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Who's afraid of Ashley Highfield?

Today it was announced that the BBC’s New Media operations are going to be restructured radically. At the moment most of the content creation parts of the organisation are kind of co-owned – for example, Simon Nelson who was the ‘controller’ of the part of the BBC that I used to work for (BBC Radio and Music) reported equally to Jenny Abramsky (in charge of the BBC’s radio and music operations) and to Ashley Highfield (in charge of the BBC’s New Media Operations). Ashley himself had pretty much direct control over a centralised part of the organisation known internally as New Media Central.

After working at the BBC for a few years, it seems to me that this structure was a sort of clumsy compromise that had a lot of problems but a lot of benefits. I wasn’t in the right positions to see the whole picture but there seemed to be organisational and communication problems with such a layout, and a certain splitting of resources. But on the other hand – and this is a big other hand – increasingly the divisions between ‘new media’ stuff and content creation were able to blur, creating new opportunities for each to support the other which couldn’t help but be a good thing.

The other thing which almost seemed to me to be a good thing – sort of by accident – was that it created an environment where parallel parts of the BBC could operate independently and in a rather more agile fashion. More specifically still, it meant that certain parts of the organisation with a kind of critical mass of smart and clued-up people could really thrive and generate their own culture and goals and get things done, even as others weren’t doing so well. It may be just because I worked there or Stockholm syndrome but I rather think that BBC Radio and Music was one of those places, and despite the fact that a bunch of my favourite people have since moved on, I think it probably still is.

Having said that not all parts of the organisation were similarly dynamic, despite the often amazing number of talented people working within them – specifically, in my opinion, Central New Media under the direct management of Ashley Highfield.

You’ll have heard a lot of announcements coming out from his part of the organisation over the last few years, but surprisingly few of them have amounted to much. They all made headlines at the time, but they’ve all rather disappeared. Do you know what happened to the grand plans of the Creative Archive or the iMP? They were both being talked about in press releases in 2003, but the status of the iMP now appears to be a closed content trial and the Creative Archive has amounted to nothing more than a truncated Creative Commons license used by several orders of magnitude less people and a few hunded short clips of BBC programmes. Highfield’s most recent speeches from May this year are still talking about these projects, with him showing mock-ups of potential prototypes for the iMP replacement the ‘iPlayer’ that could be the result of a collaboration with Microsoft. Are you impressed by this progress? I’m not.

And then there’s BBC Backstage – a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely – despite all the talk at conferences around the world – and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds – themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There’s nothing here that’s even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr – a company that I don’t think got into double figures of staff before acquisition – has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what – two years after its inception? Even the BBC Programme Catalogue that came out of this part of the organisation a while back has gone into a review phase (do a search to see the message) without any committment or indication when it’s going to be fully opened up.

I’m sure – in fact I know – that there are regulatory frameworks that get in the way of the BBC getting this stuff out in public, but these long lacunae go apparently unnoticed and unremarked – there’s an initial announcement that makes the press and then no follow-up. If Ashley Highfield really is leading one of the most powerful and forward-thinking organisations in new media in the UK, then where are all these infrastructural products and strategy initiatives today? And if these products are caught up in process, then where are the products and platfoms from the years previous that should be finally maturing? It’s difficult to see anything of significance emerging from the part of the organisation directly under Highfield’s control. It’s all words!

And that’s just the past. This is a man who decides to embrace social software and the wisdom of crowds in 2006 – clearly waiting for Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace and show the self-appointed R&D lab of the UK new media industry the way. His joy for this space is expressed in lines like, “The ‘Share’ philosophy is at the heart of 2.0 … your own thoughts, your own blogs and your own home videos. It allows you to create your own space and to build around you”, which is ironic given that earlier last year he stated in Ariel that he didn’t read any weblogs because he wasn’t interested in the opinions of self-opinionated blowhards. This is a man who apparently coined the term, Martini Media and thinks that expressing your future strategy through smug references to 1970s Leonard Rossiter-based adverts is a surefire way to move the ecology forward. This is a man described by the Guardian in its Media 100 for 2006 as follows:

Exactly how much the impetus for such initiatives stem from Highfield, and how much from the director general, was the source of some debate among the panel.

“Ashley Highfield is among the most important technology executives working in the UK today,” said one panellist. “Yes, but talk about being in the right place at the right time,” said another. “Mark Thompson should be credited with the vision, not him.”

This is a man – bluntly – whose only contact with Web 2.0 that I can find is a pretty humiliating set of pictures on Flickr of him on a private jet and ogling at half-naked dancing girls. (Note: This set of pictures has now been taken down).

So it is, I’m afraid, with a bit of a heavy heart that I can report that the restructuring of the BBC is going to result in a much larger role for Ashley Highfield within the organisation – managing (according to the Guardian, and I’d take this with a pinch of salt) up to 4,000 people throughout the organisation. All the new media functions that have currently been distributed will now it seems be directly under his auspices, and presumably more under his influence than those of the programme makers and pockets of brilliant people around the organisation. I don’t know enough about the nature of the restructuring to know whether it’s a good or a bad thing at a more general level, but it’s pretty bloody clear to me that it’s an ominous move.

Which is what makes me so surprised when people outside the organisation talk about how scared they are of the huge moves that the BBC can make on the internet, because the truth is that for the most part – with a bunch of limited exceptions – these changes just don’t seem to be really happening. The industry should be more furious about the lack of progress at the organisation than the speed of it, because in the meantime their actual competitors – the people that the BBC seems to think it’s a peer with but which it couldn’t catch-up with without moving all of its budget into New Media stuff and going properly international – get larger and faster and more vigorous and more exciting. I want the BBC to succeed. I want it to get stronger – I think it’s a valuable organisation to have in the world and I think it sits perfectly well alongside the mix of start-ups and corporates that’s emerging on the internet. And it’s for precisely this reason that I’m concerned about these moves.

Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield? I am, and you should be too.


Visualising my tags…

I got an e-mail the other day from a guy called Kunal Anand who writes a weblog over at He’d been doing some nice simple visualisations with Python and (I think) Processing of the connections within his tags. Here’s a bit of his work:

Anyway, he asked me if he could get a dump of my XML to have a play with – I think he’s trying to see if there are any obviously different styles of tagging that you could see with visualisations of different people’s tag clouds – and I said yes. And having done so I thought that someone else out there might also get some value from playing with this data, so if you want it here it is: delicious.xml.

Design Navigation Net Culture Social Software Talks Technology

My 'Future of Web Apps' slides…

Right then. My slides. I’ve been trying to work out the best way to put these up in public and it’s been more confusing than I thought it would be. Basically, the slides are so Keynote-dependent and full of transitions and weird fonts that it would translate very badly to Powerpoint – and with no one having the fonts, the presentation would look pretty terrible anyway. So I’ve decided to put it out there in two forms – both simple exports of a slightly adapted version. If you want the PDF it’s here: Native to a Web of Data (16Mb). If you’d rather view it online directly, then I’ve used the export-to-HTML feature (which I’m beginning to suspect might kind of suck a bit) to produce the likely-to-crash-your-browser-with-its-hugeness Native to a Web of Data.

The biggest question I’ve been asking myself is whether or not it’ll make any sense as a standalone presentation, and i’m afraid to say that the answer is sort of. Without my notes there are great chunks where I’m afraid you’ll have to make pretty substantial leaps to keep the thread of the thing, which is hardly ideal. What I should really be doing is writing the thing up in a more logical thorough and coherent way, but I’m not sure I’ve got the mental agility to do that at the moment. So enjoy it in as much as you are able and I’ll think about writing it up over the next few weeks.

As usual I have to preface all of this stuff with the normal disclaimers. The views presented in this presentation do not necessarily represent the views of my employers.

Design Navigation Social Software Technology

On Metafilter's folksonomic subdomains…

I’m going to move on quite quickly back onto something way way less embarrassing and mainstream back into the boring semi-beating heart of one of my pet work-related fetishes, the folksonomy. In particular I thought I’d talk about a new development over on Matt Haughey’s Metafilter, written up on Metatalk. Each post on Metafilter can be tagged folksonomically by its author when it’s created – so when I write a post on trees, I can add a few keywords like trees, plants and leaves to make it easier for other people to find them later. What Matt has added recently is a different way to get nice easy to browse sharded versions of Metafilter by making it possible for people to use tags as a sub-domain. So for example, now at is a kind of ‘treefilter’. And at is ‘plantfilter’. And so on…

My first reaction was extremely positive – I think it’s a great idea to help Metafilter serve more constituencies to provide what amount to multiple homepages. And I love the idea of using tags elegantly to create new ways to browse around and explore sites large content sites. In fact a few years ago I spend a fair amount of time hassling Matt to start regional metafilters for people of different cultures and backgrounds, arguing for a version of the site for the UK or London or a On Regional Metafilters and Matt Haughey wants me dead). This tag format makes that actually practical – there actually is a now and a And it’s interestingly extensible in all kinds of neat directions.

But there’s something troubling about it for me, and I think it’s the idea that now a single thread on Metafilter can have a great variety of URLs. The current top thread on is called Sieg Whaaat? and it’s URL is But now, suddenly, it also has twenty other URLs including, and

Now I know that various search engines can compensate for content displayed the same in multiple places, but it’s got to affect Google rankings or any solid concept of one addressable web-page per resource on the internet. And even if it doesn’t affect the big players too much, it’s inevitably got to screw up all the other smaller services that use URLs to identify resources. How will Technorati or handle this stuff now? How will you be able to aggregate annotations or comments upon a thread in Metafilter in a coherent fashion without making it some kind of special case?

It’s such a shame really, because there’s a hell of a lot of potential here. Really what you want is some way to make these homepages as useful as they are without carrying the URL structure through into the individual thread pages. It seems clear why he hasn’t done this, of course – if you want to keep someone within a conceptual sub-site like then you have to change all the links contextually around the page to make it seem like a coherent site – on the destination pages as much as on the indices. And that means either some form of cookie-like approach that keeps track of how you found a link, or something in the URL. The former approach doesn’t work so well because it means that you can’t easily send someone a URL and be sure they’re seeing the same thing you saw. You might be recommending a great page on a site about gardening, only for them to see it as a generic and intimidating entry on Metafilter central. The latter approach creates URLs that either proliferate versions of the same page, or are full of query strings (which are somehow less definitive in their addressing of a page).

All in all then, I applaud the intent a lot but think the implementation is profoundly broken. Unfortunately I can’t think of a solution.

On a related note, though, the whole tagging thing is starting to get me really excited because it kind of makes whole database schemas quick to upgrade and you can add loads of fascinating functionality really quickly. Imagine, if you will, that any thread started in a sub-domained area includes (by default) the tag for that area. It doesn’t do this at the moment, but it could do so really easily and could start generating nice feedback loops.

Or take it in a completely different direction – get rid of tags from the subdomains and instead put in tags that represent languages. So you create a form of tags which operates as a key:value pair with a code something like lang:english or lang:francais and then present a default English homepage to Metafilter with links to and on it. You then encourage people to post links in French on the latter one, and automatically tag each of their posts with lang:francais as you do so. This would create real meaning in the subdomains and would keep the URL space nice and tidy. To browse a sub tag then, you’d have a URL like, with all the threads within that area given URLs like

Navigation Radio & Music Television

Will subscription media kill broadcast?

I just got chucked a link to some video by Kevin Marks – an early pioneer of the technology that would eventually become podcasting – in which he talks about his time in broadcast as a cameraman, working at Apple and how podcasting changes everything ( It’s a fascinating few minutes of video with an interesting thesis – that subscribable media like podcasting removes the need for streaming almost completely.

My perspective is slightly different – both bigger and smaller. Because it’s not streaming that’s most affected by a combination of on demand and ‘deliver it to me’ subscribable podcast-like functionality. The main potential victim here is broadcast itself. Those of us who have Tivos or PVR functionality are already used to the idea that we don’t have to sit in front of the television when something’s being broadcast to watch our shows. And as a consequence, I very infrequently do. I watch things time-shifted by days, or hours or sometimes only by minutes – often pausing a programme at the beginning for ten or fifteen minutes so I can later skip through all the adverts. I reserve the watching of programming live for an increasingly small proportion of shows that necessaily can be watched more effectively live – live news channels or live broadcasts from events.

My sense of the future is that the role of broadcast in the delivery of television and audio programming is going to significantly diminish over the next twenty years, and a more browsable subscribable media derived from the (fairly obvious) lessons of podcasting will replace it (with an individual either subscribing through a net interface or through a truncated remote-control based lean-back experience. And I suspect the people who are going to be maintaining the intermediary platforms for this kind of experience will be the big search, navigation and media sales companies – Amazon, AOL, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. If they have any sense, they’ll find ways to turn their hub status into a platform for a complete democratisation of content, becoming almost neutral intermediaries for large & small companies and creative individuals to put up and distribute their programming as they see fit.

But the most interesting thing is what happens to broadcast in the absence of conventional programming. My hypothesis is that television becomes more like radio. People use radio to time-keep, to feel connected to the outside world around them, to feel like they have company. They have it backgrounded. Along with coverage of live news and live events – where broadcast is clearly the easiest distributor of the coverage – I expect TV to increasingly start fulfilling that kind of topical wallpaper and companionship role. The huge explosion of music channels and news channels in the UK over the last few years seems to bear out the desire for that kind of activity, but I suspect many more ambient, easy to digest, backgroundable media will start appearing over the next decade. In effect all programming becomes a bit like much current daytime programming – topical, conversational, relaxed – a perpetual stream of context-driven and easy-to-digest media. And when people want a challenge, they’ll just try out a new show on demand.

The death of broadcast, of course, has some other really interesting aspects. It’s pretty clear that the content creators – the people with the rights – are going to be the people able to exploit this world more effectively. And they may not need television companies or broadcasters at all to get their content out to the masses – which is likely to put the cat among the pigeons in a few parts of the industry. And then there’s all kinds of other weirdnesses – how do you get people to try your show without just broadcasting it for free? Is there a way you can open up the pilot-making process to more accurately reflect the market? I can imagine a situation whereby companies hold programmes for ransom at the pilot stage – where they wait for ten thousand people to agree to pay to subscribe to the series before they even consider making episode two. And there’s a significant question about where public sector programme-making fits into that space, and whether any of the platforms will be designed for the distribution of media free to people in a particular territory.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it there and open up the subject for further discussion. What do you think the role of broadcast is in the 21st Century? Is it on the way out? How would the market work? And what scope is there for broadcast after on-demand takes over? Anyone got any thoughts?


Amazon, excess and the future of navigation…

Following a post from Anil (brought to my attention by new co-worker Simon Willison), I’ve been wandering around Amazon’s new tag implementation and my initial impressions are mixed. But I’m going to leave talking about that for another post. Instead I’m going to use Anil’s comments as a jumping-off point to talk about why tags are a good match for Amazon. I’m also going to try to use this post as a way of collecting together the various posts I’ve written on and around this subject.

Anil’s post seems a little suspicious of the Web 2.0 trend for functionality bandwagon-jumping. Or if it’s not suspicion, then maybe it’s just a slightly jaded wry exhaustion at seeing the same buzzwords manifesting across the internet. It’s a feeling that I share, but it’s a necessary side-effect of the way any new technology or approach gets interrogated and finally incorporated into the mainstream. To start off with you have a few trailblazers, then a period of enormous proliferation and clumsy re-implementation by people who didn’t understand the point in the first place, and then gradually powerful models emerge which reabsorb the concepts into the mainstream where they then seem ‘obvious’. Thinking back a few years, I can’t help thinking of the time when people started complaining about left-hand navigation systems. You wouldn’t dream of doing that now, and it’s not because people stopped using them, but because their use is pretty well understood and they’ve become pretty much invisible.

So the question remains – is there value in Amazon getting tags right? Anil thinks so, and so do I. And here’s why: Amazon really has two jobs: (1) helping people discover and navigate through an enormous number of products, and then (2) helping them buy those products. The latter is the more traditionally difficult, but that’s changing. At a certain point once you’ve got the price mechanics and delivery right, then the only place you can compete (and the place where a the internet really comes into its own) is in discovery and navigation.

Amazon knew this from the beginning – and attacked head-on the idea that people fundamentally want to buy the products that are right for them and that if you help them do that (by showing them peer reviews, ratings and as much data as a human can assimilate) then you’ll never go far wrong.

But this doesn’t simply hold true for Amazon – the future of media on demand, products, restaurants, places, holidays and pretty much everything else is one of excess. There’s an incredible, immense, almost impossible amount of information which people need help to explore and navigate. And people will pay for this navigational help – either in cash, or in terms of attention or even by sacrificing some of their privacy. After all, I derive enormous navigational utility from, and I pay for it with data about the music I listen to.

There’s significant value in navigation. There’s enormous value in discoverability. And anything you can do as an organisation to help people find what they’re after will bring you (or someone else) rewards. The big web search companies were the first to deal with this enormous excess and that puts them in a pretty good position for the next few decades. After that, who knows…

So you have products or programmes and you want to make them findable? The first job in making a service navigable is to identify the core component parts of the service and make them addressable. I’ve talked about that in my piece on Developing a URL structure for broadcast radio sites, and in my piece The Age of Point-at-Things. The next step is to work out some good semantic models of the objects you’re dealing with and how they inter-relate with each other. Once you’ve done that, then you need to start getting all the metadata you can find and glomming it onto the first order objects. There are all kinds of places you can get this stuff. For broadcast media (for example) you can collect information through:

  1. The Production Chain – from metadata captured while recording, through to data captured during the editing process, through to data input around the edges by production people, through to the times and dates of the broadcasts themselves.
  2. Direct (automated?) analysis of the media – from dynamic ranges of audio, text recognition, speech recognition or from taking first order production information and doing other stuff with it (like working out the average beats per minute or the genre and mood of songs that feature in a TV show
  3. Working with your audience or users -looking at the pages they’re going to, how they’re rating shows, describing them, linking to them and the like.

I’ve written tons about this kind of stuff. The work we did on Phonetags was about finding a way to get user-generated metadata about music in a way that was useful for the individual, but would generate more navigational value for the collective in a pleasing virtuous circle. Another piece on How to build on bubble-up folksonomies concerned itself with what becomes possible when you combine metadata about a node with an understanding of the semantic relationships between the component parts. And of course, most recently, the work I talked about recently On the BBC Annotatable Audio project brought many of these component parts together – identifiers, component parts, semantic relationships, audio annotation and structured data.

Fundamentally though, it’s all just a question of understanding the parts, finding ways to collect as much data and metadata as you can get and then analysing and representing that data back to your users in terms of ways of moving through product-space, programme-space or information-space. Even the recent appearance of the API is just an extension of this process. The fact is, APIs have little to do with making it possible for people to get access to the data they’ve submitted to sites or services. What they’re for is to make the core product more useful and more valuable by making it possible for other people to generate new ways of using it. They make the product architectural to the internet, and when the core operation of your business is hosting photographs or selling products, then the API generates ways in which a wider community can create new ways for your users to navigate through your core assets. Everyone wins from such a relationship – users win because they can find what they’re looking for and site-owners win because their service is more usable and open for exploration than they could ever make it alone (and because at the end of every API is a photo they host, or a programme they want you to watch, or a thing they want to sell).

A massive explosion in trustworthy ways of exploring through your data is how you turn a business from a repository or a directory into a web native, 21st century operation. And tags are nothing more than an elegant, scaleable combination of metadata-collection mechanisms with a way of representing that metadata navigationally. It’s an ideal fit for Amazon, if they get the implementation right… Which leaves only one question: did they get it right? Hopefully I’ll write up my thoughts on that later in the day…

Design Navigation Radio & Music Social Software

A quick review of Yahoo! Podcasts…

Double disclaimer time here – firstly I’m knackered and what follows is badly written and I will edit it later for clarity, punch and drama. The other thing is that – of course – the viewpoints represented here do not necessarily reflect those of my employers (the BBC) who may be much much more intelligent than I.

A few short months after iTunes installed a podcast directory and client comes Yahoo! podcasts, and frankly I think Yahoo are more on the money with this one. The current implementation is a bit clumsy, it’s true – there are loads of things wrong with it – but fundamentally they’ve got the idea that podcasts should be linkable, that social media navigation is fundamentally important and they’ve got that creating a platform for amateur creativity is going to be the thing that really demoncratises the medium and changes audio forever. In this – as in so many other things – they’ve taken a huge lesson from Odeo, which remains the best service on the net (and will blow people’s heads off when they launch their create tools please god sometime soon.

I wrote an enormous post about Odeo a while back, which I never published after a friend said it was ‘a little hyperbolic’. That post contained much of my thinking about the evolution of podcasting and why it was so important (and why Odeo had got it so right as far as it had got so far). I’ll dig that up later and try and get it up by the end of the day. But in the meantime, I thought I’d write a little bit about the design and implementation of podcasting on the Yahoo service (with occasional reference to some stuff that Odeo have done).

The big problem both services have is that they don’t own the audio clients that people will use to listen to (and probably download) podcasts. This unfortunately leaves iTunes with the most seamless (if truncated) experience. Odeo finds some ways around this. Yahoo! Podcasts doesn’t. The problem really is in the web interface elements. You want to be able to subscribe to a show with just one web-based click and have that be reflected with a download to your client-side audio player. Yahoo don’t even try to solve this problem, which brings us the first major problem with their product – the subscription process is a multi-stage horror of downloaded podcast files and double-clicking. It is, frankly, clumsy as all buggery. Odeo’s syncr app is a much more elegant solution – a small client through which you login to their site, and which then downloads your ‘queue’ of episodes. But Odeo’s app still has its problems – much of the great functionality of iTunes is concerned with deleting old episodes and with handling how many shows remain on your iPod. Odeo’s approach makes it harder to use that functionality.

What we really need, it seems to me, is some form of OPML-style file that a client can subscribe to that contains a collection of podcast feeds. The list of your subscriptions (in whatever appropriate format) could then be updated by web clients around the web and have that reflected in your podcast client next time it updated. I don’t know if anyone’s working on that kind of stuff. If you know anything, let me know…

So what else is going on with the Yahoo! podcasts service? Well can I just say to start off with how nice it is to see a Yahoo service that isn’t plain white! If this is a beginning of a trend for their more lifestyle / entertainment brands, then it’s something I’m in favour of. Obviously I’ve seen Yahoo Music before – but this seems to me to be a much more elegant solution – a simple top navigational structure that keeps the Yahoo brand but which could be colour-coded to represent different Yahoo products.

The rest of the page is a bit … busy … though. It’s the same problem I have with the Yahoo homepage actually – there’s just too much damn stuff on it. Or at least (in this case) there’s too lines and gaps and bits of black. It is – however – far from terrible and has take a lot of the lessons from Odeo’s implementation of subscribable programme blocks (complete with preview functionality). It’s just a bit inelegant, and doesn’t have the sheen of an iTunes or an Odeo. But generally, it’s far from sucky. Mostly well done!

One final thing I want to talk about is the implementation of tags. I think this is something that they’ve fouled up – although in this case slightly less than Odeo have. Both services allow users to add tags to describe shows, but neither builds in any impetus to do so other than pure, good-hearted altruism. The individual doesn’t bookmark or collect the shows in question, they just write stuff. There’s little or no (enlightened or otherwise) self-interest being met, and as a result I think it’ll probably fail.

The problem really comes in trying to derive value from the interactions of hundreds or thousands of people. The first rule is that the individual needs to see some value in what they’re doing (ideally personal value). It’s unclear what that value is in either Odeo or Yahoo’s implementation. But the second rule is that you should be able to aggregate individual interactions to create something bigger than the individual. Odeo gets this completely wrong – a show can be given a tag, but only one of any given tag. A bit of metadata that a thousand people think is useful is given the same conceptual weight as a bit of metadata that only one person thinks is useful. The end-result, an easily spammable system with no sense of weighting that could make searching or ranking results easier.

Yahoo tries to fix this by making it possible for a show to be tagged multiple times with the same term, but doesn’t give any clear explanation to people why they should tag a show with a word it has already been tagged by. And because there’s no obvious reason to retag something with a pre-existing word, and because there’s no value to the individual to undertake that tagging other than altruism, I can’t believe it’s going to be enormously successful.

What they need to do instead is think about a generic implementation of tagging (and a representative user interface widget) that a logged in Yahoo user can carry with them around all of their services, showing how an individual search result or review or news story or web page or podcast has been tagged by them personally (and making each tag a link off to browse their annotated collections of stuff), as well as showing the aggregate. That would make much more sense, and could be much more powerful.

Navigation Technology

In which Google launches blog search…

Okay, so the big weblog news of the day is that Google have launched their Blog Search. First impressions are that it doesn’t feel right, that quite a lot of the spririt of the weblogs and the faces of the people involved come through better via Technorati, and it doesn’t seem to leverage as much of Google’s other functionality as you’d expect (when I do a search for Matt Webb for example, it doesn’t bring back as a recommended weblog, even though it’s the #1 entry for Matt Webb in their main index, and they already know that site is a weblog).

But of course they are going to have some advantages. Unlike Technorati I pretty much guarantee that they’re not going to suffer problems with scaling their infrastructure, and that’s going to make them more reliable. And of course they have the Google brand behind them. I suspect this one will go through a couple of iterations before it feels right. Makes me wonder if all the rumours about Technorati being about to be acquired were right, and – more interestingly – makes me wonder whether it’s less or more likely to happen now that Google have shown that large search engines should be interested.

Design Navigation Radio & Music Social Software

How to build on bubble-up folksonomies…

[This post takes up some of the themes that Matt Webb, Paul Hammond, Matt Biddulph and I talked about in our paper at ETech 2005 on Reinventing Radio: Enhancing One-to-Many with Many-to-Many. A podcast of that talk is available.]

A few days ago I wrote about Phonetags, an experimental internal service that we’ve been running inside the BBC which allows you to bookmark, tag and rate songs you’ve heard on the radio with your mobile phone. Now I want to talk briefly a bit about one interesting way of using folksonomic tags that we developed conceptually while building the system.

The concept is really simple – there are concepts in the world that can be loosely described as being made up of aggregations of other smaller component concepts. In such systems, if you encourage the tagging of the smallest component parts, then you can aggregate those tags up through the whole system. You get – essentially – free metadata on a whole range of other concepts. Let me give you an example.

In Phonetags, we allow users to bookmark, rate and tag songs. They do so for a combination of personal gain and to add their voice to the collective. But music radio shows can be loosely understood as a collection of songs, and music radio networks can be equally understood as a collection of shows. So if ten songs that are well-rated and tagged with ‘alternative’ and ‘pop’ are played on one specific radio show, it’s quite plausible to argue that the show itself could be automatically understood as being tagged with ‘alternative’, ‘pop’ and that it should be considered well-rated. Similarly if all the shows are equally tagged with ‘alternative’, then it’s likely that you could describe the network that broadcasts them as an ‘alternative’ station.

How you handle the aggregation up the chain is an interesting question. My first instinct is that you would aggregate all the tags for a song, slice off the top ten or twenty and then throw away the rest and all the quantitative information. Then you do the same for all the other songs played in a show, and then reaggregate to see which tags have been played over the most songs. The alternative would be to simply add together all the tags that people sent in during that timeslot, but I think that would skew things towards the popular songs that people tagged a lot and wouldn’t necessarily reflect the character of the show itself. But that’s up for debate.

Another, and perhaps more intriguing, way of aggregating tags up through a conceptual chain would be to view albums as collections of songs and artists as a collection of albums/songs. This would mean that from the simple act of encouraging people to tag individual songs you were getting useful descriptive metadata on radio shows, radio networks, artists and albums:

The upshot of all of this is that you start getting a way of navigating between a whole range of different concepts based on these combinations of tags and ratings. The tags give you subject related metadata, the ratings give you qualitative metadata and from this you can start finding new ways to say, “If you liked this song, you may also like this album, network, album or artist“. You can start to generate journeys that move you from network to that networks most popular songs, through to the best albums on related themes (or which conjure similar moods or associations even if they’re by radically different artists) and so on.

And because you have a semantic understanding of the relationship between concepts like a ‘song’, an ‘album’ and an ‘artist’ you can allow people to drill-down or move up through various hierarchies of data and track the changes in an artist’s style over time. For me, this is a pretty compelling argument that understanding semantic relationships between concepts makes folksonomic tagging even more exciting, rather than less so, and may indicate a changing role for librarians towards owning formal conceptual relationships rather than descriptive, evocative metadata. But that’s a post for another time.

Are there other places where this kind of thing could be applied? Well, off the top of my head I can’t think of anything useful you could do with photographs, but I think folder structures on web-sites could prove an interesting challenge. I’d be fascinated to see if it would be possible to find well-structured websites with usefully nested folders and to aggregate tags from the individual pages up to section homepages and eventually to the site homepage. A little over a year ago I wrote about URL structure we developed for broadcast radio sites at the BBC built on the Programme Information Pages platform which you can see in action on the Radio 3 site. The URL structure mirrored a formal heirarchy much like the song / album / artist one – except for episode / programme brand and network. I’d be fascinated to know whether you could get a useful understanding of what Performance on 3 was about by aggregating all the tags from each of the episodes contained within its folder, and whether aggregating still further up to the frontpage of Radio 3 would give you a good description of the network’s philosophy and approach. One for Josh at, perhaps?

Now it’s over to you guys – can you think of any other heirarchies or places where we could encourage the tagging of the smallest practical component part and then derive value from aggregating up the semantic chain? Could the same thing work for non-heirarchic relationships? Anyone?

Navigation Radio & Music Social Software

Reinventing Radio: On Phonetags…

This post concerns an experimental internal-BBC-only project designed to allow users to bookmark, tag and rate songs they hear on the radio using their mobile phone. It was developed by Matt Webb and myself (with Gavin Bell, Graham Beale and Jason Cowlam) earlier this year. Although the project is a BBC project, all the speculation and theorising around the edges is my own and does not necessarily represent the opinion of my department or the BBC in general.

We have more television stations than we have time to watch, more radio programmes than we can fit in analogue frequencies, more music and film availablethan any human could consume in their lifetimes and a huge ever-growing world of information growing every day on the internet. And this is just the beginning. The next push is the archive – decades of programming coming online, lost films recovered, libraries being digitised. But the scale of even this content is dwarfed by the third push into the world of the amateurised content-creator, where potentially billions of people are putting information and media out into the world as a matter of course.

The most substantial challenge to technology creators, media creators and distributors is – then – to find ways of making this enormous and every-growing repository navigable and sensible to real people. There are substantial rewards to be found in finding ways to help people find their way around this space – and people familiar with the challenges of the web over the last ten years are in exactly the right place to work out what these navigable mechanisms are likely to look like. But you don’t only have to create the navigation to reap the rewards – the organisations that can supply the right metadata, supplementary and structured relationships about and around their media will be the ones that will survive most easily inside this new ecology.

There’s also one more major challenge. Current media distributors and large-scale media creators are going to find themselves suddenly operating in a market of peer creators, where hundreds of people can create and interact and respond to the media around them. The network is already a challenge to broadcast – people who use the internet a lot use television less – but this is a new challenge. It’s a challenge of participation – where one-to-many broadcast-style content has to figure out how to find new ways of getting their ‘audience’ involved. This is a challenge that’s all over the place – and it’s a problem of bandwidth. How does one show or product or team respond to and respect the input of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and reflect it in what they make? If you’re it’s easy – you give everyone something different. But if you’re a popular content creator with one outward channel that’s the same for everyone, things get a little harder. How will they adapt?

This is the world that a few of us went to ETech this year to talk about. Mr Biddulph and Paul Hammond talked about BBC Radio’s current offerings and live work, particularly digital radio, on-demand streams and RadioPlayer and the famous Ten-Hour Takeover. Meanwhile Mr Webb and I talked about some more experimental work we were doing (in collboration with people like Gavin Bell) on the assumption that navigation, interaction and user-creativity were the core media issues of the next twenty years. We talked particularly about two projects: Group Listening and Phonetags. At the time, I promised to post something about the latter project at the time, but I never got around to it. After renewed interest from the FooCamp crowd, I thought I’d do it now.

Radio networks have always been interactive, but they suffer from bottlenecks. If you ask people to vote in a poll and then report the results, then you are to an extent reflecting your audience on air. But it’s a fairly homogenised and averaged-out view of their beliefs – pushed through a fine-meshed sieve. The variety is completely lost in the aggregation.

On the other hand, if you want to get some of the spice and individuality of the individuals concerned you can pick out specific individuals from your audience and put them on air (or mention them). Unfortunately, many individuals find the prospect of being on air more than a little intimidating – and of those that don’t, still only a fraction can actually be featured on air.

Both of these approaches have worked perfectly well for many years – but we’re now at a point where we can start thinking beyond them. So the question now is – what is beyond aggregation and lottery? What new patterns of interaction can we form around and within broadcast now that we have a networked world to hybridise with it?

Phonetags is an experimental project designed to try and help us get some purchase on some of these questions. The best way to describe it is to start off with some Principles for Effective Social Software that we developed as a result of working on the project. I’m not going to pretend that they cover everything, but they’ve proven very useful for us. We believe that for a piece of Social Software to be useful:

  • Every individual should derive value from their contributions
  • Every contribution should provide value to their peers as well
  • The site or organisation that hosts the service should be able to derive value from the aggregate of the data and should be able to expose that value back to individuals

So this is how it works. Phonetags is about bookmarking songs you hear on the radio using your mobile phone. The way you use it is very simple. If you’re listening to a radio network (initially BBC 6 Music) and you hear a song you’d like to make a note of, you pull out your mobile phone, type an ‘X’ into an SMS (remember: X marks the song) and send the text to a BBC short-code. Later when you come to the site, you type in your mobile number into the search box to see a list of all the songs that you’ve bookmarked:

As you’ve probably already noticed, bookmarking isn’t the only thing you can do with Phonetags. You’ve typed in the ‘X’ to bookmark, but you can type in other stuff too – any words you type after the X are considered tags in the same style as Flickr and You can navigate your own tags and explore other people’s tags – both in aggregate and individually as you see fit:

You can probably start to see in the latter screenshot why this stuff starts getting so valuable for us, at least. Those keywords – along with their reflected popularity – are starting to provide a pretty clear articulation of what the concept of ‘rock’ means.

Alongside the bookmarking and the tags, we added a new concept called ‘magic tags’. Basically these are special tags – like magic words – that perform some action upon the song that you’re bookmarking. At one level you could view them as nothing but compensation for a lack of UI widgets in an SMS interface, but there could be value in having tags that were both semantically interesting and also performed an action of some kind.

The tag we used in this circumstance was a simple ‘rating’ tag. If you wrote a tag of the form *one, *two, *three, *four or *five, you would mark the song as having been rated one-five stars for quality. This seemed to make a lot of sense in the music space, as it’s something people are familiar with from applications like iTunes, and you could imagine a range of circumstances where people might wish to express their opinions on songs played.

This view results in my favourite view in the entire system – that of the top-rated songs for any given ‘tag’:

A page like this exists for every tag in the system – there are pages of the top rated indie songs, pop songs, guitar songs, summer songs. You can imagine a whole range of possibilities for extending these pages to make them permanent or to atrophy with time / create weekly charts. It’s a huge mine of interesting musical information and a great way to discover new songs.

Anyway, the point of Phonetags was to try and find a different way for a user or audience member to participate in programme-making and to collaborate with one another without any of their contributions being lost, and with the value accreting over time.

In this model, a user gets value from their very first contribution – by having a song bookmarked that they can return to later. They gain extra value by being able to keep track of and comment upon the songs that they’re listening to – and when they do so, everyone else starts gaining value as well.

The peer benefit is in music discovery and navigation. There’s an incredible amount of new music being produced all the time. Our increased access to it means – in principle – that we should be able to find music that we felt more appropriately suited us, but the sheer volume makes it hard to explore. With a service like phonetags, an individual can start exploring music by axes of quality, or by keywords or by discovering people with similar tastes to themselves. And it gets updated in pretty much real-time.

Radio DJs gain a little bit of this experience too, in that they’re able now to operate as a peer in this exchange – tracking a bit more rapidly how well people are responding to songs, and using the live site as a way of mining for songs on any given theme (give me ‘happy’ songs, songs about ‘summer’, songs about ‘mum’, songs about ‘fruit’). They can also court reactions from their audience – rate all the songs in this week’s shows and we’ll play the best at the end of the week…

But it’s behind the scenes that I think the most substantial value could be created. We’re getting in incredible metadata on music that we simply didn’t have before – metadata and descriptive (emotive!) keywords that we can analyse and chop up and use as the basis for all kinds of other navigational systems. This is metadata that is often sorely lacking and could help us enormously in the future.

Anyway, I’d be delighted to hear any comments or thoughts that anyone has on Phonetags. All the images above can be clicked on if you want to see a larger version. If you want to contact me, then it’s tom {at} the name of this website (as usual). At the moment, we’re testing this particular version of the service inside the BBC (it’s available to all BBC staff to use so if you want the URL, then just let me know). The project is unlikely to be released to the public in its current form – but we’re using it as a way of testing out some of these concepts and approaches – some of which will probably manifest in upcoming products in one way or another.

And just to give you the disclaimer one more time: Phonetags was developed by Tom Coates and Matt Webb with Gavin Bell, Jason Cowlam and Graham Beale. However, all the opinions expressed in this piece should be considered as my own personal take on the developing media landscape, and not necessarily those of my employers or the department in which I work.