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We’re Smart People and We Mean Well

June 30th, 2014 · No Comments

By now, many of you will know about Facebook’s experimental study in which they attempted (successfully, they claim) to make their users sadder or happier by manipulating their News Feeds – without their informed consent. To call the study controversial would be an understatement. Unethical, arrogant, and bone-headed would be a little more accurate.

Beyond the critical question of ethics and the dubious scientific worth of the study lies the fascinating reaction from Facebook and from the wider technology community (by which I mean prominent venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and developers). It’s best to look at this reaction in comparison to other tech-related uproars that have engulfed the internet. Take the political issues like SOPA and net neutrality, for example. The whole tech community lent their voices and their wallets to internet-side of those movements, and they were all very happy to assume that their antagonists (’old media’ businesses, etc.) were flat-out evil and greedy reactionaries.

When the tables are turned and Facebook is under attack for running a psychological experiment on its users, we hear… nothing at all. Radio silence from VCs and leaders of big companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Dropbox, and any other brand-name tech company. Those who are brave enough to defend Facebook usually comes from a place of utter bafflement: “We technologists are smart people and we mean well – isn’t that enough for you? In fact, the problem isn’t with what Facebook has done, it’s with your foolish and imperfect understanding of it. Here, let me explain it to your irrational, inconsistent child-like mind so that you can see how we’re trying to help you, and after I’m done you will praise us!”

The most common defence of Facebook invokes A/B testing, routine experiments companies run all the time in order to optimise their websites and apps. There are two real responses to this assertion:

1. “A/B testing” is too vague a term for useful comparison in this case; one might as well say that “experiments” are either all good or bad. Testing two two versions of a website selling hats and seeing which one version in more clicks on the “Buy” button? No-one has a problem with this, because when you’re on a retail website, you have a reasonable expectation that the owners are optimising their commercial message (just as Starbucks might optimise the names of their drinks). But what if Google A/B tested its search ranking algorithms in order to make you feel more positive about the US government? I don’t think we’d be too happy about that. Which leads us to:

2. Facebook (and indeed, Google) is different to most websites. It is a place where users want to keep up to date with their friends and family; it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a lens through which a billion people view the world. People using Facebook are not expecting that they are being actively manipulated there; at least not in a way that directly acts against their interests (i.e. to make them sadder).

You might say that this attitude is naive and we should be suspicious of everyone and everything. And indeed we are, in certain places. When we watch TV or read a newspaper and see an advert, we know that the advert is trying to manipulate us and it’s something that most of us accept, even if we aren’t too happy about it. But that’s why it’s crucial that adverts are clearly identified – not just on TV, not just in newspapers, but also in tweets and Facebook posts. You need to know what is and what isn’t commercial speech.

I suspect that technologists would rather not think about the ethics of A/B testing, which is used so widely precisely because it’s a very powerful manipulative tool that can change users’ behaviour, earning you millions or even billions more. Perhaps they’re worried that Facebook’s study might unleash regulation on A/B testing in general, or any kind of user manipulation. And, frankly, they are right to be worried. I suspect that the blithe nature of Facebook’s experiment will make people very worried about the other kinds of studies going on in private.

Yet rather than directly engage with people who criticise Facebook’s practices, their defenders instead think that we are stupid. It almost feels like they have completely internalised the messianic mission of Silicon Valley, where every disruptive startup is out to “save the world”, a stance which conveniently requires any right-thinking and ethical entrepreneur to make shit-tons of money by manipulating their users as fast as they can (in order to reach scale, etc.).

Disagree with Facebook and you disagree with the mission. Disagree with the mission, and you are an evil person.

Of course, there is a bit more to this story than what I’ve already said. Many Silicon Valley people subscribe to a utilitarian calculus of ethics, which appeals to their rational, big data personalities. Thus they might also defend Facebook by saying that the company is ultimately trying to increase the sum total of happiness in the world, and they can only do it by conducting these experiments. Ignoring the fact that it would be absolutely impossible to definitively conclude that because we can’t predict the other effects of these experiments (such as the fact that knowing Facebook has such broad control over people’s views of the world might make them sadder), the bigger problem is that there are different standards of ethics out there.

According to my standard of a good life, I would rather not have benevolent masters strapping rose-tinted spectacles onto my face. In other words, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Others may disagree, but that’s the point. There is no single ethics out there. People can have rational disagreements and there is no use to saying that we’re foolish for not wanting to be helped by Facebook. Never has Upton Sinclair’s maxim been truer: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

What is to be done?

I am still on Facebook, although I feel very unhappy about it (hah). There is currently no alternative for me to keep up to date with many of my friends and family. You could say that this makes me a hypocrite, just like the Occupy Wall Street protestor who uses an iPhone – made by a capitalist company that seeks to minimise its tax burden by whatever means necessary.

I don’t think that’s the case. This is the world we live in. You cannot get a phone that isn’t made by a capitalist company. due to economies of scale. I cannot keep up to date with my friends and family in other ways, due to network effects. The goal is to strive towards something else, even if we can’t be perfect while we do it.

To that end, I pledge to donate $1000 to any non-profit or B-corp organisation seeking to replace Facebook’s core social network functions that is able to raise $10 million in total donations.

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · psych · tech

The Pull: Digital Commissioning #4

May 19th, 2014 · No Comments

In my previous post, Part 3: World Enough and Time, I talked about the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies. In this post I’ll explore why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. Also, I’m aware this series is getting a little long, so I’m going to be a little briefer from now on.

Given the litany of problems I’ve talked about with digital commissioning at the BBC, why do independent companies continue to work with them? Clearly projects still get made, so it can’t be that bad, can it? There are indeed a few solid reasons why indies choose to pitch the BBC; however, not all of them are very good news, though.

Money

Getting commissioned by the BBC means that you’re guaranteed to get paid, whether or not it’s successful or popular. In comparison, trying to self-publish your own game or app comes with a hefty degree of risk. So, if you can’t compete in the commercial marketplace but you are good at pitching to the BBC, this is a great way to run a business.

Learning

Commissioned projects can be a good way to learn new ways of designing and developing projects while still getting paid. Never made apps about the weather before? If you can get commissioned to do something for the BBC, you can learn on the job. The downside here is that what you learn at the BBC may not be applicable in the commercial sector, but even so, it can still be a useful experience.

Exposure

The BBC is one of the biggest and most respected global brands, and shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock have tens of millions of viewers. Creating websites or apps related to those brands can expose your company to a wide audience; you can also get access to conferences and festivals which will help with networking and sales. Whether or not your project is any good or not hardly matters; conferences love getting speakers from the BBC since they can attract attendees. However, as people become increasingly aware that the real action online is happening with ‘original’ apps like Candy Crush, Minecraft, Angry Birds, and Snapchat (apps that can make hundreds of millions of dollars from hundreds of millions of players), the glow that’s associated with the BBC is starting to fade.

Excitement

It’s exciting to work on projects for the BBC! Where else do you get to work on something like Doctor Who or the Olympics? The BBC’s TV and radio shows still regularly attract audiences in the millions – something you’re unlikely to achieve for your own app or website. A commissioned project allows you to shortcut the uncertainty and grind of making your own thing and immediately get in front of a lot of people.

But, of course, it’s not all roses…

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.

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World Enough and Time: Digital Commissioning #3

May 12th, 2014 · 1 Comment

In my previous post, Part 2: The Magic Roundabout, I talked about commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects. In this post I’ll explore the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies.

Education, education, education

If you’re under 13, the BBC offers a veritable cornucopia of games and interesting digital projects; everything from simple quizzes to experiments in live TV-synced mobile gaming. I’m not totally clear on why, as soon as you turn 13, the BBC completely loses interest in making lots of games for you, but I think it’s related to the erroneous belief that ‘kids’ like to play games and use digital devices in a way that adults don’t. Because it’s so important to hook audiences while they’re young, it’s justifiable to use any means necessary – including making games – to get them to love the BBC.

Now, it would be anticompetitive for the BBC to make a bunch of fun games freely available to the public, so usually there’s some semblance of educational content in each of them*. That ethos of ‘we can do digital or gaming stuff as long as we can justify it as an educational project’ has infected the entire corporate such that pretty much every game ends up having some kind of educational content crowbarred in.

One notable offender is the Doctor Who Adventure Games. There are many problems with these games; one of the most egregious was that when you encountered some historical artefact such as a black cab, the Doctor spout some Wikipedia-style text about how there used to be 40,000 back in 1940. Not only was this completely irrelevant to the small matter of killer Daleks roving the environment; not only was the factoid utterly dull; but crucially, you never hear the Doctor crowbarring in such education in the TV show.

No doubt some commissioner decided that it’d easier to justify the game’s existence (and budget) if they pretended that it was educational, but it had the effect of worsening the overall experience. My pet conspiracy theory about why the BBC likes making educational games is because it gives them internal cover when the audience figures are disappointing. Precisely because you can’t quantify the educational benefit of something, you can always suggest that your expensive game that only got 10,000 players was still worthwhile because it was ‘educational’.

Finally, I don’t have anything against educational games – I’ve designed some for the BBC that I consider to be pretty neat, in fact – but believe me, they are super, super hard to do in a way that isn’t either boring or non-educational.

Solution: Stop requiring that games include educational components. We don’t require that of all TV shows, and we don’t even require that of all CBBC games either.

We don’t have enough time!

I once worked with a commissioner who asked us to email detailed status updates to her before our regular meetings. No problem – perfectly reasonable thing to ask for. What wasn’t reasonable was that when we sat down to meet and looked at the printouts, she was clearly reading the status updates for the first time. Since these updates could be quite long, there just wasn’t enough time for her to properly take them in, so she’d ask us questions that were already answered in them; or she’d pick out a single particular detail and comment on that.

I remember becoming pretty upset about this; why did she ask us to prepare all this stuff if she wasn’t even going to read it properly? It was only later that I realised that she – and many other commissioners – really didn’t have the time to read and comment on status updates. These days, commissioners don’t just commission TV shows and digital projects – they’re off giving talks at conferences and workshops across the country, they’re performing outreach to schools, and they’re in the multitude of meetings and reviews that comes with working in a big bureaucracy.

Of course, she could hardly admit that she didn’t have time to do her job properly, so she continued to ask for the status updates and continued not to read them properly. I believe this hectic scheduling also means that commissioners don’t have the time to write detailed or interesting briefs; to research new ideas; to read through the many, many pitches they receive for every brief; and just as importantly, to understand what’s happening in the wider industry. It’s not the worst job out there, but the BBC and Channel 4 and other corporations don’t make it easy for them.

Solution: Give commissioners more time for their core responsibilities. If necessary, require that a certain minimum number of hours per month is spent on each brief or commission.

The right competition

Speaking of understanding what’s happening in the wider industry, I’ve found that some commissioners (not all) have an incomplete idea of what’s popular and what’s state-of-the-art when it comes to digital projects and games. This is a particularly bad problem with higher level executives (e.g. bosses of commissioners) who really don’t have the time, or perhaps the interest, to keep up with digital happenings as much as they might do for TV.

As a result, not a day goes by without seeing some internet person at the BBC or Sky or Channel 4 claim that their new app or website is the best in the world, when a cursory examination of the market would reveal otherwise. It doesn’t help that industry awards like the BIMAs and Digital Emmy Awards confine themselves to TV or video-based interactive projects without comparing them to the usually far-superior products found outside those industries. The sort of media conferences that commissioners speak at are also pretty bad for finding out what’s state-of-the-art, simply because the creators of those projects aren’t interested in those conferences.

Solution: Hire people who have a genuine interest in the field of games and digital projects, and are not liable to be taken in by flashy but ultimately mediocre projects. This is hard to do if the people doing the hiring (e.g. controllers) have no idea what constitutes ‘genuine interest’; in which case I’d suggest the board (or BBC Trust, or whoever) try and hire a good digitally-minded controller. Of course, they themselves may also have no taste, in which case you’re pretty screwed.

Bad influence

Google, Microsoft, Apple, Disney – they’re big successful companies, all involved in media to some degree. Surely the BBC could learn a lot from them? Surely it’s worth high-level execs at UK broadcasters visiting them for fact-finding missions?

I’m not so sure. The practices of tech companies (Google X, 20% time, etc.) are often not applicable for the BBC due to its completely different mission and its wider range of stakeholders. The BBC, for better or worse, cannot move fast and break things; and more easily implemented ideas like making offices fun and colourful in order to stimulate creativity are sadly mistaken. These things may be suitable if you’re raking in billions, but they’re better seen as lagging indicators of success. The filmmakers at Pixar and the writers of The Simpsons used to work in featureless white rooms, and they were plenty creative.

The BBC doesn’t have the luxury of spending money like this. I’d prefer them to trust their own developers and technologists to figure out what’s right for the BBC, not what’s right for the latest tech startup.

In the next part, I’ll explore why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC.

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The Magic Roundabout: Digital Commissioning #2

May 7th, 2014 · 1 Comment

In my previous post, Part 1: Setting the Scene, I talked about how it’s difficult to judge the success of any commission (digital or otherwise) particularly when the BBC’s many conflicting stakeholders mean that the definition of ’success’ is highly debatable. In this post I’ll be looking at commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects.

The Magic Roundabout

Like civil servants and politicians, BBC commissioners frequently move between the public and private (independent production companies) sector. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; moving to an indie is a good way to get promoted, get more experience, and of course, get a higher salary. Indie companies, for their part, get the benefit of the commissioner’s experience of how the BBC operates and their relationships in the sector.

This means that if you ever hope to advance your career it doesn’t pay to make enemies. Being open and honest about the failure of a particular TV show – even if you didn’t commission it – means that the indie company that produced it is understandably going to be pissed off with you. It won’t endear you to other indies either, since if you did it once, maybe you’ll do it again to them. Some regard it as a good thing not to publicly criticise other TV shows or companies; if you don’t have anything nice to say, why say anything at all? I disagree, of course, because I think that’s the only way we learn. In any case, there’s not much to be done about this tradition of omerta – humans are humans, and the TV world isn’t so big in the UK, where trust is important.

Unfortunately it goes further. This magic roundabout of moving between the BBC and the private sector generates a strong incentive to mislead or misrepresent the success of projects you’ve commissioned so that you get more credit and get promoted quicker (e.g. “The website got five million unique users in just three days!”). I don’t know whether this misrepresentation necessarily happens within the BBC, but it most definitely happens at public forums and conferences. Particularly with digital projects, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will contradict or challenge your misrepresentations because:

  1. There is no independent authority that measures the traffic of digital projects; this is in contrast to TV ratings which are very public and allow everyone to understand what’s been popular and what hasn’t (and of course, the BBC doesn’t readily release online traffic numbers either), so they can’t prove anything
  2. They don’t want to make enemies or be labelled as a troublemaker
  3. They don’t care

Eventually the truth does come out, usually when all the old commissioners have left and a new crowd want to pin every problem on the previous regime, but of course by then years have passed and millions have been wasted.

Still: there are good reasons why commissioners would want to move to the private sector, and I’m not suggesting that misrepresentation is common, or that people do it knowingly. But even assuming that everyone is an angel, very fact of commissioners’ mobility means that knowledge and experience are continually lost; it takes time to understand how to navigate the BBC, how to commission good projects. Compare this against institutions like Pixar and Apple where staff will stay around for a long time. It is unusual that the BBC has this level of mobility given that it has a sense of a mission that many commercial companies lack; but perhaps the problem is that that mission has been weakened to the point where other factors (money, power, excitement) matter more and can be found elsewhere.

How to fix this? You could either:

  • Encourage commissioners to stay longer by: paying them more; providing tenure (although of course that means that bad commissioners could stick around longer; making the institution a more attractive place to work (tautology) OR
  • Make it so that individual commissioners coming and going can’t ruin everything by: spreading responsibility; building up a Pixar-style brain trust, where institutional experience and skill is better retained and spread

Risk Aversion

In large companies that have many different stakeholders (including but not limited to the BBC), long production timescales and bureaucracy mean that it can take years between making a commissioning decision (”Let’s make a user-generated chat show for BBC Three”) and getting the results. The longer this process takes, the longer it’ll take you to learn any lessons. That’s a fact of life for TV, but it’s worse for digital projects and apps because the BBC just doesn’t make that many.

When you finally do get the results, you get the classic problem of overcorrection. As Wikipedia says:

Negative feedback is often deliberately introduced to increase the stability and accuracy of a system by correcting unwanted changes. This scheme can fail if the input changes faster than the system can respond to it. When this happens, the lag in arrival of the correcting signal can result in over-correction, causing the output to oscillate.

In other words, if your commission was a big success, let’s make five more; and if it was a failure, let us never speak of it again for the next decade. Perhaps if there were five or ten times as many digital commissions being made, the signal would be stronger and the BBC could tolerate outright failures since they’d hopefully be balanced out by huge successes. As it is, if you’re a commissioners with a small budget, then you’ll want to be conservative and only do what’s been proven to work.

(This risk aversion doesn’t apply to every aspect of broadcasters though; in my experience, the BBC and Channel 4 legal departments were always very accommodating with the weird things we wanted to do online. In fact Channel 4 legal actually encouraged us to put more swearing in our game for teens!)

How to fix this? Increase the number of projects being made and/or make them more frequently; this probably involves spending more money. Also, develop a better system of fast internal feedback as employed by Valve and Pixar, who have consistently managed to make incredibly successful big-budget games and movies every few years without the apparent feedback of the market.

In the next part, I’ll explore: the problem of focusing on kids and educational digital projects; commissioners being too busy; not competing against the best; and being unduly influenced by big tech companies.

→ 1 CommentTags: bbc · tech

Setting the Scene: BBC Digital Commissioning Pt. 1

May 2nd, 2014 · 2 Comments

In my previous post, I presented ten apps that the BBC should make, ranging from an augmented reality stargazing guide to a hybrid video documentary/strategy game that would examine the effect of the High Speed 2 train line. Most of the apps would be affordable and straightforward to make, and they would be distinctly different to existing BBC apps like iPlayer that focus on repackaging existing content.

People inside and outside the BBC liked the ideas. Crucially, no-one doubted that the apps were technically feasible or that they would break the bank. So why isn’t the BBC making apps? Why aren’t there already five or ten apps by the BBC that we can point at?

It’s not for want of money, although more budget for digital activities wouldn’t be amiss. And it’s not as if the BBC hasn’t made app-like products (e.g. rich interactive websites and Flash games) before – some of them running into the high six and low seven figure range.

Part of the problem is the lack of strategic will; making digital products other than iPlayer and straight-up educational or kids stuff just isn’t a priority right now (and the reason for that is a discussion for another time). But just as important is that when the BBC has made app-like products in the past, they usually have been neither widely popular nor critically successful. But why haven’t there been hits? How does the BBC decide what gets made and which companies make it?

It’s through commissioning. Commissioning sounds like an inside-baseball subject, something that doesn’t matter to the normal person, but commissioning lies at the heart of the BBC. The corporation spends half a billion pounds every year on TV commissioned from independent companies. Its digital budget is much smaller, but there are still millions spent on outside digital commissions.

So here’s how it works, broadly: senior BBC execs (e.g. channel controllers) will set overall priorities once a year or so. From there, commissioners will create briefs based on those priorities (e.g. “We want something to do with the centenary of WW1″), and then independent companies will pitch their ideas. The successful ones get picked and then get made.

Yet for such a simple process, things can get awfully complicated and problematic. It’s those problems that I want to explore here, with a particular focus on the commissioning of digital products that are *not* about repackaging or redesigning existing content.

My bona fides

I don’t have complete knowledge of the BBC’s digital commissioning process – but then again, who does? From 2007 to 2011, my company, Six to Start, won – and lost – several commissions from the BBC, receiving sums totalling well into the six figures. We’ve also won multiple large commissions from Channel 4, and have worked with The Open University, Penguin Books, Disney Imagineering, Microsoft, eBay, and many other companies – and we have won a lot of awards.

I wrote and delivered many of those pitches, and subsequently led or was heavily involved in the design and production of the projects, during which I liaised with commissioners, producers, and researchers at the BBC. While our last commission for the BBC was at the end of 2011 (The Code for BBC Two), I’ve stayed in contact with many people at the BBC right up to this day.

For the last three years, however, Six to Start has focused on developing and self-publishing our own games and IP, so I’m very comfortable in being honest about the commissioning process because our income doesn’t depend on it any more. Am I fishing for future BBC commissions? No. Would I like to work with the BBC in the future? That would be very nice as I admire the BBC and its ideals, but even if we did I doubt the BBC would ever represent the primary income stream for the company.

So while I’m certainly open to accusations that I don’t know the full picture, I do know enough to take a good hard look at how digital commissioning works, why it works the way it does, and how it might be improved.

This series of posts is split into three parts – problems from the commissioners’ side, problems that independent companies face, and potential improvements and alternatives. This post is part one of part one (oh god…).

A commissioner’s lot is not a happy one

Let’s say you commission a new science fiction TV drama. Congratulations – it gets millions of viewers, way more than usual for the channel timeslot it aired in! Clearly you are a genius and the TV show is great. But wait: why did it get those viewers? Is it because it’s a Doctor Who spin-off and people would watch anything remotely connected to Who? Is it because the BBC spent a lot of money marketing it? Is it down to the actors? Who knows?

That pretty much sums up the issue with commissioning — even after your show (or app) has come out, you don’t really know why it was successful. Just imagine trying to predict the success of a pitch before it gets made; it’s not easy. Commissioners’ predictions aren’t wild stabs in the dark; they’re obviously informed by surveys and focus groups and viewing figures from similar shows. However, commissioners ultimately have to express a personal informed opinion, otherwise they’re literally just following the audience; in which case we might as well directly feed in the results of those surveys to the disbursal of money and remove human commissioners from the loop.

Now, let’s say we did remove human commissioners. Let’s say we just distributed money to the most popular shows and withdrew money from the least popular ones – sure, it’s simplifying things massively, but wouldn’t that at least give audiences what they want?

Not exactly – and even if it did, it’s very unlikely that it’d result in the best shows being made. Viewing figures aren’t perhaps the pure signal of audience desires that we might think they are. Certain types of marketplaces can be easily manipulated or are highly sensitive to starting conditions, especially when ‘discovery’ of new content is difficult.

One such marketplace is the iTunes App Store, where people primarily discover apps through the Top 50 download charts. Featured apps will also get a boost due to increased visibility, but being in the top 50 or top 10 free or paid apps isn’t simply about people seeing you; it’s about people knowing that other people think your app is worth downloading. There might be other good apps out there, but the absence of other forms of discovery (that also allow you to download apps) means that whatever is popular stays popular; and so, extraordinarily, “all of the top-ten-grossing apps in 2013 were over a year old,” according to free-to-play design consultant Nicholas Lovell. There’s a huge incentive to try and get to the top of the charts by any means necessary – including paying for downloads.

One of my favourite studies on this ‘bandwagon effect‘ effect was by Columbia and Princeton University, where, as the researchers describe:

[We artificially inverted] the true popularity of songs in an online “music market,” in which 12,207 participants listened to and downloaded songs by unknown bands. We found that most songs experienced self-fulfilling prophecies, in which perceived—but initially false—popularity became real over time. We also found, however, that the inversion was not self-fulfilling for the market as a whole, in part because the very best songs recovered their popularity in the long run. Moreover, the distortion of market information reduced the correlation between appeal and popularity, and led to fewer overall downloads.

TV isn’t as bad as the App Store or as artificially manipulated as the experiment above, and audiences don’t just use viewing figure charts to decide to what to watch. But it’s just as easily manipulable because the big broadcast channels such as BBC One, ITV, Channel 4, and Sky One all have a lot of loyalty and marketing muscle, meaning that any half-decent, reasonably-promoted show at 9pm on Sunday night will easily ‘attract’ millions of viewers.

Yes, shows can do better or worse for their timeslot, but the scarcity of timeslots means it’s impossible to perform proper experiments – and that means that just because a particular show is popular doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better or more popular than another programme that was pitched but not produced in the same slot. Ultimately, the popularity of a show is not merely a very weak signal of its quality, but also of its comparative popularity against other hypothetical shows.

Here’s a practical illustration: imagine if you’re a company pitching a game or TV show idea to the BBC. You don’t win; someone else’s show gets made, and it does fine. No-one knows for sure whether your idea would have done better. But the point is, there’s only one person – or at least, a very few people – who are deciding what gets made and what doesn’t. That’s a major point of failure, whether it’s for TV, games, or apps. And I’d argue that because the BBC has been making fewer apps with less money for a shorter amount of time, the fundamental problems of commissioning are even more acute for digital commissioning.

(Note that you can’t draw a direct analogy with BBC websites or games, precisely because there aren’t ‘timeslots’ on popular ‘channels’ — not unless the BBC started aggressively cross-promoting their new websites and games from their most-trafficked pages, e.g. BBC News Online, BBC Weather, iPlayer, etc. But if they start doing this, then the same problem will apply.)

Changing Priorities

The BBC and its commissioners serve (explicitly or implicitly) many different stakeholders with conflicting and sometimes rapidly changing priorities. These stakeholders include but are not limited to:

  • Licence fee payers
  • Politicians
  • The media
  • Religious leaders
  • OFCOM
  • BBC suppliers (e.g. independent producers)
  • BBC staff
  • BBC executives
  • BBC Worldwide (its commercial arm)
  • The BBC Trust

Today, politicians and teachers want to focus on science and technology; tomorrow, coding is a priority; the day after that, it’s robotics. BBC Worldwide wants to fund projects that will work internationally (read: US) so if you can get an American actor, that’s great! Audiences are more fickle than ever, being exposed to a limitless stream of TV shows from across the world, all better than ever before. They want Game of Thrones set in the UK; they want a British Boardwalk Empire; they want a British-Scandinavian drama. What’s more, audiences don’t want the BBC to only make popular, mindless TV and apps, but neither do we want them to make highbrow shows that don’t attract an audience.

There isn’t anything wrong with these demands; I’d like a British Game of Thrones as well! The entire point of having a public service broadcaster like the BBC is that it responds to things other than profit or popularity. I’m not suggesting that private broadcasters like Sky have it that much easier, since they’re far more exposed to competition, but the BBC is certainly caught in a web of maddening contradictions — and you’d better believe it that commissioners are also driven mad as a result. It certainly doesn’t help that priorities change as frequently as day becomes night — or that commissioners themselves frequently jump from the BBC to the private sector and back again.

What would be ideal is giving commissioners the security and budget to make long-term plans while also ensuring they have the flexibility to respond to genuine short-term opportunities. A rolling multi-year budget, along with a portion that can be used on smaller, faster commissions could work. But that wouldn’t solve everything…

In the next part, I’ll explore: commissioners moving in and out of the BBC all the time; why there’s a strong incentive to mislead everyone on how awesome your commissions were; and why the BBC is so risk averse, particularly for digital projects.

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10 apps the BBC should make

March 27th, 2014 · 4 Comments

Over the years, the BBC — which started as a radio service — has chosen to move into new, risky platforms including television, home computing, and the internet. It’s safe to say that we’re all quite happy with how those ventures turned out, so my question is, why stop there? The BBC should raise its digital ambitions to create original interactive experiences for computers, smartphones, and tablets; experiences that inform, educate, and entertain.

I am specifically not talking about apps that distribute or repurpose existing content. While the iPlayer apps for TV and radio are very successful, they don’t involve the creation of new interactive content.

iPlayer

Nor am I talking about websites such as the new educational iWonder brand. iWonder is a very well-written and very nicely designed website and it has some excellent articles, but it is not fundamentally interactive.

iWonder

So what am I talking about? I can best explain with ten examples of genuinely interactive apps that would complement existing BBC TV shows and properties (because, you know, it’s all about brand synergy), and are provably feasible and popular.

1. BBC News = BBC News

BBC News app

Credit where credit is due: the BBC News app is a simple yet decent extension of the BBC News Online website, itself an exceptional BBC property due to its world-leading, online-only nature. It’s arguable that it’s not a particularly interactive app, but then again, I don’t think that making it more interactive would add much.

2. The Sky at Night/Stargazing Live = Star Walk

starwalk

Thanks to presenters like Brian Cox and shows like Stargazing Live, there are plenty of people interested in stargazing and astronomy, but do we really expect them to go outside and fumble around with a compass when they could use something much better – like Star Walk? Want to find Jupiter or identify a constellation? Just point your smartphone in the right direction. It’s augmented reality of the finest kind, providing a supremely accessible and highly educational experience. If you combined Star Walk with audio or video commentary, you could provide viewers with a new stargazing tour every week. Perhaps you could even crowdsource counts of Leonids and Perseids meteor showers. Keep reading →

→ 4 CommentsTags: adrian · apple · travel · tv

Perfection, Quantified

March 10th, 2014 · 3 Comments

I am too lazy to be a good self-quantifier. And yet I persist. I have a Fitbit activity tracker that automatically syncs with the internet whenever I’m near my laptop. For a while it gave me the intense satisfaction of routinely topping the step counts of my friends, reported on Fitbit’s website, until I realised that their totals – and mine – never seemed to change much between weeks.

halfmarathon

In the first year, occasionally my daily step count might creep over 20,000 or 30,000 steps and I would get excited about setting a new record. Sadly, that excitement has gone – having reached 45,432 steps on the day of the Edinburgh half-marathon last year, the prospect of going beyond is now confined to, well, marathons.

leaderboard

Even the flicker of pleasure I gained from the Fitbit leaderboard was extinguished by a ‘friend’ I recently added who now consistently beats me. He probably works in a job where he actually has to walk during the day, or something equally unfair. But it still provides entertainment. My girlfriend and I both enjoy walking and I’ll often ask her to guess how many steps we’ve taken so far. She’s gotten really good at this now: “Six thousand… two hundred?” “Six thousand five hundred. Only four percent off!” I’ll marvel. I can’t honestly say that the Fitbit has made me walk any more than I used to, though.

weightbot

Then there’s my internet-connected Withings scales. I got these as a birthday present from my parents (stop laughing – I asked for them, you jackals!). They’re several times more expensive than my old, perfectly-accurate scales, but like the Fitbit they also automatically sync with the internet, so I don’t have to record the figures myself. At a conservative five seconds saved every day, or 30 minutes a year, in the extra time I’ve saved before I die I could watch the entire first season of Friends. Could that be any better?

While, technologically-speaking, the Withings scales do far less than the Fitbit, its ability to show me long-term trends in my weight makes it very far more useful than looking in a mirror and feeling vaguely worried/pleased.

Finally, Foursquare. Over Christmas, we visited my brother in Portland and then my girlfriend’s family in Toronto. Whenever I travel outside of London and visit normal people’s flats and houses, I am always reduced to a raving madman, rending my clothes in fury. “$350,000 for three bedrooms and two point five bathrooms? You can barely get a toilet for that price in London!”

I have a pet theory (which is wrong and offensive, but I’ll continue) that ‘professionals’ in London only stay there because they grew up in ultra-boring places elsewhere in the UK. When they eventually get to London and see the bright lights and such, they accept the horrific house prices as a necessary evil of not living in a place where nothing happens. Keep reading →

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A Proposal for Managing In-App Spending

March 3rd, 2014 · 2 Comments

This year, the European Union’s Consumer Protection Cooperation network, the EU Justice Minister, and the UK’s Office of Fair Trading have all expressed concerns about consumers being confused or misled about in-app spending; particularly on freemium games, and games aimed at children.

Their recommendations include developers providing better information about the true costs involved in freemium games, and ensuring that children are not exhorted to buy in-app items or persuade an adult to buy items for them. These are a good start but time will tell whether they are effective.

In related gaming (that is, gambling) news, as of this month gamblers in England and Wales will be able to set limits on the amount of time and money spent on high-stakes gaming machines (e.g. slot machines) in betting shops. According to BBC News, there are 33,000 fixed-odds betting terminals across England and Wales, on which approximately £40 billion is gambled and £1.5 billion lost each year. These terminals will now provide alerts to gamblers every 30 minutes or £250 spent. Despite these moves, the UK government said that more could be done, so clearly this is not the end of the road for gambling regulation.

There is a very, very big difference between gambling and (some) freemium games. Freemium games are not even in the same ballpark when it comes to harm against society. However, they also have a few things in common, most notably their use of behavioural psychology and compulsion loops to keep players playing more and spending more. There are plenty of freemium game players who will spend hundreds of hours and many pounds playing them, and then regret their actions afterwards – I know because I was one of them.

What would freemium games look like if they adopted the same kind of limits that fixed-odds betting terminals will have? Here’s a possibility I mocked up:

freemium1

placeit

freemium3

Feel free to repost these images but please link back. These are mockups. Any relation to existing apps is intentional but meant only for comic effect. I welcome any corrections.

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My 2014 Podcasts

January 16th, 2014 · No Comments

Earlier today I tweeted about the podcasts I’d added — and removed — for 2014. A few people asked me about what else I listened to, so here’s a list. I might also write another post about why you should listen to podcasts and how to get set up.

New Additions

The Memory Palace (7 min): The first episode of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace I listened to was Six Stories, about Otis’ development of the elevator. Lest you think this would somehow be an informative yet dry treatment, let me assure you that it was a beautifully told story about the sheer danger and romance of those early elevators. Six Stories was rebroadcast by 99% Invisible (see below) and convinced me to investigate The Memory Palace further.

I don’t take subscribing to new podcasts lightly — we don’t have unlimited time, after all — so I test them out for a while. The next episode I heard, Shadowboxing, ensured that The Memory Palace immediately exited probation. Shadowboxing was even better than Six Stories, about the life of John L. Sullivan, a champion boxer. There are a lot of conventional ways in which you could tell the story about such a person, but this one was different and its path was satisfyingly unguessable. “Now I get why Nate only podcasts once a month,” I thought. If anything it reminds me of what 99% Invisible was like before Roman Mars (IMHO) mistakenly heeded some listeners’ requests to lengthen the show.

The Memory Palace doesn’t appear to have any ads, which simultaneously pleases and worries me. I should totally go and donate to him right now, and maybe hire him to do an audio tour of some museum I like.

Snap Judgment (50 min): Take 16 minutes and just listen to Where No One Should Go. It has the quality of the very best radio, a personal story that unfolds deliberately and then ratchets the pressure higher and higher and higher. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.

From NPR and PRX. I cheated a bit on this one because I haven’t listened to many episodes so I’m not fully sure I’ll stay subscribed, but the linked clip was so good that I’m happy to give it a shot.

Harmontown (2 hours): Heard of Community? This podcast is by its showrunner, Dan Harmon, and it’s actually a live recording of a weekly ‘town hall’ stand-up session he does in LA with his friends. About 50-75% of the episodes are absolute gold, full of ridiculous free-wheeling one-up joking, and enhanced by a never-ending cavalcade of guest comics and writers (last week was Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development). Apparently Robin Williams was on a couple of episodes, so I’m saving those for a rainy day. There’s also usually a live D&D session at the end as well.

The remaining 25-50% of episodes can be pretty dire; this week saw them talking about gender relations. It was very earnest and well-intentioned, I’ll give them that, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to listen to undergrad bull sessions any more. If it sounds like an episode is about to turn into this, just skip it – there’ll be another good one along next week! Keep reading →

→ No CommentsTags: adrian · radio

The Public Service Internet

January 14th, 2014 · No Comments

When Google extends its grasp on our personal data by acquiring yet another company, there are three responses you can take:

1. Boycott Google services (Gmail, Google Maps, Google Search, Google Docs, Android, Chrome, etc.) and hope that if enough people follow, they’ll be forced to change their policies on advertising and retention. This may require you to lower your standards, since the open-source or otherwise ‘friendly’ replacements are not always as good as Google; moving to another VC-funded company’s services is not the answer as they may also be acquired by Google, or emulate their practices.

2. Decide that you don’t really care that much and continue to use Google. Perhaps the cost and hassle of switching would be too much, or perhaps you simply don’t believe that the data that Google holds and its reach across the internet (and increasingly, the ‘real world’) is really that bad in comparison to other bad things happening in the world.

3. Contribute time and resources towards the development and maintenance of alternatives to Google services that inherently cannot adopt Google’s practices (such as their blithe disregard for people’s contact information) — that is, non-profit and/or open source alternatives.

Full disclosure: I use Google services all the time. I’m typing this in Chrome, and I have Google Mail, Calendar, Docs, and Play Music open. I’ve taken a trip in an Uber taxi. My company receives a substantial amount of its income from selling apps on the Google Play Store, and I’ve given a talk at their campus in Mountain View. I also use plenty of services that Google might reasonably buy in the future, such as Dropbox, Foursquare, and Medium.

I’m not here to castigate you. I’m just as much of a hypocrite as everyone else. But the vociferous reaction to Google buying Nest has demonstrated that a lot of people are concerned about where Google might be going.

The question is, why are people concerned? Keep reading →

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