The BBC's "Points Of View" online culture clash - Part 2

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 17 February 2009

Yesterday I posted about the current furore surrounding the BBC's Points Of View messageboard. I used to help host the board in 2004 and 2005. I did it as part of an experiment within my group at the BBC to see how much time it took for a manager to host the message board for the bit of the BBC that they were responsible for.

The group of users there were always a challenge - and I have to say that the only rational outcome of my work there was that the relationship didn't provide much value for either side. Board users got a much better experience and hosting out of those fully dedicated to hosting - rather than from me doing it in a spare 20 minutes during the working day, where it soon became a distraction.

Nevertheless, within the BBC I used to passionately champion the potential role that the POV board could play in bringing more accountability to the Corporation. I've never been convinced though that this particular message board was the right medium. For example, when my team produced a special Dalek homepage for the BBC, I went on to the board to post information about the feedback we had received, and got very little response. Nowadays I would have done that on the BBC Internet blog instead, and would have expected much more comment.

Doctor Who homepage change contact form

I've watched the Points Of View board go through three phases - the days of Howerd2 which came to be nick-named "ol' blue", the move to the DNA platform in 2004, and the present day. It has always managed to sustain a clique of users who are hostile to new people coming along to join in.

Screengrab of the old BBC Points of View message board homepage

The established group seem very much of the opinion that it is "their board", and that any influx of new users posting multiple threads about the latest Strictly Come Dancing voting fiasco or Jerry Springer: The Opera or casual racism in the Green Room are interlopers who can't follow board etiquette. That makes it very hard for anyone within the BBC to engage if they are new to the POV environment.

The Points of View homepage in 2004

Even the most hardcore user of the BBC's messageboard system surely understands that if you want to get Mark Thompson to give direct feedback about the BBC's decision not to show the DEC Gaza appeal, it is a lot easier to get the time-pressed Director General of the BBC to write a message on the Editor's Blog and then encourage him to read back through the comments rather then get him to join a messageboard. That alternative seems to be to ask him to post his point and then follow the messageboard responses here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and so on and so on. As a way of engaging senior managers using the messageboards is a non-starter.

Some of the board do seem to realise this. Indeed, even in the scope of the current spat with Nick Reynolds over the future of the board, gizmomoo pleads:

"Can we choose a thread and stick to one of them. Either this one or the one at television. It will make it easier to follow the discussion, and easier for Nick to respond."

The BBC is charter-bound to explore new media technology to provide greater openness, accountability and interaction between the audience and the Corporation. However, it isn't charter-bound to provide general message boards, in the same way that it isn't charter-bound to still support telex, fax and the telegram as ways of registering a complaint at the BBC.

The only real reason for having a Points Of View messageboard is if programme makers and executives engage with the views expressed there. If it isn't going to be able to achieve that, then it isn't great value for the rest of us who are paying the Licence Fee to subsidise a chat forum for the 50 or so regular users there. [1]

UPDATED: There has been some disquiet about my use of the phrase '50 or so regular users' which I have clarified in the comments below and in a separate blog post

UPDATED 27/3/2009: The BBC published usage figures for the Points Of View message board, covering the period of November 2008. The number of unique users was between 9,500 and 10,300 per week, which is roughly 1,500 unique users per day.

25 Comments

I largely agree with your sentiments - there is no reason for the BBC to duplicate the abilities of pretty much anyone with a vBulletin install can do. However if they were to do so they have at least a moral obligation to make sure the contributions can be exported over, lest a repeat of the AOL Hometown fiasco occur. Just because people should move elsewhere for their discussion does not mean they can't take their conversations with them.

Incidentally could not a similar argument be made in favour of h2g2? I know you've blogged about it in the past (and you're in favour of it from what I recall) but given the now widespread prevalence of wiki software and ad-sponsored wikihosting, is there an argument for the (admittedly) small licence payer subsidying the site?

Martin,

You make the comment

"The established group seem very much of the opinion that it is 'their board', and that any influx of new users posting multiple threads about the latest Strictly Come Dancing voting fiasco or Jerry Springer: The Opera or casual racism in the Green Room are interlopers who can't follow board etiquette."

Saying that messageboarders react badly to multiple posts (which they sometimes do).

But then you go on to point out the problems of having multiple threads


"seems to be to ask him to post his point and then follow the messageboard responses here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and so on and so on. As a way of engaging senior managers using the messageboards is a non-starter."

You see? That's why multiple threads are annoying. <slaps head smiley>

You also quote me (why thank you) asking for the discussion to take place in only one place.

And yet here I am having to come to ANOTHER BLOG (sorry no italics available) to discuss messageboards. <slapsheadsmiley>. It just doesn't make sense.

Martin

Ignore my last sentence in the above post by me, forgot I was not on a BBC board. Whoops.

There is no reference on your blog where you got the figure of 50 or so regular users. Could you quote your source for that information please.

Thanks.

Gizmomoo, you can get italics on here by using the <em> HTML tag - but definitely no graphical smilies available, sorry! :-(

Regarding the 50 users figure, the fact that I wrote "50 or so" was intended to convey that it was an approximate figure, not to imply that I have some way of knowing the BBC's web statistics.

The number is based on my perception of how many really active regular members the POV community has from trawling around the board. Just to clarify, it isn't an official figure, and I don't have a margin for error on it.

Thanks for your response Martin.

So you erm made it up?

I have asked the BBC for the actual figures. If I get a response I will let you know so that you can base your opinion on real figures. However there is a good chance I will not get a response.

Perhaps you could use your BBC contacts to try and find out the numbers as well. ;-)

So you erm made it up?

'Made it up' or 'Used professional experience to estimate' - take your pick ;-)

martin your last response shows you up as a bit of a ..well i cant use words like prat can i...oh well you made them up..dreadful...but rather than admit a serious error of judgement you post some middle management jargon...sad response sad article..but at least you can say youve been published..

Martin,

Where did you get the figure of 50 or so posters for the POV Board, please?

Are you a regular poster there?

Are you including all of the POV Boards in this number?

Cheers.

Hi cricket-Angel Monroe, the 50 figure certainly seems to have caused a lot of consternation and it is a shame it has detracted from the point I was making. I'm planning to post tomorrow to clarify it a bit further when I get the chance. Clearly there are more than 50 users in total on the board, but I'm talking about the 'hardcore kernel' of users here - the kind of people who go to POV most days and would probably go to a 'meet-up'. It is an estimate based on visiting the board, and not any kind of official figure.

Hi Martin,

You state:

"Nowadays I would have done that on the BBC Internet blog instead, and would have expected much more comment."

Take Victoria Derbyshire on 5Live. The blog is incessantly promoted and yet today's programme has produced precisely 0 comments (there have only been two all week).

However there are 9 comments so far on the message board.

Surely that's precise and evidenced.

Sure Also John, the numbers are in favour of the board there. Isn't the point, though, that people posting want folks at the BBC to read their opinions?

So which one do you think a busy production team will look at?

The comments on their own blog specifically about that episode of the show?

Or some comments posted 621 messages into a thread entitled "Victoria Derbyshire's back, groan".

Hi Martin,

Thanks for your response.

Is this the right place to respond? Neither yours nor mine comments are here yet!

The reason we got so upset about the 50 posters comment is that a) it's not true, and b) it implies that the POV boards are the bastion of a few hardcore nutters! This is simply not the case. And I think most POV posters would be surprised and a little offended by the assumption you have made.

Cheers.

Is this the right place to respond? Neither yours nor mine comments are here yet!

Sorry, I have to pre-moderate comments because of the amount of spam I get - they should all be on view now.


it implies that the POV boards are the bastion of a few hardcore nutters

I think, more importantly, I'm suggesting that running the boards is "super-serving" a very small dedicated audience. Whilst I think that is fine for obscure music on Radio 3 which still reaches hundreds of thousands of people and is a public service, I'm just not convinced that having a niche messageboard for general TV chit-chat is necessarily the best use of the BBC's money for doing interactive community stuff online.

But looking at the blog would provide the busy production team with absolutely no feedback. Your point, I think, was that blogs get better feedback.

Also the feedback on the blog, such as it is, is precisely that which people can offer on a million newspaper websites discussing the agenda set by those newspapers.

I'm sorry, but in order to discuss the programme as well as the issues contained therein, the messageboards offer much better options for stranded interactivity for the average user.

And remember, the messageboards get no promotion whatsoever.

"I think, more importantly, I'm suggesting that running the boards is "super-serving" a very small dedicated audience. Whilst I think that is fine for obscure music on Radio 3 which still reaches hundreds of thousands of people and is a public service, I'm just not convinced that having a niche messageboard for general TV chit-chat is necessarily the best use of the BBC's money for doing interactive community stuff online."

Don't know how to quote a message - sorry!

Leaving aside the vague insult you threw the POVers way with the 50 or so posters comment, Also John points out that the messageboards receive little or no promotion - especially when the POV programme is off the air. Yet they are still very well used, more well used than a lot of the BBC blogs.

Maybe the answer is to have the messageboards and the blogs alongside each other on the same page, so that viewers can chat to each other on the boards but can also talk to programme producers on the blogs about what the producers themselves want to talk about. That way both sides get their preferred medium and the opportunity to talk about what they want.

Alot of the unhappiness about the blogs is that they are BBC-led, whereas messageboards allow viewers to talk about what they want (within the House Rules, obviously) - it's a lot less restrictive.

martin just say i lied..i made up a figure which suits my negative view of pov messageboards..and i got caught red handed..rather than the tosh you are "publishing" ouch

John, you can easily prove whether I've told a lie or not - name them, count them, link to them. If it is so obvious that I am wildly wrong on the figure that should just be the work of a couple of minutes, no? Point to some threads that show a bigger range of hardcore users than that.

I know that there are vastly more than 50 users on the board, what I've said is that there are "50 or so regular users". By regular, as I've stated above, I mean the everyday core of the community who post to a lot of threads. It doesn't really matter whether the figure I give is 50 or 67 or 89 or even 500 - that audience number is not a big number.

This ONE thread on the TV board has 50 if not more posters (not messages different posters) it has only been there since this morning. And I recognise 90% of the names as regulars.

If ONE thread on the TV board has that many, then the whole of POV surely has more than 50 regulars.

We are trying to get the real figures, but the BBC are not giving them to us.

Pretty sure it's gonna be a few more than 50.

Anon, to be honest the obsession with the number 50 is beginning to just look like a way of avoiding discussing any of the other points I've made. As I said in the very comment before you left this one:

"It doesn't really matter whether the figure I give is 50 or 67 or 89 or even 500 - that audience number is not a big number."

Maybe I do have to revise up the estimate. However, you've pointed to a thread on the board which by page 5 is discussing the relevant merits on Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes in movies. I can't see any compelling reason why senior BBC managers or programme makers would want to read through that, nor can I see how you think that illustrates that the BBC is providing anything distinctive from what IMDB, Digital Spy, Yahoo!, The Guardian, Daily Mail and many, many others are already providing commercially.

Didn't mean last comment to be anonymous. It was me :-)

There are many many many things that the BBC offer, which are in no way distinctive to them, and that cannot be found elsewhere. I could give many examples, but as we're discussing messageboards I would point out their gardening site.

These messageboards are not "attached" to any particular programme, they're just there for all and sundry to chat. Yet the TV and Radio boards are the ones coming under scrutiny. When TV and Radio are (or should be) the life blood of the BBC. This is why the messageboarders feel under attack.

Most POV messageboarders know that the current rambling boards are not working, they know no one from the BBC is "brave enough" to go there, they want them to be better. They just don't want the heart ripped out of them, and they don't want them replaced by blogs.

And on that note I would point out that we are currently experiencing the rambling nature of blogs. I'm still posting here, but you have moved your readers on to the next blog about the BBC. The same discussion is now going on in three different locations on your site.

Neither format is perfect, but the messageboards are the ones under threat. :-)

Didn't mean last comment to be anonymous. It was me :-)

I've edited it to say so. Hey, that's one advantage this blog has over BBC messageboards - I've got an 'edit' button, which I know has been a long, long, longstanding functionality request over there :-)

As someone who would have fought to (nearly) the death to say the BBC message boards are a valuable tool it's been interesting reading the blog and these comments. Message board users are very protective of their space and it's always a shock to them how few they actually are.

These days though I can appreciate how terribly time consuming they are, and how blogs are considered a much better tool. If I want feedback about something, I certainly don't want people chattering about it to each other (or arguing the toss and being rude about my hair-do) I want them telling *me*, and I definitely don't want them being so intimidated by the in-crowd that they don't dare comment.

As a reader it's so much easier to read a few blog entries than to wade through pages and pages of different topics, let alone all the different threads in each topic.

martin..you lioe about a stat to support your point of view..then get all uppity that the the posters take issue with it to the exclusion of your other points..hey maybe your other points arent worth commenting on...lying is and gee ypou must wish you had 50 regulars on the wastelands of your blogs

You are so right John, if it wasn't for you keep popping back to call me a liar, this place would be as dead and dusty as a dodo.

Nick published usage figures for the Points Of View message board on March 27th 2009, covering the period of November 2008. The number of unique users was between 9,500 and 10,300 per week, which is roughly 1,500 unique users per day. Certainly in excess of my "50 regulars" estimate, but astonishingly low given the cost and effort of moderating them.

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