Network: Mission: save virtual society

After a series of blunders, BBC Online called in the experts for advice. Tamsin Todd was there
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BBC Online, the UK's most visited site, has taken a good bit of bashing in recent months. Detractors have criticised the site for its lack of original content, arguing that its listings, information pages and news - and its programming-related chat groups - are little more than unnecessary adjuncts to the corporation's traditional broadcasting services. (The award-winning online news service is a different site.) Last Thursday, however, the BBC showed a new commitment to developing its online programming. At a BBC-sponsored conference called Online Communities in the UK, BBC staff and representatives from a variety of public and commercial organisations discussed how websites such as BBC Online can educate and help the formation of communities, both on and off-line.

The BBC said that the aim of the conference was to "create a framework for discussion and to share expertise and experience in a spirit of mutual co-operation across the industry". But for all its talk of sharing, BBC Online was doing more listening than talking. BBC staff were out in force to listen to the keynote address, given by Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community.

Rheingold discussed his experiences as a founding member of the pioneering virtual community, The Well, and his vision of the civic role that virtual communities can play in the future. Other speakers included cyberspace barrister Alistair Kelman and Mark Frost of Capital Radio (and formerly of BBC Online). Representatives from commercial sites such as Yahoo!, Virgin, and AOL were among the attendees.

In his welcome talk, Nigel Chapman, the director of BBC Online, made it clear that the BBC is thinking about how it can translate its public service values to the Internet. He said that the BBC aims to use the Internet to create a better relationship with licence-fee payers. "The Internet allows us to bring the BBC closer to people's lives and to make ourselves more accountable," he said.

In addition, he said that by creating community forums on the Internet, the BBC can "act as a catalyst for all kinds of debate across the UK". Current BBC-operated virtual communities include a popular EastEnders forum, but upcoming forums are of a more serious nature. Next Thursday, BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland will take part in a live chat on BBC Online, and this summer the BBC will launch sites and forums for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In his address, Rheingold painted an optimistic picture of the role virtual communities might play in people's lives. They will never make huge profits, he said, because it's impossible to maintain a virtual community of millions of people. Rather, virtual communities are important because they will help foster democratic dialogue and civic activity. He said: "I believe that well thought-out and well-run virtual communities can play an important role... in the creation of a cyber-society we would be proud to hand on to our children."

To succeed, however, virtual communities need to be nurtured. "Over the years, I've learned that virtual communities don't grow automatically," he warned. "Any groups that are thinking about adding chat rooms or message boards to their Web pages, expecting community to blossom without much forethought, design or commitment of ongoing resources, is headed for failure." He recommended that the news media practise civic journalism by helping to foster communities rather than merely reporting the latest Net pornography or hacking stories.

After the addresses BBC staff were on hand to demonstrate the BBC's Superscape 3D forums, the Open University's Virtual Stadium, and Betsie, software developed by BBC Education to allow visually-impaired people to use the Internet. During the afternoon the conference broke into smaller discussion groups. Mark Frost led a session on how public and private communities may operate differently. Intellectual property lawyer Chris Jeffrey spoke on legal issues arising from virtual communities, such as data protection and defamation.

Few specific initiatives were discussed; still, it was clear that a kind of (non-virtual) community of virtual community organisers had formed, as BBC staff and attendees made plans to create a professional organisation for those involved in online community development.

The BBC may have blundered its first experiments in cyberspace, but it's certainly working hard to get back on track.

BBC Online is at http://www.