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BBC Online and social media

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Seetha Kumar Seetha Kumar | 13:43 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Last Tuesday, I attended an illuminating session organised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, with the support of, our own College of Journalism on 'The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream Journalism'.

The panel (The Guardian's Meg Pickard, The Telegraph's Kate Day and the BBC's Nic Newman) reflected on the dynamics created by the web's unique ability to support the 'many to many conversation'. It was a lively discussion with unanimous agreement that 'social media' enables the telling of better stories and making better relationships.

User engagement (or what we have long thought of as audience involvement) was a recurrent theme last week. On Friday night I was at the BFI participating in a discussion on web production, with members of our audience. It was a useful forum to ruminate on topics such as BBC Online reaching its 12th birthday this December, the current challenges of digital literacy and social exclusion, the worrying lack of viable business models for commercial online publishers, and the creativity and new forms of storytelling made possible by the web.

Afterwards, mingling and chatting, I was asked about press reports about 'plans for a radical 'social' overhaul of our websites'. I had read the stories earlier last week with bemusement and the incorrect reporting of our plans has clearly caused confusion.

Our continuing concern is to make BBC Online better for our users. This includes looking at how we can genuinely make BBC Online part of the web and meet our users growing expectations that they can contribute in different ways to our site. A number of ideas are in train; including allowing users to add comments to news stories as they can at many sites, including The Times and The Guardian. However, those ideas are aimed at allowing us to keep pace with what users have come to expect - they do not add up to a radical" social" overhaul!

The BBC has always sought a close relationship with the people who provide its income. Interacting with audiences is intrinsic to our heritage even if the means of doing so constantly evolve. I remember debates with viewers via letter, arguing in response to complaints and closely monitoring daily call logs during my programme making days. These kinds of feedback helped - and still help - programme makers to shape and sharpen the output for which they are responsible.

Newer forms of audience participation are audible or visible across our output, whether in Nicky Campbell's compelling morning show on R 5 or in texts to BBC Breakfast. And, of course, feedback is the u.s.p of shows such as the appropriately named Feedback on Radio 4 and Points of View on BBC ONE. In these programmes, value for the whole audience is provided by the contributions of a few - and this is a pattern we want to be part of BBC Online in future.

Mark Thompson talked recently of the importance of the BBC as a 'shared, independent, not-for-profit public space.' Key to this is the power of digital media to build deeper and closer relationships with our audiences. And BBC Online is uniquely positioned to enrich and sustain this 'public space.' The web, with its developing tools and functionality provides a great platform for a mutually enriching, many to many conversation.

The Apprentice Predictor is a recent example. Users could predict which apprentice they thought was going to be fired, - a good example of how social functionality can add interest and drama to our best-loved shows. We hope to build on this kind of interaction with Strictly Social, a recent addition to the Strictly Come Dancing site. Users will be welcomed to the site by an avatar of Judge Len Goodman, and can submit their own ratings for the contestants as well as select their favourite moments while the show is on air to view afterwards.

So, we are looking at a number of ideas. But in addition to asking what our users want we also need to be aware of the impact anything we do might have on other UK sites and services. Our aim is to be part of the much more joined up internet that is emerging; not compete with other service providers. Indeed, in order to become more part of the web we need to interact successfully with other sites and services - and that means effective collaboration. From being a digital repository for the BBC's digital content, BBC Online aims to co-exist more fruitfully with other services and significantly improve the way it signposts and embraces content and services that exist outside the BBC.

More ambitious, but also more complex perhaps, are emerging plans to work with partners in the sharing of technology and other service elements like metadata. This is the thinking behind many of our partnership proposals - such as open iPlayer and Project Canvas. The same principles and intentions are informing our thinking on social media.

Seetha Kumar is Controller, BBC Online

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