Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Global Water-cooler

The water-cooler used to be the emblematic embodiment of television as a shared social experience whose scope extended beyond the family living room.  In an office setting in which most viewed work as drudgery, this physical oasis of refreshment became a social oasis of shared experience;  and, for the most part those experiences involved the previous night’s television viewing.  It may have begun with sports broadcasts;  but, as serial drama migrated from afternoon soaps to prime-time evening slots, the water-cooler, physical or virtual, became the venue for extended conversations over what just happened and what would next happen.

Since most of my work took place in rather lively research laboratories where extended conversation was vital to daily activity, the water-cooler was less significant.  However, I remember my wife coming home to report the “water-cooler effect” in the faculty lounge of the school where she was teaching on the morning after the first episode of Twin Peaks aired.  This was when I first became aware of how social television actually was, and it is interesting to see the impact of the Internet on that social element.

Ironically, the first major example I encountered of a water-cooler in cyberspace, so to speak, was on the ArtsBeat blog site of The New York Times.  I discovered that every Monday morning brought a recap post about the latest episode of Mad Men.  True, most of these programs now have their own Web sites supporting similar discussions;  but I saw the commitment of the Times to this particular aspect of social software as the crossing of a Rubicon of sorts.

Now it would seem that the modest breadth of the Rubicon has been exceeded by the width of the Atlantic Ocean.  We are now in a brave new world in which we are sharing the serial televised drama experience with our British cousins.  Where once my reading of the London Telegraph allowed me to learn when the British were finally going to see the concluding series of The Wire, now I see that both sides of the Atlantic are viewing the unfolding episodes of Game of Thrones almost simultaneously.  This may not have been picked up by ArtsBeat;  but Ed Cumming now seems to be in charge of the Game of Thrones water-cooler.  Furthermore, he takes his responsibility seriously enough to check for corrections submitted as comments, amending his source text when appropriate.

For my part I rather like the idea that the water-cooler has gone global.  After all, its original role as oasis-from-drudgery has now be replaced by the Internet itself (an entirely different topic for discussion).  Cross-country conversations about television drama struck me as interesting;  but I never found ArtsBeat particularly compelling.  Perhaps I have just been seduced by the idea of the conversation going global.  Perhaps, because of the nature of the Game of Thrones narrative, I am just glad that British voices have joined the conversation.  Whatever the reason, the water-cooler has become a more interesting, and possibly even more informative, place.

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