4iP is a “public service media” initiative from Channel 4. Described as a fund it aims:
to deliver publicly valuable content and services on digital media platforms with significant impact and in sustainable ways. It represents one of the biggest and most exciting calls-to-action for new and emergent digital media companies in the UK.
If 4iP has a public service remit, it merits critical scrutiny in order to evaluate how far it succeeds in fulfilling its remit to people like me and you – the public.
The scheme’s launch generated positive and excited interest amongst local bloggers and businesses here in Birmingham. Once the application process opened we got to hear (through Twitter, blog posts, emails, and at our local scene’s various networking meetings) about a lot of 4iP activity as entrepreneurial social media types applied to the fund with their latest idea.
That was back in autumn 2008: a long time ago in web years. In that time there has been very little evidence of projects being funded, and a lot of confusion expressed amongst the online spaces where potential 4ip applicants express themselves. One might say that the shine has come off, and some people have become critical of what seemed originally to be a good idea. So what has gone wrong?
Firstly, we should realise that some of the criticisms levied at 4iP are somewhat unfair, for example:
“No reference to the 4IP launch on their website. Guess its just an in-crowd thing”
addingvalue on Twitter
This is simply an unfair criticism as information on 4iP launches was readily available around the time of the 4iP launch (Tweet dated at12:23 PM Oct 15th, 2008). There is also a current debate on Twitter regarding the amount of money 4iP has invested so far:
“Find 4iP being criticised for having a 3% approval rate strange: most VCs would have a much lower investment rate – more like 0.3%!”
dcockburn on Twitter
Some of the conversations amongst the Birmingham blogging community might suggest this community sees the money from 4iP as rightfully theirs. This is causing frustration amongst that community because they are now not getting the results they expected. The blame for this could be placed with these groups for having unreasonable expectations: after all nobody from Channel 4 has promised them cash, have they?
When is a fund not a fund?
4iP is problematic because of the way in which it has sold itself, and the way in which it conducts itself. 4iP describes itself as a “fund”. This word has incredibly important connotations in this context and takes us to the heart of the 4iP problem – if it can be said to have one.
4iP is a partnership between Channel 4 and publicly funded bodies such as the regional development agencies and NESTA. When you call something a “fund” and it exists to apportion public monies, you build expectations of a certain way of working. When you bring this to a city like Birmingham, where the creative industries are used to applying for public money, and where many players in our social media scene operate in the third sector or social enterprise you are pitching to an audience who know what they mean by funding.
What might these people expect from funding?
- A clear and transparent application process
- Clear and consistent assessment criteria
- Authoritative and consistent management of the fund
- Overall, an accountable process
A fund is not a fund when it’s run by a publisher-broadcaster
Channel 4 is a publisher-broadcaster. It’s not a fund manager in the way 4iP’s potential project partners would understand. Would it be fair to assume that 4iP, as a Channel 4 project, is imbued with the working practices and cultures of its parent? Paul Walsh, commenting on the 4iP blog, thinks so:
“I’m confused. Why are you referring to Commissioners and Commissioning so much? This is a “fund…which will invest in digital content and services which deliver public value.” You should be comparing yourself to a VC fund if your original pitching (prior to and during, launch) is accurate – not a TV Commissioner – perhaps that your downfall. If you continue to compare yourself with people/processes that take forever and a day to get things done, then that’s what you’ll end up as good as – if not worse.”
And what have people come to expect from a publishing/commissioning process? Negative associations might include:
- Lack of transparency
- Nepotism and networking over accountability
- Commissioning as an arbitrary process
This line of thought leads us to see 4iP as an old media publisher wearing “funding” and “public service media” like they were the Emperor’s New Clothes. It is manifest in the confusion over what 4iP want to commission, and in confusion over the ownership, control and financial rewards of 4iP projects.
Funder or Publisher: an example
My collagues Paul Long & Andrew Dubber applied for an idea called Rejected by 4iP. While there is an easily recognisable satirical element to the bid, it was a genuine attempt to open a dialogue on funding transparency and would have provided a useful forum for exploring failed 4iP ideas further.
Rejected by 4iP was turned down, but not before two 4iP commissioner’s pledged support for it publicly. Not only do such responses muddy the waters (perhaps as a condition of having online conversations) but such instances lack the transparency and reliable procedure that we would expect from a funding process, and is more indicative of a publishing mind set than a funding one.
It’s not what you say that counts, it’s what we hear.
Lack of clarity. Contradictory statements. Vague criteria. Funding or publishing? 4iP applicants are confused, and 4iP is struggling to explain itself to them. But what is confusing is that 4iP achieves this while being so communicative. Ning sites. Blogs. Twitter. Accessibility. 4iP’s commissioners have leveraged social media to make themselves available, but in doing so they have sacrificed consistency of voice. A bad situation is made worse if 4iP won’t accept that this is a problem for people. Consider this Twitter conversation:
@ewanmcintosh blog posts are good but do they represent your procedure and criteria, and are these clear and consistent and easy to find? (http://twitter.com/jonhickman/statuses/1164277453)
@jonhickman They do represent procedure and our criteria are next to the submit form at submit.4ip.org.uk (http://twitter.com/ewanmcintosh/statuses/1164281824)
@ewanmcintosh to clarify: I’m not a 4ip bidder. I know people who are. They don’t find there’s clarity. But tell me there is all you want (http://twitter.com/jonhickman/statuses/1164294047)
As if the variety of information and advice available in different fora isn’t problematic enough, anecdotal evidence suggests that pre-approval through one-to-one meetings is the best way to achieve results with a 4iP bid. If this is true, then it places 4iP completely outside of our notion of what constitutes funding, and it suggests that this public service funding will help develop not a plurality of voices, but more of the same.
Why does all this matter?
Understanding 4iP matters because there is money on the line. More importantly understanding 4iP matters because an opportunity is on the line: the opportunity to explore what public service media means.
It also matters because as long as 4iP is in anyway unclear the process is potentially wasting the time of the 4iP staff and applicants. 4iP was billed as being simple to apply for and accessible to all: this makes it an attractive proposition for those who could benefit from funding. How many of these applications never stood a chance of being funded? How could that time have been better spent? Is 4iP a distraction from getting things done?
Hard questions about 4iP
- Is this a fund, or a commissioning process?
- How can you make this process more transparent?
- Are projects more likely to be funded if applicants have a meeting or a relationship with a 4iP commissioner?
- Who owns finished projects, and what are the financial and IP arrangements?
- How is 4iP meeting Channel 4’s public service ideals?
- How does this project open this market to new voices?