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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Don’t Kill the Messenger: Why BBM isn’t to Blame for the Riots

I’ve been on the radio this morning and will be again tomorrow explaining BBM to the unfamiliar. It’s a funny phenomenon: so confined to a specific audience in this country that there hasn’t even been much media interest in it — until now. Compare that with Twitter, the journalist’s choice of social network, which has been hyped beyond belief.

I confess I’m not even on BBM: there’s no reason for me to be. I can only think of three friends (including my wife) who use Blackberries and I have numerous channels of communication with them (sometimes I even talk to my wife face to face).

But for a large chunk of our Blackberry-wielding youth (37% of young smartphone owners have a Blackberry according to Ofcom) BBM is the primary form of digital communication, outstripping email and SMS and bypassing Facebook. Twitter’s barely on their radar. (Another confession: this is far from hard data and purely based on experience working with young people — though I’m sure there’s data somewhere that will back this up).

It is for this reason that BBM has been used in the co-ordination of the riots over the last few days. There’s been some speculation about its supposed security but this is something of a misnomer. Just because the network is closed and not transparent like Twitter doesn’t mean it is necessarily hidden from the prying eyes of the authorities. As Simon Bisson pointed out on ZDNet, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) gives the police all the clout they need to get access to Blackberry-owner RIM’s data, and then to cross reference this data with mobile operator records to identify devices, locations, and perhaps even individuals. RIM’s statement this morning would suggest they might be co-operating with just such research.

Even if this weren’t the case — and I very much doubt the looters are familiar with the ins and outs of the RIPA — it isn’t for security reasons that these people have used BBM. It is because it is what is in front of them. It is their defacto form of digital communication and it makes communicating with individuals or groups quick and easy.

It is also free. Blackberries are the gateway drug for smartphone addiction: cheap handsets and budget contracts with unlimited access to BBM makes them very appealing for the young.

So, media friends, this is why BBM was used to organise the riots: because it was there. It’s not sinister and it’s certainly not to blame. It’s not even secret or private really — not if you’re in the UK and the police have a good enough reason to want to look.

You might need to look elsewhere for the cause of these riots.



Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Future of TV – FiveLive Follow-Up

I appeared on Richard Bacon’s show on BBC Radio FiveLive this afternoon, talking about the future of television, prompted by the forthcoming YouView launch I expect. Here’s an expanded version of what I hope I said (I’m writing this in advance as a way to structure my thoughts).

As video technology has advanced, so the ways in which we consume video media have evolved. As far as I can see there are four distinct viewing modes that have developed:

  • The first to appear was appointment viewing: where the family gathered around a single little screen to watch major news or sporting events, or the big programmes of the day. This scheduled viewing persists today with soaps and the major reality shows — X-Factor, Apprentice etc — but we now interact with the shows via SMS and red button, and the ‘family’ now includes a nationwide audience debating the shows live over the various social networks.
  • The advent of the video recorder brought us time-shifted viewing, so that we could watch our favourite programmes — or often televised films — whenever we liked. The clunky tapes and complicated interfaces have now been replaced with slick digital video recorders making time-shifted viewing the norm for many people.
  • The video recorder, and then the DVD brought us demand viewing: the ability to watch the programmes of our choosing at our leisure. This mode has been revolutionised by the wide availability of broadband services allowing us to stream or download content from a wide variety of services: 4OD, iPlayer, iTunes and more.
  • Finally, technology has made it so easy to produce, distribute and access video that it is practical to make and consume video in very small chunks — clip viewing. This accounts for most of the content on video sharing sites, whether it is user-generated, clipped from an existing content piece, or professionally produced for the medium.

From my perspective none of these modes is mutually exclusive. Just because YouTube exists we haven’t stopped watching scheduled television, though our attention is now naturally more divided than it was when there were fewer channels. How we access all of this content has naturally diversified as well. The big flat screen in the living room is great for shared experiences and high production value content: films, sport, drama. Tablets are great for demand viewing when you’re away from home (particularly for entertaining kids in my experience). Clips tend to be picked up as links from Twitter, Facebook or news sites when in front of the computer, or increasingly on the mobile (bandwidth permitting).

The challenge for the TV industry is finding successful ways to make revenue from this newly diversified pattern of watching. How do you make a case to advertisers (or to the government for your licence fee) when your viewers are consuming content in a variety of packages across multiple media channels and different devices at different times of day and night? It’s hard for the broadcasters to get their head around, let alone the advertisers.

Tom Cheesewright