iPlayer, iTunes succumb to Web2.0rhea

Why do they do it?


Hot on the heels of Apple's poorly-received iTunes update, the BBC has released a new version of iPlayer, and it's met a chorus of criticism. In each case the culprit appears to be the same.

“This next step is allowing users to interact with the service and each other around our programmes,” writes James Hewines on the BBC blog. As Rolf would say – can you guess what it is yet? Here's another clue: the new iPlayer site aims “to bring a social dimension to watching and listening” - which has apparently never existed before.

Yes, each has succumbed to Web2.0rhea. Or at least, the designers think that the kind of Nathan Barleyesque web integration with Facebook and Twitter is what us punters really, really want from iTunes and iPlayer. It's the first false step for iPlayer since it launched over Christmas 2007. Overall, the streaming iPlayer has been a terrific example of the BBC doing something leaner, meaner and at a lower cost than the private sector. Which is a very rare thing indeed, as you can imagine (the original BBC News Online is the only other example I can think of) and quite ironic, since the Beeb's original P2P-based iPlayer project dragged on for years, and became synonymous with bureaucracy and bloat. The Flash version rescued the reputation of the corporation for doing new media work, much as News Online did back in 1997.

Some of the criticism of both iTunes and iPlayer is clearly unfair, I've found. In practice, the differences between the new versions and their predecessors are really quite small. iTunes is still iTunes, only greyer. And in general the iPlayer site works much like it did before personalisation, recommendations and the “social” gubbins that have been included in the new version.

But look at how many people have actually signed up for iPlayer's Twitterbook integration in the three month beta: only 18,000. Yet iPlayer is used by 1.2 million users a day (that was in July, a relatively quiet month) and 10 per cent of iPlayer users opted to use the beta. So we're looking at a section of the audience that's TV enthusiasts, and tech curious, and the vast majority don't want the Web2.0rhea features.

Something is clearly wrong here. The Nathan Barleys who are keenest on these features seem to be out of touch with the needs of their audience – and in the BBC's case, it's not for lack of polls or focus groups.

Part of the problem is the mindset of the designers. As Jaron Lanier pointed out in his recent book, “social software” designers are the last people on earth to be trusted with the job of designing software that's social. Not all exhibit the extreme autism of Mark “I'm CEO, bitch” Zuckerberg, but in general they make assumptions we find crude and reductive.

The first problem is that “interactive” in real life doesn't mean what a Web2.0rhea enthusiast thinks it means. There's nothing more interactively engaging than reading a good book, alone. But to a web evangelist, the individual mind doesn't exist, or only really matters when it's been validated by some electronic group engagement. That's why web interactivity feels so flat and creepy.

So when it comes to a medium that has traditionally been the cornerstone of social engagement, and TV always has, the Twitterbook channels are quite redundant. I don't want to know what my “friends are watching”. If it's important they'll tell me anyway – good TV is hard to keep a secret. Nor is there much value in creating a playlist of favourite shows, as there is in creating and sharing a playlist of your favourite music.

And there's also a sociological factor. Designers keen on this web stuff tend to hang out with other designers keen on it. They hire their friends. They hire expensive consultants to tell them what they already think. All this leads to a very insular worldview – a dialog of the new media deaf.

And their managers are too terrified of being called Luddites to point out the intellectual and practical shortcomings. So it's full speed ahead.

Apple's iTunes merely needs the option to hide its half-baked social network. For the BBC, the next version of iPlayer should be designed by people who've never used Facebook or Twitter, and don't have an iPhone. Incredible as it may seem, they not only exist, but are the real majority. ®


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