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!