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The iPlayer, the commentariat and BBC Nathans (or otherwise)

This piece started out over three weeks ago as a response-to-the-response of the launch of the latest iteration of the BBC iPlayer. Over the course of several rewrites, the post has gone from a straightforward and immediate response, through a detailed laying out of Unthinkable's general "position" on social media, and right back again. (That positional piece will appear further down the line.) I only give this background by way of explanation for the lateness in the day of this now rather less topical post.

The BBC relaunched their on-demand console the iPlayer on 6 September. It was widely covered elsewhere, and in any case was only really the public launch of what had been running in beta since June. Furthermore, the BBC themselves have talked about it from a variety of perspectives on their Internet blog (you can get to most of the posts from James Hewines' announcement post). So we won't add to the noise - and product review is hardly our bag anyway.

But I was struck by the tack taken by some commentators. In a think piece-y post entitled iPlayer, iTunes succumb to Web2.0rhea, The Register's Andrew Orlowski took aim at the integration of Twitter and Facebook into the iPlayer (as well as iTunes' new social network Ping). "Yes, [the BBC and Apple have] succumbed to Web2.0rhea. Or at least, the designers think that the kind of Nathan Barleyesque web integration with Facebook and Twitter is what us punters really, really want from iTunes and iPlayer. It's the first false step for iPlayer since it launched over Christmas 2007... But look at how many people have actually signed up for iPlayer's Twitterbook integration in the three month beta: only 18,000. Yet iPlayer is used by 1.2 million users a day (that was in July, a relatively quiet month) and 10 per cent of iPlayer users opted to use the beta. So we're looking at a section of the audience that's TV enthusiasts, and tech curious, and the vast majority don't want the Web2.0rhea features."

Now Reg-ulars will know that Orlowski is both generally fiercely critical of the BBC and not a little prone to sarcasm (for what it's worth I think he lets himself down with it; he's a keen thinker, but I rather suspect his generally adroit criticisms of the BBC and others are too easily dismissed because of their tone).

Nor is Orlowski a lone voice on this; a glance at the comments thread on Hewines' post reveal that. Captain Sneaky is more sarcastic than most, but not unrepresentative. "To all of those who want to keep the old version I'd like to just say, forget about it. It's going to happen. Think of all those important people having important meetings about important things. I'm sure they had bowls of fruit on the table and everything. You people... who don't understand the reasoning behind this change are just squares. Not the kind of happening, facebooking, twittering, media-savvy demographic they are targeting. Go back to your wireless and television set."

(Ouch. Full disclaimer: three of the four of us at Unthinkable were at the BBC for well over twenty years between us, being, allegedly, "important people having important meetings about important things", although I don't remember much fruit.)

We can't know for sure how representative any of this is of what iPlayer users think, of course. Post comments are rarely, in my experience, an accurate reflection of wider public opinion, and while Orlowski cites the poor take up of the SM aspects of the beta, it may be that most users were indifferent rather than hostile, if they even knew about it.

Nonetheless, there's some important stuff in here for us to reflect on, and some thorny questions to ask - not least of ourselves. Principally, should social media elements, and in particular Facebook and Twitter, be de rigeur in new online apps and services?

Right tool; right job - but for whom?

About two years ago, Justin and I embarked on a series of social media workshops for the BBC. One of the early ones had an admittedly corny title: right tool for the right job. That session looked specifically at the use of SM tools in media production, but its title could be taken more generally. As I look at the apps and services we at Unthinkable use, I'm struck that there is no one way we all use any of them - in fact there's not one we do all use. Rather, we use what we find, well, useful.

And that, of course, is the message we try to give our clients: don't get into the social media space because you think you should. Get into it as and when it works for you.

But there's the rub. What if an organisation is looking to build tools into its services for its users to use? And if an organisation has a user base as big as the BBC's, how can it even begin to know what will be universally useful?

Does it always have to be Facebook?

Here's Clay Shirky, speaking at lecture at the London School of Economics: "It's unclear to me that anyone can abandon Facebook and consider themselves a citizen of the 21st Century". In fairness to Shirky he's hardly stating an absolute position with this (and the context makes clear that he was speaking with some regret). But I'll be more definitive: I believe it is absolutely possible. I'm one of the two FB refuseniks at UC, but unlike the other one, Justin, I'm a suicide rather than a long term resister. We have our own reasons - and one of mine, that I simply felt it inappropriate to be in the same "social" group as my teenage children, I'll explore some other time (short version: of course I know what my son is getting up to at University, but I don't need to see it - and he doesn't need me to either).

But let me be clear: I don't think I have missed out on a single thing of importance to me as a result of the suicide - not one gig, book or music recommendation, not a single professional or personal event or engagement. (That would not be the case, for what it's worth, if I quit Twitter - I'm convinced of that.)

However, while I'm a Facebook sceptic, I fundamentally reject Orlowski's and others' suggestion that FB users are a bunch of Nathans (if the allusion is unfamiliar, explanation here) or at least that the media Nathans who insist in integrating Facebook into other services are overestimating the importance of the social media behemoth. It's an especially daft stance to take in the case of the iPlayer; UK Facebook activity dwarfs iPlayer usage. Incredibly the figures for August 2010 indicate something like 25-26 million FB users in the UK.

This should hardly need saying, but anyway... Facebook is beyond mainstream. There's an irony in that of the four of us at UC, Justin and I are probably the Nathans (I'm pretty sure Sarah and Matthew would remove "probably" from that) - and, to repeat, we're not part of the FB massive. Meanwhile, I look at my provincial, working class family and every single one of them over the age of 16 is on FB. (My mother called me to complain about aforementioned son's use of the C word on his page recently - chalk that one up as a new kind of family dilemma.)

In a country where millions upon millions of people are using Facebook to keep in touch, share thoughts, and, yes, presumably talk about what TV and radio they like, it would be insane not to integrate FB into the iPlayer.

So in answer to my question above - does it always have to be Facebook? - I'd say that for now, whether I like it or not (and truly I don't), on balance, it does.

Twitter: a rather different case?

The case for groaning chagrin over Twitter is superficially stronger (and again, I say this as an avid Twitter user). Certainly Twitter is a minority sport up against Facebook. Anecdotally, looking to my family mentioned above, I don't think one of them uses it. (Accurate Twitter stats are notoriously difficult to obtain; Twitter themselves remain guarded and what figures there are don't take third party apps like Tweetdeck into consideration, and are thus somewhat less than useful.

There is of course some truth in the mainstream story about Twitter - that it's a bunch of narcissists broadcasting their every move (Remember The Register's amusing catch-all: Web2.0rrea). And I for one have taken to blocking the monologuers, unless they're especially witty.

And yet, from what I see, far more people use Twitter to "point at things", to quote Tom Coates, and in this regard it's both invaluable - and, as far as I know, unprecedented - as a tool for very quickly passing on information and opinion: an effectively real-time zeitgeist monitor.

A caveat here: a broader and more probing survey of society and media might conclude that there is potential spiritual, intellectual and social damage to be wrought from such an instantaneous, and necessarily micron-thick engagement with information. This has been a year of published scepticism with regard to the effects of Web 2, from Jaron Lanier's remarkable You Are Not A Gadget, through Viktor Mayer-Schonberger's Delete and on to Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. I personally have some sympathy with the arguments made by each of these books, and certainly worry about the effects of network culture on my own thinking, concentration and engagement generally.

But isn't a Twitter conversation about a telly show the 140 character equivalent of the "water cooler moment"? And was there really any depth to such exchange? If we accept that people feel the need to have a bit of a natter about the media they consume then a. it’s hardly a recent phenomenon and b. Twitter is surely the perfect medium for this at this moment in tech development?

As to that earlier point - that Twitter usage is still something of a niche activity (albeit something of a mega-niche), well that raises a pretty fundamental question about the point at which the BBC introduces new technology to its work. It seems pretty obvious that the organisation has a duty to seed the use of technologies by introducing at a point where take-up will necessarily be low. Yes, sometimes it can bark up the wrong tree (I give you DAB, and, frankly, you can keep it). But it has to try, and keep trying. It might be that sometimes the BBC backs horses we personally don't favour, or indulges audience requirements we don't understand (I, for one, remain puzzled by its patronage, at the outset of the 21st century, of five full symphony orchestras), but never lose sight of the breadth of the church to which it's appealing and, indeed, justifying its existence.

Mistakes will be made. Some will be costly (witness DAB again); some will be politically eyebrow-raising (UK Radio Player, for instance). And certainly, ROI, even in the BBC's labyrinthine understanding of that concept, always needs to be considered - and monitored on an ongoing basis.

And so...

On balance, I think that to slate the BBC for technology experiments - worse, to ridicule individuals there for their backing of them - seems to me misguided and, at times, a little mean-spirited. Are new media teams at the BBC a little bit further down the social media rabbit hole than many - perhaps most - of their audience? Well, yes: that rather goes with the territory. I would hope that the BBC’s experts in all areas of its activity, from the establishment of codec standards to finding the latest, hottest Dubstep act, are all a little further down their own particular rabbit hole than the rest of us.

And I believe that in the case of Facebook and Twitter integration into the iPlayer, they've almost certainly done the right thing, and certainly for the right reason. Even if it's of absolutely zero value to me.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for an interesting and balanced take. On the question of whether users were indifferent rather than hostile, my reading of the reaction to the new iPlayer was that the hostility centred on three aspects, somewhat interrelated but I'll try to tease them out:

- the increased emphasis on what the Beeb wanted to publicise and push to the user (the 'featured' and dumb 'for you' listings);

- the Beeb's concentration on the SM aspects at the expense of the primary function of iPlayer, i.e. a place where one can find a programme or lists of programmes;

- ditching the excellent implementation (in the previous iPlayer) of the interface to the programme listings themselves, and replacing it with a much inferior and more time-consuming one, and moreover an interface that made exploration of what the Beeb has to offer a lot more difficult.

It's as though the Beeb want users to spend a lot more time on the iPlayer interface itself, as though it was a sort of programme in itself. (Most users want the page to be a quick stepping-stone to where they want to get to.)

Back on your main topic though, the big question concerning the iPlayer SM aspects was the Beeb's astonishing failure to recognise and promote its own existing in-house SM mechanisms, namely its messageboards and blogs.

October 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRuss

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