Proximity Fuze

I listened to a programme on the excellent Analysis strand on Radio 4 on the 15th March.  It was narrated by Stephen Fry and it concerned the issue of whether the web is bad for us, you know, whether it’s making us dumber, negating the need to endure pre-digital learning processes.  That kind of thing.  But the programme itself, good as it was wasn’t what was interesting.  The interesting thing was that it represented what I want to call a social Proximity Fuze. Steve Bowbrick and Jem Stone at the BBC had the idea of getting listeners to the broadcast programme on twitter to use a hashtag (in this case #goodradioclub) to allow other listeners to see the comments, feedback and annotations of others. 


As a lifestream for a programme its got some value to start to describe the effect of the programme.   Using that stream of comment and annotation as a way to deliver semantic value on the programme itself could create interesting ways into programmes especially as programmes often suffer from a lack of meta-description, a lack of hooks with which to snag you in the long tail of their life (most broadcast stuff seems to disappear into the Long Tail rapidly).

So what could you do?  You could look for the tensions in the data. For example, undertaking term frequency analysis on the tweets and the transcript could show how the programme and the listeners’ experience coincide. You could also start to look at the frequency of the comments themselves, do they relate to the contentious aspects of the programme?  They may be good proxies for “interestingness” in the timeline.  Parsing this data through something like Daytum would provide a first means to test if it is indeed interesting.   

This is all good.  But the thing that has been playing with me since I took part in this was how it brought back a sense of the “watercooler” effect.  That Holy Grail of social phenomenons that define a programme as an event.  In this case however, as the listeners provide a commentary to accompany the programme (like SMS text message tickering on acid especially when viewed in a UI like Monitter), what is being created is a “social TX”, a reason to take part in the original broadcast.  This is critical because as programmes are increasingly subject to time shifting the social ‘value’ is dispersed to.  Bringing people together around a TX enables value to coalesced, the scheduled TX is a trigger and the Good Radio Club is an example of a Proximity Fuze. 

A Proximity Fuze  is a fuze which triggers close to something rather than on impact (and which itself is based on the Doppler Effect) and it strikes me that it could be a useful way to thinking about designing for programmes.  Not sure about the military overtones but I like the idea of proximity being a trigger.  Proximity, nearness, as defining a relationship is nice.  And #goodradioclub is nice because it starts to provide some value to the TX (transmission date) based on your proximity to it.  The twitter feed or #goodradioclub is representation of a Proximity Fuze, a trigger to provide value around a social TX.  The anticipation and involvement of listeners starts to create ‘ripples’ into the programmes and out to other audiences who are at different proximities to the TX.

Of course there are issues. Scaling is a bit messy.  The #goodradioclub exercise on was mentioned by Stephen Fry at the top of the programme which meant the ‘club’ was larger than anticipated and it did limit the ability to engage with other people around the content.  But it’s a relatively minor issue.

Building programme experiences around existing social technologies, forcing the ‘overhead’ onto the users (in this case through the use of the hashtag) means you can innovate and be flexible in creating those experiences rather than trying to create bespoke, proprietary experiences. 

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