BBC iPlayer: social media and the public interest

Summary:The BBC is preparing a new version of iPlayer, and it could be with us as early as Monday - the current iPlayer is mostly not working this Sunday afternoon, which may be the Beeb's equivalent of taking the Apple Store down.Of course, this flashy new Flash app has social network stuff in it: you can recommend things you like and share them with friends.

The BBC is preparing a new version of iPlayer, and it could be with us as early as Monday - the current iPlayer is mostly not working this Sunday afternoon, which may be the Beeb's equivalent of taking the Apple Store down.

Of course, this flashy new Flash app has social network stuff in it: you can recommend things you like and share them with friends. It will recommend stuff to you off its own bat, once you've watched and listened enough for it to make a guess. It is also very fond of Most Popular, and it now has Favourites - you tell it what programmes you want, and it'll keep a list of the latest. "Getting to the programmes you love just got easier - tell BBC iPlayer the programmes you like and it will have them ready and waiting", it says.

The one thing that has been made harder is finding programmes you might love, if only you knew they were there - and the more different they are, the harder they come. In the old iPlayer, you could browse through the complete list of programmes on offer, by channel - that's gone. (You can still search by going through the schedules day by day for the past week, repeats and all; a bit of a mystery that, on a content-on-demand system that exists precisely to offer a different approach to scheduled programming.)

That lost 'by channel' searching works very well with the BBC output, if you like going off-piste. I know that if I'm after something a bit different to listen to, a scan down Radio 3 or 6 Music's output will usually reveal the unexpected. Radio 4 has plenty of magazine programmes that I don't listen to religiously, but will if they're covering something tempting, and it too throws the odd googly. Ditto BBCs 2 and 4.

A list of all output, together with a short description of the content, works well. Removing it removes a unique window.

Ah, yes, but social media solves that, doesn't it? You pick friends with similar tastes and follow their leads. Well, no. I have very good friends with overlapping interests, but understandably I have no interest in their frankly incomprehensible Big Brother addiction and they inexplicably none in my exquisite tastes in experimental electronic music. Besides, if it's just plain hard to discover things you don't know about, it's plain hard for all of us - and the chances of it surfacing in a crowd of pals are reduced.

As a result, those channels with the biggest output of the genuinely new suffer disproportionately from moves to make iPlayer "more user-centric". The really fascinating rarely falls neatly into existing categories: it has a harder job making itself known, and should thus be given better tools for exposure - not worse.

This is true of the Internet as a whole. As all the commercial outfits - ourselves included - work to stay relevant, the call of "Find what they like and give 'em more" becomes ever more alluring. The risk then is balkanisation: cosy clubs where there's always a lock-in but never anything new behind the bar. Fighting that means working hard to create, collect and present the new, even when stuff that's new is hard to categorise and stuff that's hard to categorise is hard to commercialise.

The BBC has a freer hand here - in fact, it has an obligation. As a public service organisation, it is heir to Lord Reith's mission to inform, educate and entertain. That means an emphasis on things you don't know about, because some of them will matter to you - even if most of them don't. Without that emphasis, the amplification effects of social media will swamp the new with the already popular, as will the "More like this..." mechanisms.

The new iPlayer shows that this is in danger of being forgotten - and with it, the BBC's right to stay special. Public service matters more than ever, but only if it retains the power to grow in different and more interesting ways than those constrained by commercial considerations.

Topics: Emerging Tech

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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