How Twitter Turned Out to Be the Only Second Screen We Really Need

When people want to talk about TV, they know where to go.

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Yesterday, Yahoo announced that it’s shutting down IntoNow, which it acquired three years ago. The iOS and Android app, which automatically identified the TV program you were watching and let you discuss it with other users, was one of the highest-profile contenders in a category known as “second screen” apps.

Yahoo will still be using IntoNow’s show-recognizing technology in other apps, so it’s not giving up on the idea of the second screen. But if IntoNow had captured the world’s imagination, it presumably wouldn’t be getting axed.

As far as I can tell, IntoNow didn’t fall victim to any direct rival: the entire second-screen category hasn’t really taken off. Some of the contenders from a few years ago have come and gone, and one of the survivors, Viggle, just bought another, Dijit, which had earlier acquired yet another second-screen company, Miso. The whole category is shrinking.

I’ve written about IntoNow and thought it was neat. But I didn’t find myself using it. When I want to talk with other folks about something in real time — TV, or any other subject — I head to Twitter, reflexively. That’s where my friends are, as well as random strangers with shared interests. And unlike Facebook, Twitter is optimized for this sort of as-it-happens chatter.

(I was about to call it “water-cooler chatter,” but then it dawned on me: that’s a really ancient-sounding reference. Or at least it’s been a really long time since I’ve worked anywhere where the water cooler was a principal gathering place for this sort of conversation. And even in its heyday, water-cooler chatter never happened in real time.)

In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard for an app optimized to complement TV-watching to be a superior alternative to Twitter. For newbies, Twitter is famously hard to grok, and it has no features explicitly designed to enhance TV. But as with many things on the Internet, community trumps technology — and Twitter is where there’s a thriving community of TV fans.

And even though Twitter will never describe itself as a second-screen app, it’s clear that it knows it is one. The company has acquired Trendrr and Bluefin Labs — two companies involved in analyzing data about what folks are watching on TV — and is working with Nielsen on something called the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating. In other words, the company has been optimizing itself for TV without doing anything that was, from a consumer standpoint, obviously optimized for TV.

With technology, it’s always dangerous to declare any competitive battle to be over. But for now, at least, Twitter seems to have won the second-screen wars, without ever having been part of them. It’s great news for Twitter, and not a bad thing for TV fans — but a sobering lesson for a bunch of well-intentioned, clever startups.