New Radio 3 site and a more open BBC all in one

 by Martin Belam, 30 June 2004

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.

Here are some links to Dan's threads: Thread One, Duplicate (and more replied to) Thread Two, and Thread Three where he gets called upon.

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 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 ;-)


Hey Martin

Thanks for this ... I deliberately engaged the Radio 3 users around the design and technology behind the site (what my team is responsible for) in order to steer the conversation in a constructive direction - which it did. Out of those initially broadly negative comments, with a fair bit of engagement, listening etc., the boards have actually generated 4 or 5 interesting threads with smart suggestions as to aspects of the design which was or wasn't working. Some of the suggestions have been acted upon already; others we'll feed into a post-launch review.

However, as you point out, it's not for the faint-hearted, or for those that don't know their stuff, or are willing to find the time to keep on engaging. I thought this might be a useful experiment i.e. if we can create a space in each BBC messageboard about the site's design and tech, it could be incredibly useful as part of our ongoing user research (caveat about the users there not necessarily being representative of the entire userbase etc). I intend to follow that up ...

Oh, and when I say, "know their stuff" I mean in terms of tech, *and* of the subject matter of the site, in this case Radio 3. In my view, it's imperative that designers and coders engage with the subject matter in hand as much as they possibly can, in order to do their job properly - in this case, Radio 3, it's history, classical music, serious music listeners, drama, the arts and cultural debate in general. Immerse yourself. It's not at all formal ethnography, but you have to be able to discuss on their terms. I'm no expert on any of that, but I know enough as I was already a Radio 3 listener (had I not been, I would've become one had I been working directly on the site). Also understand the specific characteristics of the board in hand, too. Equally, decent communication skills are ideally required - not sure I personally have them, but it's going to be more difficult to have a constructive conversation otherwise. Important additions are therefore required to the skillset of designers and coders if the industry is going to pursue this properly (and I recommend we do).

I personally didn't mind the comments directed at me - I thought it was the one BBC board that I could use allusions to 'baroque' and 'domesticated modernism'! And some did engage on those terms. It's equally important to keep the conversation on the design and tech - as you say, the 'one big room' syndrome applies, though some users are very clued up about new media work - others assumed the work was actually outsourced. However, I was careful to frame comments as my personal view as it related to the design and tech, and to keep it on those terms.

Now the comments being directed at me are generally those of thanks, for spending time in the board and fielding their queries, complaints, and suggestions. It seems to be really appreciated. We should never underestimate the upheaval that a redesign causes, and I wanted to try to help users through the change where possible. Early days perhaps, but as with so much of our work, there is surely a benefit to being transparent about our work here.

I've passed the thanks on to my team - who deserve the real credit.

Damn right we do! xx

From my experience hosting BBC messageboards, one of the most difficult things is trying to explain to the users that although the messageboard is part of the site, it is - at the same time - mostly run from elsewhere in the BBC. It sounds perfectly natural to us, but it must seem strange to users of BBC sites and boards - and who can blame them for being confused and assuming that site and board are one and the same?

On the site I work on, which obviously tries its damnedest to be accessible to disabled people, our users don't understand why they click through from a mostly accessible site and land up on a much less accessible messageboard. And then we have those users who regard the messageboard as a community, and seem to often forget that there's a site there too with material constantly being added. I've noted similar divides on other BBC sites and boards - including that of Radio 3 - and I think it's something that urgently needs to be addressed.

Somewhere I still have a login to the message boards that makes my name appear in red - thus demarking me (according to the system) as a "star", although it also got used for experts.

I spent a fair amount of my spare time working on the (now defunct) Members Board - helping people through their problems and explaining why, sometimes, things were like they were.

I did my best out of my own free will, to help people, and I'm glad to say that in general I got a good response - they were generally rather annoyed and frustrated users who just wanted help. And when they got it, they were happy. Which was nice.

But it all depends on the community. The Archers message board are the nicest bunch of web users you will ever find on - if something goes wrong, they accept it with good grace as long as someone tells them what's going on.

Some other boards (who I won't name) are simply downright nasty and I used to avoid going on them at all costs!

Looking at the BBC Radio 3 boards, they fit into the "I fear change!" persona that the average Radio 3 audience member seems to fit into anyway. They're like Radio 4 - you change something and they're in uproar - even if it is for the better!

And I do think the Radio 3 redesign is a perfect example of the BBC website getting better - but then that's cos I've known the vision behind it for some time, and I can see the benefits. I think part of the problem with the Radio 3 site is that the users can't currently see the benefits - it's all just words. Will they in the long term? Hopefully yes!

As an aside I'd love to be "officially" communicating with our audiences again - and not just on the BBC site. Until then I'll keep loitering unofficially in some key places :)

Look on the bright side - at least people care enough about your product and the work you do to comment/flame-war. Either way, people have formed an opinion.

Down here, it doesn't really matter what we do. Nobody cares that much, or they're just "grateful" to get anything.

Personal opinion and all that!

The point about the BBC messageboards is probably the most sensible thing I've ever heard in my life:

shut them down

They are hives of hatred for lonely idiots and their banal rants; breeding grounds for circuitous stupidity and a sheild behind which sad cowards hide.

I've never know anything useful to come out of the BBC messageboards, or any other messageboard for that matter. In fact, the only really useful messageboards are help forums - and even then, if you're part of the uninitiated, you often find ridicule when you go looking for assistance.

When it comes to messageboards, chat forums and the like, I have one simple opinion, influenced entirely by Clay Shirky:

A Group Is its own Worst Enemy.

I've written about it serveral times on my own website, about the 2Think Forum, and Biased BBC.

Take my advice, ignore them, and hopefully they'll eventually go away.

Don't be shy Martin...say what you think ;-)

*weeps in pain and agony*

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