several reasons why:

1) Linguistics favor location. The most literal form of real-world checking in happens at a hotel. It’s a similar process with a restaurant host or airline terminal. When flipping channels or bringing up a program on your DVR, there’s not a natural reason to declare you’re checking into it.

2) Television is more persistent. I’m always a fan of “Top Chef.” I don’t care if the hypercritical British judge is on that week or if the fan favorite pork chef from last season went home empty-handed by having one bad day. No matter what, I’m watching it. I like that on Facebook, I can mark the show as an interest, and it’s part of my identity indefinitely. That’s my badge, and my reward is that mild amount of social currency I earn from it.

3) TV is often time-shifted. When I’m home, I’m either time-shifting by at least a day, or I’m doing so by a little bit, like when I get a call at 9:55 p.m. so I start watching a show at 10:20. Movies in theaters at least have set start times, and I may know people who are with me at the theater. Note that there, with movies, the value is still largely location-based.

4) The real world is more fun. The more reasons I come up with, the more I keep coming back to why location matters overall. When you’re out in the world, there are opportunities to meet people, discover new places and try new experiences. When you’re home watching TV, there’s the opportunity to watch something else instead. It’s a rather unfair advantage. With other forms of entertainment like books, there’s even more of a disconnect — I’m all for book recommendations, but why am I checking into one? And then do you check in every time you sit back to read a few pages, or just once? What about magazines or newspapers? Location’s easy; you’re always somewhere, and occasionally somewhere interesting enough to share it.

The best argument to counter much of what I’ve said comes from the top Twitter trends, which are largely comprised of content and celebrities related to TV, movies, and music. People love talking about entertainment. People also like talking about cat videos and the coming weekend’s football game, even though there’s nothing to check into in those cases (at least, not until someone creates a cat video check-in app). Entertainment check-in apps can be fun, though the biggest challenge now is that they’re a step removed from how people are using digital media, and all require learning new behavior.

Entertainment check-ins could be easier if you watched what you wanted and your mobile device automatically checked you in to those programs. Google actually applied for such a patent three years ago. ZDnet then reported, “A new Google Patent application entitled Social and Interactive Applications for Mass Media would trigger instant connections to users’ social networks based on a type of audio recognition of key phrases the user encounters in broadcast or multimedia applications they are watching or listening to.”

The application goes into staggering detail, with much of it focusing on advertising models, but Google appreciated how this could fit in with social media. The patent noted, “Ad hoc social peer communities provide a venue for commentary between users who are watching the same show on television or listening to the same radio station. For example, a user who is watching the latest CNN headlines can be provided with a commenting medium (e.g., a chat room, message board, wiki page, video link, etc.) that allows the user to chat, comment on or read other viewers responses to the ongoing mass media broadcast.”

Google didn’t refer to checking in specifically but detailed various other social actions. With Google’s future plans for the patent unclear, enough startups are getting consumers closer to the overarching vision. I’ll admit it was fun earning Hasselhoff badges on Miso and Philo. Such apps are increasingly offering material rewards for loyal fans, too. I’m still a check-in purist though, preferring them when I’m out in the real world with all the possibilities that can unfold.