1. Towards a truly social TV experience (part 2)

    Posted November 29, 2010 in media  |  No Comments so far

    This is part two of a three-part post. Click here for part one

    When programmes like Question Time, X Factor or The Apprentice are broadcast, an increasing proportion of the audience are watching with other devices close to hand. Some might have a laptop in front of them, others a mobile phone. As the programme begins, these secondary devices come into play, helping viewers share quips and observations with their friends and with the wider world.

    From a design perspective, it’s not pretty. People are focusing on more than one screen at a time, their attention divided between the programme and the stream of comments. A large number of apps, devices, tools and services are being used. The ergonomics are awkward, with laptops perched on knees and thumbs typing on Blackberry keyboards. It’s a mess, a dirty hack, a bottom-up kludge where everyone’s improvising with products designed with other things in mind.

    Media owners and interactive designers can react to this with both excitement and frustration: it’s exciting that a mass audience is doing something new with technology, something that has its own momentum; but it’s frustrating that they’re doing it in such an inelegant way. A lot of designers and broadcasters would prefer that the social TV experience was happening within a context they had defined, enabled by tools handed down to audiences for precisely that purpose.

    Audiences, however, might be quite happy doing what they’re doing with the tools they already have. Can media owners offer them something compelling enough to change this? As Lindsey put it in a comment on part 1 of this post:

    …there are serious questions about usability and the role of the TV as an ‘appliance’… simply layering the social web experience on top of a broadcast viewing experience won’t work. …the web people will not be able to assume success on the basis of the same usability principles they’ve always used, when they’re working at 10 feet.

    So a more ambitious approach is needed for any “product” that wants to be a central part of the social TV experience – merely putting a browser on a TV isn’t going to cut it.

    There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which is that the television has never been good at receiving user input. The three-digit page numbers on Ceefax were a pain to type, and searching on the Virgin Media iPlayer is a gruelling chore that demonstrates how little text entry has improved since then. When you’re watching a TV programme while following numerous online conversations about it, you need to comment quickly and the act of typing can’t be too distracting. Until the television gets better at this, secondary devices like phones and laptops are here to stay.

    Browsers on television screens aren’t the only angle being explored. During the UK’s 2010 general election campaign, broadcasters looked at ways of using online conversations about the leaders’ debates to enhance their coverage. Jude summed this up pretty well in another comment on part one:

    The TV networks… each created their own online/social viewing pages with ‘worms’ to show focus group reactions, drawing together social media references, setting up their own chat pages, etc… it was as if they’d tried to do everything at once because they didn’t know what would strike a chord.

    Which is understandable, given that broadcasters are still trying to grasp this phenomenon. Adopting a spirit of experimentation by doing as many things as possible is admirable, but can result in an unfocussed experience where the lack of confidence translates to a sense of desperation.

    Jude also mentions a tactic the TV networks used, where online audiences were surveyed to capture instant public response to the debates. This idea – incorporate elements of the online discussion into the programme itself – works well in principle, but can a TV programme really convey the volume and diversity of a full-fledged online discussion in a spot lasting thirty seconds? Or are the two mediums in conflict here, with the very nature of television encouraging a kind of editorialised “summing up” that runs counter to the nature of the online discussion As Jude says, this feature came across as fairly “traditional media” when applied to the electoral debates, so maybe the gap between online discussion and linear TV is still too big (although it’s decreasing all the time, as Martin Belam points out in this informative article).

    In part three of this post I’ll talk about some other ways in which people are trying to support new ways of watching and talking about TV, including what I see as potentially the most interesting – fusing the broadcast conversations and the on-demand viewing into one single experience.

    Edit, Jan 2012: OK, so I never got round to the third part of this post! Too much time was spent watching X-Factor and not enough writing blog posts. I’ll revisit this topic at some point though, I promise


  2. Towards a truly social TV experience (part 1)

    Posted November 24, 2010 in media  |  2 Comments so far

    When the concept of on-demand television was still new and exciting, it was tempting to think it might lead to the demise of the mass synchronous experience that was broadcast TV. After all, what value could broadcast TV deliver that on-demand services like the iPlayer couldn’t? And was that value really worth the inconvenience and inflexibility it imposed on the viewer, who had to be in a set place at a set time to view the programme? Apart from sport and news, would anyone really care about the transmission times of programmes once on-demand TV had taken off?

    By now we know that, yes, people do still care about the transmission times of TV programmes, and the synchronous viewing experience of broadcast TV can have a value that justifies the burdens it places on the viewer. But this isn’t because on-demand hasn’t taken off. On-demand services have transformed the way we view television, but the broadcast TV experience has a new lease of life too.

    The internet, unsurprisingly, is the driving force behind both on-demand’s success and the renaissance in broadcast viewing. But two intertwined yet distinct “strands” of the internet are at work here.

    With on-demand, it’s the internet’s infrastructure – content delivery networks, consumer ISPs, the computers and set-top boxes found in the homes of viewers. The nuts and bolts of the internet’s growth have enabled on-demand services and the design of products like the iPlayer.

    But with broadcast TV, it’s not so much the technological or infrastructural “strand” of the internet as its social layer – social use of the internet among the wider public has grown hugely in the last five years. At the same time social interactions have accelerated, becoming more synchronous and less like the newsgroup / messageboard model of old. We post less words, more frequently, and the result is a far more conversational mode of online interaction.

    This has introduced a new dimension to the experience of watching broadcast TV. Viewers might not be physically connected to one another, as they were in the heyday of TV with the whole family gathered in the living room. But they’re connected to hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of others, watching the same show as they are. Some of these people are friends and others are strangers, but all are in reach – all are potential contributors to a conversation about the programme. Even the viewer sat alone in their living room can feel connected and involved as they watch, in a way that they couldn’t before.

    So the internet has brought about an alternative to broadcast TV while giving it a new lease of life at the same time. And it’s not just geeks that are engaged in this new way of TV viewing – if you need proof of this, a cursory glance at the #xfactor hashtag on Twitter should do it. The public has raced ahead of the technology here, using whatever gadgets come to hand to keep up with the conversations. No tool or “product” designed for social TV viewing is particularly prominent, it’s something that the public just does, in its own way.

    Is this going to change? Will technology catch up with the public – will new services specifically designed for social TV viewing come along, will they work, and will they bridge the gap between the on-demand and broadcast experiences? I’ll explore these questions in more detail in part 2 of this post.


  3. Growing page views through ineptitude

    Posted November 10, 2010 in media  |  No Comments so far

    If you’re an online publisher that’s missing out on page views because people are consuming content with RSS readers, here’s a strategy that might help: break things.

    By breaking your RSS feed and screwing up its formatting, people like me will be forced to click on your links and leave our reader applications, giving you the ad revenue you crave. But you need to obey the following rules:

    • Only break things at the formatting & layout kind of level, nothing more fundamental. The feed still needs to actually work
    • Make sure all the content can be seen in the feed, even though the formatting is broken. This will give us the incentive we need to click on the link. (and no, the first paragraph alone won’t be enough to achieve this. The whole article should be visible, but broken)
    • Let some HTML code or something leak into the feed output so that we know it’s really broken and you’re not just making it deliberately hard to read.

    I’m writing this post because Fast Company seems to have followed these points and succeeded, at least where I’m concerned. Their RSS feed has broken and it’s led to me actually visiting their site (and generating ad revenue) for a change.

    Fast Company's broken RSS feed

    It works because the reading experience is so poor that you’d never go through the entire article, but your eye can flick up and down the block of broken text, getting a good sense of the content. Interest is pigued but satisfaction is withheld. Is this just ineptitude on Fast Company’s part, or is there a kind of evil genius at work over there?


  4. Is RSS the “vinyl” of digital media?

    Posted January 26, 2010 in media, web  |  No Comments so far

    For large stretches of my life, I’ve allowed my obsession with music to burn up huge chunks of my time as well as my money. Illness, poverty, hangovers, rain – none of these things would stop me leaving the house and spending whole weekends wandering London, going from record shop to record shop. Over time my vinyl collection grew while my bank balance fell, but I didn’t mind – because that collection of vinyl was (and still is) valuable in lots of ways. I didn’t just enjoy listening to those records – I also enjoyed playing them out. I played in clubs, made compilation tapes and distributed mixes over the internet.

    My vinyl collection helped me evangelise the music I loved to like-minded people. And before the worlds of music and the internet collided back in 1999, this sort of behaviour occupied a useful niche in the music ecosystem. Vast numbers of releases, especially in genres that flew under the radar of mainstream promotion, were filtered, curated and recompiled, helping normal people – who had better things to do than waste their lives exploring dusty record shops or compiling mixtapes in their bedrooms – explore obscure fields of new music. In this way vinyl kept influencing the public’s relationship with music long after it stopped being a mainstream format.

    Some records

    It’s a common mistake, especially when thinking about media formats, to see things in a binary way where the only two states are ubiquity and death. Many made this mistake when vinyl was eclipsed by the CD, thinking that its death was just around the corner. But this thinking was wrong. Although vinyl sales fell, its role remained important and it still is today – in fact, vinyl sales in the US actually increased by 33% in 2009.

    RSS, unlike vinyl, isn’t a formerly dominant format that’s finding a smaller niche. Instead, it’s a new format that’s failed to go mainstream: usage of RSS readers is in decline and Twitter is supplanting it as a mass-market feed delivery channel. But there are definitely similarities between the formats, and the role they play in their respective ecosystems.

    You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays – Mashable, October 2008

    Not everyone wants to get to grips with concepts like Atom or OPML, learn how to use an RSS reader and incorporate it into their daily routine. That’s understandable: I know lots of voracious online readers who’ve never got to grips with RSS. Similarly, many people in the 1990s, despite loving music genres that released mainly on vinyl, didn’t want to join the anorak-wearing record shop brigade and start buying expensive import 12″s.

    But for media owners (whether websites or record labels) that vinyl-buying, RSS-reading audience is worth reaching if only because they’re in the habit of evangelising. A heavy RSS user is more likely to run their own website on which they’ll compile and re-publish that content, just as turntable owners are more likely to create mixes that showcase obscure records to a larger audience. RSS heavily influences how information moves online, and plays an indirect role in shaping the online experiences even of those who have no idea what it is.

    So even if RSS is never destined to become a mainstream format for delivering content online, reports of its death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. The internet needs a format which, like vinyl, appeals to the obsessives and whose very nature encourages compilation and re-transmission.


  5. My complaint to the PCC over Jan Moir

    Posted October 19, 2009 in media, politics  |  No Comments so far

    The PCC site is up and running again, so I decided to lodge my own complaint (click here to lodge yours). There are over 20,000 now which is apparently a record. Here’s what I entered in the “Explanation” field, feel free to re-use if you’re rushed for time.

    Section 1: Accuracy
    The journalist’s assertions ran counter to the findings of the coroner, with no proof presented. The column also claimed that 33-year-old men do not die of natural causes, an assertion that flies in the face of medical evidence.

    Section 5: Intrusion into grief or shock
    This is mainly for the family of Mr Gately to respond to, but I would be surprised if they did not feel that this column grossly violated this section of the code.

    Section 12: Discrimination
    The column strongly insinuates that homosexuality is correlated with destructive drug use, propensity for mental instability, suicidal tendencies and – ultimately – probability of a young, “strange” death. By doing so the columnist painted a highly pejorative portrait of Mr Gately’s lifestyle, using his sexuality as its sole proviso.


  6. Murdoch’s paid-content move

    Posted August 7, 2009 in media, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    I’m hoping that News International will end up looking back on their move to paid content as a serious blunder. Not because I’m irked at the idea of paying for the Sun or the Times (I don’t read either) or even because I’m a particularly ardent defender of free content. I just dislike News International in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular, and would rather live in a world in which their influence is greatly diminished. I also believe that Rupert Murdoch has a history of serious miscalculation when it comes to the internet and would like to see that belief borne out.

    If I’m wrong, it’ll at least be interesting to see what paid-content providers end up doing to differentiate their output from non-charging competitors. We might end up seeing a period of accelerated innovation in digital content as it becomes a product in its own right – as opposed to a vehicle for selling advertising.

    But to go back to my original point – I do hope that this all turns out to be a major cock-up on Murdoch’s part.


  7. Infographics at work

    Posted November 26, 2008 in media, visualisation  |  No Comments so far

    Last night I watched IOUSA on the BBC iPlayer (unfortunately this was over cable TV – I can’t find it on the web iPlayer). It’s a film made by the former US Comptroller General, David Walker, which attempts to convince the viewer of the seriousness of America’s national debt problem.

    …and it worked on me. The most effective aspect of the film was its use of infographics to convey a sense of historical scale. At its core was a recurring animated graphic showing the national debt from America’s inception through to the end of the George W Bush era in 2008.

    http://designobserver.com/archives/entry.html?id=38814

    Early on in the film you see the rises in the national debt from $0 in 1835 (the only point in history when it hit zero) up until the start of World War One. After that the graphic has to keep zooming out to fit in the subsequent growth. The Great Depression sees a quite unnerving hike – but as the World War Two period looms into view, it looks like a sheer cliff face. This is a shot of the graphic running up until 1988:

    US national debt through to 1988

    In the Clinton era the debt comes down, but then Bush takes charge in 2000 and things go through the roof, rocketing past WW2’s peak. The final sequence involving this graphic displays a projection for debt growth through to 2040. Baby boomers are set to retire en masse shortly and the effect on Social Security and Medicare spending will not be good. The effect this has on the infographic – the drastic zoom needed to chart the debt up to 2040 – almost gave me a sense of vertigo. It paints a pretty dystopian vision of the future.

    Pie chart

    Even though the film is unlikely to contain any new information for someone with more than an advanced lay knowledge of the current economic situation, I’d strongly recommend watching it. As well as the extremely well designed and animated graphics, it does a remarkably effective job of communicating the seriousness of the situation even to viewers who are already aware of most of the facts.


  8. Love letters and live wires

    Posted September 23, 2008 in media  |  No Comments so far

    On Sunday my girlfriend and I were attempting to make it to BFI in time to watch Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but as a result of some Boris Johnson/Sky Sports-related event we became ensnarled in traffic and arrived ten minutes too late.

    The BFI don’t show advertisements and don’t allow people in once a feature has started, so this put the kibosh on our plans. However, we took a look through the programme and noticed Love Letters and High Wires: Highlights from the GPO Film Unit.


    Telecoms geeks will know what the GPO is—but not everyone is a telecoms geek. The GPO, or General Post Office, used to run both post and telecommunications in Britain, up until the creation of British Telecom in 1980. In the mid-1930s, the GPO set up its own film unit, and produced a series of public information films intended to educate the British population about its services.

    This was a period when communications were being transformed in Britain – telephones were becoming near-ubiquitous and the postal service increasingly mechanised. A lot of people felt confused and uncertain about a lot of these technological advances and so there was a compelling motive for films of this nature to be produced.

    The surprising thing about these public information films, though, isn’t the fact that they were made at all, but that they were of outstanding quality and originality. Among the eight short films we saw were examples of surrealist animation (Norman McLaren’s Love on the Wing), abstract use of found footage (Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo) and a fairy-tale approach to marketing Post Office savings accounts (Lotte Reiniger’s The Tocher).

    Alongside these innovative pieces of work were some more traditional, but still fascinating, documentary films. Night Mail, the short film for which WH Auden’s poem was written, follows the Mail Special as it travels north from London to Glasgow. We see how nets sticking out from the side of the train are used to snatch up mailbags along the route without the train having to slow down (we were wondering, do they still do that? I hope so), and how the on-board sorters continually re-label the 48 pigeonholes they use with a different list of towns as they pass from region to region.


    My two favourites, though, were both films with a more educational purpose. N or NW, a film by Len Lye, is the story of how a lovers’ tiff is nearly exacerbated by the incorrect application of a postcode (the guy thinks that Upper Street is in NW1 – shocking!) but ultimately resolved by the efficiency of the GPO. The Fairy of the Phone sees a spectral phone operator with crystal-clear diction provide advice and guidance on telephone usage to a number of confused characters. We are instructed on how to answer the phone, why it’s a bad idea to use outdated directories, how to dial ‘our friends on the continent’ and how long we should give someone else to answer our call. It’s not just informative, however, it’s extremely humorous, and I strongly recommend trying to track down a copy of it online.

    That film got me thinking about how a modern equivalent might look. How would you personify the internet? What sort of advice would the personification would dish out? This made me think of AOL’s Connie (right), who would appear in television ads to sort out the (numerous) problems of AOL subscribers. She was the closest thing I could think of to the “Fairy of the Internet”, but to be honest she doesn’t really measure up to her predecessor.