Category: A History of Attention

Commissioning for Attention Part 1 – Read Me!

I’ve just presented at MIPTV on the theme of ‘commissioning for attention’, a phrase I’ve been using for a while to describe what I do at Channel 4 Education. I hate phrases like ‘360 content’ or ‘multiplatform’, as these encourage people to get hung up on technology or to have a box-ticking mentality to where ideas can exist, rather than really focusing on users and understanding what they’re doing. We’ve learnt a lot from running projects like Yeardot, Battlefront and Routesgame over the last 18 months, so I thought I’d write up some notes on this blog from the presentation.

But before that, these ideas have been massively influenced by friends working in game design, agile website design or service design. Narrative media is still (outside of gaming) light-years behind the curve compared to the work going on in these disciplines, so a lot of the time I’m trying to act as a translator – taking concepts and ideas from more functional design disciplines into narrative/editorial contexts. When I speak to indies or producers, there’s a set of blogs/presentations that I tend to refer them to, so I thought i’d start by sharing this reading list:

If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead – Henry Jenkins
This is an incredible series of 8 blog posts, from a report commissioned by a consortia of US media producers. In this series, Jenkins elegantly skewers some of the terminology and assumptions in discussion of ‘viral’ media, and proposes a new set of concepts that beautifully illustrates how people share and participate in social media. In particular, he’s really insightful on the interplay between the commercial world of commodity media and the ‘gift economy’ of users’ social networks, and how ‘spreadable’ media works in the overlap between the two.

Tiny Social Media Objects – Jyri Engestrom
Jyri explains how social sites have at their core a ‘social object’ – eg photographs, music, second-hand goods – around which users congregate and act. The loveliest part of this presentation is his recommendation to start your site by defining its social object, and then to think about the verbs that people will apply to them. Eg in Ebay, the objects are second-hand goods, and the verbs are ‘buy’, ‘sell’ etc.

Native to a web of data – Tom Coates
Slightly earlier than Jyri’s presentation above, this is a fantastic clear and articulate presentation of how to design projects as flows and visualisations of data, rather than documents and sites. Tom elegantly reframes designing for the web using an ecological data model – design to create good, clean reusable data, that other services and users can benefit from.

Designing for the coral reef – Matt Jones/Matt Biddulph
This is a hilarious transcript from the Dopplr team’s talk at Dconstruct last year. I don’t think you had to be there to get the jokes, or to imagine what the slides were, as their descriptions are pretty good. In this talk, they’re building on some of the ideas that Tom Coates used in ‘Native…’ and bringing in Matt Jones’ interest in time/space and how you tell stories to people about their activities over time. But the great insight for me here is in designing a project so that users can engage through lots of different access points, not just a monolithic site. Matt uses a great analogy with a coke bottle – “Martin Lindstrom said, “The genius of a coke bottle is when it smashes into a thousand pieces, you still know it’s a coke bottle”. Designing your project so that its still recognisible from a fragment as it is whole is a lovely challenge.

Putting the ‘fun’ into ‘functional’ – Amy Jo Kim
My fellow commissioning editor – Alice Taylor – saw Amy give this presentation at GDC (I think) a few years ago (the link above is to the 2009 edit). Many of the design and interaction metaphors we use from the web were inherited by traditional software design, mainly from productivity software like Office. In this presentation, Amy looks at interaction concepts from game design – such as collecting, points, feedback and customization – and shows how they can be applied to social software design.

Copy as Interface – Erika Hall
I’ve not seen Erika give this presentation, but its so fantastically clear and well designed that you can get the gist of it through the presentation alone. Erika demonstrates how the web is largely navigated and understood by users via text, and how the kind of language used on web 2.0 sites relate to oral vernacular (paging Walter J Ong!), rather than more formal professional language. This is just a great presentation to give to people who think their site is about shiny flashy images or video. Its not. The cheapest and most effective thing to get right in a project is its ‘voice’ – the language and style you use in the text of the site and your other interactions with the user (email, twitter, etc).

Everything you know about ARGs is wrong – Dan Hon
As a pioneer in the world of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) Dan has earned the right to call the top of the market, and skewer some of the cliches and lazy assumptions about audience interaction that have built up around the genre. Anyone that can show a presentation slide saying “WE SUCK” in 40pt type to an audience of peers and get away with it must be doing *something* right…

And here’s a couple of more specialised presentations that I also recommend:

Content is not King – Andrew Odlyzko
Working in the content industry, its really hard to get people to understand that historically, social technologies have been more commercially successful than content technologies. Social media is potentially the first space that mixes the two (as Jenkins illustrates in his work on gift economies and commodity culture in “if its spreads…”) but most people coming to social media from broadcast forget this, and see these networks as pipes to shove content through. Odlyzko’s essay starts with a plain assertion of fact – “The Internet is widely regarded as primarily a content delivery system. Yet historically, connectivity has mattered much more than content” – and then proceeds to show why this has been true for every communication network since the telegraph. Written in 2001 at the cusp of the dotcom boom, he calls out the telcos who convinced themselves they were in the media industry rather than the ‘dump pipes’ comms market, and points out that the real money is in facilitating gossip, not commissioning ‘rich media’. Replace the comms companies with todays social media stars, and its still true.

Startup Metrics for Pirates – Dave McClure
Containing some of the most bafflingly designed slides I’ve ever seen, I think I understand just enough about McClure’s presentation to know he’s a genius. I saw him give a version of this presentation at Seedcamp in London last year, and it nailed an issue I’d been struggling with for a while – how to create a simple metrics model for complex interactive projects. His one-page buisiness plan (slide 11) is a masterpiece of clarity and simplicty, elegantly allowing you to track complex user behaviours with just 9 metrics. I’ve adapted the categories, but kept the same logic and purpose in our metrics models for Channel 4 Education. The real insight here is getting people to use the same set of metrics for both reporting and agile design. This is obvious for geeks, but for TV people raised on Overnight Ratings that happen after the project is put to bed, its a revelation.

So – that’s it for influences. Over the next few days I’ll write up some of the ideas and concepts that we’re using in commissioning at C4 Education.

Slow data and the pleasure of automated nostalgia

daytum

I’ve been playing around with Daytum a bit today, and its reminded me how playful and delightful personal data can be. I’ve often thought about getting Nike + or other personal training systems, but I think I prefer whimisical, story-telling data more than the hard-core productivity data. The Dopplr annual report is lovely because it encourages reflection and narrativisation, rather than instant action.

I think time is the crucial factor here. Systems that give you real-time data cause you to stress, as the assumption is that you need to act on the information NOW! The Dopplr annual report and Daytum encourage a slower, more reflective accumulation of data that you can make sense of retrospectively. The call to action is not ‘What are you doing?’ but rather  ‘Remember when?’.

Facebook is far too in-the-now for me – it’s  great if you’re there all the time, but its emphasis being contemporaneous is tiring. Twitter I can just about cope with, partly because natural eddies of conversation and reflection pop up all the time, and the strict format means its easier to follow. I hate automated updates in twitter, and have offended at least one friend by calling them out for spamming their feed with automatic blog or picture updates.

I’m much more interested in automated nostalgia than automated presence – data feeds that gradually acrue in your wake, rather than constantly dragging your focus on to the next five minutes. Then the next five minutes. Then the next five minutes… There are a million ways to interpret our data histories, and many of them depend on a period of reflection and absorption, rather than Just In Time decision-making.

Nicholas Feltron’s gorgeous Feltron Annual Report for 2007 is a particularly fine example of the formula – we might express it as Data+Time=Story. In this case, beautiful design helps. I commissioned Live/Work to do a research project on personal data when I was at the BBC in around 2007, and they came up with a similar idea as a way for the BBC to represent each license-fee payer’s use of BBC resources. It was a handsome, bound book with beautiful visualisations of the content and your use of it. Unfortunately, it seems the project went nowhere after I left the beeb.

Even earlier, when I was commissioning Digital Art projects in Huddersfield, we gave Lucy Kimbell some early research funding for a project that became The Lix Index. Lucy was way ahead of the personal data/spime curve, and created a slightly tongue-in-cheek art project that applied business management and financial data models to her personal life, career, and social network. The various data sets she covered included orgasms and bad dreams. That’s a good example of the kind of data that you can only really share in slow way. If you want to tell me in real time on twitter about your orgasms or bad dreams that’s great, but, if its allright with you, I’ll wait for the book version.

Six Spaces of social media

TechCrunch has an illuminating report on the Bear Stearns suggestions for Yahoo, and includes their definition of four kinds of social network:

Leisure-Orientated Sites: entertainment sites, open to all users – eg Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, Bebo, Orkut, Windows Live Space, Hi5

Professional Networking Sites: Sites focusing on business networking – Linkedin, itLinkz

Media Sharing Sites: sites focusing on the distribution and consumption of user-generated multi-media content, such as videos and photos – Youtube, Flickr

Virtual Meeting Place Sites: sites that are essentially a 3-D virtual world, built and owned by its residents (the users) – Second Life

These definitions feel a bit haphazard and thrown together – a mixture of user behaviours (networking, leisure) and media objects (video, photos). I’m not sure these distinctions are that valuable as an tool for analysing social networking – they don’t speak enough about user’s motivations for using services, nor the kind of relationships and behaviours that the services engender amongst their users.

As part of my current job, I’ve been trying to find a way of describing social media spaces in a way that can be shared by both traditional media indies and digital media agencies. The former understand genres and formats, whilst the latter understand platforms and networks. After a few weeks of gradually finding out what doesn’t work, I’ve ended up adopting a more user-centred model, based on the assumptions users have about what they can *do* in certain kinds of space, who they’ll be doing it with, and what kinds of behaviours are expected. I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, so here they are – six different types of social spaces, based on behaviours and expectations, not platforms, genres or formats. Caveat – this a crude analysis, and the examples are not exclusive – there are lots of overlaps between these spaces; and they exist both online and offline:

Secret Spaces
Behaviours: Private, intimate communication, normally with only one or two others, often using private references, slang or code
Expectations: Absolute privacy and control over the communication between users, and no unauthorised communication from third parties (eg spam)
Examples: SMS, IM

Group Spaces
Behaviours: Reinforcing the identity of a self-defined group, and your position within the group, eg ‘stroking‘ behaviour to let the group share a sense of belonging, or mild competitiveness to signal hierarchies within the group (eg who has the most friends, posts, tags, etc)
Expectations: A shared reference point for the group – eg a band, football club, school, workplace, region, etc. Rules about approving membership of the group, and icons for the group to signal their membership (badges, profiles, etc)
Examples: Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, etc

Publishing Spaces
Behaviours: Creating your own content or showcasing your talents to an audience outside of your usual social group
Expectations: The ability to control the context and presentation of your creative content. Ways to receive feedback, comments and advice from other users.
Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc

Performing Spaces
Behaviours: Playing a defined role within a game structure. Experimenting through simulation, rehearsal and teamwork to achieve a goal. Iterative exploration or repetition of activities in order to perfect their performance
Expectations: A clear set of rules that is understood by all players. Clear rewards for success or failure. The ability to test the boundaries of the game structure, or to perform extravagantly to show off your talents
Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama

Participation Spaces
Behaviours: Co-ordination of lots of small individual acts to achieve a common goal. Shared belief in the goal, and advocacy to encourage participation by others.
Expectations: Rules or structures that help co-ordinate activity towards the goal. The ability to create micro-communities within larger participation groups – eg a group of friends going on a political march together, or a workplace group created to train for a marathon
Examples: Meetup, Threadless, CambrianHouse.com, MySociety

Watching Spaces
Behaviours: Passive viewing of a linear event as part of a large group. Organising a group to attend an event, and sharing experiences afterwards
Expectations: Spectacle, entertainment, a feeling of thrill or joy. A shared sense of occasion, or of being taking out of your everyday existence for the duration of the event. Mementos or relics of the event (eg programmes, tickets, recordings, photos, etc)
Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc

So – I’ve been using these six spaces to try and get people to think outside of platforms, technology, genres or formats, and to think instead of what users might be *doing* in these spaces, and what they might be doing it *for*. Using these spaces as the inspiration for designing interactions should help us to think about how users’ *feel* about the services they use, and what kinds of implicit expectations they have of the service and other users. It asks questions for people designing services, or projects that are based on these services. Who is in control of what elements of the service? What kind of conversations are users having, and with whom? What kind of behaviours are accepted, and how are they rewarded? What kind of behaviours are rejected, and what are the punishments?

I’m sure there are many, many variants of this kind of analysis around the web, but I’ve found it really useful as a way of helping people think of the ‘register’ the project is operating within, to design from the point of view of the user, and to make sure we don’t cross implicit boundaries that will offend them or discourage participation.

More noise, more heat

Will Davies’ article The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0 compares the efficient online tools that are increasingly structuring our social and cultural lives with the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker. Becker pushed economic analysis into sociological and behavioural studies, and Will likens this to web 2.0 extending the efficiency gains that web 1.0 made for the retail sector into more personal networks:

Where Becker took the utilitarian assumptions of economics and pushed them into areas of society seemingly untouched by rational self-interest, Web 2.0 takes the efficiency-enhancing capabilities of digital technology and pushes them into areas of society previously untouched by efficiency criteria.

But in both cases there is a crucial aspect of human relations that is missed out and threatened as a result. This is that the means by which people discover, choose or access something can very often contribute its value. People are not only outcome-oriented.

Will worries that the increased speed of selection and consumption erases the inefficiences that create texture to our experiences:

[…]when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable

I normally find myself in complete agreement with Will – he is one of the most informed crtics of web culture, in that he applies rigorous, well researched thought to otherwise hyped debate, rather than being a knee-jerk nay-sayer. But in this piece he risks coming across a reactionary luddite, another Carr or Keen.

His mistake is best illustrated in the last quote above, where he gives three very different examples of human behaviour – voting, chatting to neighbours and browsing through a record shop – and suggests that Web 2.0 strategies seek to find the same efficiences in each type of transaction.

This is too crude a comparison – each of those relationships is fundamentally different, with different power relationships, cultural and financial contexts. To say that Web 2.0 strategies seek to collapse each of these different contexts into a ruthless drive for efficiency simply isn’t true.

His argument is strongest in the first scenario. He has previously pointed out the dangerous illusion that lowering the barriers to political participation is always desirable. He has called for an ‘ethics of inconvenience’ that seeks to preserve the friction in certain experiences as a way of ensuring their value is not degraded.

But what value is *really* lost through making it more efficient to chat with friends or by replacing record shops with online marketplaces? And, by the way, can we all stop talking using vinyl records as the arbiter of some kind of high-water mark for physical culture? Nick Carr’s recent Long Player post is another eulogy to the LP, which Clay Shirky has unpicked as cultural nostalgia for the LP as the “natural unit of music”, rather than an accident of the production technology available at the time.

There is an important question being overlooked in all these debates. It is not about whether ‘inefficient’ cultural and social value is lost in new technological networks (ie whether buying an LP or chatting over a fence is a more valuable cultural experience than browsing iTunes or reading Twitter). Instead, we should be looking at whether users can readily re-inscribe these values onto the new networks in their own ways. In other words – can we make these new spaces our own? Can we add noise to the signal, and does it matter if this drowns out the new, efficient, transaction itself?

In all Will’s examples, the question is not whether efficiency is a valid goal, but whether the drive for efficiency reduces ownership and transparency – whether we’re being locked into new transaction models that we can’t twist and annotate, or whether efficiency in fact creates more adaptable and mutable systems that can start to accrue new forms of ‘noise’.

A voting system that seeks to make participation more efficient whilst reducing the ability to contextualise this participation within free and open debate would indeed be a disaster, so we should strive for systems that create as much ‘noise’ around the moment of participation as possible. Sharing cultural objects has arguably – through MP3 blogs, bluetooth exchanges, etc – become more deeply ingrained in social contexts than in the ‘golden years’ of the LP. As someone who has spent more time than is strictly healthy thumbing through racks in record stores and fairs, I can admit that what we’ve lost through the ongoing digital revolution are actually feelings of privilege, snobbery and exclusivity, not some shared cultural experience.

Geoffrey Batchen has written movingly about how photography created new opportunities for cultural and social expressions. Cheap portrait photography was a far more efficient, democratic form of representation, and this openness led to vernacular annotations that re-inscribed older social currencies onto the new forms – lockets combining photos with locks of lovers hair; silver frames that included casts of baby’s boots alongside their photo. The incredibly diverse forms of social exchange on social networking services like Facebook, Flickr, etc are merely the most recent forms of this vernacular expression.

Will Davies might think that Web 2.0 has a ‘cold, cold heart’, but this is only true if you assume that ‘efficiency’ is the primary goal. Rather than arguing whether efficiency is good or bad on its own terms, we must instead place these efficiencies in context, and ask whether they increase or decrease the ability for users to re-inscribe their own cultural values in new forms. Is there more noise, more heat? or a cold, cold heart?

A manifesto for Data Literacy

Catching up on my Bloglines backlog, I noticed John Battelle’s post on a data bill of rights. Last year, I spent some time thinking about how the BBC should deal with personal data, and came up with a similar list of principles. The BBC currently has only limited authentication or profiling services, but there was a desire to do more, so I started some research work on how we should approach it. I was influenced by Live/Work’s Loome project, and commissioned them to illustrate some scenarios. As a structure for these scenarios (and as a contribution to the BBC’s 2.0 project), last summer I came up with 6 principles that I thought should inform the BBC’s attitude to capturing, retaining and using personal data:

Its Your Data
Authentication and profiling services should start from the principle that the data belongs to the user, not the company providing the service. This is a design principle, not just a philosophy – the service should be designed with this assumption at its core, and every part of the service that handles users’ personal data should assume that ownership, and therefore control, of personal data lies with the user.

It should always be visible
Following on from the previous point, the service should be designed to let users easily see their data that is held in by the service, from profiles to clickstreams to UGC. This is more than just the data transparency that Batelle calls for – its overtly designing the service with the data on the outside. By this, I mean that there should be specific views within the service that are dedicated to foregrounding user data, and making it trivially easy for users to manipulate.

Using data in a service should be a tangible experience
This is tough to do online without getting in the way of a seamless user experience, but I feel that services should be designed that make users aware in a subtle but recognisable way that their data is being used to modify the service. With off-line transactions, there’s a tangible token – handing over a loyalty card, for example – that signifies the exchange of data. For most online services, there is an initial login that sets a cookie, then nothing – the user is rarely reminded that they are leaving a complex trail of data that is having a huge affect on the service they are using. I think there could be some lessons from gaming here, where users’ data – experience points, etc – are a tangible part of the experience, and are visualised in a way that enhances user awareness and even affords certain behaviours. How could we design this kind of tangibility into other services?

Data should be tradable between services
Once users are aware of their data as a tangible part of an online experience, then why not let them ‘play’ elements of their data trail as tokens in other services? This is not the kind of under-the-counter trading between service providers that happens in schemes like Nectar. In these schemes, the user can only spend an abstracted value generated by their overall profile. What if users could choose specific aspects of their data trail to personalise aspects of other services? For example – if you’re taking part in the BBC’s Springwatch survey, how could you use your uploaded data as a fliter for a book search on Amazon? Ok, that’s a crass example, but I like the idea of users being able to trade elements of their data for more than just money off services. I’d like to be able to use my profile from one service to make a better experience on another service.

Users’ data profiles should be faceted
Very few data-profiling services let users decide which aspects of their data trails are relevant to the service their using. Most services use a just-in-case approach to profiling – they want to know everything they can about you just in case they might be able to string the data together into something meaningful for you and the service you’re using. At best, your data trail identifies you as a member of some abstract marketing profile. In the age of the Long Tail, its our specific quirky tastes that are most interesting, not the generic qualities we share with the rest of the population. How can you design a service that uses a just-in-time approach to personal data? In other words, how can you design a service that prompts the use to give you just enough personal data to enhance the service, without having to hand over their entire data trail for you to sift through? I’m a Spurs fan, I live in Hove, I’ve got two kids, and I’m interested in medium-format photography. I shop online for groceries, have a huge mortgage, but I’ve never owned a car (but do belong to a car-club). I’ve been reading a lot of books about the history of sleight of hand lately, and am still sticking with Lost, but am expecting to be disappointed. I’m mildly addicted to terrible mobile phone games, particularly driving and golf sims. I’m inspired by Sophie Calle, Forced Entertainment and Richard Feynman. Not all these things are related, so how can I choose which facets of my profile I want to reveal to a service? How can the service give me feedback that helps me understand how useful different facets of my profile are? How can this be a fun and engaging part of the service, rather than a dull box-ticking exercise?

Your data should be disposable
Finally, it should be trivially easy for users to permanently delete as much or as little of their personal data as they want. Its their data, after all, so they should have complete control over it. The service should warn you that the experience might degrade if your data trail is erased, but the final call has to be with the user. And this goes for everything from click-trails through personal profiles to uploaded UGC – text, pictures, audio and video.

Whilst at the BBC, we started a couple of projects to explore what services designed on these principles might look like. I commissioned Live/Work to illustrate some scenarios, commissioned some research from Simon Willison on OpenID, and the PMOG work that Alice commissioned from Justin Hall is a really interesting experiment in creating game-like interfaces for data trails.

But this is barely scratching the surface. I think data-literacy is one of the most important issues in society at the moment, as it touches so many other issues, from surveillance to ID cards to identify theft and even bio-technology and genetics. There is an urgent need for more products and services that are built from principles like the ones above; that inform users about how their data is being captured and used, and empowers them to play an active part in these transactions.

John Battelle’s Data Bill of Rights is a good start, but we need actual projects to illustrate why these principles will lead to a better user experience. We need a founding set of principles, but we also need projects that develop data-literacy amongst users, so that they can demand better practise from the rest of the industry. Open ID seems to be a good base to support these kind of applications, so how about a design challenge based around OpenID? Anybody want to help set this up?

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Free as in ‘red stripe’…

I’m on the last of this year’s BBC Innovation Labs, and have been following the debate around the Economist’s crowd-sourcing project – Project Red Stripe. Project Red Stripe is a team of 6 people who have been given 6 months and �100k to come up with new business models for the Economist. As part of this, they’ve launched a web site to encourage ideas from the web community.

The Economist is a well established old media brand, so jumping with both feet into the trendy worlds of crowdsourcing and open innovation is bound to raise some interest, and not a few heckles.

It would be too easy to add more criticism to the heady brew they’re stirring up, but I do think its worth adding some pointers from what we’ve learnt at the BBC. About 3 years ago, Tom Loosemore and I developed an open innovation strategy for new media. This was in recognition of the amount of informal projects we were seeing out there that used BBC content as a base, and my own theoretical interest in the writings of Henry Chesbrough and Eric Von Hippel. As a result of this, we started a series of experiments – Backstage; Innovation Labs; Participate; and a project with the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I wouldn’t say we’re experts in this, but we’ve learnt a few things about how to run open innovation projects, and are still learning – one of the lessons of running open innovation projects is that once you’ve opened the door, you can’t close it again afterwards…

It might seem obvious, but the world outside your organisation isn’t one homogenous blob. The web is just a small sub-sector of this world, and that, in turn, isn’t one homogenous blob either. Its easy to just stick an invite for ideas online, but its a pretty crude way of starting a conversation, and leaves you open to getting crude responses back.

We identified a few generic communities that we wanted to build conversations with – Corporate Peers, Academics, Indies and Lead Users – and tried to think about the dynamics of each community. The projects we’ve designed are very different as a result.

Backstage is a very open, broad community. Its based more on ‘gifts’ (feeds to BBC content) than briefs, and we try to play the role of benign host, rather than catalyst, for the community. As a result, its very social, with a high traffic mailing list. The list includes BBC staff as well as lots of outside developers (about 3000 at last count), but we try not to have an official ‘BBC voice’ on the list – Ian and Matt, who run Backstage, very much speak for themselves. Some of the ideas are starting to be picked up by BBC commissioners, but its important that they’re owned by the individual developers, not us. In a way, Backstage is a way of listening as much as it is a product development pipeline. By engaging and supporting a community of interested developers, we find out about trends, and give our own development staff a way of talking about issues facing the BBC with peers.

Innovation Labs and the AHRC project are very different. Labs is aimed at indies, and has two goals – commissioning prototypes from pitched ideas, and broadening BBC commissioners’ knowledge of talented indies from across the UK. So Labs follows a more traditional ‘pipeline’ model – we start with commissioners setting briefs, which are more open strategic questions than specific “we need a website for XXX” briefs. We then do half-day sessions with the commissioners and interested digital media indies around the UK – we did 13 in Oct/Nov 2006 for this year’s Labs. This is a way of starting a dialogue about what we want from proposals, so that people aren’t pitching into a vacuum. The ideas can then be submitted via a form online, using a simple Needs/Approach/Benefits/Competition format (that we nicked from SRI). We then got the commissioners to score the ideas (there were 507 submitted this year), then picked the 10 best ideas in each region for the Lab itself. The ‘winners’ get paid to attend a 5 day residential Lab where they work with BBC and other external mentors to develop their idea. On the last day, they pitch to the commissioners, and they choose the ideas that get taken forward for further development.

Labs is very different from Backstage – its very task-focused (commissioning new innovations); marketed very directly at its target audience (digital indies across the UK) and based on setting the brief in advance, rather than leaving it open to see what people want to build. But this is because of the nature of its target community – indies want real commissioning opportunities, they want to understand what the BBC’s strategy is, and they want to meet the commissioners to build a working relationship. From our point of view, we want to find ideas at an early stage, we want to steer them towards our strategic needs, and we want to get to know the indie – their skills, expertise, etc – before collaborating on projects with them.

The AHRC and Participate projects are different again, but that might the subject for another post. But perhaps its worth summarising a few of the things that we’ve learnt, and that the Red Stripe team might want to consider:

Know who you want to have a conversation with – all the people who might have good ideas for your company are not the same. Have some strategy for starting different kinds of conversation about innovation with different communities

Know how your community talks to itself – do they have already existing mailing lists, meetings, social media sites? Do they prefer to be approached via email? blog posts? conferences? Do they exist as a homogenous group at all? (one of the issues with labs is that, unlike TV indies, digital media indies are really 5 or 6 different types of company, so very hard to address as a group)

Be clear about the structure of your conversation– are you offering an open-ended conversation? do you have a particular need or strategy that you want to discuss? what are the rewards? Is there an end-point, or is it an ongoing conversation?

Not everything has to be out in the open– some of our projects have elements that are public and in full view, and some that are private. For example, pretty much everything on Backstage is in the open – either on the site, the developers’ own sites, or on the mailing list archive. But the ideas submitted to Labs are not revealed online, as we think that many indies will be rightly wary of submitting their idea to an open forum, and we’d get more ideas submitted if that part of the project was private. During the Labs process itself, we let all the participating teams write about their projects on the Labs blog. Not all of them do – some do not want to be *that* public, and many are just too busy on the Labs – so its important to let the people who own the ideas decide what to reveal and what to keep private. Which brings me to…

Make open innovation networks IP-free spaces– on all of our projects, the participants retain all the IP on their ideas, whether its on the backstage list, on the Innovation Labs, or on the AHRC projects. I believe that this is essential for promoting a collaborative dialogue, and that innovation comes out of dialogue, not secret conversations. Also, to be honest, I think that in the spaces we’re dealing with (generally, ‘web 2.0’) there is a hell of a lot of duplication, and the real value of an idea is in its specific context and application, not the generic insight. So an approach which aims to grab a share of the IP for every idea in a conversation is unlikely to make any money defending that IP for financial gain in the future. These kind of ideas are just too loose and generic for that – we’re talking about business and service model innovation here, not product innovation. Far better to not try and own the IP, and instead encourage a collaborative conversation about how you can make the bloody thing actually happen. To do that, you need people to drop their defenses and actually trust you not to rip them off. Keep the lawyers to one side until you’ve got something that you can actually build.

On the Labs, we ask the participants to sign a contract that says they own all the IP on the ideas they develop over the 5 day workshop, but we ask for a 90 day ‘first look’ clause that means they can only talk to us about developing it for that period after the end of the Lab. After that, or if we decide earlier that we’re not interested, the team can take their idea anywhere else, and we’ve got no stake in it. I think this is fair, as it puts the onus on us at the BBC to decide whether we’re serious about taking the project further, and then come to an agreement about how we’re going to do this, rather than locking up all the IP just in case we might want to take a cut of the action later. This was a bit of a battle, as it was different from our standard terms, but it was worth fighting for.

Finally:

Open Innovation is an evolving process – we definitely have not got everything right, by all means. But having an open conversation means that people won’t hesitate to tell you where you’re going wrong, and will suggest improvements. The Red Stripe team are actually being pretty good at this, but are maybe still coming across as a bit precious. There are some interesting comments on their blog referring to other comments about the IP issues, but the tone is a little ‘us and them’ – they point to comments anonymously and ridicule a few submissions, which is huge mistake – if you’ve got a private submission process, don’t then decide to reveal a couple of ideas, even anonymously, to take the piss out of them. It looks like you’re treating your participants as idiots, and treating their ideas (and IP) with casual disdain. Overall, the blog has the tone of people speaking to a community, rather than being part of that community.

But again, I think this is partly the fault of the project being too general, and not specifically targetted at a community. They suffer the single biggest problem with some open innovation projects – not being tactical enough. By broadcasting their competition in an undifferentiated way, they’ve got to somehow have the conversation on a number of different fronts, to a bunch of different communities, using a spectrum of tones, vocabularies and styles. No wonder the only tone that they can use is a rather patrician, broadcast one. But still – its an admirable experiment, and I hope it generates more targetted, tactical projects in its wake that will help them avoid the slanging match of the wide open web.

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Free as in ‘red stripe’…

I’m on the last of this year’s BBC Innovation Labs, and have been following the debate around the Economist’s crowd-sourcing project – Project Red Stripe. Project Red Stripe is a team of 6 people who have been given 6 months and 100k to come up with new business models for the Economist. As part of this, they’ve launched a web site to encourage ideas from the web community.

The Economist is a well established old media brand, so jumping with both feet into the trendy worlds of crowdsourcing and open innovation is bound to raise some interest, and not a few heckles.

It would be too easy to add more criticism to the heady brew they’re stirring up, but I do think its worth adding some pointers from what we’ve learnt at the BBC. About 3 years ago, Tom Loosemore and I developed an open innovation strategy for new media. This was in recognition of the amount of informal projects we were seeing out there that used BBC content as a base, and my own theoretical interest in the writings of Henry Chesbrough and Eric Von Hippel. As a result of this, we started a series of experiments – Backstage; Innovation Labs; Participate; and a project with the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I wouldn’t say we’re experts in this, but we’ve learnt a few things about how to run open innovation projects, and are still learning – one of the lessons of running open innovation projects is that once you’ve opened the door, you can’t close it again afterwards…

It might seem obvious, but the world outside your organisation isn’t one homogenous blob. The web is just a small sub-sector of this world, and that, in turn, isn’t one homogenous blob either. Its easy to just stick an invite for ideas online, but its a pretty crude way of starting a conversation, and leaves you open to getting crude responses back.

We identified a few generic communities that we wanted to build conversations with – Corporate Peers, Academics, Indies and Lead Users – and tried to think about the dynamics of each community. The projects we’ve designed are very different as a result.

Backstage is a very open, broad community. Its based more on ‘gifts’ (feeds to BBC content) than briefs, and we try to play the role of benign host, rather than catalyst, for the community. As a result, its very social, with a high traffic mailing list. The list includes BBC staff as well as lots of outside developers (about 3000 at last count), but we try not to have an official ‘BBC voice’ on the list – Ian and Matt, who run Backstage, very much speak for themselves. Some of the ideas are starting to be picked up by BBC commissioners, but its important that they’re owned by the individual developers, not us. In a way, Backstage is a way of listening as much as it is a product development pipeline. By engaging and supporting a community of interested developers, we find out about trends, and give our own development staff a way of talking about issues facing the BBC with peers.

Innovation Labs and the AHRC project are very different. Labs is aimed at indies, and has two goals – commissioning prototypes from pitched ideas, and broadening BBC commissioners’ knowledge of talented indies from across the UK. So Labs follows a more traditional ‘pipeline’ model – we start with commissioners setting briefs, which are more open strategic questions than specific “we need a website for XXX” briefs. We then do half-day sessions with the commissioners and interested digital media indies around the UK – we did 13 in Oct/Nov 2006 for this year’s Labs. This is a way of starting a dialogue about what we want from proposals, so that people aren’t pitching into a vacuum. The ideas can then be submitted via a form online, using a simple Needs/Approach/Benefits/Competition format (that we nicked from SRI). We then got the commissioners to score the ideas (there were 507 submitted this year), then picked the 10 best ideas in each region for the Lab itself. The ‘winners’ get paid to attend a 5 day residential Lab where they work with BBC and other external mentors to develop their idea. On the last day, they pitch to the commissioners, and they choose the ideas that get taken forward for further development.

Labs is very different from Backstage – its very task-focused (commissioning new innovations); marketed very directly at its target audience (digital indies across the UK) and based on setting the brief in advance, rather than leaving it open to see what people want to build. But this is because of the nature of its target community – indies want real commissioning opportunities, they want to understand what the BBC’s strategy is, and they want to meet the commissioners to build a working relationship. From our point of view, we want to find ideas at an early stage, we want to steer them towards our strategic needs, and we want to get to know the indie – their skills, expertise, etc – before collaborating on projects with them.

The AHRC and Participate projects are different again, but that might the subject for another post. But perhaps its worth summarising a few of the things that we’ve learnt, and that the Red Stripe team might want to consider:

Know who you want to have a conversation with – all the people who might have good ideas for your company are not the same. Have some strategy for starting different kinds of conversation about innovation with different communities

Know how your community talks to itself – do they have already existing mailing lists, meetings, social media sites? Do they prefer to be approached via email? blog posts? conferences? Do they exist as a homogenous group at all? (one of the issues with labs is that, unlike TV indies, digital media indies are really 5 or 6 different types of company, so very hard to address as a group)

Be clear about the structure of your conversation– are you offering an open-ended conversation? do you have a particular need or strategy that you want to discuss? what are the rewards? Is there an end-point, or is it an ongoing conversation?

Not everything has to be out in the open– some of our projects have elements that are public and in full view, and some that are private. For example, pretty much everything on Backstage is in the open – either on the site, the developers’ own sites, or on the mailing list archive. But the ideas submitted to Labs are not revealed online, as we think that many indies will be rightly wary of submitting their idea to an open forum, and we’d get more ideas submitted if that part of the project was private. During the Labs process itself, we let all the participating teams write about their projects on the Labs blog. Not all of them do – some do not want to be *that* public, and many are just too busy on the Labs – so its important to let the people who own the ideas decide what to reveal and what to keep private. Which brings me to…

Make open innovation networks IP-free spaces– on all of our projects, the participants retain all the IP on their ideas, whether its on the backstage list, on the Innovation Labs, or on the AHRC projects. I believe that this is essential for promoting a collaborative dialogue, and that innovation comes out of dialogue, not secret conversations. Also, to be honest, I think that in the spaces we’re dealing with (generally, ‘web 2.0’) there is a hell of a lot of duplication, and the real value of an idea is in its specific context and application, not the generic insight. So an approach which aims to grab a share of the IP for every idea in a conversation is unlikely to make any money defending that IP for financial gain in the future. These kind of ideas are just too loose and generic for that – we’re talking about business and service model innovation here, not product innovation. Far better to not try and own the IP, and instead encourage a collaborative conversation about how you can make the bloody thing actually happen. To do that, you need people to drop their defenses and actually trust you not to rip them off. Keep the lawyers to one side until you’ve got something that you can actually build.

On the Labs, we ask the participants to sign a contract that says they own all the IP on the ideas they develop over the 5 day workshop, but we ask for a 90 day ‘first look’ clause that means they can only talk to us about developing it for that period after the end of the Lab. After that, or if we decide earlier that we’re not interested, the team can take their idea anywhere else, and we’ve got no stake in it. I think this is fair, as it puts the onus on us at the BBC to decide whether we’re serious about taking the project further, and then come to an agreement about how we’re going to do this, rather than locking up all the IP just in case we might want to take a cut of the action later. This was a bit of a battle, as it was different from our standard terms, but it was worth fighting for.

Finally:

Open Innovation is an evolving process – we definitely have not got everything right, by all means. But having an open conversation means that people won’t hesitate to tell you where you’re going wrong, and will suggest improvements. The Red Stripe team are actually being pretty good at this, but are maybe still coming across as a bit precious. There are some interesting comments on their blog referring to other comments about the IP issues, but the tone is a little ‘us and them’ – they point to comments anonymously and ridicule a few submissions, which is huge mistake – if you’ve got a private submission process, don’t then decide to reveal a couple of ideas, even anonymously, to take the piss out of them. It looks like you’re treating your participants as idiots, and treating their ideas (and IP) with casual disdain. Overall, the blog has the tone of people speaking to a community, rather than being part of that community.

But again, I think this is partly the fault of the project being too general, and not specifically targetted at a community. They suffer the single biggest problem with some open innovation projects – not being tactical enough. By broadcasting their competition in an undifferentiated way, they’ve got to somehow have the conversation on a number of different fronts, to a bunch of different communities, using a spectrum of tones, vocabularies and styles. No wonder the only tone that they can use is a rather patrician, broadcast one. But still – its an admirable experiment, and I hope it generates more targetted, tactical projects in its wake that will help them avoid the slanging match of the wide open web.

Tiny Funny Big and Sad

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Tiny Funny Big and Sad, originally uploaded by matlock.

The BFI have just launched their new venue next to the NFT – BFI Southbank. At the launch last wednesday, first impressions is how it seems to resemble the FACT centre in Liverpool, which is no surprise, as Eddie Berg left the FACT centre to set up BFI Southbank, and took curator Michael Conner with him. And Fact also launched with an installation (Soft Rains) by the same artists – Kevin & Jennifer McCoy.

Actually, the space is almost a carbon copy of FACT. There’s a couple of cinemas, a ‘mediatheque’ to view the BFi archive, and the exhibition spaces themselves. Its as if Eddie has taken the plans from Fact and grafted them onto the BFI. But this is not necessarily a bad thing…

Tiny Funny Big & Sad – the project launching the BFI Southbank gallery – is a gorgeous installation. It builds on Soft Rains, using tiny cameras on flexible mounts to project live images of models of cities. These models evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper, Raymond Carver novels, Film Noir – generic american suburbs from the last 50 years. Some elements move – cars on tracks, and a carousel of anytown model people – and the projected images cut between the cameras, given an uncanny resemblance to a real film.

The McCoys’ work has long explored the grammar of film. An earlier project dissected the 70’s cop series Starsky and Hutch according to various taxonomies (every shot including a pot plant; every shot including a kiss). Soft Rains and Tiny Funny Big & Sad are like live performances of these archives, perpetually played on ‘shuffle’. There’s no narrative, just a series of evocative scenes that never resolve into a story. In their potentially endless cycles of recurring narratives, they remind me of Tim Etchells’ durational performances with Forced Entertainment (such as Quizoola) that blur the boundaries between performance and installation.

TFBS is an exquisitely realised homage to the grammar of 20th american film, and therefore to most of western visual culture of the last 50 years. It has an emotional punch that is underplayed by its initial geekiness – you’re first attracted to the perfect simulacra of the models, then moved by the poignant films projected on the wall. It’s live, yet drenched in nostalgia; staged yet uncannily charged with life. If their earlier work dissected the corpse of moving image culture, this is its reanimation – a fitting opening installation for the BFI’s ambitious new project on the southbank.

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Three people at a party of a thousand – the reality of the’former audience’

Two stats that I’ve seen in the last month have set clear boundaries over the type of landscape that big media brands are now fighting for. We all know that the diversification of platforms and increasingly blurred boundaries between personal conversational spaces and ‘content’ are forcing great changes on the media industry. But exactly how small is this burning platform?

First up, The Guardian argues that the June audience share of 25.1% for BBC1, partly because of the World Cup, could be the last time any channel reaches a quarter of the UK population:

“For by the time the next major sporting events come along to provide a World Cup-sized ratings boost- the European football championship and Olympics in 2008 – audience fragmentation due to the growth of digital TV will be that much further advanced and a 25% monthly share will be a distant memory.”

Meanwhile, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Chris Anderson tried to find out the impact that big media brands have on blogs, by using Technorati to search for references amongst the 2.7 billion blog posts that it indexes:

“What are most people actually talking about? Mostly themselves, their friends, their family and things that are more interesting to them and their daily lives than whatever we in the media choose to focus on with our limited resources and space. To use a proper head-to-head comparison with the searches above, Technorati currently shows more than 152,000,000 posts that use the word “I”. So that’s roughly 300 times more people talking about themselves (and the world around them) than talking about what the New York Times has written about.”

The top brand in Anderson’s search was actually the BBC, but that accounted for only 0.3% of references. In other words, I think the future audience share that big media brands can aim for is something between 25.1% and 0.3%. You choose where you think its more likely to be….

Of course, this is comparing apples to oranges, but thats the point – business models based on chasing the passive side of that share will be chasing a dwindling amount that will never again reach 25%. Between that and the 0.3% are a huge range of opportunities to get audiences actively engaged with your content. These former audiences, though smaller, will be far more valuable in the long term.

So, the strategy that will succed is not about trying to preserve or increase the 25%, but about getting your content out there in ways that it can be talked about and engaged with by the 0.3%. This is less about big brands and gateways than about atomizing your content into the bits that make sense in more conversational environments, and then making sure you somehow get credit back for providing the content in the first place…

Continue reading

Three people at a party of a thousand – the reality of the’former audience’

Two stats that I’ve seen in the last month have set clear boundaries over the type of landscape that big media brands are now fighting for. We all know that the diversification of platforms and increasingly blurred boundaries between personal conversational spaces and ‘content’ are forcing great changes on the media industry. But exactly how small is this burning platform?

First up, The Guardian argues that the June audience share of 25.1% for BBC1, partly because of the World Cup, could be the last time any channel reaches a quarter of the UK population:

“For by the time the next major sporting events come along to provide a World Cup-sized ratings boost- the European football championship and Olympics in 2008 – audience fragmentation due to the growth of digital TV will be that much further advanced and a 25% monthly share will be a distant memory.”

Meanwhile, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Chris Anderson tried to find out the impact that big media brands have on blogs, by using Technorati to search for references amongst the 2.7 billion blog posts that it indexes:

“What are most people actually talking about? Mostly themselves, their friends, their family and things that are more interesting to them and their daily lives than whatever we in the media choose to focus on with our limited resources and space. To use a proper head-to-head comparison with the searches above, Technorati currently shows more than 152,000,000 posts that use the word “I”. So that’s roughly 300 times more people talking about themselves (and the world around them) than talking about what the New York Times has written about.”

The top brand in Anderson’s search was actually the BBC, but that accounted for only 0.3% of references. In other words, I think the future audience share that big media brands can aim for is something between 25.1% and 0.3%. You choose where you think its more likely to be….

Of course, this is comparing apples to oranges, but thats the point – business models based on chasing the passive side of that share will be chasing a dwindling amount that will never again reach 25%. Between that and the 0.3% are a huge range of opportunities to get audiences actively engaged with your content. These former audiences, though smaller, will be far more valuable in the long term.

So, the strategy that will succed is not about trying to preserve or increase the 25%, but about getting your content out there in ways that it can be talked about and engaged with by the 0.3%. This is less about big brands and gateways than about atomizing your content into the bits that make sense in more conversational environments, and then making sure you somehow get credit back for providing the content in the first place…