The Travel Channel and SnapMyLife: TV Experiments with Mobile Social Media, Gingerly

2/23/09Follow @wroush

People seem to eat up the platefuls of food-related programming fed to them by cable networks like Lifetime, The Travel Channel, and the Food Network. Will cell phone owners do the same?

The folks at SnapMyLife, the mobile photo-sharing community run by Needham, MA-based Mobicious, hope to find out. Last year the company formed a partnership with Zero Point Zero Production, the company behind curmudgeonly cook Anthony Bourdain’s popular Travel Channel show “No Reservations,” to post backstage candids from the show on SnapMyLife. Already the show’s crew has posted some 340 photos to SnapMyLife’s free public albums, which are advertising-supported and optimized for browsing and viewing on mobile phones. Most of the photos show Bourdain visiting countries around the world and—as he does on the show—trying a variety of exotic foods in the company of local chefs or families.

It’s all intended as a way for food and travel lovers to keep up with the show and learn about locations that will be featured in upcoming episodes. David Chang, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Mobicious, says it’s the first time a TV show has turned to mobile photo-sharing to help form connections with viewers. “The problem they were trying to solve is that they’ve got this great program, and they wanted to use mobile devices to reach people—whether to involve existing viewers, to send them alerts about new episodes, or to recruit brand new viewers,” he says. “And since SnapMyLife users come from all over the world and just eat up any content about travel, it was a really good fit, from our standpoint.”

A photo from 'No Reservations' on SnapMyLifeSome 440 SnapMyLife users have signed up to receive alerts when the crew posts new pictures from “No Reservations,” which is now in its fifth season; users can choose to see the alerts on the mobile website or receive e-mail or text messages. (Overall, SnapMyLife has signed up nearly 700,000 registered users since Mobicious launched the service last April, Chang says; users browse 15 million photos every month.)

For all the novelty of a television production company using a mobile photo-sharing network to share behind-the-scenes views, though, the “No Reservations” photo stream is curiously unsocial. It’s a one-to-many enterprise: Zero Point Zero crew members post photos that are then viewed by SnapMyLife users, but there’s no way for users to contribute their own food- or travel-related photos to the stream. And users can comment on the photos, but Zero Point Zero doesn’t engage with users by responding to the comments. (I could only find four comments from the “No Reservations” crew, for 340 photos.) The photos themselves, while less staged or scripted than the show itself, still have the look of studio-produced publicity shots.

There’s an explanation for that. According to Chang, the images that show up in the “No Reservations” photo stream have been extensively vetted by both Zero Point Zero and the Travel Channel, mainly to make sure they don’t show anyone who hasn’t signed a legal photo release.

“Dan, the camera guy, has a camera phone, and he could snap a picture and just use that—which was initially what we were pushing for,” says Chang. “But because Dan is employed by the production company, there are legal constraints in terms of what they can show.”

It’s all an interesting case study in the frictions and ironies that can crop up when traditional media enterprises like TV production crews try to adapt their content for more social, less controlled channels. When you friend Anthony Bourdain on SnapMyLife, there may not be quite as much distance as there would be if you friended, say, Barack Obama on Facebook. But it’s still a case of social networking minus the social.

“We are still trying to navigate these waters,” Chang acknowledges. “This is just stage one—taking content that we know has gone through this vetting process and getting that out to users. Stage 2 will be capturing live media on the spot in a way that is more spontaneous.”

Chang says the Mobicious team is in early discussions with the Travel Channel and other big media companies about mixing photos from users with professionally-produced content, where appropriate. “They recognize that users have mobile devices, and that it’s a great way of capturing content when they are in places that are interesting and relevant,” he says. So while the snapshot of the blowfish-testicles entrée from your last trip to Tokyo probably won’t show up on the Travel Channel itself, it might just be included in its photo stream.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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