Category: Work

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.

Battlefront hots up…


Our teen campaigning project, Battlefront, is reaching the end of its first run in May, and the 20 campaigners have been working around the country on events and publicity for their causes. Here’s a run-down of some of the stuff they’re up to:

Zuhal Sultan from Baghdad will be playing at Wigmore Hall in London on April 2nd at 1pm, her first concert in the UK, and giving a talk about why she wants to set up the first ever National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.  Please come along to hear her perform and support her campaign!

On 31st March at 8am James Greenhalgh is using an amazing machine called a flogo to send pound shaped bubbles over the Houses of Parliament. Watch the Flogo demo video – they look awesome! Then on April 1st he  is putting on an event at the House of Commons in front of 50 MPs and invited guests, launching a consultation report on why tuition fees should be capped.

On April 25th Tom Robbins (who spent Pancake Day giving away free pancakes in Soho) is putting on his Kindival at the Chelsea School of Art.  This will be talks and debates about different aspects of kindness medical, social, financial benefits etc, plus interactive performances, plus an art exhibition. He’s also planning to set a UK record for the biggest group hug at a football stadium in a few weeks time. Brave man…

Alexander Rose has had The Mirror back his campaign against Gun and Knive crime, and launched the latest stage of his campaign – involving keyrings made from melted-down guns and knives handed into the police – with a huge event at the Ministry of Sound this week .

Siobhan and Becky promoted their Make A Big Change With Your Small Change campaign by travelling in a campervan to Oxford, Birmingham and London and meeting musicians, dancers and street performers in different busking spots across the cities.  For the finale, Vincent and Flavia from Strictly Come Dancing performed with them in Covent Garden.  Flavia kicked open a piniata of pledges the girls had been collecting from the public during their trip, with over 1000 names of people pledging to make a big change with their small change

Finally, all the Battlefronters are meeting in London on Monday, March 30th to be filmed for the final episode of the next series for C4. They’ll be sharing their experiences in the past year, meeting the mentors who have helped them with their campaigns and also getting the support of celebrities and MPs, including Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

There’s lots more going on across all the campaigns, so please go to the site and support the campaigners in any way you can. We’re already planning to run Battlefront again, and to build a tool set for campaigners to co-ordinate their campaigns and share experience with other campaigners. We’ll still be following a group for the TV programme, but will have more capacity for teens to upload and run their own campaigns.

Oh, and finally, we’ve been nominated for an International Digital Emmy! The ceremony is on Monday, and i’ve brushed up my tuxedo just in case…

Ada Lovelace day – Alice Taylor

Alice Taylor

Taking part in Suw’s excellent Ada Lovelace Day initiative has presented a bit of a dilemma. I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of really inspiring women who are inventing the future of media and technology. At Channel 4 alone, there is Louise Brown, Jo Roach, Margaret Robertson, Jen Topping and Azka Malik; all of whom are role models for any one of any gender interested in working with technology.

But after much deliberation,  I thought i’d write about Alice Taylor, my fellow commissioning editor at C4 Education. I’ve worked alongside Alice at the BBC and at C4 for about 6 or 7 years now, and I’ve known her for probably over a decade. Her work has stretched from developing one of the first (and most elegant) sites for  social avatars (I’m still using mine on all my social networks) to an ongoing passion for gaming and its potential to change the way we think about entertainment and education.

She has a well-earned reputation as a witty blogger and expert in her field, all the more important when working in gaming,  a traditionally male-dominated industry. I always get a kick out of seeing Alice traipse through the office with a group of 20-something indie game geeks in her wake, all of them in awe that they’re in the presence of Crystaltips. Even better, the fact that she’s on her 2nd or 3rd level 70 WOW avatar, when casually dropped into conversation, elegantly punctures the ego of any male game geek who thinks they’re dealing with a ‘girl’ who doesn’t really understand games unless they’re about horses and packaged in pink. Trust me, she could probably kick your arse as well.

But the main reason for writing about Alice is that I think she’s just about to really hit her stride. Most people who really change things, who genuinely set new standards in their field, have a moment where they seem to blossom and fill the spaces they’ve been rehearsing in their heads for a long time. They have an energy that seeks out talent, a passion that makes people want to commit their effort to the cause, and a clarity that makes everything seem obvious.

I see all of this in Alice right now, and for that reason, she’s one of the most inspiring women I know working in technology at the moment. I can’t wait to see what she will achieve in the next few years, and how this will change things for future generations of women wanting to make their own spaces, and futures, in technology, media and games.

More Widgets!

Breeder Banner

I’m very pleased to say we’ve launched our latest C4 Education project – Routes – which is a massive cross-platform-video-game-arg-thingy (we’re gonna need a bigger category…) looking at genetic science and the impact its going to have on 21st Century life. Its all good, but my favourite bit at the moment is the lovely Breeder, a delightful multiplayer mini-game in which you have to try and breed with other creatures to reach a desired end-state. Although most people I know who have played it just spend all their time cruising for people they know and breeding with them. I sure that’s educational in some way, though…

And to encourage Breeder activity all over the web, you can install a widget of your breeder on whatever flavour SNS you prefer. I’m off to my long-neglected Facebook account to give it a bit of Breeder love.

Battlefront Widget-y goodness

[clearspring_widget title=”Widget” wid=”49240391ad6b46cc” pid=”496bbab905f3f036″ width=”300″ height=”652″ domain=””]

We’ve recently launched some rather lovely widgets for our Battlefront project. You can embed a widget for any campaign you want to support, such as the marvellous Alexander Rose above. We’re also experimenting with widgets on another project, where we’re experimenting with using them on Myspace and Bebo. Alter Ego gives you tools tocreate badges about different aspects of your personality, whilst Dictum asks you questions about your opinions and morality.

I’m interested how these will propogate, or not. The Battlefront widget has already generated over 17,000 views, despite just a handful of installations (its only been up a week or so).

2009 is going to be Really Interesting

Lovely present in the post today

A lovely package arrived in the post yesterday, containing the above newspaper. Its produced by Russell Davies and Ben Terrett, under the aegis of the Really Interesting Group, the new sort-of-organisation they’ve started to do projects for fun, money, or both.

The newspaper is a collection of blog posts, tweets and pictures that Ben and Russell liked in 2008. It’s surprising the difference it makes to see web content laid out in print. Some things work much better in print – Dan Hill’s epic The Street As Platform blog post is something I’ve been meaning to read for ages, but never managed to when online. Offline,  it was perfect for the commute to Hove from London last night. Images work very well, as they have the chance to play with scale – Matt Jones’ image of a rocket at NASA gets the centrespread, whilst Chris Heathcote’s photos of food are displayed as a grid over another double-page spread. Tweets are printed along the top of each page, above the main content, a brilliant analogue for their ‘running-commentary’ status. The exception is the entire twitter stream from @marsphoenix, printed over 4 pages with just three tweets highlighted in red – the one saying ‘i’ve landed!’, the one saying ‘we’ve found ice!’ and the very last binary code tweet. There’s something very elegaic about this sequence – it resembles the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

On the last page, Ben And Russell say that “2009 feels like a year for printing and making real stuff in the real world. Its going to be exciting”. I agree. I started work this week feeling really optimistic and ambitious, despite the newspaper that day being one of the most depressing i’d ever read. There’s something about the recession that clears the decks, exposes the charlatans, and creates more space for people to do stuff they love, care about or want to change. I’m really, really excited, about what will happen this year, and about discovering the new, exciting, and Really Interesting things that will be produced.

Tiny Vernacular Futures

Sometimes, a random web session throws up a series of coincidences, like three cherries on a fruit machine. Today, three interesting takes on futures pinged the radar. First was Matt Jones’ giddy notes on attending a Ken Adam talk at the V&A, projecting a line from Adam’s high-modernist volcanic dens for Bond Villains, via Dan Hill’s visualisations of wifi architectures to Google’s plans for floating data centres cooled by the ocean. Then, I caught up with Jane McGonical’s Superstructs, a collaborative scenario-writing game led by The Institute For The Future. Finally, Russell Davies proposes taking a middle-england model village and hacking it to create a collaborative vision of the future.

These ideas describe a range of scenario styles, from the lone creative vision of Ken Adams to the crowdsourced noise of Superstructs. Of the three, I find Davies’ vernacular model-village future the most intriguing. The vernacular is something that is often missed in futures work – we find it easier to believe the extremes of the modernist utopia or chaotic dystopia. Future studies deal in the grand statements of imaginary architectures, or the disruptive wake of Big Historical Moments like an earthquake or oil shock. You rarely see ideas about how something as mundane and unexciting as a suburban house or village shop will look in 100 years time.

Yet, the vernacular is both the wake of detritus that is tidied up to make history, and the tiny atoms of our potential futures. Vernacular architectures are local solutions to local problems; evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Vernacular photographs are the opposite of photo-journalism – statements of identity rather than history, created to be passed down through future generations, rather than looked up in libraries.

What would a vernacular future look like? I think it would be a link in a chain, rather than a break. The shop in Russell Davies’ model village would have leaflets offering deals on future comms networks alongside tinted colour postcards of the local area. Our Post Office sells scraperboard craft sets similar to the ones I played with in the 70s alongside inkjet cartridges and MP3 keychains. The local shopping st includes an (excellent) tradtional family butcher and a grocery-cum-wifi-cafe-cum-money-transfer shop. The wall edging our kids’ nursery playground has the faint ghost of a pre-war shop sign painted directly on bricks next to an Adshel board rotating mobile phone adverts.

It might take a lone genius like Ken Adam to imagine the future, but, as I hope Russell Davies finds out, it take a village to build it.

Matthew Postgate appointed as Controller of BBC R&I

Jemima Kiss has broken the news that Matthew Postgate has taken up the new Controller of Research & Innovation role at BBC Future Media and Technology. This is fantastic news – Matt really understands the role that Research and Innovation plays at the BBC, has had lots of experience with the politics of the organisation and its stakeholders, and is a genuinely lovely bloke as well. He has the vision, intelligence, charisma and leadership skills that the R&I team need to truly influence the future of the BBC.

The last few years have been difficult for research & innovation at the BBC, as the traditional long-term standards and engineering work of the R&D team in Kingswood Warren has had to adapt to a world in which it is often outstripped by short-term web-based innovation. Meanwhile, it has had to react to calls for it to open up its platforms and research to support a wider UK innovation community. There has been a lot of work in the last 5 years to address these issues – some successful, some not – but its an unfinished process, and Matt will have to create a new innovation culture in the organisation.

I’m sure he’ll have a lot of people giving him advice, but as someone who worked in Innovation at the BBC for 5 years, I thought it was worthwhile writing down some thoughts. I appreciate that advice from ex-colleagues can often seem tainted by unfinished politics and unsettled debts, so I’ve focused on what’s possible in the future, rather than raking over old memories. Here’s five things that would be inspiring, intriguing, or even controversial for BBC R&I to do:

1 – Put BBC R&I in a national and global context
Just as the BBC internet strategy has changed from being about to being about the BBC on the internet (eg Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, et al) the R&I team need to see themselves not as a BBC team, but as part of a network of innovation in the UK and the world. This happens a lot at the level of individual people and projects, but all the targets and evaluation of the R&I team’s work at an organisational level focuses far too much on short-term value within the BBC. This might seem a reasonable way to justify investment in a time of budget cuts, but the best companies and talented individuals in the world right now evaluate themselves and their work against their peers, regardless of whether they work for the same company, a competitor, or somebody in a completely different market. The BBC should have the ambition to see its R&I talent as part of this peer group, and measure its success acoordingly.

2 – Make the 2012 Olympics a focus for innovation
Innovation thrives when it has a big, meaty challenge to aim at. The 2012 Olympics will be a landmark event for the BBC and digital media, as its the first Olympics where the host nation will have an entirely digital broadcast network (or at least, as near as dammit). I saw Ben Gallop, head of BBC Sport Interactive, present at a Westminster eForum conference on New Media opportunities for the Olympics, and he promised that, for the first time,, at any Olympics, the BBC will cover all 4,000 hours of sporting activity across the whole event. This is the kind of challenge that motivates, inspires and draws together teams of talented people. There should be at least half-a-dozen big, meaty Olypmic-based challenges that can raise the profile of BBC R&I within the organisation and the UK

3 – Give away one amazing thing every month
The BBC has dipped its toe in the water of open source, open collaboration and open licensing of content over the last few years, but these have been fringe projects that haven’t really had the impact that they intended. Bitter experience tells me that trying to change things in a systemic, strategic way is just too damned hard in an organisation as politically complex as the BBC. Better to try and do one amazing thing every month, rather than spending 3 years pushing one rock up a hill. Pick one BBC asset, research project, technology – whatever – and give it away for people to play with. And do this every month, without fail.

4 – Make money, or even better, make money for other people
This might be controversial, especially in the middle of a global financial crisis, but some of the work that BBC R&I does has commercial potential. There needs to be ways for this work to be licensed, spun out, experimented with and commercialised where this make sense, even if this is by other people than the BBC. This was always a massively political issue within BBC R&I, as many felt that having a commercial focus would drive research away from the BBC’s core goals. This is nonsense – letting researchers explore commercial partnerships, start-ups or other exploitation routes can help innovation get out the door more quickly than the BBC can manage itself. This will benefit the organisation by putting its own innovation products in the same commercial context as external suppliers, giving them the challenges and opportunities that the rest of the market deals with every day.

5 – Make R&I a virtual network of talent inside and outside the BBC
This is similar to the first point, but is more about individuals than organisations. The BBC has, over the years, attracted an incredible amout of talent to its new media and R&I teams. Many of them have gone on to be thought leaders in their fields, and have created some of the most innovative products on the web, sometimes even for the BBC itself. R&I should encourage conversations and collaboration with any talent, not just the people working for the BBC itself. There should be a revolving door of talent working for, with, alongside and sometimes against BBC teams. People tend to leave the BBC with a sense of rejection or resentment – this is partly because of the uncanny cultural influence that such an august institution has on you, and the feeling that you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of its circle. Far better to see the BBC as somewhere like Pixar –  a once-in-a-lifetime creative community that you’ll feel part of for the rest of your life.

I left the BBC to join Channel 4, and have relished the opportunity to do some of the things i’ve mentioned above. It might seem counter-intuitive, as Channel 4 launches its own digital innovation project (led by another BBC New Media alumni), to be offering the BBC advice, but I’d love to see the UK’s two PSB organisations competing for the best ideas, talent and projects in the UK. Between the BBC and C4 there is a wealth of experience, talent and most importantly, resources. I’m sure that Matt will turn R&I into an incredibly exciting and fun place to be, and that we’ll all be keeping an eye on what the ‘competition’ is doing, and using this to drive our own ambitions for 4IP.

Icapture – watching you, watching ads

Russell Davies has been writing some excellent stuff lately about the widening gap between designers’ beautiful, optimistic visions for spimes and augmented reality, and the increasingly noisy way that advertising is colonising public space. Davies points out that whilst design thinkers see a future which is (to use Matt Jones and Tom Coates‘ phrase) ‘Polite, Pertinent and Pretty‘; the reality is likely to be rude, irrelevant, and messy:

“And, what’s worse, we’re going to see the same mess writ even larger – all over our cities. If we thought urban spam was bad. Wait until it’s animated, live and augmented, skinned onto our buildings and beamed into our spex”

But its not just enough that our attention is being hijacked by intrusive commercial messages – they’re starting to look back at us as well. TruMedia’s iCapture system places a webcam in advertising displays that captures images of people looking at the ads. They then use a facial recognition system to create a demographic analysis of the people watching the ads for reporting back to the client. Here’s how it works:

The system currently anonymises all data, and doesn’t keep any of the images after extracting the data, but still – sends a shiver down your spine, doesn’t it?

Casual games buck the crunch

Mike Butcher reports on TechCrunch UK that Playfish has rasied $17m in a second round of funding. In any climate, that would be a phenomenal 2nd round, but in the current financial situation, its absolutely extraordinary. It demonstrates how important gaming is to the next wave of innovation on the web. Forget the semantic web – its gaming that will lead the innovation of new interaction models, engagement and monetisation. Especially with stats like these:

“Playfish now has over 10 million monthly active users on Facebook (around 1.5 million daily) and two billion monthly minutes of play time in under a year.”

That last stat is astonishing. If I interpret it correctly (2bn minutes of play by users per month) then that is one *heck* of a lot of attention – comparable to the attention garnered by a broadcast TV channel. If that is still growing, and they can turn that attention into cash, then $17m will quickly look like a very cheap investment.