Are Tablets Ruining Watching TV Together?

TV socializing is something of an oxymoron to begin with. When we sit down to watch the tube together, we're mostly together in the strictest technical sense—couch proximity. We might share popcorn, or laugh in unison, or murmur something about how so-and-so got fat—but it ain't exactly a meeting of the minds. Our eyes—and brains—are focused on the screen. So is adding a tablet to reach thousands estranging us from the actual people we're with?

While watching the Oscars last week, one screen didn't feel like enough. Maybe it was the inanity of what was on my TV, but I compulsively checked my iPad, with alarming frequency, to see what other people had to say on Twitter. What other people had to say, mind you, about this thing we all agreed was more or less inane and really bad. Reading the snide popshots of comedians, writers, and the generally-sarcastic intelligentsia was gratifying. More fun than watching the actual show, really! But it meant that every ten minutes or so, I'd be swiping, eyes glassy, mouth in a half-grin, absorbing small screen wit while big screen stars prattled on. It felt like a community! It felt fun! I felt connected to the several hundred strangers I follow on Twitter, as we all sat down in this digital living room together, pointed, and laughed.

Which was great! Except that I happened to be in a real living room—my own—with a real person. A real person who didn't find it so engaging, so exhilarating, so much of a hoot, that I was plugged into a tablet instead of talking to her. As mentioned—TV watching is an inherently barely-social thing to begin with. After adding a tablet to the mix? I might as well have been on the International Space Station. At every commercial break, I'd check my feed, throw out a status update, let my brainpan get prodded by the thousands of people who weren't in the room with me. And she'd sit there, staring at the muted TV. Or maybe staring at me, wondering why and when I had turned into a silent cyborg. Instead of, you know, talking to the other person like a human being. Talking about our favorite movies, who deserved to win, who got snubbed, who looked fat—things we would have done at some primeval period before the ubiquitous small LCD.

And I'm not just a sociopath. Tablets (and companies that make them) want to replace my friends with "friends"—want to replace couchmates with followers. Social apps are gunning to replace living room chatter—thin as it was already—with online interaction. Show-specific apps, like the iPad one for Grey's Anatomy (ABC's second such download), are sure clever—they detect an inaudible sound signature to sync your place in the show with other viewers, letting you gush about Dr. McDreamy with other fans. Just today, the Discovery Channel released its own version, letting you shout to the world what you're watching in the hopes that some other tablet-clutcher will shout back.

The phone was one thing. Pulling it out in social settings is dicy, but at least you can slip it out and slip it back in. Tablets, on the other hand, cast a shadow over who you're sitting next to. They have a presence in the room. You hold them with both hands. You can glance at a phone—it's harder to glance at a tablet. For better or for worse, having your phone function like a third appendage has become normal. But tablet hugging is still rude. If I were talking to someone, or even watching the Oscars with them, I'd feel slighted if they were looking at a tablet instead of looking at me. Or talking to me. Or even listening to me. But with this being The Year of the iPad (and a whole bloody stampede of other tablets), the light banter we've come to expect during primetime might fade from light conversation, to a series of Uh huh, yeahs, to nods, to nothing. It might soon be easier to ask your friend what she thought of Best Supporting Actress via Twitter than via talking.

So where does this leave us? We need new rules—new normalcy. Nobody knows how to reconcile being a human and feasting on the attention of a faceless digital multitude. Would Oscar night have been better had we both been holding tablets? Would there just have been two iPad zombies, instead of one? Or would we have shared the sharing, forwarding favorite Twitter quips and links to each other? And when we're the only one holding the machine, are we going to be okay with our pal's presence being flesh-only? Maybe. In the meantime, a lot of us are going to be a little rude.

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