How to help the network effect

Following my recent post considering BBC public value in the online world I was asked to write a piece for the BBC’s internal staff paper ariel. Here it is:

Front cover of ariel
Front cover of ariel

IF YOU READ the BBC’s internet blog you will know that we are considering the use of OpenID, an interesting though widely misunderstood, technology that could benefit everyone using the web by extending the generative nature of the web.

Technologies such as OpenID and it’s sister technology OAuth and, techniques such as Linked Data provide benefits that the BBC should be helping the web at large to adopt.

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 that hasn’t stopped 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 adopting them, by promoting best practice and by actively engaging in their development.

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, has proposed a set of simple rules ‘to do the web right’ to achieve a semantically interlinked web of resources, accessible to man and machine. These rules are know as Linked Data.

But how does following these principles help the BBC? And how does that help the web at large? How does it add public value? The short answer is it provides a platform that allows others to build upon and provides our audience with a more coherent user experience.

If data is unconnected (as most of bbc.co.uk is) it is likely that those websites and the journeys across them will be incoherent. The web’s power comes from being interconnected. The value of any piece of content online is greatly enhanced if it is interconnected. This is due to the network effect, the classic example being the telephone. The more people who own a telephone, the more valuable each telephone becomes. Adding a telephone to a network makes every other telephone more useful. Adding semantically meaningful links to the web adds context and allows others to discover more information.

For example, by building bbc.co.uk/programmes and bbc.co.uk/music/beta in this fashion the new artist pages will become more useful by being joined to programmes – directly linking artist pages to those episodes that feature that artist. And the network effect goes both ways. Linking artists to programmes makes the programme pages more valuable – because there is more context, more discovery and more serendipity. The network effect really explodes once programmes and music are joined to the rest of the web.

The BBC has a role beyond its business needs because it can help create public value around useful technologies – and around its content for others to benefit.