Storytelling and the Semantic Web at the BBC


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A presentation given to PhD students at Queen Mary University, London, about the BBC's activities on the Semantic Web, and how we could utilise this strategy for narrative content.

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  • Title slide
  • Hello – My name’s Paul Rissen, and I work here. Sort of.
  • Well, actually, I work here - for BBC Audio & Music Interactive.
  • I work (mainly) on this -
  • /programmes exists so that every programme we transmit has its’ own URL. Why?
  • So we can avoid this - because if we create a URL, people are going to visit it. People are going to bookmark it. People are going to link to it. And we have a responsibility to our audiences to make sure they can always find something relevant at that URL.
  • We may no longer have the rights to let people watch the programme, but we can still provide relevant information. And if the programme *does* become available again, our audiences should be able to go to the same place as before to watch it.
  • We do this for every programme, automatically, as soon as we know about its first broadcast. We have a programme hierarchy, so that we have a unique, permanent URL for each Brand, Series and Episode.
  • Given that I’m in the Audio & Music department, you’ll be pleased to know we do a similar thing for each and every artist played on BBC Radio.
  • Importantly, we use web-scale identifiers - i.e. the same unique IDs as other non-BBC websites. This means that, because both websites know we’re talking about the same *thing*, we can share information. So, for instance, for music artists, we use Musicbrainz identifiers, which are also shared with Wikipedia - hence we can pull in, link to, and attribute to, Wikipedia. By encouraging the reuse of identifiers across the web, and sharing our content, we’re making the web better for everyone - and encouraging independent developers to do the same - an important part of our public service mandate.
  • Another part of the BBC has recently started doing something very similar - this time with Nature - a page for every species, habitat, environment etc. Eventually, we hope to go down to the level of individual animals that we track and film for our nature documentaries.
  • Again, we’re not just using this to promote our own programmes - we’re gathering and providing the best information the web has to offer. This is all part of something we call our ‘linked data’ or ‘Semantic Web’ strategy.
  • What is the Semantic Web? As the web has developed, we’ve gone from the nuts-and-bolts of connecting computers together over a network, to connecting documents, or pages together via hyperlinks - a level of abstraction above the physical computer devices. But there’s more...Each document we write contains a number of concepts and ideas - and the links we make between them. To us, it comes naturally that when we see repeated reference to the same concept, we regard it as the same thing. But computers don’t know that. Up until recently, if we repeated an episode of Doctor Who, we’d know it’s the same episode - but to a computer, it would just be a reoccurrence of the text string - or a copy of the same media file. With projects such as /programmes, because we use unique, permanent identifiers, we ensure that whenever the programme is broadcast, the same URL is linked to - the URL = the thing.
  • All very interesting in terms of technology, but what’s it got to do with the BBC, really? Don’t we just make programmes? Well, yes. And the Internet allows us to promote these programmes, distribute them for longer (via, for example, iPlayer) and provide contextual information about the programmes, right? Yes. But I think there’s something more than that.
  • Let me tell you a story - the story of the Swallows and Amazons. Originally a book, there’s been a TV adaption (1963), a film adaption (1974) and a BBC radio adaption in 1999. Each time it’s been adapted for a different medium, the same story has been told - but in different ways - because the adaptions that have been produced have been especially tailored to suit that medium. Some things are lost when you listen, rather than read or watch, and some things are gained. The same for each adaption.
  • Marshall McCluhan famously coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. One of his arguments was that the message which we attempt to communicate is shaped and influenced by the medium in which we decide to transfer the message. As such, when we choose a particular medium, we lose some possible meaning and experience from the message, whilst gaining others - just like with Swallows and Amazons.
  • McCluhan also makes the point that in the early stages of development of new forms of media, we tend to enforce the conceptual model of previous, currently dominant forms of media onto the new medium. This can be seen quite clearly in the world of ‘new media’. Web design and information architecture tends to take its cue from techniques and standards developed for the print media. We talk of web ‘pages’. More importantly, how do we treat TV and radio? We use the web as a distribution channel, rather than as a medium in and of itself. In other words, we hamper the development of new ways of communicating through new forms of media, by rigidly trying to fit it into our existing way of thinking. Of course, we gain some inherent benefits, such as the ability to make things available more widely, cheaper and for longer, but this isn’t really new media.
  • If we really want to talk of the Web as a medium, then, just as we have the Book, TV, Radio and Film adaptions of Swallows and Amazons, we need a Web Adaption. But what form would this take? Well, let’s compare a TV adaption with what we currently have on the Web.
  • ...and here’s the Wikipedia plot summary of those 5 minutes of action. Now, obviously the TV version is more exciting, it has more emotion, the music, the camera tricks - all strengths of the visual medium - whereas the Wikipedia version is almost all plain text. What is most interesting, however, is how the two different versions attempt to help the audience understand the story, and in particular, its references to other episodes in the same overall story. In the TV version, this is done through the use of the flashback sequence, and/or through the camera focusing on specific objects, such as the fob watch. The Wikipedia version does the same - through hyperlinks. But it’s still plain text – it only uses hyperlinks to link to other nouns, and those links are just navigational, they don’t have meaning.
  • The strength of Wikipedia, though, and the weakness of the TV version, is that the former invites the audience to explore the story - but providing links to other information, whereas in the TV version, there is only one, flat, linear way of experiencing the story. This is what the audience does naturally anyway - when watching TV, if you’ve seen previous episodes, you don’t forget them - you understand the references, making the links in your mind when old characters or events are mentioned.
  • I’d say that in that 5 minute clip, we can identify a number of characters, objects and events that either appear, are referenced or take place. The process of telling the story is the slow reveal of links between these concepts.
  • But how do we give the links meaning? RDF. RDF is a form of XML which is written in statements of three, or ‘triples’. They identify a subject, a predicate and an object. The subject and object are things, and thus can be represented by URIs, and the predicate is the relationship, or link between them. The crucial thing here is that unlike ordinary navigational hyperlinks, these links have meaning - the predicates describe *how* one thing is related to another. Which, in effect, is the same as telling the story.
  • Here we see the characters, objects and events from that 5 minutes of action, plus the links between them and related characters, objects and moments. Note that episodes are really just 45 minute windows onto the same fictional universe - so events can reference events in other episodes. Which kind of looks like a web, doesn’t it. Sounds familiar?
  • So, /programmes gives us one URL per programme - but that’s just the box, within which there’s the stuff that the audience is really interested in. You don’t watch a programme because it’s a programme, you watch it because you’re interested in its narrative content - whether it’s Drama, Documentaries, Sport or even News. It’s the story which matters.
  • People can be interested in the things themselves, but I’d argue that what they’re really interested in is the relationships between characters - or between events. Indeed, there’s a whole industry of magazines and web-forums devoted to discussing the relationships of various soap characters, and the things that happen, or may happen to them.
  • So if each of these ‘things’ can be represented by a URI, and the links between them by hyperlinks - hyperlinks with meaning - then just as a book, TV, radio or film adaption introduces characters and so on, and then reveals the links between them, progressing the plot, a web adaption would consist of a number of URIs, perhaps given a visual form in a web browser, and a set of links between them. The audience could then be taken on a journey through them, the equivalent of having the story told to you, but *also* they would be free to explore the story in any way they choose.
  • ...and once you have that narrative structure exposed as a set of URIs and hyperlinks, you can do anything with that: - look for common themes across all types of stories - view a time-traveller’s perspective on events - give the audience power over the story-telling - understand the story more, appreciate the writer’s craft - eliminate the flashback...
  • Storytelling and the Semantic Web at the BBC

    1. 1. Storytelling and the Semantic Web <ul><li>Paul Rissen </li></ul>
    2. 2. I work here.
    3. 3. Well, actually, I work here.
    4. 4. On this.
    5. 5. This site aims to ensure that every TV & Radio programme the BBC broadcasts has a permanent, findable web presence.
    6. 6. So we can avoid this. 404 - Page not found
    7. 14. Hold on, but you’re the BBC, not Google...
    8. 16. “ The medium is the message”
    9. 17. Medium or Distribution Channel?
    10. 18. Swallows & Amazons Book adaption TV adaption Film adaption Radio adaption Web adaption?
    11. 19. There then follows a 5 minute clip from ‘Utopia’, an episode of Doctor Who (I’ve left the video off to avoid rights trouble)
    12. 20. A separate plot shows that Yana has been hearing a constant drumbeat inside his head — a condition he reports having had all his life, with the drums getting louder of late. Words such as &quot; regeneration &quot; and &quot;TARDIS&quot; — elements of Time Lord lore — exacerbate the problem. When Martha expresses concern over the Professor's uneasiness, he reveals a long-standing concern with time , and shows Martha a broken fob watch he's had since obtaining it as a child, identical in design to John Smith 's watch in &quot; Human Nature &quot; and &quot; The Family of Blood &quot;. Concerned about the implications, Martha rushes to inform the Doctor. When the Doctor hears about Yana's timepiece, a flashback sequence inter-cut with the letters of the Professor's name makes clear that &quot;Yana&quot; is an acronym of &quot; You are not alone &quot;, the Face of Boe 's last words to the Doctor. At the same time, Yana opens the watch, releasing his Time Lord essence.
    13. 21. TV = audience is passive, explore the story only one way Web = audience is interactive, explore the story any way
    14. 22. A Web Adaption?
    15. 23. Professor Yana has a Fobwatch
    16. 24. The Doctor has a Fobwatch
    17. 25. Martha asks Professor Yana
    18. 26. Martha tells The Doctor
    19. 27. Professor Yana opens Fobwatch
    20. 28. Martha remembers Boe’s Final Words
    21. 29. Boe’s Final Words were You Are Not Alone
    22. 30. Professor Yana becomes The Master
    23. 31. Resource Description Framework Subject - Predicate - Object Noun - Verb - Noun URI - Hyperlink - URI
    24. 33. One URL per... - Programme - Character - Object - Event and give the links meaning ...
    25. 34. No-one cares about Peggy Mitchell. They care if she has a fight with Pat Butcher.
    26. 36. The Time-Traveller’s Perspective
    27. 38. Creating a Web of Meaning
    28. 39. ....and then?
    29. 40. Thank You