20 years and stronger than ever, how the internet changed the BBC

Professor, Digital Media and Innovation at the University of Warwick

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Lucy Hooberman, Professor, Digital Media and Innovation at the University of Warwick, has been documenting the history of the BBC's online presence through a series of oral history interviews. Here Professor Hooberman explores just what being on the internet has meant for the BBC.

This week the BBC is marking the 20th anniversary of its publicly facing beginnings on the World Wide Web. From the launch of the BBC Networking Club in April 1994 and the appearances of the first publicly available websites this last 20 years has seen the BBC move from an age of scarcity - two channels only, to an age of abundance. Whilst the main push of the BBC’s technological challenge in the early years of this period was for digital television this post  is all about what was achieved “online”.

But it’s hard enough remembering what the UK was like in 1994 let alone the world we lived in (Rwanda, Kurt Cobain). Try asking people what they did at work 20 years ago!

I’m lucky enough to be working with the BBC on bringing its oral history archive, started by Frank Gillard, into this era recording interviews with former and current BBC staff to chart this journey. 

Recent though it feels it’s not that easy to reconstruct. It’s been eye-opening how many assumptions of mine have been challenged.  First the assumption that in this digital age everything has been kept or is available for the public or for researchers of the future has been well and truly squashed.

Even paperwork I thought the ‘archive’ must have kept may or may not be there. I joined the BBC in 1993 and when I joined it was an organisation that thrived on memos. I’d never seen so much paperwork coming down from on high, 'cascading' commandments, directives leading to much filing and the assumption created in me that such an organised system of internal communications would have its mirror in complete and organised archiving. When I started this project it took a long time to find out that much or most of this period is not yet fully archived and whilst everyone was very helpful the only files I could see were about the Networking Club at the beginning of this period.

At least that was a very good start. When it came to looking for some of the early websites too that was a challenge, whilst some sites and designs have been archived and kept findable. This is a priceless clip of a web address being read out on TV.

The third area of challenge is, of course, memory. I’ve now had a taste of my own medicine as I’m being interviewed about a couple of films I produced  in the mid 1980s which seem to have found some extremely late fanbase nearly 30 years on having been widely ignored at the time. My own archiving as an early Independent Producer sorely tested by moving job, moving house, pre-web days.

I’m hoping other material may be stored away in personal archives, hard drives, paper prototypes kept lovingly at home like the dusty photo albums of yesteryear. Anybody? And if you do have it where should it be kept?

The world of post-tape archive is complex not only for digitisation but choosing. What do you keep personally? Where do you keep it and how do you keep your memory as an organisation alive?

I started to think about this when I moved from television to "new media" in 2000. I came from participatory and access television and missed the contact with audiences of the television of the 1990s. The www brought it all back and I started to follow some writers. Bloggers - first military bloggers and Salam Pax then Dan Gillmor. Not forgetting the BBC’s own Euan  "supernode" Semple and found again what I had missed in television since the early 1980s - discussion about the media and how our world was changing by connecting. I loved the phrase “writing ourselves into existence” and it gave me the push I needed to start working out why the BBC was not blogging. It took me a few years to get the BBC’s Journalism board to agree with a little help from a few friends. But that’s another story for another day...

Lucy Hooberman is Professor, Digital Media & Innovation, WMG University of Warwick.

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