Radio & Music

Cynicism and stupidity at the iTunes ministore…

Yesterday’s Apple keynote wasn’t enormously exciting, but there were a couple of interesting products. I’m still expecting to buy myself an iMac, but now I’ll be getting one of the way shinier and fast Intel ones. And the MacBook Pro, despite having the dodgiest name ever, is pretty damn shiny. I’ve got a work Powerbook coming and I’m trying to work out if there’s any way I can cancel it and get the new one pushed through instead. I justify it that it’s more future-proof and therefore a better investment.

But among all this comes one move that seems so profoundly stupid and clumsy that I can’t honestly believe that they thought they’d get away with it without any flak. And this ‘feature’ is the new Ministore feature in iTunes, elegantly skipped over in the section on playlists on the iTunes site. This feature is – basically – a huge set of contextual adverts on your library navigation screen that tell you things that you could be buying right now on the iTunes Music Store. It changes depending on what you’re playing or what you’ve got selected in the Library. It’s on by default, takes up a third of the screen on my 15″ Powerbook and – frankly – is a lurid and cynical encroachment into my life.

Now I get that iTunes is a free download and I don’t begrudge Apple – or anyone – trying to make a living from their software. But I just can’t see how anyone really thinks it’s going to do them any good in the medium term. People tried to sell browsers a while ago with ads scattered all around them, and they got almost no penetration. People just didn’t like it. And in the meantime, Apple get such an enormous benefit from having the platform almost ubiquitously on people’s computers. It seems like a really strange move to risk alienating so many people by being so crass.

Except it gets worse. No only does it show adverts on your computer, it also sends information back to Apple – it has to in order to know which ads to serve to you. There’s a real question about whether it just transmits information about which songs you’re referencing or if it also sends back information about everything you’re playing, but it’s enough to creep people out. Boing Boing and Cory Doctorow have a good post on this subject already: iTunes update spies on your listening and sends it to Apple? .

This is an interesting territory for me. I’ve been puzzled for a hell of a long time why more companies aren’t exploring the space that have been operating in. is an opt-in service that collates all the songs that you listen to, creates really shiny charts and recommendations for you and helps you discover new music. All of this functionality would seem like a natural fit for Apple who (1) own a lot of the audio player space (2) already keep track of what you’re listening to on your client and (3) have a store to sell music through. Helping people discover new music through an opt-in service like would seem to be an enormously interesting and exciting area for Apple to investigate and one which people would view as a feature rather than as an imposition. It looks to me like they’ve observed the financial possibilities but not thought through their options and – rather than going for the elegant, clued-up and sensible option of making their services useful first (because otherwise it’ll never be profitable) they’ve just looked at their users as a milkable resource to screw for every penny they can. It’s a stunningly short-termist strategy that will get them good short-term performance gains while fairly rapidly destroying their mindshare.

Before anyone says anything – sure, I know you can turn the option off, but that’s not the point. I’m a pretty competant iTunes user and a long-term Apple user and I scrabbled around in the top menu and in the preferences for about ten minutes before i noticed the generic button added at the bottom right of the screen. And a general rule of interfaces is that people don’t change their defaults, so if I can’t find it easily then it’s going to be stuck on my parents computer for years. There wasn’t even a dialogue box asking me if I’d like to try the new functionality! Discussion on the internet suggests that when it’s closed it no longer sends information to the music store or elsewhere, and I suppose that’s a plus – but how would you know unless you knew how to intercept and interrogate network traffic!? The whole thing is sloppy, clumsy and I can’t help feeling will bite Apple hard in the ass in not very long at all.

But maybe I’m alone in thinking all of this. Anyone else? Is this the kind of thing you expect from Apple? Is it the kind of thing that you’d comfortably use on a daily basis? Do you feel more tempted to switch to another player now? And if so, where would you go?

Read more interesting stuff here: iTunes is watching, on Apple’s privacy statements.

Addendum: Apple have now made this feature opt-in.

Radio & Music

Who knows where the time goes?

Another quick song recommendation before I’m pulled off to bed. There’s this song by Nina Simone that I’ve been listening to a lot lately which you can get on the Anthology album. It’s called Who Knows Where The Time Goes, and to be honest it’s probably a bit mournful and wistful for most of the stroppy old sods who read my ramblings. But it’s great late night music, and more importantly I think it’s just designed to help you feel what you need to feel and then pull you out of whatever nostalgia trip or nosedive you’re on and set you back on your feet again. It’s wonderful stuff.

It also starts with a little speech that I think might be interesting to people who write weblogs. Certainly – after six years of writing this old heap of crap – it struck some chords with me. So I’ll quote Nina quoting Faye Dunaway and hopefully people won’t think I’m getting all self-important or making any form of direct comparisons. I particularly like the last line.

“We are recording tonight and if this were a recording we’d be trying to do some things but actually I’m too tired to do. But as Faye Dunaway, I think it was, she said, when Bonnie and Clyde come out, she said she tried to give people what they wanted. That’s a mistake, really, I know. You can’t do everything, you use up everything you’ve got trying to give everybody what they want. But I will learn my lesson soon, and then you will buy more records…”

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?

Radio & Music

My song of the month…

You take one week not paying attention to the web and all kinds of weird things happen. Damn you World of Warcraft. Damn you to hell! The consequence of this is that I’m going to post a huge linklog thing over the next couple of days, plus a whole range of much much smaller observances than normal – as I just try and get as much stuff out of my system as I can.

First up – something I almost never do on – I want to plug a song. Specifically I want to plug the single Number 1 from the Goldfrapp album Supernature. It came out on Monday and I really wanted to encourage everyone to go and listen to it then, but I got distracted by the evidently more pressing Murloc-killing that my Warlock just had to accomplish in order to level-up within a satisfactory timescale.

Anyway, if you play the song loud enough through sufficiently bassy headphones, the pounding bass is enough to put a spring in the step of even the most jaded old grump. Somewhere between glam rock and Depeche Mode – with a video full of dog faced ladies and plastic surgery – I can’t really see how you can go wrong.

And of course – as ever – if you want to know what else I’ve been listening to, you can explore my weekly charts on Last week ( Oct 23 to Oct 30, 2005 ) features a surprise re-entry for Fern Kinney’s “Together we are beautiful” after approximately thirty years out of the public eye. Thrilling stuff.

Radio & Music Social Software Technology

On the BBC Annotatable Audio project…

This post concerns an experimental internal-BBC-only project designed to allow users to collectively describe, segment and annotate audio in a Wikipedia-style fashion. It was developed by the BBC Radio & Music Interactive R&D team – for this project consisting of myself, Tristan Ferne, Chris Bowley, Helen Crowe, Paul Clifford and Bronwyn Van Der Merwe. 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.

It’s officially my last day at the BBC today, but with the permission of my outgoing boss Mr Daniel Hill I’m going to make the very best use of it by talking about a project that we’ve been working on for the last few weeks. I consider it one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on, and BBC Radio & Music Interactive one of the only places in the world where I would have been able to have done so.

If you’re impatient, you should probably skip straight to the clumsy screencasts I’ve done to illustrate the project – playing an annotated programme (4 Mb) and editing / annotating a programme (4Mb).

But for everyone else, maybe a little context. The media landscape is changing incredibly quickly – ten or twenty years ago in the UK you might have had a choice of a dozen or so radio and television stations broadcasting at any given time. Over the last decade that’s grown to hundreds of stations, plus a variety of on-demand services like Sky Box Office. Over the next few decades, it’s pretty clear that the massive archives of content (that every broadcaster in the world has accrued over the last seventy or eighty years) will start to appear on-demand and on the internet. You can already see the evidence of consumer interest in the sheer number of conventional stations that broadcast repeats, and on the international sales of DVDs across the world. An on-demand archive is going to make the number of choices available to a given individual at any point almost completely unmanageable. And then there’s the user-generated content – the amateur and semi-professional creations, podcasts and the like that are proliferating across the internet. In the longer term there are potentially billions of these media creators in the world.

All of this choice, however, creates some significant problems – how on earth are people expected to navigate all of this content? How are they supposed to find the specific bit of audio or video that they’re looking for? And how are they supposed to discover new programmes or podcasts? And it gets more complicated than that – what if what you’re not looking for is a complete coherent half-hour programme, but a selection of pertinent clips – features on breaking news stories, elements in magazine programmes, particular performances from music shows?

In the end, the first stage in making any of these processes possible is based on the availability of information about the audio or video asset in question – metadata – at as granular a level as possible. And not only about that asset, but also about its relationship to other assets and services and other information streams that give individuals the ability to explore and investigate and assess the media they’ve uncovered.

The project we undertook was focused on Annotatable Audio (specifically, but not exclusively, of BBC radio programming) – and we decided to look in an unorthodox direction – towards the possibilities of user-created annotation and metadata. We decided that we wanted to develop an interface that might allow the collective articulation of what a programme or speech or piece of music was about and how it could be divided up and described. Our first ideas looked for approaches similar to, Flickr or our own Phonetags – which create collective value by accreting the numerous annotations that individuals make for their own purposes. But after a fascinating discussion with Jimmy Wales, we decided to think about this in a different way – in which (just like Wikipedia) individuals would overtly cooperate to create something greater and more authoritative.

So here’s what we’ve come up with. First off, imagine yourself as a normal user coming to a page about a particular programme or speech. What you see is a simple interface for playing and scrubbing through the audio at the top of the page with marked ‘segments’ highlighted. If you hover over those segments they brighten up and display the title of that section. If you click on them, it starts the audio playing from that point. This correlates to the sections below which could be filled with any amount of wiki-style content – whether that be links or transcripts or background information or corrections or whatever. Beneath that are tags that users have added to describe the programme concerned. If you click on any of the segment permalinks to the left it starts the audio at that point and changes the URL to an internal anchor so you can throw around links to chunks of a programme or a speech. So basically you get a much richer and fuller experience of the audio that you’d get by just listening to it in a media player. Here’s a screen cap:

But it gets much more exciting when you actually delve a bit deeper. If you want to edit the information around a piece of audio, then just like on a wiki you just click on the ‘edit / annotate’ tab. This brings you up a screen like this:

Here you can zoom into the wave form, scrub around it, and decide either to edit a segment or create a new segment. Once you’ve decided (in this walkthrough I decided to edit a pre-existing segment) you simply click on it, at which point the editing interface appears:

And on this screen you can change the beginning and end points of the audio by simply clicking and dragging, you can change the title to something more accurate, add any wiki-style content you wish to in the main text area and add or delete the existing fauxonomic metadata. If you want to delete a segment you can. If you need to keep digging around to explore the audio, you can do so. It’s all amazingly cool, and I’m incredibly proud of the team that made it.

This final screen represents that last core aspect of wiki-like functionality – a history page that allows you to revert back to previous versions of the annotations if someone has defaced the current version:

So that’s the core parts of the project – a demonstration of a functional working interface for the annotation of audio that’s designed to allow the collective creation of useful metadata and wikipedia-like content around radio programmes or speeches or podcasts or pieces of music. If you’ve worked through the rest of this piece and managed to not watch the screencasts now, here are the links again – although be warned, they are a few Mb in size each. The first one shows the functionality of the playback page(8 Mb) and how people might use the information to navigate through audio. The second shows someone editing the page, editing a segment and adding a new segment (4 Mb), and it really shows off Chris Bowley‘s astonishing work on the Flash components and how it connects to Helen Crowe’s Ajaxy HTML.

As always with projects from the R&D team, the Annotatable Audio project is unlikely to be released to the public in its current form. 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. In the meantime if you want to know more about the project or you’re inside the BBC and would like a play, then either leave a comment below or contact the awesome Tristan.Ferne {at the domain} who’s going to be running the project now I’ve left.

Anyway, I’d just like to take this final opportunity again to say thank you to the BBC and to all the people I’ve worked with to make cool stuff. It’s been a blast and I genuinely couldn’t be happier with the final project we worked on together. You guys rock. But now… Something new!

And just to give you the disclaimer one more time. The Annotatable Audio project was developed by Tom Coates, Tristan Ferne, Chris Bowley, Helen Crowe, Paul Clifford and Bronwyn Van Der Merwe. 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.

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.

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.

Radio & Music

The podcast of 'Reinventing Radio'…

After many months, it is with a degree of trepidation that I direct you towards the podcast audio of the ETech paper on Reinventing Radio that Mr Biddulph, Mr Hammond, Mr Webb and I performed earlier this year. As usual, listening to yourself talk is a bit of a painful experience – and it’s never a good thing to be re-exposed to jokes you made up on the spot in front of a hundred of your peers. But there you go. You live and learn. You can download the slides as a PDF here: Reinventing Radio to accompany the whole experience. Here’s a bit of a summary of the paper from the IT Conversations guys:

Isn’t radio an old, dying medium? What’s it doing in a conference on emerging technologies? Matt Biddulph, Paul Hammond, Tom Coates, and Matt Webb show us how radio is a reemerging technology experiencing a resurgence in popularity and relevance. They explore how radio can be improved by introducing feedback mechanisms and by ultimately making it a more social medium. Using principles of social software, the BBC becomes more of a peer than a broadcaster.

In the first part of the presentation Matt Biddulph and Paul Hammond explain BBC Radio’s experiment with a format called the “Ten-Hour Takeover” in which control of the station’s playlist is given over to the listeners. How can DJs be empowered with direct access to an audience of millions? With an audience that huge, how can feedback on the order of hundreds of thousands of SMS messages be handled in a meaninful way by a DJ? There isn’t enough human bandwith available to deal with that level of engagement. Traditional models would be forced to either ‘smoosh’ out the input into an average or to select a few random individuals to represent the audience. But this isn’t good enough for Matt Biddulph and Paul Hammond, who show us how they integrate SMS technology with some statistical techniques to create an ‘information space’ standing between the public and the DJ.

So you’ve got a broadcast network and you’ve got a web presence, each with very different models of interaction. How can these two models coexist in a useful and meaningful way? In the second part of the presentation Tom Coates and Matt Webb show us how radio can be enhanced using techniques from social software like flickr and to create a hybrid of the broadcast and network models. They wonder why we treat network computers as dumb receivers for broadcast content when they could be much more social and allow for interaction with both broadcasters and other listeners. ‘Phonetags’ bring folksonomies to radio, allowing listeners to tag songs with a cellphone as they listen. They also explore how techniques as simple as group listening can add to the social experience of radio.

Radio & Music

BBC Listen Live OSX widget…

We’ve been developing a prototype widget for Macs running OSX at work as an experiment with network-enabled applications. It’s allows you to listen to BBC national radio stations on your desktop computer as if it had a built-in radio (although you do need RealPlayer installed). It’s a pretty nice – simple – piece of work and I’m quite proud of it. Kudos here goes mainly to Duncan Ponting who did the heavy lifting, with me doing the pretty pictures and UI work (and with contributions along the way from Mr Biddulph and Mr Hammond among others). This is what it looks like:

And here is where you can get it: BBC Listen Live Widget. We’d love to get your feedback and thoughts around this area – so we’ve put up a feedback box to collect it. Make sure you use it!