You can say "social" on the radio


“What a radio looks like, 2″ from genmon

A few years back we were doing a project (zCast) looking at novel uses of radio spectrum to deliver datacast content to mobile devices. One of the things that struck me was the incredible amount of innovation and excitement in the radio industry at present. That excitement spills over into other disciplines who are using the radio as a metaphor in creative ways. On an aborted work blog for our team Anab wrote a post looking at some of the results of the Radio Project given to interaction design students at the RCA. Similarly, one of the treats on Richard and my recent trip up to the School of Design at Dundee was the fun “single station radios” that last year’s students had designed, including a Radio 3 radio shaped like the scroll of a violin.

Meany of these designs use the radio as a thought piece. A great quote along those lines was that tuning a radio dial is a useful analogy for browsing the web. (NB I cannot remember the exact quote, nor who made it [Bill Buxton, Clay Shirky, no, not either of them, who???])

BBC Research and other innovative BBC groups are another excellent place for novel radio uses. This isn’t ‘radio as metaphor’, this is innovating radio listening itself. Take Tristan Ferne and Tom Coates et al’s Annotatable Audio (later renamed Find Listen Label). The idea is that the playback of a radio programme is enhanced by the addition of a wiki, whereby listeners can annotate sections of the programme. One imagines users different interests (particular topics, particular voice actors, etc) leading to multi-facetted rich annotations. As with Wikipedia some users might be good at starting a topic, while others might be good at making sure the segment boundaries are accurately described. Sadly it’s an archived prototype, rather than something we can use, though I guess the BBC’s listen again feature is only available for seven days whereas Find Listen Label would clearly work best with more permanent collections. Since stumbling across this work on Tom’s blog I’ve been hoping that I’ll get some flash of inspiration about how to build on this work – perhaps as some mobile media tagging prototype.

Another side of making radio more explicitly social is to share what you are listening to with your friends – either the music itself (a la Three Degrees or iTrip) or share the fact that you are listening (a la Last FM or any ‘listening to’ tag line on a blog). This isn’t a clear-cut good idea. Back in 2003 I did a study of a prototype I’d built called Media Center Buddies. The idea was to explore what it was like to merge instant messaging with TV viewing. I built a ‘working’ prototype (well it worked enough for short bursts in our usability labs) and recruited 32 participants to come and try it out. We recruited 16 heavy IM users and got them to bring a close friend. I wanted participants doubled up with friends. It bothers me when technological studies of TV use ignore the fact that TV is often viewed socially, and this seems especially problematic for social software since if several people are interacting in the same room it’s not clear whose buddies the system should connect to. I won’t go into the results here (I presented them at NordiCHI  2004 and am working on a book chapter version) but as in any user study there were unexpected results. One was about sharing what you are watching with friends and family. My prototype didn’t include that feature, but I had mocked up a screen-shot showing a buddy-list resplendent with details of what buddies were watching. During the discussion phase I’d ask my participants what they felt about the idea: would they like to know what their buddies were watching and would they like their buddies to know what they were watching. Everyone wanted to know what their buddies were watching, but the other question divided on gender. All my women participants (about 15 people) felt it was a great idea while all my men participant (about 17 people) felt it was an awful idea. When I probed them as to why it was bad the answers that occurred more than once were “I don’t want my mom to know I’m watching porn” and “I don’t want my friends to know I’m watching Martha Stewart”. It’s tempting to think that this split results in differences between men and women’s viewing habits, and indeed that is probably most of the reason, but interestingly one of my women participants made a point of saying that she watched a lot of pornography. I wondered if another contributing difference was that men were more likely than women to watch things that they were ashamed of. You see a similar (though reversed) split in the sociological literature about alcoholism. It affects men and women but men’s drinking is often public, while women’s is (was?) often private. Interesting though this line of enquiry into the privacy of viewing habits was, it didn’t seem very useful for Microsoft so I haven’t followed it up. But one of my take-aways was that a service which offered the sharing of information about current viewing between buddies would work best if it was targeted at women.


“Three units looking left” from Schulze

But what about radio? Certainly the kind of issue I found with video shouldn’t affect radio. Sure, I might be embarrassed that I occasionally enjoy BBC Radio 2 but it’s not as strong – I’m not ashamed. Likewise for Last FM, it does bother me a bit that my listening becomes a visible part of my web identity (and it bothers me a lot that Last FM misses all my BBC iPlayer listening) but the pros outweigh the cons. Enter Olinda. I picked this up on the Make blog, though I should have spotted it on the BBC Radio Labs blog. The product design wonderful, and the modular nature of the hardware fascinating, but it’s the social computing that’s really intriguing. The Olinda is a DAB digital radio that connects to your home wi-fi network so that you can find out what your friends are listening to and they can find out about you. It’s done by Schulze and Webb for BBC Audio & Music Interactive. Wonderful. I do have some questions though. Radio is sometimes a solitary experience (e.g. the commute to work) but it is also playing in the heart of the family home – in the kitchen. Then whose taste is it reflecting? Is it my penchant for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4, my kid’s preference for BBC Radio 1 or Q103, or my wife’s preference for silence? Whose buddies is it sharing this knowledge with – mine, my daughter’s, the union, the intersection, etc? That’s the kind of issue we’ve been grappling with through our Epigraph project (and its successors) and it would be great to glean the Olinda team’s views on this. That said there are some wonderful sharing ideas in the explanatory pamphlet, e.g. klippit (c.f. Grab-and-Share) and volume voting.

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