Getting informal at the BBC

Well, a fascinating Friday afternoon at the BBC Web at 20 documentary launch, surrounded by true web royalty, from Sir Tim Berners Lee down. Having been appropriately awed by said royalty, I decided that I am in fact a web urchin, and then sat down to enjoy the show.

There doesn’t seem to be too much point in rehashing the content – you can catch much of it here and here, and it’s been well commented on all over the place – so instead, I’m just going to make a note of a perception about formal and informal media that really leapt out at me as I sat there.

As the introductory video began, with Fatboy Slim pounding out as background music, it struck me that there’s a big difference between the kind of professionally produced content that fills the traditional mediasphere, and the more informal creative work that thrives online.

The Fatboy Slim track was a first cue to formality. If I wanted to use it in a short film, I wouldn’t be able to; I couldn’t afford the licensing costs (in fact, I ran into licensing issues at the Tate only last week). The BBC, of course, can – and so its presence here became for me a signifier of the BBC’s commercial and creative heft, its status as the kind of organisation that works with, and creates, formal, rather than informal, media.

Then, there was the editing of the video itself. It was wonderfully crafted, clearly the product of a highly skilled professional; but again, the  sheen that that professionalism gave it very firmly placed it in the formal media camp. It didn’t feel like the product of a personal obsession, of someone working out a tool as they went along in order to use it to say what they desperately needed to say.

That sense of formality was also present in the broader structure of the event. The main speakers – Sir Tim Berners Lee, Bill Thompson and Susan Greenfield, MC’d by event and programme host Aleks Krotoski – sat on a little podium, variously giving speeches, talking with each other, and responding to questions. The questioners sat on bar stools off to one side; Chris Anderson beamed down from a video screen. We – as audience – audienced before them.

It was a physical structure that mimicked the audience / content relationships of traditional media forms. Experts talked; other experts interacted with them; and everyone else observed. Chances to interrupt the smooth flow of expertise (although in the case of Susan Greenfield, I use that term in its loosest possible sense) were few and far between; chances for informal conversation, rather than formal Q&A, were non-existent.

This formality contrasted very strongly with the various Web inspired events that have been becoming more and more popular. Unconferences, Tuttle Crowd / Tribe / Team workshops, meet ups of one kind or another, and even more traditional conferences and exhibitions – all have made a virtue of open, conversational informality, and deliberately created spaces within which hierarchy is erased and content follows shared personal obsessions.

Of course, that happened at the Web At 20 event – but it happened afterwards, when everyone was chatting over drinks, and felt very separate from the main flow of things. I felt very distant from the main event itself; in fact, I felt like I was watching it on television, rather than actually present. I didn’t even manage to get an audience question in, which is very rare indeed!

And of course, that’s not to say that it wasn’t a very enjoyable event; who couldn’t enjoy really interesting people talking about really interesting things? But it was very formal indeed, and for me it highlighted a fascinating problem that the Web at Twenty production team are going to have to deal with over the next few months.

The BBC – by definition – demands formal content; but the web thrives on informality. Web at Twenty is a BBC production about the web, so it’s going to have to engage with both the crafted professionalism of its parent and the obsessive amateurism of the online world. How’s it going to mediate between the two?

Will interviews be shot by professional cameramen, or by Zi6 wielding researchers? Will the final edit of each show happen in a BBC edit suite, or on a laptop running iMovie or Windows Movie Maker? Will incidental music come from Fatboy Slim, or Golders Green’s finest bedroom kosmische guitarist?

Will all footage come from the production team, or will people pop up online with invaluable content they’ve shot themselves? Once it’s all coming together, will people be able to remix Web at 20 content any way they want to, or will it be licensed in such a way that that’s impossible? Assuming it happens, how’s all that remixed content going to interact with the broader BBC web presence?

The Web at 20 production team are a very creative, seriously sharp bunch, so I suspect that their answers to the above are going to be fascinating. And the launch event? In the end – and despite the above – I think it was a very positive achievement.

It didn’t fully embody the informality of the web, but it’s content did do a very good job of introducing the concept of it to the BBC. It planted an informal media seed, and from now on, that seed’s going to grow. Of course, we can all be a part of its growth, following it and engaging with it here. It should be very exciting watching it develop!

5 thoughts on “Getting informal at the BBC

  1. This makes me think of when “they” (probably the BBC – can’t remember) show amateur footage they sometimes have a caption “camcorder footage”, or when they say on the news, “here’s some footage shot on a mobile phone” – i.e. it’s not our fault the quality is so bad.

    I wonder if anything informal on these programmes will be suitably introduced with cues like these.

  2. That’s a really interesting point – going to be very interesting to see how moves between formal and informal content are flagged up within the programmes.

    Also brings to mind all the recent mobile phone footage from Iran, from stuff on the streets to John Simpson in his hotel room. Immediate, powerful content is becoming more important than well-crafted form – which makes me wonder also how the programmes will embody the web’s powers of immediacy. How will that impact on shooting and particularly editing schedules? How malleable will the final cut be, and where and when will the final cut line be drawn?

  3. Sadly I have not been able to view the link to Tim BL & others here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/digitalrevolution/2009/07/more-from-web-at-20.shtml

    as the screen has constantly displayed the message ‘This content doesn’t seem to be working. Try again later’.

    The (perceived) formality of the BBC in presenting itself online in comparison to others there is, imho, not a bad thing.

    As a media consumer of 5+ decades it seems quite natural for each sector to have an ever evolving hierarchy. This is what I view as happening online.

    On a low level point from the days when BBC radio announcers wore dinner jackets to BBC television presenters in jeans is (slow) progression!

    For me using the internet started with JANET and BBS. This juxtaposition of Intellect and text chat I see as replicated in the expansion of the Web.

    My Son arrived at the same time as the Web. From toddlerhood he had his own computer and then later access to the internet and the Web. Now it is his career. These young but lifelong users are the real shapers of it’s future. They are the Web professionals and I hope to enjoy the journey for a lot longer wherever they take us!

  4. Hi Al (and Frances in the comments),

    I think between you you’ve hit the nail on its head. The differences of the two media (TV and web) carry with them differences in expectation.

    The launch event ‘The Web At 20’ which Al attended was the launch of a TV programme: a four part series for BBC Two, which takes its remit to inform, educate and entertain very seriously. As such it heralded much of the traditional TV content and the event was populated with classic tropes described very well by Al ‘We – as audience – audienced before them.’ particularly pleasing (rather Tibor Fischer-esque, I thought).

    And the product of the next six months of hard work by the production will need to be of the highest quality and present a balanced, intelligent (and intelligible!) document of the web as it exists today: its history, of course; its present forms and (mis)uses; its possible futures… And we will be focusing on how this phenomenal invention continues to change humanity. Roll credits at speeds beyond the capabilities of the human eye…

    And that’s how we do it.

    Only, this time, we’re also doing it completely differently. This is an open production: we’re already publishing our current (note, current, not final) thinking re scripts, topics, web theories on our blog, with the hope that engaged users will engage; share stories; guide our inquiry; prick our arrogance; enlighten our ignorance; help us tell a better story about the web – which is as much your story as it is anyone’s who has been online in the last 20 years.

    I won’t clutter Al’s blog by rewriting our whole mission statement, you can find out more on our blog, where you an also read Al’s excellent critique of our first real programme manifesto regards the web’s libertarian ideals and the (natural? / inevitable?) corruption of those by humanity. It’s a brilliant piece of reply, has been much appreciated by members of the production, and is exactly the kind of thing we’re after.

    So, to pull some semblance of sense from what I can only imagine now reads as waffle, we ARE planning to make a high profile, high quality product – as the BBC should. BUT we’re doing it openly, we’re showing the workings, sharing our (hopefully not too many or mammoth) mistakes as well as our smarts, in the hope that the web will join us to tell its tale well.

    Many thanks,
    Dan

  5. Hi both –

    First of all, apologies for a slow reply – life is too hectic just now!

    Hmm, Frances, fascinated by your comment about the perceived formality of the BBC online. Looked at in broad terms, it’s a great reminder that a particular web presence should always cross-breed the needs of internet comms with the pre-existing norms of the organisation / person presenting themselves.

    Also, I wish I had your depth of web experience! I didn’t even send my first email till about 1994, tho’ I did manage to get in a fair amount of BBC Basic programming back in the 80s. Nothing online, alas…

    And thanks for your comments and retweets, Dan – enjoying the way you’re showing the workings, and in fact about to wander over to the Digital Revolution blog to catch up with the latest developments…

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