New Radio 3 site and a more open BBC all in one
At the end of last week a new Radio 3 website emerged blinking onto the interweb. It has been a while in the pipeline, and like any major change, hasn't received a 100% rapturous welcome from the users. For some reason people are so much more inclined to get the effort together to write "I Hate It" rather than, "Ooooh, nice new site, thank you" ;-)
Dan Hill has bravely stuck his head above the parapet and attempted to engage with the criticism on the Radio 3 message board. Now I say bravely, because you would hope that joining in the online community attached to your site would be something that we could do as a matter of course at the BBC.
The first reply to his post - "This has to be a spoof" - neatly sums up why we get so reluctant.
Actually throughout the threads there is a lot of very useful feedback, about the colour scheme, the schedule pages and the playlists. Then there is a lot of less useful criticism like the blanket assertion from one poster that what Dan says proves he knows nothing about art. Nice.
I'd like to see more of us feel able to start mingling online with our audience like this, but I think it is the risk of these kinds of very personal attack that deters BBC staff from contributing to our own messageboards more. One of the writers from Dead Ringers, Nev Fountain, occasionally crops up on the Points Of View messageboard if someone brings the programme up. He is then almost invariably met with a torrent of personal abuse from people whose problem with him is chiefly that they don't share his sense of humour - which seems a little harsh.
Likewise there is currently a Points Of View messageboard furore around the public vote for the Strictly Come Dancing show. A vociferous group are claiming that the show is "fixed" because some bloke from EastEnders keeps winning the vote even though it is obvious (apparently) to any professional dancer that he is useless. Thus missing the point that it isn't being decided by professionals. Oh well. Anyway, this is classic example of where the host on a BBC message board cannot win. Estee offered to raise their concerns with the production team. When she got a reply, and quoted what the production office had given her to say, most of the unhappy vitriol was aimed at her personally.
Exactly the same thing happened last year to the lovely Anna who was hosting POV during Fame Acadamy II when whatsisface fans couldn't believe that whatserface was winning - the hosts contribute to the messageboards as volunteers and sadly they then have to bear the brunt on behalf of programe-makers.
One of the client-side developers I work with once remarked that he knew why flame wars started and that the solution was simple - "Close all messageboards". For him it is the medium itself that is the problem,and I've increasingly felt myself that the ease of impersonal communication encourages poorer behaviour, after all it is a lot easier to be ruder via email or to a faceless telephone operator than it is to someone's face*. (Mind you, the same developer also thought that the possession of modems should be licenced to keep the non tech-savvy off the net, so perhaps his view was a little extreme).
It isn't just the television or radio audience who respond that way to BBC staff as well - the responses to the now-defunct Whats Wrong With BBC website wiki, or the recent News-Search-via-RSS-oh-no-please-don't comment flame war show how quickly a discussion on anything BBC-related can turn into an "I pay my licence fee so I own you" slanging match. There are a lot of us at BBC New Media who are willing to get into public debates about our services, but imagine it more like trying to coax a nervous animal out of the undergrowth and I think you'll get a better response.
We learn to be defensive very quickly. I once spent two hours examining the source code of a site belonging to a disgruntled webmaster who thought we were deliberately depressing the ranking of his anti-BBC website in our search engine. I wrote him a lengthy explanation of why his particular source-code was making it difficult for him to rank highly for the keyword phrases he was targeting - with some helpful tips to improve his ranking. His response was to reply via email within 2 minutes with the terse one-liner "Don't you even bother to check your facts before you send your email". He couldn't have even taken the time to read my whole answer. You know the next person to pose a similar question didn't get the same amount of time devoted to them.
It's also interesting looking at the replies to Dan's thread how much we in the BBC really need to be aware of the "one big room syndrome". From my position I am well aware of the layers of complexity and relationships that exist from the broadcast network "BBC Radio 3", through to the department that makes their website where Dan works, who use applications made in my department, hosted on web servers maintained by BBC Technology. To the audience it is seamless. There is one comment that Dan's exposition of what the Radio 3 brand means to him is a more coherent statement of intent than the audience have received from the network itself, as if Dan actually has a say. I can't speak for him, but I know that I have overseen a project to deliver news to people's in-boxes without ever having met a journalist, and have run online votes for programmes I've never met the producers of, so I'd imagine the amount of quality time he gets to actually spend with the network management is similarly meagre. On Search we used to get email feedback from people asking what was the name of the painting hanging on the wall in such-and-such-a-room on such-and-such-a-programme, as if I could just stand up and shout the question out to the set dressing department across "the one big room".
Still, leaving aside all that, I'm delighted to see that with the Radio 3 site we are also thinking of the future, and the permanence/impermanence of the web. Tom has written about the amount of thought that went into the way each programme is identified, to give it a persistent URL that will (hopefully) stand the test of time. In a world where Doctor Who fans can't decide if "Rose" is episode 1 of series 1 or episode 697 of season 27, believe me, I understand how difficult this is to achieve. Loic Le Meur pointed out to us at the BBC "Be Linkable Or Die". Now Radio 3 are linkable.
One of the most brilliant things about working for the BBC New Media department is getting to work with, or in the vicinity of, the kind of people involved in the Radio 3 relaunch, like Mags and Dan and Gavin and Matt and Tom.
One of the most terrifying things about working at the BBC however is knowing that my new role, which starts on tomorrow, involves looking after some of our core pan-bbc.co.uk products, peopled with the kind of talent I've mentioned above. Now that's sure going to keep me on my toes...
*My years in the second-hand record retail business make me aware that it is still perfectly possible to be very rude to someone's face. However, in that situation it's a lot easier (and more socially acceptable) to shout back ;-)