A Question of Time: HQ Trivia and Mobile Streaming Temporality

Justin Joseph Grandinetti

Abstract


One of the commonplace and myopic reactions to the rise of televisual time-shifting via video-on-demand, DVD rental services, illegal downloads, and streaming media was to decree “the death of the communal television experience”. For many, new forms of watching television unconstrained by time-bound, regularly scheduled programming meant the demise of the predominant form of media liveness that existed commercially since the 1950s. Nevertheless, as time-shifting practices evolved, so have attendant notions of televisual temporality—including changing forms of liveness, shared experience, and the plastic and flexible nature of new viewing patterns (Bury & Li; Irani, Jefferies, & Knight; Turner; Couldry). Although these temporal conceptualisations are relevant to streaming media, in the few years since the launch of platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, what it means “to stream” has rapidly expanded. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and TikTok allow users to record, share, and livestream their own content. Not only does social media add to the growing definition of streaming, but these streaming interactions are also predominately mobile (Munson; Droesch). Taken together, a live and social experience of time via audio-visual media is not lost but is instead reactivated through the increasingly mobile nature of streaming.            

In the following article, I examine how mobile streaming media practices are part of a construction of shared temporality that both draws upon and departs from conceptualisations of televisual and fixed streaming liveness. Accordingly, HQ Trivia—a mobile-specific streaming gameshow app launched in August 2017—demonstrates novel attempts at reimagining the temporally-bound live televisual experience while simultaneously offering new monetisation strategies via mobile streaming technologies. Through this example, I argue that pervasive Web-connectivity, streaming platforms, data collection, mobile devices, and mobile streaming practices form arrangements of valorisation that are temporally bound yet concomitantly mobile, allowing new forms of social cohesion and temporal control.

A Brief History of Televisual Temporality

Time is at once something infinitely mysterious and inherently understood. As John Durham Peters concisely explains, “time lies at the heart of the meaning of our lives” (175). It is precisely due to the myriad ontological, phenomenological, and epistemological dimensions of time that the subject has long been the focus of critical inquiry. As part of the so-called spatial turn, Michel Foucault argues that theory formerly treated space as “the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time, on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic” (70). While scholarly turns toward space and later mobility have shifted the emphasis of critical inquiry, time is not rendered irrelevant. For example, Doreen Massey defines spaces as the product of interrelations, as sphere of possibility and heterogeneous multiplicity, and as always under construction (9). Critical to these conceptualisations of space, then, is the element of time. Considering space not as a static container in which individual actors enter and leave but instead as a production of ongoing becoming demonstrates how space, mobility, and time are inexorably intertwined. 

Time, space, and mobility are also interrelated when it comes to conversations of power. Judy Wajcman and Nigel Dodd contend that temporal control is related to dynamics of power, in that the powerful are fast and the powerless slow (3). Questions of speed, mobility, and the control of time itself, however, require attention to the media that help construct time. Aspects of time may always escape human comprehension, yet, “Whatever time is, calendars and clocks measure, control, and constitute it” (Peters 176). Time is a sociotechnical construction, but temporal experience is bound up in more than just time-keeping apparatuses. Elucidated by Sarah Sharma, temporalities are not experienced as uniform time, but instead produced within larger economies of labor and temporal worth (8). To reach a more productive understanding of temporalities, Sharma offers power-chronography, which conceptualises time as experiential, political, and produced by social differences and institutions (15). Put another way, time is an experience structured by the social, economic, political, and technical toward forms of social cohesion and control.

Time has always been central to the televisual. Though it is often placed in a genealogy with film, William Uricchio contends that early discursive imaginings and material experiments in television are more indebted to technologies such as the telegraph and telephone in promising live and simultaneous communication across distances (289-291). In essence, film is a technology of storage, related to 18th- and 19th-century traditions of conceptualising time as fragmented; the televisual is instead associated with the “contrasting notion of time conceived as a continuous present, as flow, as seamless” (Uricchio 295). Responding to Uricchio, Doron Galili asserts that the relationship between film and television is dialectical and not hierarchical. For Galili, the desire for simultaneity and storage oscillates—both are present, both remain separate from one another. It is the synthesis of simultaneity and storage that allows both to operate together as a technological and mediated vision of mastering time. Despite disagreements regarding how best to conceptualise early film and television, it is clear that the televisual furthered a desire for spatial and temporal coordination, liveness, and simultaneity.

In recent years, forms of televisual “time-shifting” allow viewers to escape temporally-bound scheduling. In what is commonly periodised as TVIII, the proliferation of digital platforms, video-on-demand, legal and illegal downloads, and DVD players, and streaming media displaced more traditional forms of watching live television (Jenner 259). It is important to note that while streaming is often related to the televisual, the televisual-to-streaming shift is not a clean linear evolution. Televisual-style content persists in streaming, but streaming might be better defined as matrix media, where content is made available away from the television set (Jenner 260). Regardless, the rise of streaming media platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime is commonly framed as part of televisual temporal disruption, as scholars note the growing plurality of televisual-type viewing options (Bury and Li 594). Further still, streaming platforms are often defined as television, a recent example occurring when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings called the service a “global Internet TV network” in 2016.

The changing landscape of streaming and time-shifting notwithstanding, individuals remain aware of the viewing patterns of others, and this anticipation impacts the coordination and production of the collective television experience (Irani, Jeffries, and Knight 621). Related to this goal is how liveness connects viewers to shared social realities as they are occurring and helps to create a collective sense of time (Couldry 355-356). This shared experience of the social is still readily available in a time-shifted landscape, in that even shows released via an all-at-once format (for example, Netflix’s Stranger Things) can rapidly become a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, livestreaming has become commonplace as alternative to cable television for live events and sports, along with new uses for gaming and social media. As Graeme Turner notes, “if liveness includes a sense of the shrinking temporal gap between oneself and the rest of the world, as well as a palpable sense of immediacy, then this is something we can find as readily online as in television”. To this end, the claim that streaming media is harbinger of the “death of liveness” is far too simplistic. Liveness vis-à-vis streaming is not something that ceases to exist—shared temporal experiences simply occur in new forms.

HQ Trivia

One such strategy to reactive a more traditional form of televisual liveness through streaming is to make streaming more social and mobile. Launched in August 2017, HQ Trivia (later retitled HQ Trivia and Words) requires users, known as HQties, to download the app and log in at 3.00 pm and 9.00 pm Eastern Standard Time to join a live gameshow. In each session, gameshow hosts ask a series of 12 single-elimination questions with three answer choices. Any users who successfully answer all 12 questions correctly split the prize pool for the show, which ranges from $250 to $250,000. Though these monetary prizes appear substantial, the per-person winnings paid out are often quite low based on the number winners splitting the pool. In the short time since its inception, HQ has had high and low audience participation numbers and has also spawned a myriad of imitators, including Facebook’s “Confetti” gameshow.

Mobile streaming via trivia gameshows are a return to forms of televisual liveness and participation often disrupted by the flexible nature of streaming. HQ’s twice-a-day events require users to re-adapt to temporal constraints to play and participate. Just as intriguing is that “HQ sees its biggest user participation—and largest prizes—on Sundays, especially if games coincide with national events, such as holidays, sports games or award shows” (Alcantara). Though it is difficult to draw conclusions from this correlation, the fact that HQ garners more players and attention during events and holidays complicates notions of mobile trivia as a primary form of entertainment. It is possible, perhaps, that HQ is an evolution to the so-called second screen experience, in which a mobile device is used simultaneously with a television. As noted by Hye-Jin Lee and Mark Andrejevic, the rise of the second screen often enables real-time monitoring, customisation, and targeting that is envisioned by the promoters of the interactive commercial economy (41). Second screens are a way to reestablish live-viewing and, by extension, advertising through the importance of affective economies (46). Affect, or a preconscious structure of feeling, is critical to platform monetisation, in that the capture of big data requires an infrastructuralisation of desire—in streaming media often a desire for entertainment (Cockayne 6). Through affective capture, users become willing to repeat certain actions via love for and connection to a platform. Put another way, big data collection and processing is often the central monetisation strategy of platforms, but capturing this data requires first cultivating user attachment and repeat actions.

To this end, many platforms operate by encouraging as much user engagement as possible. HQ certainly endeavors for strong affective investment by users (a video search for “HQ Trivia winner reactions” demonstrates the often-zealous nature of HQties, even when winning relatively low amounts of prize money). However, HQ departs from the typical platform streaming model in that engagement with the app is limited to two games per day. These comparatively diminutive temporal appointments have substantial implications for HQ’s strategies of valorisation, or the process of apprehending and making productive the user as laborer in new times and spaces (Franklin 13). Media theorists have long acknowledged the “work of watching” television, in which the televisual is “a real economic process, a value-creating process, and a metaphor, a reflection of value creation in the economy as a whole” (Jhally and Livant 125). Televisual monetisation is predominately based on the advertising model, which functions to accelerate the selling of commodities. This configuration of capital accumulation is enabled by a lineage of privatisation of broadcasting; television is heralded as a triumph of deregulation, but in practice is an oligopolistic, advertising-supported system of electronic media aided by government policies (Streeter 175). By contrast, streaming media accomplishes capitalistic accumulation through the collection, storage, and processing of big data via cloud infrastructure. Cloud infrastructure enables unprecedented storage and analytic capacity, and is heavily utilised in streaming media to compress and transmit data packets.

Although the metaphor of the cloud situates user data as ephemeral and free, these infrastructures are better conceptualised as a “digital enclosure”, which invokes the importance of privatisation and commodification, as well as the materiality and spatiality of data collection (Andrejevic 297). As such, streaming monetisation is often achieved through the multitude of monetisation possibilities that occur through the collection of vast amounts of user data. Streaming and mobile streaming, then, are similar to the televisual in that these processes monetise the work of watching; yet, the ubiquitous data collection of streaming permits more efficient forms of computational commodification.

Mobile streaming media continues the lineage of ubiquitous immaterial labor—a labor form that can, and commonly is, accomplished by “filling the cracks” of non-work time with content engagement and accompanying data collection. HQ Trivia, nevertheless, functions as a notable departure from this model in that company has made public claims that the platform will not utilise the myriad user identification and location data collected by the app. Instead, HQ has engaged in brand promotions that include Warner Brothers movies Ready Player One and Rampage, along with a brief Nike partnership (Feldman; Perry). Here, mobile and temporal valorisation occurs through monetisation strategies more akin to traditional televisual advertising than the techniques of big data collection often utilised by platforms. Whether or not eschewing the proclivity toward monetising user data for a more traditional form of brand promotion will yield rewards for HQ remains to be seen. Nonetheless, this return to more conventional televisual monetisation strategies sets HQ apart from many other applications that rely on data collection and subsequent sale of user data for targeted advertisements.

Affective attachment and the transformation of leisure times through mobile devices is critical not just to value generation, but also to the relationship between mobile streaming and temporal and mobile control. As previously noted, Sharma elucidates that time is part of biopolitical forms of control, produced and experienced differently. Nick Couldry echoes these sentiments, in that there are rival forms of liveness stemming from a desire for connectivity, and that these “types of liveness are now pulling in different directions” (360). Despite common positionings, the relationship between television and streaming media is not a neat linear evolution—television, streaming, and mobile streaming continue to operate both side-by-side and in conjunction with one another. The experience of time, nevertheless, operates differently in these media forms. Explained by Wendy Chun, television structures temporality through steady streams of information, the condensation of time that demands response in crisis, and the most powerful moments of “touching the real” via catastrophe (74). New media differs by instead fostering crisis as the norm, in that “crises promise to move users from banal to the crucial by offering the experience of something like responsibility; something like the consequences and joys of ‘being in touch’” (Chun 75). New media crisis is often felt via reminders and other increasingly pervasive prompts that require an immediate user response. HQ differs from other forms of streaming and mobile streaming in that the plastic and flexible nature of viewing is replaced by mobile notifications and reminders that one must be ready for twice-daily games or risk losing a chance to win.

In contributing to a sense of new media crisis, HQ fosters novel expectations for the mobile streaming subject. Through temporally-bound mobile livestreaming, “networked smart screens are the mechanism by which time and space will be both overcome and reanimated” as the “real world” is transformed into a magical landscape of mobile desire (Oswald and Packer 286). There is a double-edged element to this transformation, however, in that power of HQ Trivia is the ability to reanimate space through a promise that users are able to win substantial prize money only if one remembers to tune in at certain times. Within HQ Trivia, the much-emphasised temporal freedom of streaming time-shifting is eschewed for more traditional forms of televisual liveness; at the same time, smartphone technologies permit mobile on-the-go forms of engagement. Accordingly, a more traditional televisual simultaneity reemerges even as the spaces of streaming are untethered from the living room. It is in this reemphasis of liveness and sharedness that the user is simultaneously empowered vis-à-vis mobile devices and made mobile streaming subject through new temporal expectations and forms of monetisation.

As mobile streaming becomes increasingly pervasive, new experimental applications jockey for user attention and time. HQ Trivia’s model of eschewing data collection for more traditional televisual monetisation represents attempts to recreate mobile media engagement not through individual isolated audio-visual practices, but instead through a live and mobile experience. Consequently, HQ Trivia and other temporally-bound gameshow apps demonstrate a reimagined live televisual experience, and, in turn, a monetisation of mobile engagement through affective investment.

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Keywords


temporality, liveness, mobile streaming, televisual, valorization



Copyright (c) 2019 Justin Joseph Grandinetti

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