September 13th, 2014 · No Comments
We open on two college students driving through the woods at night. One is peering at the bright screen of their phone, giving directions.
“Can’t this piece of junk go any faster?”
“If you want to get out and push, you’re welcome.”
“I heard that if you get to the party before anyone else, you get, like, a lifetime supply of everything.”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any other cars for the last twenty -”
The phone starts beeping.
“Holy shit, it’s here!”
The car screeches down a narrow track. They arrive at a clearing where a very expensive, very high-tech tent has been set up.
“Looks like we’re the first!”
They high-five, and sidle in.
“Hey, we’re here for the app, is there -”
Smash cut to -
We pull out from these words projected onto a massive screen. It actually says “Clear’s next Killer App” where Clear is a logo for an internet company. The screams turn into rapturous applause. We’re at a press conference, a cross between an Apple keynote and an interview.
A young Cillian Murphy is on the stage.
“Now, did I hear you say two *billion* users?” asks the interviewer?
“Two point *one* billion users,” corrects Murphy, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone chuckles.
“What’s the secret of your success?”
“It’s simple. We created an app that helps people help each other. These are hard times, and I believe that we should always be there for our friends and family, whether that’s doing work for each other or just throwing a party together.”
“But it doesn’t hurt that you take a cut of every transaction made on the app, does it?”
“Not much,” he admits, twinkling again. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re providing a valuable service and the revenues let us improve the product and reach more and more people.”
“Earlier this year, you acquired Twitter. Everyone wants to know, who’s next? Microsoft? Facebook? Apple?”
He looks thoughtful. “How can I put this? We’re a forward-thinking company. They aren’t. I don’t want to be dragged down with dead weight.” Keep reading →
Tags: film · silly · tech
September 7th, 2014 · 2 Comments
Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:
- How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
- There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
- How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
- What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
- Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
- How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
- What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?
These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.
Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.
I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.
Tags: adrian · politics · tech
As summer draws to a close and the evening appears ever nearer, a young man’s fancy naturally turns to the production and distribution of podcasts.
I listen to several podcasts and I co-host The Cultures podcast with Naomi Alderman and Andrea Phillips. As such, I feel I have the bare minimum amount of experience required to examine how the process of making podcasts could be improved, across recording, editing, and publishing, in the form of an imaginary dream super-app.
If you can’t get all your hosts in the same room every week (e.g. because they’re in different cities), then you’ll need to use something like Skype to hear each other. Skype is free and easy to use, but the call quality is not perfect. For the best results, each participant should record their own microphone feed ‘locally’; these multiple feeds can then be combined later on for a much clearer sound.
As mentioned, Skype is free. Call recorders can be found for a relatively low price (free to $25), such as Rogue Ameoba’s Piezo and Audio Hijack, and Ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype. These are a little fiddly to use, but not too annoying. For The Cultures, I use Audio Hijack Pro to capture my own microphone input along with the Skype audio from Naomi and Andrea; we don’t all record locally because I don’t have the time to edit the podcast. Audio Hijack pretty straightforward but I had to play around with the mix settings a few times before getting it quite right. Certainly there weren’t any preset ‘podcast’ settings.
If we all recorded locally, as most other podcasters do, then you can multiply the fiddle-factor by three. Again, it’s not that annoying if you know how to use computers, but if you don’t, it’s a frustrating experience.
Ideally: I would like a dedicated app, let’s call it “Podsoft”, that each host would install. The app would make recording easier by automatically syncing with the other hosts (through a unique code or user auth) so that we could confirm that everyone was recording, receiving audio, and ready to go; and it would sync with online time servers to adjust for frame loss.
During the podcast, we could type in timestamped comments in a shared document (similar to Etherpad or Google Docs) which would make it easier to compile show notes and set chapter marks. Once the podcast ends, the each app syncs with Dropbox or perhaps just sends the audio file to the designated ‘master’ host automatically, thus avoiding any emailing-and-attaching-file shenanigans. Incidentally, the app would be capable to recording all participants from a single computer (similar to my current Audio Hijack setup) as a backup.
Editing can produce a tighter, more coherent podcast, and better-sounding podcast, but it takes time. For me, the choice is not between ‘no editing’ and ’some editing’, but between ‘no editing’ and ‘no podcast’. It’s different for other hosts, however.
If you get your hosts to record their audio locally, then you need to assemble those multiple audio files into a single file. On the face of it, this should be easy – just drag the files into separate Garageband tracks, line up the start times, and away you go. In practice, I’m told that frame loss means that the files can drift out of sync over the course of the podcast, which makes editing tricky. You might also want to reduce noise and control the volume so that everyone sounds equally loud.
An experienced editor can do this in their sleep, and probably has access to (or has written) scripts that automate some of these tasks. However, amateurs aren’t quite as lucky and may end up struggling through the process.
Ideally: Podsoft combines and syncs the multiple audio files automatically. It includes presets to reduce noise and normalise voices; not as well as a professional, but better than an amateur.
Libsyn are the podcast host of choice these days, mostly because it ‘just works’ and isn’t too expensive ($5-15/month). However, their content management system looks and feels awful; I’ve made more than one mistake using it in the past.
Ideally: Podsoft allows you to compose all the podcast metadata, including title, description, image, and release data, within the app itself. When you’re ready, you hit submit and it upload it all to Libsyn without you having to deal with the website.
Cost, problems, concluding thoughts
The vast majority of podcasters don’t make any money at all, which may worry developers. Yet while I don’t make money from running, I still pay a decent amount for good trainers, because it’s an entertaining hobby that I spend a lot of time on. Likewise, podcasting is a hobby that a lot of people spend a lot of time on, and I can’t help but think they’d be willing to pay a decent amount for software that makes their lives easier and results in a better podcast.
I think people would be willing to pay around $50-100. If you sold around 1000 to 10,000, that’s not a terrible business given that it’s a Mac app with the potential for upgrade sales every couple of years.
Of course, it’s not a massive amount of money and there’s only so many podcast creators out there. The real opportunity lies in creating a Libsyn competitor – which of course would be a much easier job if you already had a great podcasting app out in the market. Then you could work on providing other services for podcasters including improved statistics, crowdfunding tools, community features, nice-looking website, and so on; not to mention improved discovery for listeners. I don’t suggest this because I hate Libsyn – it’s a decent website that works and isn’t too expensive – but it’s healthy to have competition in a market, since it improves the service.
For the avoidance of doubt, neither I nor Six to Start are about to make this app – we’re plenty busy working on other stuff. But I would love it if someone like Marco Arment or Daniel Jalkut worked on it, given their previous form (Overcast and Marsedit). We can live in hope.
Tags: adrian · tech
August 27th, 2014 · 1 Comment
In my previous post, Part 4: The Pull, I talked about why, given all of these issues, independent companies continue to pitch for digital commissions from the BBC. In this post I’ll explore some of the problems faced by digital indies including low pay, and lack of prestige, reach, and creative control.
I also realise that this series has taken far too long for me to write, so I’m going to conclude it here in an accelerated fashion, which will hopefully relieve everyone concerned. That means that I have not taken quite as long to proofread or edit it. But something is better than nothing, right?
Historically, I’ve found that BBC digital commissions – for apps, for websites, for games – don’t pay an awful lot. And while the pay has improved considerably in recent years, it still doesn’t recognise the significant cost involved in pitching. The BBC is not really any worse than other organisations in this regard, but pitching just sucks. I think we were pretty good, all things considered, at pitching – we had an above-average success rate at Six to Start and we won some big projects. Yet even so, we lost far more than we won, and that uncertainty made it difficult for us to hire full-time employees.
Instead, we had to use contractors and freelancers, who cost more than permanent staff and took their knowledge and experience with them when they left (making it harder to maintain projects). As a result, bigger companies that can pitch and develop for multiple projects simultaneously can significantly outperform smaller companies, which explains the drastic consolidation in digital indies of late.
Similar problems exist for indie TV producers, but the sting of pitching is lessened slightly because there’s a much greater acceptance of contract/freelance workers in that sector, and because they often get to retain some commercial rights in their shows (unlike digital indies, who usually get nothing at all).
Conversely, the cost of producing and self-publishing apps, games, websites, etc., is low and declining, so the attraction of £20k or £50k or £100k from the BBC isn’t as much as it used to be, if you can raise £30k from Kickstarter and make a decent game prototype in half a year.
People will hate me for saying this, but the vast majority of digital work done by indies for the BBC isn’t even remotely prestigious. I recognise this contradicts an earlier point I made (that indies love working on things like Doctor Who), but hear me out: the work isn’t likely to win an Independent Games Festival award, or an Apple Design Award, or a GDC Award, or honestly anything that gets you significant respect from peers. You can bullshit TV people about how many downloads your vanilla app got, but you can’t bullshit a digital person – and they won’t care that your app is about Doctor Who.
And the truth is, apps made by indies (i.e. not iPlayer, BBC News, BBC Sport, etc.) are unlikely to reach that many people. BBC TV may get everywhere, but apps don’t. Not even the ones for big TV shows, because ‘calls to action’ are hard to get (e.g. “If you liked this episode, download the app at www.bbc.co.uk/whogame”)
Little Creative Control
The briefs I received from BBC commissioners were often highly detailed, specifying the type of game or website required, the story beats, the characters, the educational points that needed to be covered, and so on. That’s fine – it’s the BBC’s money, they can do what they like. But as a creative person and a creative company, it’s just not very interesting.
Once again, I’ll use Doctor Who as an example – you may think that it’d be great for the BBC to do a proper Doctor Who game that tied into the TV show. Unfortunately you are unlikely to get to do anything particularly interesting as you’ll always be second fiddle to the TV show’s needs. This is perfectly understandable given that the TV show gets millions of viewers a week, whereas your game or app can only hope to get a fraction of the audience. Why bother doing anything at all for smaller platforms, why waste Steven Moffat’s time (or any of the other production staff) when it’s better spent on the TV show?
The problem is that this is a classic innovator’s dilemma, where the BBC is failing to meet their audience’s unstated or future needs for interactivity. Apps may seem cheaper and lower quality and less popular but they do many things differently and better. One day we’ll want more interactivity from the BBC but the necessary skills and experience just won’t exist there (also, I’ve never bought the value for money idea behind focusing on TV production; if that were true we’d just made radio, or perhaps books).
The TV industry is a strange beast; it has things like transmission (TX) dates where they decide – with alarmingly late notice – when a show is going to be broadcast. These decisions appear to be a dark art where channels size each other up and try to ‘win’ particular timeslots or nights. Accordingly, when we were making The Code, we didn’t know when the TV show was going to be broadcast until a few weeks beforehand; we’d finished most of the work but due to this uncertainty we had to keep the team together, idling on other work. Once again, this is expensive, it favours larger companies, and it’s not something that many indies realise when they start out.
While the commissioning process isn’t that long, the process of making a TV show can still take years. Ideally you want the digital people to be involved right at the start, coming up with the concept for the interactive stuff – and you don’t want that changing drastically over time in case it causes problems with the TV people. But in digital, speed matters; what’s cool today may no longer be cool next year, let alone after two years. To be fair, this is not true of all digital ideas, but it does rob many a project of its freshness.
Success in pitching – and in production – can depend on personal relationships with commissioners. I know this because I’ve both benefitted and lost out from my relationships (or lack thereof). Commissioners can, and will, tell you details that aren’t in the brief. This is not because they’re corrupt – it’s because they aren’t necessarily amazing brief-writers and they don’t have enough time or resources to do a good job. If I bump into them at a conference and ask them a question about the brief, then they’ll probably answer, because they’re not misanthropic assholes (so yeah, good luck if you hate conferences or networking).
Commissioners also want to work with people whom they know they can get on with and whom they trust – after all, you’ll be working together for months or even years. Newbies don’t know this happens; it’s only people who’ve pitched and lost who do. Yet the necessity for these relationships puts even winners off as their commissioners will eventually move on.
Unsurprisingly, a system that requires indies to pitch rewards those who are good at pitching. It is truly amazing how much a pitch matters. Now, in defence of the BBC, one could argue that a good pitch is a proxy for attention to detail, the ability to make good looking content on a deadline, and understanding the market. I think there is some truth in that. However, it’s easy to be dishonest in pitches, and it’s also easy to ‘cheat’ if you’re a big company, by wheeling out your big-hitter Don Draper-alikes for the pitch and then throwing a bunch of juniors onto the project afterwards.
Even the best indies will be lucky if they have a 50% success rate at pitching; a 30% or 40% rate is more likely. And good pitches can take weeks to put together, which means that while you’re producing one project, you’re probably pitching for two or three other things. Talk about distracting…
Maybe things have changed in the last two or three years, but the BBC’s tech requirements were a total pain in the ass, adding considerable time and expense. There was always some weird new bizarre problem that cropped up every week; maybe you weren’t able to use a particular subdirectory, or a module was completely out of date. Every month you’d hear about some amazing new idea like BBC ID or Games Grid that usually didn’t work well and didn’t add a lot to the end user experience, but had to be implemented for political reasons – until you complained enough that that requirement was removed at the last minute. Endless meetings, endless emails and documentation, all for a service that was massively more expensive than Linode or AWS. Yes, I know the BBC has to have rock-solid security, etc, but I sure as hell am not interested in dealing with that if I can make more interesting stuff elsewhere.
You don’t learn a lot
There is a charming belief that your experience at the BBC will help you in related industries. Perhaps that’s true if you make TV, or if you want to continue pitching for tech projects at big organisations – but it sure as hell isn’t true for most industries. When you’re selling games or apps or services to end users, the entire production process is different; marketing is different; sales are different. It requires a totally different skill set. Like Ray in Ghostbusters says, “You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector… they expect results!”
Indies Keep Quiet
Most indies are quite rightly afraid of pissing the BBC off – who wants to burn those bridges? – so they keep quiet about all of these problems in public and they don’t share knowledge. Yes, the BBC solicits feedback, but bitter experience demonstrates that it changes little; and the cases where I have given critical feedback in public, I’ve been dismissed as a troublemaker by senior BBC staff. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.
Lack of Visibility for Indies
It’s hard for indies to learn about new pitching opportunities. Putting aside the execrable Bravo Solutions pitching interface, which I believe is being replaced/improved, the fact that you need to download a PDF from the Connected Studio website to learn about what the BBC is looking for is, well, insane. Have these people not heard of the World Wide Web, or Hypertext? Wouldn’t it be better to have that information on a webpage, perhaps? Or maybe create a newsletter and let indies just sign up to a weekly notification of new opportunities? You could probably do it for free with Mailchimp.
Doing roundtables and talks for indies (which are admirably held around the country) is not the same as having a really awesome website. In fact it punishes people who can’t spare time or money to attend briefing. Put all that shit online, do communication online.
At the end of the day
The best indies in the business aren’t applying for BBC digital products any more. Why would they want to work for less money, with less creative freedom, with less production flexibility, with an unpredictable bureaucracy that rewards skills and experience that aren’t applicable outside of the BBC?
Q: What about BBC Connected Studio? Isn’t that totally awesome, really transparent, and solves every problem you’ve mentioned?
A: To be fair, I wouldn’t know because I haven’t participated in it. From what I can tell, it’s not about making original interactive content; instead it’s more about new ways of presenting existing content, something I acknowledge as being important but not the only thing the BBC should be doing. Other producers and developers who have been through the process have also told me that most pitches end up looking very similar, which doesn’t speak well for the amount of room for creativity.
Q: Adrian, you criticise the BBC a lot here, but you’re actually just a blowhard. What’s your solution?
A: I have a few suggestions, some of which may not be politically acceptable, but what the hell:
1. Spend more money on more things. This allows for greater risk taking. The current situation of spending lots of cash on a few projects is a false economy. Yes, I did say that the BBC didn’t pay a lot, but that’s judged against the work required. Digital indies can still do great things with £10k or £20k providing that the scope is controlled and they don’t have to go through hell and back during the pitching/production process. (Related: Do things faster.)
2. Don’t require all the tech be built on the BBC platform. Every time I do a project with BBC tech, our developers ask never to have to do it again. Yes, the BBC is a big organisation, security issues are important, etc., but consider this: The Open University is far more flexible about hosting and tech, and I don’t remember hearing any data-loss scandals from them yet.
3. Stop changing priorities and processes all the time. Every three months I feel like there’s some new fad or technology or genre that a commissioner or controller gets obsessed with after going to some media or tech conference. It makes it impossible to pitch really good, timeless stuff.
4. Be more open and more online for commissioning and production. Gather independent criticism from the best in the business; if you don’t know who they are, look at winners of Apple Design Awards, talk to veteran developers like Dave Addey (who, sadly, has left British shores and gone to the promised land – Cupertino).
Crazy Ideas That Just Might Work
1. Run a prize (you know, like the longitude prize). It’s actually kind of a terrible idea that puts a lot of cost on entrants and usually works for things that have payoff beyond actual prize money; and it also requires easily judged criteria, and smart judges. But it’d be pretty neat to watch.
2. Inject a market signal into the commissioning of original digital projects – for example, provide matched funding to crowdfunded ideas that meet certain BBC criteria. This process is absolutely gameable – see the Ouya debacle – but it’s not irredeemable. Certainly it’s better than getting ‘audiences’ to vote (for free) on what they want, but it does punish those who don’t have the money to ‘vote’ with. Maybe you could get people to vote with shares of their licence fee, which would be doable if the BBC end up requiring people to log in to use iPlayer.
3. Multiply the number of funding bodies. There are already other groups who award money for digital commissions: The Wellcome Trust, Lighthouse, Arts Council, etc. I have helped The Wellcome Trust with judging pitches; their process isn’t perfect, but it’s far faster and no less fair than the BBC’s process. In other words: if the BBC can’t fix their digital commissioning problem, maybe others can. Indeed, this solution works better for digital projects than for TV or radio content because – thus far – the BBC haven’t claimed original digital interactive content as a core part of their strategy. Have some funding bodies focus on popularity, others on art, others on games, etc.
4. Totally abolish digital commissioning at the BBC and do some kind of blanket incentive to R&D tax credits or games tax relief. This is the Nuclear Option #1: “Commissioning doesn’t work, so we just won’t commission any more.”
4a. Totally abolish digital commissioning, and just get TV indies to do it; The Malcolm Tucker app is a great example of a good digital product for a BBC show that nevertheless doesn’t actually involve the BBC.
5. Nuclear Option #2: “Just pick winners – don’t waste time getting indies to compete against each other.” Many big, successful companies I’ve worked with don’t bother with competitive commissioning because they just hire (who they believe to be) the best. This is unworkable for the BBC for political reasons (it conflicts with the supposed aim of championing small indies) but I mention it because it’s so successful for, you know, pretty much everyone else on Earth.
6. Nuclear Option #3: “Stop commissioning, do everything in-house.” Not a bad idea assuming you can get the right people (e.g. Government Digital Service) but again, politically a non-starter in these capitalist, market-driven, competitive times. But times change…
To end on a positive note, I can unequivocally state that the BBC is not the worst organisation I have encountered for digital commissioning. That title goes to the EU’s Horizon 2020 process, which rewards projects for having – no joke – 10+ partners over 10+ countries, taking place over 3-7 years. Now that’s a real nightmare.
Tags: bbc · tech
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.
Tags: adrian · psych · tech
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tags: bbc · tech
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.
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.
Tags: bbc · tech
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:
- 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
- They don’t want to make enemies or be labelled as a troublemaker
- 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
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.
Tags: bbc · tech
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.)
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
- The media
- Religious leaders
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 →
Tags: adrian · apple · travel · tv