What would happen if we killed off BBC Have Your Say?

If BBC Have Your Say didn’t disappeared tomorrow, would its users have invented it? As in, would they have set up their own site, community blog or forum, come together and created a site like it. Alternatively, if tomorrow the BBC HYS site fell off the earth, would its community of users come together to replace it?

Probably not. We may bang on about how the blogosphere has transformed UK media and that 13 out of 10 Britons have a blog (or whatever), but BBC Have Your Say fills a rather large gap that ordinary blogging & commenting does not. Why is this? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Lack of resources – it takes work to set up a blog and to maintain it. Not to mention the costs of hosting and the costs of moderation. Easier to leave it to the BBC & the licence payer to cover it.
  • Lack of time to write – to write regularly, to contribute regularly on a blog or community and help keep it alive, is a whole level of contribution from the much easier short comment the BBC offers.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – even the simplest of blogging systems such as Blogspot or WordPress have relatively complex backend UIs, not to mention the hassle of knowing HTML, choosing a nice template, etc. The BBC’s relatively plain and simple design takes that all away
  • Too general – the best communities have a unifying theme or topic, from supporting Raith Rovers to spotting electricity pylons. The latest news can be pretty much anything, so there’s no simple, unifying hook to bring that community together.
  • Too atomised – some communities don’t have specific unifying themes, but they do have unifying personalities – Mat Howie of Metafilter or Kevin Rose of Digg. But HYS is more anonymous and less personality-led.

For these reasons, a HYS-style site independent of the BBC is unlikely to come about, and it’s for these reasons Have Your Say is so insanely popular. And for Have Your Say, read any newspaper’s comments section – but there’s particular focus on the BBC here. Only the BBC has a public duty – to “inform, educate and entertain” – and this public duty gives them extra responsibility. But is Have Your Say a good thing? What are the consequences of giving everyone “their say”, and does it create a better or worse civic space?

The easy answer is ‘no’. HYS is quite famous for being regarded as low-quality. After all, there are no blogs devoted to the best of BBC Have Your Say (I even checked), but there’s at least one blog devoted to very worst of it, as well as a regular mocking in Private Eye‘s “From The Messageboards”. I sense the same attitude is held in much of the industry; at the recent(ish) Amnesty Technology and Human Rights seminar Kevin Anderson remarked that he considered the most animosity on the web came from the comments section of news websites, and from private conversations with colleagues and others, I get the feeling the view is shared by many.

But is this just snobbery? Are the ‘digerati’ like me and those who I mix with, who are technically capable and able to produce nice shiny blogs, just looking down on the plebs who comment on news websites with disdain? Is it all too easy to sneer?

Well, without trying to sneer or patronize too much, let’s look at what consequences the characteristics of Have Your Say outlined above have on the subsequent conversation:

  • Lack of resources and time – with time being brief, it’s easier to lapse into snap judgements. Shorter time also means less time to read up, research or otherwise gain a fuller perspective of what you’re talking about.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – on your own site, you control what it looks like and contains. But when the design and context that your contributions are placed is controlled by someone else, there is significantly less incentive to consider the place something you own.
  • Lack of specificity – without a topic or focus for the community, nothing is off-topic. And if nothing is off-topic then you can easily spin away into whatever bee there is in your bonnet, no matter how irrelevant it is.**
  • Lack of community – while news sites do force you to have a login and profile, most go no further. For those that do offer profiles (such as HYS or CiF) there is no incentive to build a profile; even if you do, profiles are usually little more than usernames, avatars and a history of comments; hardly something to be building a digital identity around, unlike a Twitter profile or account on a vBulletin-powered forum.
  • Lack of accountability – even sites like Metafilter or Digg and Reddit, those in charge have to respond to their users’ wishes given sufficient protests (and indeed pride themselves on it). For the large part, news sites like HYS leave their moderators anonymous (not even pseudonymous) and their internal workings opaque, which only created further resentment from users when they make an unpopular decision.

With these factors combined, you’re left with an awful lot of incentives for commenters (metaphorically) shit on their doorstep; there is no incentive to keep the site on-topic or relevant, nor is their any disincentive to maintain a coherent or courteous digital identity, coupled with an atmosphere of mutual hostility.

Incidentally, this is not even taking into account the users’ prejudices, or any agenda they may have for or against the politics of the news site in question (cf. the rabid resentment of the licence fee on BBC HYS). And then there’s the design of the site as well – a flat unthreaded commenting system combined with filtering by fellow commenters’ recommendation encourages herd thinking, polemic rather than conversation, the more controversial the better.

While those who design and run news sites may not have quite have analysed the news site comment as much as I have, they will know the TLDR version: controversy and bile brings about more hits! The Jan Moir Stephen Gately article was probably just intended to be the views of its author rather than deliberate linkbait, but it (and the limp PCC judgement that followed) had the undesired side-effect of showing what a bit of controversy can do for your hits. As long as you don’t break the law, there is no real short-term sanction for a media owner to stir up any controversy, no matter how inane.

But it also had a side-effect in undermining further our trust in the mainstream media in general. For all the mockery about Tweeting Twits or bloggers in their mothers’ basements, on the whole I find the social media world a more civil place than comments on news sites; this is partly by choice – there are some awful, awful gobshites out there in the blogosphere, but I can follow and subscribe to people I like to read (whether their views are congruent with mine or not) rather than have reactionary circle-jerking foisted upon use, glued to the bottom of nearly every news article I read.** It might spell more hits, but the law of diminishing returns hits in pretty quick.

Finally, back to the BBC. It is particularly relevant here, because while the degrading of a news platform’s reputation is bad news in the long run for Murdoch’s media empire and Lord Rothermere’s bank balance, in the case of the BBC it’s the degrading of a national institution, something we all have an interest in. Have Your Say, as it stands, is quite lacking when it comes to informing and educating, and only entertains in the sense of providing fodder for worst-of blogs. And it’s not as if the BBC needs the hits or ad revenue (in the UK, at least).

So why not stop pretending that anonymous bile about anything and everything counts as genuine ‘interactivity’ and take a lead in providing better managed communities around coherent topics, more well-focused user-generated content that rewards intelligent and civil debate, and provide interactivity with a purpose to inform, educate and entertain, rather than endlessly milking controversy for hits? Kill off Have Your Say, let the users flock elsewhere for their squabbling, and instead work on a platform that does something more constructive. The other news media might not follow, but after all, it’s the BBC’s job to be bolder than the rest.

* The best/worst example I can think of recently was this excellent Times article about German geeks trying to reassemble Stasi-shredded files with computer technology, prompting some utter knobhead to respond: We had better order half a dozen machines for us here in the UK Sooner or later (alas, probably later) we shall discover the full extent of NuLabours passion for “misinformation” and “misleading briefings” And it’s the top-rated comment, for fuck’s sake.

** The Readability bookmarklet is a wonderful boon to get rid of all the crap around articles, include the inane commenting, by the way.

Were you affected by this article in any way? Maybe you have an opinion of your own you would like to share. If so, then piss off and write it on your own blog. Just kidding – comments below welcome as always (as long as they’re on-topic)