The BBC's "Points Of View" online culture clash - Part 3

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 20 February 2009

Earlier this week I published a couple of posts about the BBC's Points Of View message board, which have sparked some debate on the boards themselves. I thought it was worth returning to the topic to clarify a couple of points.

Screengrab of the old BBC Points of View message board homepage

"50 or so" users

One thing that seems to have vexed the POV board is my suggestion that there were only '50 or so' regular users on the board. I added a comment about that on my previous post, but it is worth re-iterating here:

"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."

Nick Reynolds has said he will shortly publish some usage figures, which I'm sure will be much higher than 50, as they will, no doubt, be counting anyone who has posted in the last few weeks as an 'active members'. As I went on to say:

"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'."

I'm not suggesting at all that the board only has 50 users, but what I am saying is that the core of the POV community appears, from the outside, to be around that mark, and I'm reasonably happy that the number is in the right order of magnitude. Certainly it must be more than 5, but well below 500.

I'm suggesting that running the boards as they are is "super-serving" a very small dedicated audience. Whilst I think that is fine for obscure music on Radio 3, that still reaches hundreds of thousands of people and is a well-defined cultural and public service. I'm not sure a niche messageboard is.

The Dalek feedback factor

Doctor Who themed homepage feedback form on the bbc.co.uk site

In my post I used the example of the Dalek feedback thread to indicate that the boards were not necessarily the right place to publish data about the BBC website and get a response from the audience, and that blogs would have been a better approach.

What I think is the difference between now and 4 years ago is that with that Dalek homepage, yes, certainly the BBC got 1,500 emails, which was a fantastic level of feedback, but only a handful of people within the Corporation got to read them. I published some figures on POV, blogged about it on here, and presented it as a case study at OpenTech, and that was that. Members of the public can't look at those original comments about the Dalek page now, and I daresay that within the BBC they are just gathering virtual dust on an email archive server somewhere.

By contrast, when the personalised homepage beta was launched, or the BBC News site redesigned, Richard Titus and Steve Hermann were able to publish on the BBC's blogs, and the hundreds of comments they attracted are available for everybody to read.

It didn't need someone from the BBC to come along and filter the email and say 'some people thought this' and 'some people thought that' on a messageboard like I did back in 2005. Everybody can read the feedback in one place in one thread, which doesn't get sidetracked into going off topic.

The tribes of the web

My reason for posting about Points Of View was originally because after Jemima's Guardian piece, I was intrigued by the tribalism of messageboarders vs blogs that seems to have developed in this debate.

Since I started going online I've used Usenet, IRC, email, instant messaging, Twitter, messageboards, social networks and blogs.

They are all just different ways of facilitating communication between people online. None of them are inherently better than others, but some are better suited to particular tasks.

I don't think that observing that senior members of the BBC are more likely to engage via a blog than via the POV messageboard is the same as saying that all messageboards are obselete, and that the people who enjoy using them shouldn't.

But, you only have to use the pull-down menus on the Editors Blog and the BBC Internet Blog to see the wide range of authors from Mark Thompson down who have written on them, and I bet virtually none of them would willingly venture into a messageboard environment.

And finally....(-ish)

The BBC Internet Blog picked a couple of the juicier and more sensational quotes from my blog posts, and the "50 or so" number has somewhat obscured the overall point I was trying to make about the POV boards.

The Points of View homepage in 2004

If it is just meant to be a general place to hang out and chit-chat about television, then I don't see that the BBC is doing anything here that the wider Internet market isn't. The BBC doesn't do fantasy football anymore, for example, because the BBC wasn't adding anything distinctive. I'm not sure what is distinctive about POV, except the expectation that someone in the BBC is reading through it. Since it doesn't appear to be a good format for engaging senior management or programme makers at the BBC, it simply isn't fulfilling that purpose.

21 Comments

You missed the most important part of the debate - what a meaningless piece of double-speak "Information Architect" is.

So I have set it upon myself to come up with a plain speaking alternative for you to use.

Unfortunately the best I could do was "Person who does what like sort things out into somet that does resemble order. Type thing".

I'm requesting a 1% royalty for its use, due to it being copyrighted as a term by myself.

I didn't miss it Andrew, I just considered it an example of the value of POV that speaks for itself.

Well there is that :)

I'm sorry, Martin, I know I shouldn't be griping at you about BBC issues, but in fairness you did start it!

I'm not attacking your blogs, but what you've got going here (three blogs for the exact same subject) is precisely why I prefer messageboards. Am I supposed to post my response here or on the other one (the second one, I think) with gizmomoo?

Messageboards could be SO useful to the BBC. They're a place where viewers feel free to express their thoughts and opinions, unlike blogs - for example - where the topic is blogger-led. There's room for both.

What the BBC Messageboards need is dedicated Hosts. We have one for the TV Board - she's brill, but I don't think it's her full-time job. Maybe a full-time Host who is part of the community could liaise more effectively between messageboarders and programme makers?

I'm not going anywhere near that particular car crash of a board for the time being, but there is one thing punters can do on a forum which they can't do on a blog -- start a thread.

Perhaps that's their real issue with your suggestion? It is quite a major thing to remove and could smack alarmingly of a restriction of debate. The thing about yer blogs is, they only get to talk about the things that people with posting privileges want to talk about.

(Though from Andrew's comments it appears I'm not missing anything in the place itself, it not being overly blessed with the sort of people who can express that sort of nuance.)

"I'm sorry, Martin, I know I shouldn't be griping at you about BBC issues, but in fairness you did start it!"

What started my interest at this point was the fact that it seemed Nick was getting attacked on the board because someone had quoted Jemima's editorial as being a direct quote from him, and when he pointed out that it wasn't, he didn't get an apology, he got attacked again for not having done that sooner - but yes, I certainly stuck my oar in good and proper didn't I?

"I'm not attacking your blogs, but what you've got going here (three blogs for the exact same subject) is precisely why I prefer messageboards."

Yes, I agree. In some ways it would have been easier to put everything on the one page, but then one of the things with blogs is the rigid chronological basis. I know that a lot of my readers here get the content delivered via a subscription to RSS or email, so in order for the day's content to reach them, you have to put it as a new post. And the first two parts were written as one, but split over two days so as to keep the word count down and not overwhelm people too much.

As for the third post today, basically on Tuesday and Wednesday I saw some referrals to the blog from the board, went over to have a look, and this post was basically all the things I was going to post over on POV. I still have an active account over there. Two actually. And my replies were going to include agreeing with things like how much I miss Doug as well, he was a good friend of mine who I worked alongside for a couple of years at the BBC.

But then, having written some replies, before I had a chance to post them, I saw all the posts that Andrew referred to above, pulling my job title to pieces and attacking me personally. Why would I want to bother to engage directly with abuse like that?

And I think that is one of the issues at stake here. The 'messageboarders' at the BBC feel that they are under attack - but I think it is very hard if you are part of the community to appreciate how niche and negative it can all look from the outside.

"There is one thing punters can do on a forum which they can't do on a blog -- start a thread."

You're not wrong there John, and I think that is totally the heart of the matter here. That has to be the holy grail for a big organisation - how to let the customers / audience dictate the discussion agenda, but in such a way that it can actually be usefully channeled back into the right people with the business, and be affordable to moderate and maintain.

How do you quote on this blog?

“Perhaps that's their real issue with your suggestion? It is quite a major thing to remove and could smack alarmingly of a restriction of debate. The thing about yer blogs is, they only get to talk about the things that people with posting privileges want to talk about.”

Yes, I think this is the crux of the matter. It is, after all, the fundamental difference between blogs and messageboards.

“What started my interest at this point was the fact that it seemed Nick was getting attacked on the board because someone had quoted Jemima's editorial as being a direct quote from him, and when he pointed out that it wasn't, he didn't get an apology, he got attacked again for not having done that sooner”

There is a context here. At the beginning of the big thread that’s going on these issues on the BBC boards Nick came across as being evasive and not very helpful. Things have improved a lot since then. But the incident you are referring to was a culmination of frustrations in questions not being answered. Like I say, communication has improved a great deal since then.

“But then, having written some replies, before I had a chance to post them, I saw all the posts that Andrew referred to above, pulling my job title to pieces and attacking me personally. Why would I want to bother to engage directly with abuse like that?”

I hope the majority of us would not attack you personally. We certainly commented on your comments in your blog, and yes I do remember comments about your job title ;-). If you want to engage with the debate I hope you would be made very welcome.

“And I think that is one of the issues at stake here. The 'messageboarders' at the BBC feel that they are under attack - but I think it is very hard if you are part of the community to appreciate how niche and negative it can all look from the outside.”

Firstly, there are a tiny minority of us on the POV Boards engaged in this debate. Most POVers are happily oblivious to it! So please don’t judge the entire boards by our dogged questioning! I think there are less then ten posters discussing all this with Nick. The overwhelming majority are happily chatting about TV and Radio programmes!

cricket-Angel Monroe, to do quotes you need to put a bit of HTML around the text like this - <blockquote>Quote goes here</blockquote>

Or I can just add it in for you later like above ;-)

Cheers! :-)

Martin there is only a minority who are being abusive-the majority would welcome you with open arms.

So why not engage with us directly your comments as an ex-host are really interesting.

Regarding the '50 or so regular users' question, I am not a member of the POV board, so cannot comment on that estimate. I do have a more serious issue with your term 'user'. Did you in fact mean '50 or so regular posters'? In my experience of many non-BBC messageboards, I would say that if there are x posters, then the number of viewers/users is likely to be at least 10x. In the case of some BBC boards, I wouldn't be suprised if it might be closer to 100x users. Will Nick Reynolds publish the number of page hits on the POV boards? This would I think provide some perspective on the numbers issue.

In part 2, you seem keen to note that BBC's charter is limited to providing interaction between the audience and the Corporation. This may be so; I do not know the details. Charters tend to be about principle, and necessarily sketchy in detail. I don't know about the TV side of things, but I understand the Radio 4 Service Licence states (para 5.4): "Radio 4 should facilitate and support the growth of communities of interest around its output and enable them to interact with programmes and with each other online." (My emphasis, and you might also care to dwell on the implementation of 'communities' and their 'growth'.)

Our Radio 4 MB host, Anna, notes:

"The blog's not a substitute for the message board. Blogs do a very different job and we expect them to co-exist indefinitely with the boards. As the Radio 4 blog evolves we hope you'll hear the authentic voices of programme makers and executives and you'll have the opportunity to comment on what they say. The blog's only been live for a few days and it's already getting really interesting. We hope you'll join in."

And so the accomodation (or standoff if one is feeling cynical) proceeds between the bottom-up messageboarders and the top-down bloggers. I feel it's a reasonable tradeoff between the respective ego sets.

I know your blog here is specifically about the TV POV situation, but you do appear to draw conclusions from that sphere and generalise about the BBC as a whole. I feel that is unwise. What is good or viable for one area is not necessarily a recipe for another area.

"If it is just meant to be a general place to hang out and chit-chat about television, then I don't see that the BBC is doing anything here that the wider Internet market isn't."

Fair enough, there may be plentiful places elsewhere on the internet to discuss things about TV land, but it sure ain't the case in Radio 4 land. The thing is, if one wants to talk about Radio 4 Drama and Readings for example, there is only one place to go. Yep, it's the Radio 4 Drama and Readings messageboard. Some of the writers read it, and some of the producers read it, and sometimes they also contribute, as do I suspect some of the external production company people, although it's impossible to tell them apart from normal listener punters. It's definitely the place to go to hang out and chit-chat about Radio 4 Drama and Readings. In fact, it's the only place to hang out and chit-chat about Radio 4 Drama and Readings. And, the killer distinctive added value is, it's hosted safely and in a single place by the Beeb.

On the general question of the engagement of programme makers and executives, this is admittedly a thorny problem in view of the combative nature of some messageboards, but the key issue is whether that engagement is going to be any more prominent within a blog format. Personally I doubt it.

Russ

You make some very good points Russ, and you are quite right that the number participating in any kind of online community usually represents a larger number of viewers or 'lurkers''. On here, for example the ratio of page views to comments on my POV posts is 25x. The Radio 4 boards are an interesting contrast to the cliquey chit-chat of POV, because of course, rather than 'all TV' or 'all radio', they focus on a specific area of BBC output. I think that makes them easier to host, and therefore much more welcoming of newcomers to the board.

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 of moderating them.

As I suspected, the page hits have shown a useful perspective. The 1500 unique users per day sounds distinctly healthy to me. I am somewhat surprised at your attribution of this number as 'astonishingly low' on the grounds of their moderation cost. This seems a bizarre linkage - it would seem more reasonable to consider the cost of moderation of any 'post-moderation' board to be directly proportional to the number of posts, not the number of unique users per day. Secondly, the ball park area of this cost for the current style of POV operation was chosen and dictated by the BBC itself.

Physician, heal thyself.

Russ

The 1500 unique users per day sounds distinctly healthy to me. I am somewhat surprised at your attribution of this number as 'astonishingly low'


To put a bit of context around that figure, in 2007 the BBC was attracting "14.8 million UK unique users each week".

Is the essence of your case, Martin, that the number of users of messageboards/blogs is in your view disappointing compared to the number of users to the BBC online domain? I'm not quite sure what your expectations were or are. Do you see the POV figures as representing some sort of acute failure of interactivity?

Russ

My 'case' is that there are plenty of places on the web where users can chit-chat on messageboards about the general state of television. I don't see what Points Of View has that isn't being provided by the market already, and so, like Fantasy Football or a Games portal, I'm not convinced it is worth the BBC doing it in the current format.

The only reason for the BBC doing it would be if it was an opportunity to interact with BBC staff. Given the level of attacks on the BBC staff who do venture there - the example of Nick being berated for things Jemima Kiss said, and then being berated for not having pointed out that they were Jemima's words quickly enough - why would they?

Looking down the other end of the telescope for a moment Russ, if you think 1,500 users represents a healthy thriving worthwhile community, how low would the number have to be before you'd think that the Points Of View message board did not represent good value for money for the 25m Licence Fee payers who don't use it.

My 'case' is that there are plenty of places on the web where users can chit-chat on messageboards about the general state of television. I don't see what Points Of View has that isn't being provided by the market already, and so, like Fantasy Football or a Games portal, I'm not convinced it is worth the BBC doing it in the current format

One could apply the same argument to many other areas of BBC messageboards - look at the posting numbers for the Food, Gardening, Learning English, History and Parenting messageboards. There are also plenty of places on the web to discuss those subjects. Some of these areas are not supported by any BBC programming, and others like Gardening and Food have only light structural links to specific BBC programmes. Why then the focus of concern on POV, which is directly related to BBC's mainstream mass product? Is one of POV's problems because it has an impossibly large scope, or is dogged by being linked to a programme that no longer has a regular broadcast slot?

The only reason for the BBC doing it would be if it was an opportunity to interact with BBC staff. Given the level of attacks on the BBC staff who do venture there - the example of Nick being berated for things Jemima Kiss said, and then being berated for not having pointed out that they were Jemima's words quickly enough - why would they?

Yes, I think that was an unfortunate episode, but it wasn't the greatest piece of journalism either, and I can see, having re-read the whole piece, why POVers felt threatened emotionally. I have accepted that the knockabout nature of messageboards will not suit everyone's sensitivities, but again, a better level of TV staff interaction in the gentler arena of blogs does seem to be rather scarce currently.

Looking down the other end of the telescope for a moment Russ, if you think 1,500 users represents a healthy thriving worthwhile community, how low would the number have to be before you'd think that the Points Of View message board did not represent good value for money for the 25m Licence Fee payers who don't use it.

A good question. I don't know quite how to answer that. I think a case can be made either way about 'high' or 'low' numbers being perceived as good or bad. In my personal case, my use of the BBC is 10% television and 90% radio. BBC's budget allocation is (simplistically, for the sake of argument) spent 90% on television and 10% on radio. (I don't mind about my poor 'level of return', btw, it's my choice, and it's still good value for money. I am altrustic about such things.)

Let's take the hypothetical case of a newspaper with a circulation of a million, and which publishes 10 letters page letters a day. Are you saying that 999990 purchasers of that newspaper will feel short-changed somehow because they haven't felt motivated to write a letter? Or would you expect a newspaper to be considered 'fair' only if it published nearer a million letters a day? No of course you're not saying that. But are you approaching this whole matter in terms of some kind of 'ratings' principle?

Sorry for being a bit incoherent - it is far too late at night, and I must abed. Nick's POV November Numbers has done my head in, although I have written something longer on his blog.

Russ

"One could apply the same argument to many other areas of BBC messageboards - look at the posting numbers for the Food, Gardening, Learning English, History and Parenting messageboards."

Very possibly. I was only looking at Points Of View because of 1) having experience of hosting that board and 2) it was reading Nick's blog posts about making a plan for the board that caught my attention, as the responses to it. I don't have anything against the BBC having messageboards. I think even a board with a small community is worthwhile to the BBC if it is tightly addressing a BBC programme or personality, and is well hosted. I just can't help feeling that Points Of View is of little use to the BBC as a place for engaging with the audience. I genuinely don't think those who enjoy being on the board can see that from the outside it looks like a very unfriendly place, dominated by a small clique of regulars who seem to take a negative view of the BBC, their staff, the board itself, and anyone who posts about Strictly or Brand/Ross or any other big flurry as a newbie.


"Let's take the hypothetical case of a newspaper with a circulation of a million, and which publishes 10 letters page letters a day. Are you saying that 999990 purchasers of that newspaper will feel short-changed somehow because they haven't felt motivated to write a letter?"

That is a bit of an apples/oranges comparison. Newspaper letter pages are a tightly controlled editorial area where a hand-picked bunch of reader's letters that represent a fraction of what is received are selected, edited and sub-edited in order to fit exactly into a finite piece of space on a printed page. Interactive forums by their nature are only bounded by database capacity and moderation costs.

I saw this blog pop up when I Googled BBC POV.

Just wanted to say thanks to Russ for making some level-headed defences of the POV Boards. You are a very eloquent poster.

I find it amusing that Martin says the boards are cliquey and hostile, considering the many new posters who keep popping up. :-) Every board has cliques; but everyone is welcome to join.

I also find it amusing that he says the boards are hostile to BBC employees, citing Nick Reynolds as an example. Nick received a warm welcome and plenty of ideas and contributions from POV posters when he first came on the boards. Things deterioated thereafter admittedly for a variety of well-documented reasons. The boards do not get used by BBC staff. Every Host has been warmly welcomed, but nobody else really comes on.

Anyway, it's all done and dusted now after months of pointless wrangling.

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