"Immature Artists Imitate..."
"...mature artists steal."
--Lionel Trilling, Esquire, Sept 1964, quoting Eliot†
The fine line between your influences and outright plagiarism is getting finer indeed.
In the music world, people are mashing up music from previously made recordings, performing and "reinterpreting" other artists' work: Danger Mouse's Grey Album and artists like Nouvelle Vague, Richard Cheese and many others have demonstrated this to phenomenal effect.
So when my team in user experience and design started seeing other groups building sites which were similar to, inspired by, or in one case a borderline copy of the BBC homepage, (SSIs and all), they waited to see what the Yank from the land of litigious copyright lawyers would do (that's me, by the way).
Frankly, I found myself - as did most of the team - mildly flattered, and even challenged.
Composite image by Ryan Morrison
The first site I saw was the Croatian site. I thought: "Wow, from a design standpoint that's quite similar to ours - there are some interesting tweaks as well." A week or so later, I saw the RTL Hungary site. Seeing these two, so close in time, I found myself quite intrigued.
I believe inspiration can come from a variety of sources. Some of the inspiration for the BBC homepage included a diverse array of sites across the web, but I wonder what Google, Pageflakes, Facebook and CNN think about BBC.co.uk/home.
I know what Netvibes thinks about it: co-founder and CEO Tariq Kim and I talked about it extensively.
He felt our adoption of a similar experience/interaction model to Netvibes and Pageflakes (his arch-rival) simply helped to demonstrate the real impact of widgets, modular content delivery, rss/xml and personalisation. "A rising tide lifts all boats" was essentially his message.
I agree with him. Each iteration of a technology and/or approach creates new opportunities to innovate (or riff, if we are still using musical terms) on that idea with one of your own. In many ways, the BBC's adoption of Web 2.0 thinking, personalisation and widgets helped to break down barriers at other organisations. Audience desire for personalisation was estimated as a niche offer before the BBC demonstrated that +30% (+50% of the beta) of our unique users personalise their experience in some way. To me, this audience engagement is the real success story of the homepage.
Here are a few facts about personalisation of the new BBC homepage:
- +30% of global unique users personalise it in some way
- Most popular module combinations and positions:
(1) News + Weather + Sport + TV + CBBC + Radio + iPlayer + Blogs
(2) News + Weather+ Sport + TV + CBBC + Radio
- Most added / opened modules:
- Most deleted / minimised modules:
One of the most popular positioning changes is swapping Sport for News. Here are the default and most popular customization positions:
- removing the blogs module and the iPlayer module
- opening the CBBC module, and moving it into the second column
- TV at top of column 2 (chicken and egg here - I don't know whether users moved down weather, leaving TV to go up "naturally", or vice versa)
- Moving the weather module down to the bottom of row 2 and minimising it
Remember, these are international figures. iPlayer, Radio and TV aren't as relevant to many of those audiences - but the figures are still fascinating. News and sport seem to be very polarising elements of the BBC's offering; our children's content is likely most interesting if you are or have a child! And due to licensing restrictions, BBC iPlayer is only available/useful in the UK.
We're collecting lots of really great data from the homepage and trying to use them to inform our choices for things to improve and things that work well and, across the BBC, to assess new editorial offerings.
But back to the influences and copies. On the whole, I'm flattered that someone thought what we have done to be important enough to influence their work. It means that we've done something important, or at least opened some people's minds somewhat. Mary Meeker, a financial analyst in the US, said that she was surprised that, of all the media companies in the world, it was the BBC that innovated so clearly into the personalised audience-engaged homepage.
But my friends at news organisations apparently discuss our homepage a lot. Even TechCruch's Michael Arrington talked about it on US television. Maybe we've demonstrated demand for something many of them didn't really expect would be compelling: an opinion I suspect they are reconsidering.
I've travelled and even lived quite extensively in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, and I was blown away by the depth of knowledge and passion around internet technology there. So the fact that web developers from two different Eastern European countries - both with healthy web development and IT and design communities - picked us as a primary influence on their work to revamp media portals says to me that we've done something right.
Some of their peers berated them for their work, but I say: thanks! There are times when the BBC lawyers must defend the BBC's rights for all kinds of good reasons, but my personal opinion is that these examples help to drive creativity and innovation in a way that we should embrace.
I've always felt that design, software and music have a lot in common. When musicians jam, they sit around and riff off each other. They write songs together collaboratively, in the room, each inspiring the other to take it to a new interesting place. Other times, you get an idea in your head from the session, but go home and end up personalising it, composing it into a complete tune and making it your own. We each take our inspiration from many things, so to lock up creativity and ideas is to me the biggest danger of copyright law.
Frankly, on a personal level, I've always given my ideas away, often for free or with little or no compensation. My lawyer friends make fun of this, but I feel most ideas are ephemeral. It's the hard work of iterating them into something truly useful and refining, and revamping again and again that's the art, the science and the fun.
There is something else to point out about the homepage - something that most of the sites also picked up on and then used in some way. The code.
Behind the amazing design the User Experience team developed for the homepage is some amazing, well crafted code delivered by the our CSD team (in record time, I might add - less than four months from idea to delivery!). As is always the case with good code, it is invisible to the user - technology as a means not an end.
However, the code which powers the homepage, with its SSIs and legacy Perl issues, is really some pretty amazing stuff. It just works: it's clean, fast and accessible and the user doesn't even know that it's there. At the BBC, we are currently working on code libraries (like our Glow library, which will be used in the forthcoming new beta homepage) and public-facing design and code pattern libraries.
This is publicly funded work and, where there is a clear benefit to the public, let's try to make it available to the public to personalise and to make their own. Perhaps we can eventually evolve this into an open source code library - we already have BBC Open Source where we release material like this. In my humble opinion, this is a great expression of our public purpose and, frankly, an interesting thing to do.
In closing, I'll share my favourite of the sites which bear uncanny similarities to our homepage. It uses quite a bit of our amazing code - it's for Little Ilford School in East London. Next generation education indeed.
Richard Titus is Acting Head of User Experience & Design for FM&T.
†Editors' note: This saw is from TS Eliot's The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry & Criticism (1922; see below), but has been mashed up into various other forms, including the title of a Morrissey compilation and attributed to many well-known and impressive-sounding figures (including, as is the case for all maxims, Oscar Wilde).
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. [cited in full at Bartleby]