Gaming Social Software Technology

Self-reflexive rulesets in online communities…

It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve been in Seattle since Sunday evening at this year’s Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and frankly, I’m completely braindead through jetlag. I’m barely hanging on to intellectual coherence by my fingernails. Sunday evening I got about three hours sleep in total, last night a roughly similar amount. The quality of the event has been pretty high so far though, and I’ve met some fascinating people but I’m really not firing on all cylinders. Ross Mayfield’s taken a few chunks of notes, and most interestingly I’ve met some people with a similar interest to me in reflexive political models in online communities, including one guy who wants to build something very similar to the place I want Barbelith to become -online in an MMORPG. I finally got around to post up some of my earliest ideas around this subject on the Barbelith wiki a year or two back under the Tripolitica heading, but basically it goes a bit like this:

Imagine a set of messageboards, each with their own clear identity and each with a functioning moderation system based around a pre-existing political structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. Each of these political structures has been generated from one abstracted ruleset, and each component of that ruleset can be – in principle – turned on or off at will by the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. In other words, members of those communities can choose to shift to a different political model, or can develop their own by incremental improvements of changes to sections of the ruleset to allow moderators or administrators or normal users to create the ‘laws’ that govern how they inter-relate.

This self-reflexive component would operate with a bill-like structure – ie. an individual would be able to propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require some form of wider ratification before it becomes ‘real’ and starts empowering or constraining the citizenry of that board.

When a new user joins the community, s/he is presented the current political structure of each one and from that point chooses a board to be affiliated with. S/he is then part of the population of that community and can rise up through the ranks (if there are ranks) and participate in the functioning of that political community. This goes right down to the creation of different parts of that commnuity, how the various parts of the community inter-relate with one another and who can post what and when.

Each community will have its own strengths and weaknesses – some will no doubt go horribly politically wrong and have power seized by mad administrators, but hopefully others will find their own kind of political equilibrium after a while – and maybe that political equilibrium could be a good model that could be genericised and used as a more common and rigid platform for new online communities that aren’t interested in the emerging rule-set component. That is to say, maybe we can evole a better system for handling debate, discussion and power relationships in messageboards and other online community spaces and games. Of course, for that to happen, the ruleset has to be sufficiently politically abstractable that new arrangements could emerge that didn’t initially occur to us during the creation of the ruleset and the reflexive process has to be comprehendible to real users.

Some sample bills:

  • Anna proposes a bill:

    Junior members to not be able to create threads

  • Bill proposes a bill:

    Administrators to not be able to change user roles.

  • Charles proposes a bill:

    Junior members to be able to create posts. Action will require ten ratifications from Moderators, Administrators, Normal Members. One disagreement can veto.

  • David proposes a bill:

    Moderators to be able to edit abstracts. Action will require three ratifications from Moderators or Administrators. Three disagreements will veto.

  • Edgar proposes a bill:

    The User Responsible to be able to change their own display name. Action will require no ratifications.

  • Fiona proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to be able to Unblock Users. Action will require 60% assent from Normal Users polled over 24 hours.

  • Gavin proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to not be able to propose bills. Action will require a 51% decision of all users polled over a 6 hour period.

I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts around this stuff.

Business Conference Notes Net Culture Social Software Talks

What do we do with 'social media'?

I’m a nervous public speaker, and so when I was asked to talk at the Guardian Changing Media Summit, I started to scratch out some notes about specifically what I’d say about Social Media. When I’m talking, I never really use these notes verbatim, but it’s nice to have them should I get lost, and at least I know that the argument or arc actually makes some sense and that halfway through the talk I’m not going to suddenly realise that point x doesn’t actually so much lead into point y, but actually completely undermines it. Anyone who has ever written a university essay remembers that feeling, when the argument you’d sketched in your head is suddenly obviously untrue when you come to write it down. Now imagine if you were writing the damn thing as a performance piece in front of a few hundred people. How embarrassing.

Anyway, given that – as I mentioned a few days ago – some people got the wrong end of the stick when I said I didn’t know what Social Media was, I thought I’d post what I meant to say. So here it is – ludicrously extended and webified to make me sound more pompous, which can’t help but be a good thing:

Now I suppose I’ve been invited to talk at this event today because I’ve worked with and played around a great many of the areas that we’re talking about today. I’ve been writing my weblog – – for nearly seven years now and I’ve been running an online community at for even longer. I’ve worked (briefly) as a journalist, represented magazines online with Time Out, ran or developed online communities for emap and UpMyStreet and spent the last two or three years working for BBC Radio and Music looking after a little team (with Matt Webb) exploring media annotation, social media navigation and consumption, wikis and recommendations.

I’m now lucky enough to work for Yahoo alongside some of the most successful and important of the new wave of social media sites – sites like Flickr, and upcoming. And yet – and I suppose this may be a relief to some of you – for the life of me I don’t know what people are referring to when they talk about ‘social media’. It’s not that I don’t understand the individual words – I know social stuff, I know media stuff. And it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the things they’re talking about. I get weblogs and personal publishing, I get online communities and I remember the appearance of social software (and my fairly reasonable attempt to define it). But I don’t entirely get how social media has come to sit alongside these terms, or what specifically is different about it from the other social terminologies that we’ve had before. And when I hear people use it I get even more confused. For some people it seems to mean a subset of social software, for some people it seems to mean the same as social software. Worse still, for some people it seems to directly correlate to the web-based representation of social networks and nothing else. And for some others, who I cannot fathom at all, it seems to mean nothing but making your magazine or TV show or radio show slightly more interactive (potentially through the means of a web forum or e-mail).

Now I don’t claim to have the answer to this question and fundamentally language is a fickle creature and tends to mean no more or less than how people employ it, but in trying to work out precisely what I was supposed to be talking about today, I’ve made a stab at figuring this stuff out and putting a bit of a brief historical context around it. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t. I’ll let you decide.

Back before the last boom, the internet was fundamentally a communicative medium – a many-to-many conversational space of e-mail, mailing lists, Usenet and bulletin boards. This kind of activity was pretty much an early-adopter thing because it was a new form of communication. It’s worth remembering that while for many of you the idea of the social internet is a new thing, this isn’t a weird new growth on top of the internet, but something fundamental to its DNA – a connected many-to-many environment profoundly different from broadcast or publishing.

It was the popular arrival of the web that started the shift towards thinking of the internet as a publishing medium, and it was propelled in part by large companies using their enormous resources to put huge swathes of content online. Interestingly, this move was the thing that pushed the internet over the tipping point – publishing is something that people understand and can engage with. So the popularisation of the internet is probably directly related to this one particular and relatively constrained subsection of what it’s most useful for.

The age of social media then is probably about a fusing of these two ways of thinking – the communicative and the publishing/creative parts of the internet – into something new and powerful. It’s an environment in which every user is potentially a creator, a publisher and a collaborator with (and to) all of the other creative people on the internet.

Well so far, so User Generated Content. So what makes Social Media different? Well, one of the reasons is that the things that people are making aren’t just dumped into the world. Instead people are encouraged to use the content they’re creating – they own it and can employ it for renown or for social purposes within their interest communities or their social network. On Flickr many people upload photos from their cameras and mobile phones not just to put them on the internet, but as a form of presence that shows their friends what they’re up to and where in the world they are. Their content is a social glue. Meanwhile, other users are busy competing with each other, getting support and advice from other users, or are collecting photos, tagging photos or using them in new creative ways due to the benefits of Creative Commons licenses. Somewhere at the back of all of this is a concept of publishing, but it’s a one that’s been elaborated on and extended extensively.

There’s another different though, and I think it’s probably even more important. It seems to me that the other main feature of social media is that they’re looking at how each individual contribution can become part of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and to feed that back to the individuals using the service so that – fundamentally – everyone gets back more than they’re putting in.

These new services are about creating frameworks and spaces, containers and supports that help users create and publish and use all kinds of data from the smallest comment to the best produced video clip which in aggregate create something of fascinating utility to all. And if you want to know more about that, I’d recommend exploring or Flickr or Wikipedia. You’ll pick it all up quickly enough.

So social media then hasn’t really arrived as much as it’s always been there, waiting for the right set of circumstances to make it really blossom. These circumstances probably include boring things like web penetration, the new generation of users who have grown up with the internet, the widespread take-up of always-on broadband, standards-compliant browsers, a better understanding of addressability and links and search and more sophisticated approaches to handling media and interactions with the server.

And they’ve probably also been waiting for business models, which brings us back to the panel in question which is supposed to be about social media on the one hand and business models on the other. As I’ve said, social media is about helping individuals creating value for all. I’ll give you an example from a recent talk that my boss gave in ETech. He described how Yahoo is using Social Media with sites like MyWeb to aim at ‘better search through people’. Yahoo believes that we can make search better for users – and more financially rewarding for the company – by helping people collect, publish and share information, answers to questions, bookmarks and the like through Yahoo Answers,, Flickr and the like.

And of course social media generates an enormous amount of content, and content is content and can act as a platform for advertising. Traditionally media organisations are suspicious about placing ads around what can often be ‘bad’ user-generated content, but then the question is surely just how you can help surface the good stuff – and the best way you can do that is to work with your community. On Flickr, great pictures are seen by enormously more people than small personal or bad pictures – they have a concept of interestingness that surfaces pictures every day that are of extraordinary quality. Blog posts on average are pretty terrible, but the best blog posts are as good or better than anything you’ll find in the mainstream press.

And that’s just the beginning of the business models. People increasingly are comfortable paying for interesting services online. Get people using social media and hold back the functionality that costs the most to deliver (in terms of server load or storage or whatever) and a proportion of your users will put their money where their mouth is to go for the full experience completely and immediately. All they need is to feel that the service they’re paying for is worth the money. And of course if you’re building an environment in which people can do things with their content, some of the things they may wish to do with them open up other potential revenue streams – getting things printed, published, turned into books, projected onto the moon. Open that stuff up to them and I have no doubt they’ll run at it like a herd of bison.

Anyway, that’s me done. I’m sure I’ve bored you all more than enough, so I’ll just end up with another quick example of user-generated value that’s on the edge of social media. The other day I was rewatching a talk by Will Wright, the creator of The Sims talking about Spore, his new game and he was talking about how increasingly creating a new game required the production of more and more ‘content’, and that this was pushing up the costs of each new game and would eventually be unsustainable. He then talked a bit about The Sims 2 and how users were given the tools to create their own content for the Sims environment – actual objects that they could share with their friends and distribute through the ecosystem. And he mentioned that one of the sites that had manifested in this community of amateur creators had just recently celebrated its hundred thousandth user-created object. Imagine that! A hundred thousand bits of content created by a portion of the user-base, providing value to the game generators, fun to the normal users and prestige and satisfaction for the amateur creators. It’s a rare sweet-spot that makes everyone happy, and when you find them you know that they’re just at the start of something extraordinary. Virtuous circles like these have a tendency to expand and expand quickly. There’s a beautiful creative future ahead for everyone involved, but you have to be involved to experience it. So step forward, media owners! How can you fail!?

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.

Social Software

A design gripe…

I’m loath to complain in public about a service that I love so much, but I do not understand why’ submission form doesn’t limit the amount of characters that you can input into it. Instead, you’re left to work out later that whatever you’d written had been cut off automatically at a couple of hundred characters to fit into the database. This must be the simplest thing to fix, surely? I can only assume there’s a good reason for not fixing it that I’m missing. Can anyone help me out here?

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

Business Social Software Technology

In which Yahoo! buys…

So the big news of the day around my way is the acquisition of weirdly punctuated site by weirdly punctuated site (and my current employers) Yahoo!. You can read more about it on the Yahoo search blog (Two Great Tastes That Go Together) and on the blog (y.ah.oo!):

Jeremy: As Joshua writes, the team will soon be working in close proximity to their fraternal twin, Flickr. And just like we’ve done with Flickr, we plan to give the resources, support, and room it needs to continue growing the service and community. Finally, don’t be surprised if you see My Web and borrow a few ideas from each other in the future.

Joshua: We’re proud to announce that has joined the Yahoo! family. Together we’ll continue to improve how people discover, remember and share on the Internet, with a big emphasis on the power of community. We’re excited to be working with the Yahoo! Search team – they definitely get social systems and their potential to change the web. (We’re also excited to be joining our fraternal twin Flickr!)

Social Software Technology

A quick thought about collections in Flickr…

Frivolous post, this. A desired feature for Flickr would be to be able to add public photos to groups and pools without the user having to join the group in question. That would make it like Amazon listmania stuff, which is an enormously cool way of collecting interesting metadata. I mean, let’s be honest – if someone can link to them individually on their weblogs, then they should be able to make a collection out of them. It would be neat. Maybe you could slap a quick proviso – “X user wants to add your photo to the collection Y – yes / no / [x] always use this option” – or something.

I suggest this after discovering a dark and evil (and very very funny) primal need to collect together the best photographs of much-missed friend and former colleague Cal (in costume) – a set of photos which would bring out his true majesty and greatness. I miss you, dude – and I’m really looking forward to hanging out in a week or so. Please don’t break my legs:

Social Software Technology

On 'The State of the Weblog Nation (2002)'…

The early UK weblogging community was really focused around a couple of core mailing lists (UKBloggers Social and UK Bloggers Discuss) which subsequently fell apart, probably as a result of meddling in the structure by myself and Mr Morgan. The list spawned well-documented blogmeets – the earliest of which was in early 2000 – which themselves triggered the beginning of a vibrant, real-life community of people who worked, played, lived and occasionally slept with each other (as well as regularly colliding with the cult I look after at Barbelith).

Over the next couple of years, the community kind of fragmented as core people ran off back to their home countries or got involved in work or broke up acrimoniously. Some of the original people ponced off to another list called vodkajelly and plotted behind the scenes, before that too gradually evaporated under other life commitments. And alongside, parallel weblogging communities – many of which had never heard of UK Bloggers – started to emerge. Most of the people who were there at the beginning are doing pretty well for themselves, and are still friends. But we don’t see each other as much as maybe I’d like.

Anyway, a few months ago I was reminded by one of my partners in early UK weblogging crime, Ms Meg Pickard how much fun it all was, and also how ahead of the times we occasionally were. She reminded me in particular of an e-mail that I’d sent to the list suggesting a UK weblogging festival, which I’d written after many discussions and bits of trouble-making with Meg and people like Cal and Mo and Davo, and pointed out both how self-indulgent it was and how similar elements of it were to conferences that appeared years later.

So anyway, I thought I’d republish it here for the purposes of nostalgia and to reference youthful enthusiasm. It’s kind of lame and embarrassing, but it’s also kind of fun, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t think again of what an event for and about webloggers might be like. Think of it as a rambling, infantile starter for ten, and feel free to shout out below any thoughts it inspires (other than the obvious ones concerning slapping or getting a life). There are minor edits for language and formatting because I was much more of a potty mouth in my late twenties.

From: Tom Coates
Date: 2 July 2002 23:20:11 BDT


Being a day in London organised by some people – possibly us – designed to be a celebration and parody of weblog culture (such as it is) for the benefit of all oppressed webloggers and weblogging shareholders world-wide, designed to be a laugh and based around encouraging participation from every single weblogger we can lay our arsehole handmitts on – featuring:

  • invited american webloggers and international weblogging stars/whores…
  • DAVE FUCKING WINER (we can do this… I’m sure of it)
  • warbloggers
  • serious panel discussions and presentations:
    1. News of the people – what will the shape of weblog aggregation be in
      a few years time?
    2. Broadband blogging – what else of our lives can we possibly put
      online, and why the hell would we want to..?
    3. What have we done?! what the hell has weblogging done to the
      internet? is it good, is it bad – who the hell do we blame?
    4. Weblogging Utopia – how has weblogging helped the disenfranchised and
      the oppressed?
    5. Shape of the future – what’s the potential next step in weblog-tech –
      what will weblogging be like in five years time – what functionality
      could transform weblogging into something more X, Y or Z? What’s to come
      AFTER weblogging?
  • panel discussions and presentations from (shorter, more funner ‘n’ shit) – examples… (imagine 70s style Open University lessons on Hydrocarbons and Calculus)…
    1. Writing “the most boring weblog in the world….”
    2. Blog love – a powerpoint presentation about two noomeejawhores
      brought together by puters…
    3. What to write when you have nothing to say… by several old-time
    4. Lying on your weblog – the path to daypop?
    5. Why nothing else in the world matters but fucking weblogs…
    6. Backslapping wank – a presentation on non-reproductive sexuality, by
      Tom Coates…
    7. The weblog path to successful self-promotion…
  • debates… each one half hour long… Two people stand on stage and pitch opposing positions for five – ten minutes. Audience asks ten minutes of questions. Audience vote on the replies and EVERYONE HAS TO STICK WITH THEM ALL YEAR… (or at least pretend they are going to…)
    • “Grouchy” vs “Happy” – What should be the mood of weblogging for
      2003? – Representing ‘Grouchy” – Mr MOOOO MOOOOORGAN… Representing
      ‘Happy’ – MR … er … oh I don’t know, we’ll think of something…
    • “Pointless” vs “Pointful” – Tom Coates vs Anyonewho’spreparedtotakemeon
    • “Short posts” vs “Long Posts” – Cal Henderson vs Meg Pickard
    • “Blogger” vs “Greymatter” vs “Moveable Type” vs “Mothra”
  • ongoing polls through the day, with voting from the floor in an exciting fashion…

AND MY FAVOURITE FEATURE… Vote for the leaders of your weblog nation… People are forewarned that they can come representing a particularly political party who wish to rule weblogland – at the beginning of the day each one can get up on stage and declare their policies for ruling weblogland (“READ MY LIPS! No more green weblogs!”) and then can canvas and campaign throughout the day – and then the final
event of the day is the voting for the party that will lead weblogland for ALL ETERNITY. We’ll get some dodgy Americans over and people like Cory Boing Boing, or Megnut or Winer and stuff – it’ll be great…

Things we need:

  • a venue
  • some money
  • Matt Jones’ sponsored Wireless networking of some kind…
  • A/V equipment, projector
  • a guy covered in post-its who can be a living ‘weblog’
  • – a rousing rendition of “WE ARE THE WORLD” at the end…
Social Software Technology

In which Google Base launches…

Right. Now. This is interesting. Google Base has launched and is both pretty weird and pretty interesting. The concept is fundamentally pretty simple – it’s almost like a completely open content management tool where you can post a recipe or a personal profile or a classified ad or whatever kind of thing you want. The item is then added to the internet as a standalone page – A recipe for Beef & Broccoli Over Shells for example. You can then contact the poster and navigate through similar items by tags (here called ‘labels’) or search through the complete database to find events, jobs, news, products, reference articles or whatever other type of data you want to define and submit.

From a personal perspective, I don’t quite get it – there’s no obvious reason I can think of for an individual to post a recipe to the service – but from a business perspective it’s really interesting. Basically it’s a complete circumvention of the problems with the Semantic web which abandons decentralisation and microformats completely. If your company has a database of things (whether that be products or pictures or weblog posts or news articles or whatever) that it represents on the web, then Google Base suggests that you should not wait to be spidered and nor should you expect them to do all the heavy-lifting to work out what your site is about. Instead, you just bulk upload all your data to Google directly and associate each entry with your corresponding page on the web. Google get an enormous amount of new useful data to organise and present to people, while the businesses or start-ups that use the service get new interfaces created for their content, and a greater findability and navigability for their data, products and services. And when Google creates an API for the service, suddenly every data source that uses them has an API as well. That’s pretty astonishing.

It’s not all positive for the businesses or start-ups, of course. It consolidates the idea of Google or a parallel search engine as the definitive place to find out information of any kind (rather than the local brand that you usually associate with events, restaurants or whatever). And that kind of corresponds to a larger question about whether Google is gradually and systematically eating the web. And I think there are larger problems too – the lack of any form of solid identifiers that will indicate whether you’re talking about the same film or book (in the review space at least) seems to me to be am issue. But generally it’s pretty interesting.

Which brings me to a fun challenge to my old employers. My old colleague Mr Biddulph (who has been freelancing for the BBC for a few months) and Mr Hammersley (of RSS, web services and utilikilt infamy) have been working on a representation of the BBC Archives Infax database for a few months. They’ve written about it in two pieces: The BBC’s programme catalogue (on Rails) and Hot BBC Archive Action. So why not make this content more explorable and searchable (and help define the way the web understands TV and radio programming) by bulk-submitting the entire massive database to Google Base? That would be an extraordinarily interesting move…

A couple of other interesting pieces:

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.