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Bad Movie Club

Last night I took part in an experiment – the first run of Graham Linehan’s Bad Movie Club. The plan was simple – get a bad movie, start it at the same time as a bunch of other people, watch it, and talk about it on Twitter as we do so. This rather struck a chord with me, as a few weeks back at the Amplified09 Future of Online Video morning we were trying to come up with ways of watching content in a collaborative fashion and mused as to whether the Bad Movie Club approach would work.

In short – it did and it didn’t, but was quite a lot of fun, even if the film was truly awful.

The main point around collaborative watching that has popped up a bunch of times in the last few weeks, as I’ve been doing a load of collaborative video stuff recently for entirely random and disparate reasons, is that doing it live is what it’s about. You can add annotations to a video stream and have them pop up as you watch, as Vimeo now do, but not only do you have the interactive element when watching live, but you also have a sense of being part of An Event, which adds to the enjoyment. I’ve been talking to people at the BCS about streaming their talks through UStream.tv, giving us a message board for the watchers to interact with the live room, and it’s that ability to talk to the live event that people grab hold of as one of the most important pieces.

Last night’s movie of choice was M Night Shyamalan’s execrable ‘The Happening’. It may not have been the best choice for a first run, as rather than being amusingly bad it’s just depressing in its awfulness. Horrendous script, awful plot, no resolution and lots of shots trying to film the wind. The occasional shocking or impressive scene could not save it and at the end I was properly disappointed in a film for the first time in years – it sat heavily and immovably in the zone of the truly bad, not even touching on the boundaries of terribleness that might have made it amusing to watch.

According to the Bad Movie Club website, the crowd was about 2000 strong and there were about 40,000 tweets sent tagged with #badmovieclub. I watched the stream and commented through TweetChat, a site that works to compartmentlise twitter by detecting hashtags in the main public stream and dividing out the tweets into seperate ‘rooms’, almost IRC style, also enabling easy adding to the ‘room’ by automatically adding the hashtag to the end of your tweets. The comments flowed thick and fast and it became almost impossible to keep up with them, and for most of the film my attention was not focused on the screen, although with The Happening that was a bit of a blessing.

It was fun – people made amusing comments and pulled interesting things out of the movie as things went along. The concept of non-local participation in events is something I’m very interested in, but a completely distributed event like this, as there was not a lot of mention of groups watching together in the same room – the demographic for this kind of experiment is often the lone keyboard tapper, like my good self – is something I’ve not considered much before. Having played with things like Phreadz and Seesmic in the past, one of the main points that pops up is whether text or video is the appropriate medium for various different uses, and in this case live video interaction would win out, if it was possible for us to keep track of 2000 talking heads yammering over each other at the same time. We seemed to be pretty much in sync during the watching of the film, but the time taken for each person to get their comments out into the stream meant that there was a shifting window of commenting as the film continued – not too much of an issue, but definitely chipping away at the immersiveness of the interaction in the same way that a friend sitting next to you on the sofa commenting on something that happened in the last scene might.

The full volume of commenting also made it difficult to keep up. It was as if we were sat in a large room with everyone shouting their comments out at the same time, with overlaps in context, repetitions of sentiment with varying different levels of effectiveness and the occasional gem lost amongst the baying of the crowd. Exactly as you would expect from the varied crowd.

So, as an idea does it have legs? I think so. People use Twitter in different ways and my stream of related tweets has caused at least one former follower to block me on the site, having flooded his normally more sedate stream with seeming non-sequitur’s  that got in the way of his normal online interaction (a problem that was much more noticeable in the days when the text messaging service was still operating – having your phone flooded by me exuberantly trying to deconstruct a DragonForce gig is not to everyone’s taste…), and I think this brings up the main problem with the Bad Movie Club idea – is Twitter actually the right medium for it? Annoyingly there are, as ever, points for and against.

Firstly, in its plain and default state Twitter is not compartmentalised, and while there are applications to help users make sense of the potentially overwhelming stream of data that the site processes, this raw stream is what many users, myself included, use. The addition of a pile of data from an event that you are not involved with, leading to contextual failures and seeming random tweets, is something that annoys people a lot of the time on the site, and once you hit a critical mass of people that you follow engaging in the same event you end up with the service almost being crippled as your stream becomes overcome with information that you cannot process effectively without a ‘real-life’ context. Outside of last night’s rather extreme demonstration of this we have recent events such as the Obama inauguration (although almost everyone on Twitter seemed to be looking at that), the Apple Expo keynote and almost every web and tech related conference in the last year.

The fact that we had to use third party tools to join in effectively, which leads to security issues due to Twitter’s current lack of a secure API and the ‘give me your username and password’ that the 3rd parties have to do in order to integrate with the site, demonstrates further that at the moment it may not be the medium for this kind of interaction – although the general openness of Twitter that allows the creation of these tools to push forward uses of the platform that the creators hadn’t thought of is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful things about the current rash of ‘web2.0’ sites that are appearing. @glinner, despite being the instigator of the event, ended up having problems, both from not tagging his posts, leading to him being missed out of a lot of the conversation, but also from hitting a little known about spam stopping ‘tweet cap’ which led to him being locked out of Twitter before the end of the film.

As I mentioned earlier there was an IRC feel to things (and a bunch of people were even using twIRC to join in) and that led me to thinking about whether IRC itself would be a more appropriate medium for this kind of conversation. It’s a tried and tested platform, already with a pile of tools to allow people to access it, and it also is designed for compartmentalised realtime chat. However, that very compartmentalisation removes one of the big pluses that I saw last night – the drawing in of people who had no idea what was going on. Due to my spraying of tweets across the screens of my various followers, a number of people poked their heads in to look at what was going on. The reaction varied from me being blocked to people saying that they’d join in next time, but it drew in other participants as an effortless by-product to the standard interaction, in a way that the compartmentalised IRC channel never could.

So, overall I think it was interesting (as well as fun), but as @glinner is now realising it didn’t work as well as he was hoping. Tweaks need to be made to make it work ‘better’, but at the same time this seems to me to be the best way of finding out how things work – have an idea, run with it and see what happens.

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