Why make BBC Ideas? (Part 1 of 3)

Hello, I’m writing a short (ish) series of posts to explain a bit about the research and insight work that the team undertook in order to decide how to proceed with BBC Ideas — to provide us clues as to the sort of shape the prototype service ought to take.

The BBC is a big organisation with a lot of creative people in its ranks, which means there are always lots of ideas bubbling up as to what we ought to be doing. So why did we decide to pursue this initiative as an experiment, rather than something else?

There were three main reasons, each of which I will deal with separately:

1. We believe that ‘thoughtful content’ has an important role to play in society, and we think it is part of the BBC’s purpose to support this.

2. The BBC has a great track-record of creating world-class factual and educational programmes for Radio and Television. As younger audiences’ media habits and preferences change, we need to make sure we are offering them content that’s relevant and meets the needs of new occasions and new devices. BBC Ideas gives us a chance to call upon some of those finely-honed creative instincts and sensibilities and apply them to different occasions, environments and devices.

3. We saw a clear opportunity to develop a personalised service that would provide some space for reflection, inviting users to exercise more intent over the things they consume, rather than less.

Over the course of three different posts I’ll provide more detail on what those statements actually mean, sharing some of the insights that informed them, and the research that we consulted or commissioned in the first place.

Firstly, why do we think ‘thoughtful content’ is something we should be spending time on?

The big picture:

As Lloyd mentioned in his post, we’ve seen evidence that people’s attitudes to learning and entertainment have shifted over the decade: in 2012, 56% of UK adults agreed that ‘entertainment should be about learning new things as much as having fun’, a figure that had risen to 68% by 2016.

nVision Research: 4952 online respondents aged 16+, GB, 2016 February

Cultural observers and trend analysts will tell you that this is in part a response amongst younger generations to a less stable world that they have to live in. Politically, financially and environmentally, global systems that we’re all affected by are less predictable than before- and in many places the public services that should act as a ‘safety net’ are also under pressure. There’s not much any individual in the UK can do to affect these factors, so instead we see a cultural response across the younger population where the relative value placed on abilities like self-development, resilience and life-long adaptability increases.

This means that whether we’re looking at activities, products or brands across a range of sectors (food and drink, financial, transport and so on) the social and cultural markers of value and status are migrating away from hedonistic or materialistic choices toward those that offer improved fitness, durability and flexibility over time — as well as fewer negative impacts, on the environment for instance or on workforce conditions.

Ford’s experimental ‘credit link’ allows up to six people to share owning a car, using an app to coordinate usage and share costs fairly — a flexible, low cost and less environmentally impactful service.

In our team we’ve referred to this as a culture of ‘self-investment’, and it affects people’s media consumption in the UK too.

Your digital media ‘diet’

Whilst obvious ‘lifestyle’ trends and products like superfoods, vegetarianism and veganism, yoga, portfolio careers, side ventures and so on are quite visible examples in the UK’s consumer culture, when we researched people’s attitudes and behaviour we also saw a evidence of a shift in how younger audiences think about their digital ‘media diet’.

There are a couple of separate but overlapping elements to this shift:

· Firstly, the fragmented digital media environment that has given rise to the much-discussed threats of fake news and filter bubbles (as well as the advertising-driven prevalence of ‘hot takes’ or ‘clickbait’) has created a background sense of unease that much of the content a user encounters online is designed to grab attention cheaply rather than provide any real mental sustenance.

· This can be set alongside a second, longer-running trend inspired by the mainstreaming of behavioural economics over the decade; the idea that we all have inbuilt biases and faulty patterns of thinking ‘hard-wired’ into us — but that these can be overcome via self-awareness and self-observation. The negative implication is that without self-intervention, a user can be steered into habitual behaviour without really realising it.

· Thirdly, some argue that social media and smartphones themselves are having some negative impacts on individuals and society, from impinging on personal privacy through to creating anxiety and depression in users through addictive behaviour. The media reports around the trend of ‘digital detoxing’ are part of this, as are the reflective articles on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone recently.

What these three different trends have in common is an underlying sense that whether through content, through habit or through design, consumers should be wary of a ‘mindless’ mode of consumption in digital media — one that recalls the negative connotations of ‘bingeing’ where a great deal is consumed, but very little nutritional benefit is derived.

So where does this leave us?

There is an identifiable trend in our society amongst younger audiences to value ‘self-investment’ activity, in work, leisure and consumption choices. When looking at media from this perspective, there is a growing sense that some digital media consumption can be mindless, and therefore of little benefit to the user — if not actively harmful.

From mindless to thoughtful

Once you start looking, it is obvious that there are plenty of cultural signals demonstrating the perceived threat of this sort of consumption, and we saw manifestations of this concern amongst the audiences we spoke to as part of our research (there will be a lot more detail on this in later posts). But whilst interesting and definitely relevant to the BBC, we didn’t feel that this insight alone gave us a public service business case- not until we made a connection between these observations and another data point: the needs of employers.

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum issued a report The Future of Jobs, in which they forecast that “the Fourth Industrial Revolution… will cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets over the next five years, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.”

Indeed, the top 10 skills predicted to be the most in-demand for employers across the globe by 2020 are as follows:

The report makes interesting reading in its own right, but the skill that leapt out of the page at us right away was ‘critical thinking’.

There are lots of definitions of critical thinking available, but here are a couple that we found useful:

· Reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do

· Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them[1]

· Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically… embody the Socratic principle “the unexamined life is not worth living”, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.

So critical thinking is the opposite of mindless bingeing: an engaged, focused application of attention to not only consuming content, but also analysing and evaluating it — whilst simultaneously being aware of and critical of one’s own process of thinking.

Critical thinking is best served by thoughtful content, and perhaps thoughtful content can encourage a more self-aware and reflective form of digital consumption.

Apart from being a desirable ability in the labour market, developing critical thinking skills would bring tangible benefits for every self-investor who is motivated to extract more value from the time they spend with digital media.

Furthermore, developing the skill of critical thinking would provide an antidote to the three problems associated with the ‘low-nutrition’ digital media diet we identified earlier:

· The ability to identify low-quality, spurious or overly-biased content, and avoid it as desired — meaning time with media can be spent more profitably

· The ability to recognise one’s own biases and ‘hard-wiring’ — meaning that a user can pursue their own intent, rather than risk being diverted by a designer’s

· The ability to reflect upon and analyse one’s own overall consumption of content — meaning that a user can decide to reduce or stop low-value activity, and extract greater value from the rest by identifying patterns, connections and areas to progress

As the final quote suggests, it may also be that increasing the level of ability in the population as a whole has broader benefits to society.

What’s the role for the BBC?

With the knowledge that critical thinking is likely to be a significant benefit for both younger audiences and for UK employers, as well appealing as on its own terms for ‘self-investors’, we began to look more seriously at the ‘mindless’ forms of digital consumption as an opportunity for a BBC content & service proposition.

If we could create ‘thoughtful content’, served to audiences via a digital service designed to promote critical consumption and reflection we could perhaps do what the BBC is supposed to do — be both popular and beneficial to society — in a new, emerging part of the UK’s media consumption.

So we came to the conclusion that ‘thoughtful content’ has an important role to play in society- because:

· thoughtful content can encourage critical thinking, which is an important and necessary skill for the future economy

· a service built to support thoughtful content can encourage reflective consumption, which in turn will help an individual analyse and improve their own digital ‘media diet’

· the share of attention claimed by ‘mindless’ digital media presents some unique challenges to society, possibly reducing users media literacy, access to high-quality information and marginalising users own intent in consumption. Thoughtful public service content could provide an alternative.

We think that its part of the BBC’s purpose to support this because:

· it’s part of our public purposes around impartiality to “help people understand and engage with the world around them”

· It’s also part of our purpose in education to encourage audiences “to explore inspiring and challenging new subjects and activities”

· The unique way we’re funded means that whilst we have to compete for attention, we aren’t driven by advertising and don’t need to prioritise ‘clickability’ over any other consideration. A successful BBC service in this area could therefore provide a different sort of platform for partner organisations and the UK’s creative economy than the ad-funded networks that dominate currently.

For these reasons, we all agreed that the idea for BBC Ideas (a digital, mobile service serving factual audio & video content to audiences in non-news and non-TV occasions) was worth pursuing, so long as the public-service ambition to improve every user’s critical thinking skills was at the heart of the service.

As others have said — this service is experimental, and of course we don’t believe we’re going to change how people think or spend their media time all by ourselves. In this post I hoped to show you how we try to base the experiments we undertake in an understanding of how it can both serve people’s needs and make a positive impact on society.

In the next post, I’ll share the outputs of the study we commissioned with 30 individuals, in which we examining the role of ‘thoughtful content’ in their lives, and asked them to help us design a digital service that would be better than anything on the market right now.

Thanks for reading.

[1] Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008
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