BBC public value in the online world

The BBC is an interesting organisation – it isn’t motivated by profit and unlike other public service broadcasters, elsewhere in the world, it is very much part of the country’s mainstream broadcast entertainment ecosystem. Indeed Stephen Fry has suggested that this mix of out and out public service broadcasting, more mainstream programming and stuff somewhere in the middle is vital if public service broadcasting is to have meaning. Stephen argues that if you want people to find and value public service programmes, then it needs to be part of a broader entertainment offering.

In the broadcast world the BBC has a clear (albeit, in some quarters, controversial) public service role and a clear and well developed modus operandi. That’s not to say that it might not or indeed should not change, but rather to say that right now the consensus is it’s doing the right thing, in the right way. But in the online space I don’t think things are as clear, even though the public purposes for all platforms are the same, namely:

One reason the Web is different from broadcast media is because it’s so new and so fluid. The web is not yet 20 years old and it is still evolving at a phenomenal rate, both in terms of technologies and in terms of its application. This means that, with the web, one needs to deal with both the technology and the content. Treating the two separately or assuming that the platform is sorted – in the way one can do with traditional media – is impossible or at least a foolish mistake.

Clearly, from a content perspective there is much the BBC could and indeed is doing on the web – much as it does in the broadcast space. But because there is something very special about the Web the BBC could also be adding real value over and above its content offering. It seems to me that there are at least two additional, distinct areas where the BBC could add public value. Firstly, through its size, the power of its brand and its non-commercial status, it could help with the adoption of technologies that benefit the Web population at large; and secondly by helping to semantically link up parts of the web.

Last week Zac posted an article about the recent OpenID Foundation Content Provider Advisory Committee which the BBC hosted. Unfortunately OpenID is a widely misunderstood piece of technology, partially I suspect because people have got so use to the email+password per site paradigm, and partially because the name OpenID doesn’t really help people grok what it’s about. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t provide real benefit to people using the web.

As I’ve discussed previously emails are for contacting people not for identifying them. Using emails for identification means the affordance is the wrong way round – I can send you an email but I can’t see who you are, what you’ve said about yourself nor who’s in your social graph. In the real world this would be a bit like handing over a scrap of paper with your home address or telephone number on it as a means of identification. You wouldn’t do that, so why do it online?

As Zac points out, OpenID has yet to hit the mainstream – it’s still the preserve of Generation @. But if, as I do, you believe that technologies such as OpenID and OAuth provide genuine end user benefits then it is something that the BBC should be helping everyone else to adopt.

Sure it might seem a bit geeky and not something that most people get right now but then almost nobody gets transport layer security either but I’m pleased it hasn’t stop my bank implementing it; most people don’t understand HTTP but we all use it. The BBC, could help foster the adoption of these technologies for the benefit of the web at large by, for example, adopting these technologies itself, by promoting best practice and by actively engaging in their development.

Tim Berners-Lee has put forward four simple rules to do the web right:

  • Use URIs to identify things on the web as resources
  • Use HTTP so people can dereference them
  • Provide information about the resource when it is dereferenced
  • Include onward links so people can discover more things

If you follow these rules what you get is a highly interlinked web of resources – where each resource is linked to other resources that are contextually/semantically relevant. And if you also provide those resources in machine readable formats (as we have done with programmes and music) then you provide a platform that allows others to reuse your data.

Unfortunately it appears that there is a nasty habit developing on the web whereby websites aren’t doing this and instead are only linking to themselves.

Follow Jay’s link and you come to a story that indeed doesn’t have any outbound links, except to other Times stories. Now, I understand the value of linking to other articles on your own site — everyone does it — but to do so exclusively is a small tear in the fabric of the web, a small tear that will grow much larger if it remains unchecked.

That’s bad for users. But how does following the Linking Open Data principles help the BBC? And more importantly how does that help the web at large? How does it add public value?

If data is unconnected it is very likely that those websites and journeys across the web will be incoherent. The web’s power comes from interconnected data. Publishing a web page or any other piece of content online is useful but if its interconnected with other resources then its value is greatly enhanced. This is due to the Network Effect. The classic example of the Network Effect is the telephone. The more people that own a telephone, the more valuable each telephone is becomes.

One consequence of the network effect is that the addition of a node by one individual indirectly benefits others who are also part of the network, so in the telephone example, adding a telephone to a network makes every other telephones more useful. On the web adding semantically meaningful links adds context to the page you are reading and allows you to discover other resources and read more information about a given subject.

For example, by building and in this fashion our new artist pages will become much more useful by being joined to programmes – directly linking to those programmes that feature that artist. And of course the network effect goes both ways; it goes all ways. Linking artists to programmes also makes the programme pages more valuable – because there is now more context, more discovery and more serendipity. And that’s just within the BBC.

By joining BBC data, in this fashion, with the rest of the web the Network Effect is magnified yet further. That does benefit to the BBC, but it also benefits the web at large and that is important. The BBC has a role that transcends its business needs – it can help create public value around its content for others to benefit from (assuming, of course, there remains one, non-discriminatory, free and open internet).

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