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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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The original idea

The original idea for the WW2 People's War website was conceived in May 2002 by Chris Warren, then executive editor at BBC Interactive Factual and Learning. The idea was that the site would be a place where the children and grandchildren of war veterans would research their family history and tell their family's wartime stories.

It was felt that there was unlikely to be much enthusiasm for a website among war veterans - those who had fought in the war were in their 70s in 2002. By 2003, when the site went live, only 12% of people over 65 in the UK had used the internet. (This had risen to 17% by July 2005 - and of those, 41% had broadband access.)

The launch of the WW2 People's War website at the Imperial War Museum

As the website went live, more and more veterans became interested, especially as the enormous dedication and enthusiasm of the BBC's outreach team signed up over 2,500 associate centres, where volunteers helped veterans to enter their stories on the site. The project ended up being quite different from what was initially conceived, as the web team responded to the changing demands of the audience.

Why did the BBC invest in this website at the time it did? When the project was conceived in 2002, TV programmes were already being planned for the 60th anniversaries of D-Day in 2004 and the end of the war in 2005. Instead of supporting these programmes with the usual BBC History site offerings of factual articles, animations and games, it was proposed that one website should be developed to act as a central gathering point for World War Two memories, turning the audience into the content generators and giving them a platform to tell their stories.

Here is an extract from the original idea for People's War, written in May 2002 by Chris Warren:

"As the survivors of the wars of the last century get ever fewer, there is a great need for their children and grandchildren to find out what they did, where they served, and what really happened to them.

"Television series such as 'The Trench' or 'Battlefields' give a vivid picture of different campaigns and some of the underlying human stories, but there is always the unanswered question: what part did members of our family play in the battles of the Western Desert, or in the trenches of the Somme?

"The official records for the Second World War contain only some of the answers and most of them are unavailable to the general public, as individual records are still kept from public view under the 75-year rule.

"This proposal is for a BBC interactive service which would help set the record straight and let the public piece together the personal stories of their father's or grandfather's service during the Second World War. Using war-related series such as Deliverance and Battle of the Atlantic to encourage viewers and listeners to take part, the site would then allow them to share their memories and knowledge to build a unique record of the nation at war. As this grows it could then be used by students, historians and enthusiasts to further their research into any aspect of the Second World War."

Why did we make a website?

Some felt that it was unrealistic to expect older people to come online to add their stories, and that it would be more appropriate to request handwritten or typed stories. It was felt, however, that this could jeopardise the outcome (ie creating an archive for future generations). It would have been a time-consuming and lengthy procedure to transfer these stories to a digital format. Obtaining rights to use this content (otherwise captured at the registration stage on the website) would also have been a complex operation.

There was naturally a group of contributors who were intimidated or alienated by the fact that the project was online. Outreach activity was put in place to aid those that wished to add their stories but needed technical assistance; hosting the project online meant that the user could add their story directly to the archive, that this was published on the web at the time of submission, and in a format that made long-term digital preservation a natural outcome.

In the course of the project, many seniors came online for the first time to add their stories and pictures, and the site was used in many training courses and digital learning activities for people new to the internet. In the first 18 months of the project, 80% of the contributions were made by people over 60. (Source - WW2 Team). In the second year of the project, volunteers came on board to source the 'hard to reach' participants, such as those in residential homes, or those who did not have access to an associate centre.

This was the first service which the BBC offered specifically for older members of its audience; the development of the project was centred around the requirements of a generation who were less web literate than other members of society.

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