About ten and a half years ago you joined an online community. And last week, it came under serious threat of closure.
The thing is, you have always been fascinated by the Internet. Well, ‘always’ is a large statement, particularly given the fact that when you were born, computers still took up entire rooms. But ever since you discovered that it was possible to send an electronic message via a computer to someone else, far far away, which would be sometime in the late eighties, you have been waiting for it to revolutionize your life.
You sent that first piece of electronic mail to Douglas Adams, a satirical science fiction writer, who wrote a radio series and five books in the trilogy The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Among (one or two) other things.
You asked him what brand of toothpaste he used. Which was a little creepy, upon reflection, but hey, you were fifteen and on a work experience project developing a newspaper for the week. It was fun. You also got to play with desk-top-pub-lish-ing software. Since hitherto your experience of computers had been restricted to your Dad’s ZX81 (if you wrote a really long bit of code, you could get it to print ‘hello’ an infinite number of times on the screen) and IT lessons, where the teacher tried to get you all to learn to touch type, it was quite exciting.
Yes, you did go to a girls’ school.
Why did you choose Douglas Adams?
Well, aside from the fact that you go distinctly fan girl at the mention of his name at the best of times, even then, Mr Adams was proving himself to be somewhat more interested in emerging technologies than he ever was in churning out books. He’d been on the TV the night before, talking about this new way of cheating the Royal Mail.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that back in 1999 he was involved in setting up a new Internet project, a project to write, collectively, the Earth edition of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, h2g2, a factual guide to the world around us.
This site allowed, still does in fact, anyone to come along and write an article and submit it for inclusion in the Edited Guide. Users have personal spaces, and can write journal entries. They can chat with other users, add them to their friend’s list and follow other people.
Well, it didn’t at the time.
Sadly, the site succumbed to the dot.com bubble in late 2000. But the BBC bought it and ever since, it has been the jewel in the BBC’s online community crown.
Unfortunately, being the jewel in the BBC’s online community crown isn’t what it could have been, which is why everyone is using WordPress to blog with, Facebook to network and Wikkipedia to plagiarise from. Auntie started backing off from her initial enthusiasm for online communities some time ago, and the site has been pootling along rather too quietly for, in your opinion, rather too long.
Which isn’t to say it has been completely stagnating or that it doesn’t have value any more. The Edited Guide is now virtually entirely community run, bar the final button needing to be pushed by a BBC editor. There’s a peer review process which anyone signed up to the site can join in on, entries are picked by a team of community volunteers and polished by another. There’s a creative writing section, with its own forum for constructive criticism and a deserved reputation for fostering writing excellence, and a long-running community newspaper filled with reviews, personal pieces, cartoons and serials. It’s full, in fact, of experienced and often very very adept writers, and experienced and often very very adept reviewers.
The community itself is also outstanding. It isn’t single-mindedly focused on the writing aspect. It gets involved in frivolous debates, in idle competition, in furious word games, in serious chat and spontaneous conga lines. It’s interesting because there is a genuine breadth of ages, backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints there, which was valuable when you were in the sometimes claustrophobic bubble of expatism abroad, and completely invaluable now that you are back in the sometimes stifling atmosphere of home.
You’ve spent so long hanging out in one particular corner of the site, where a conversation has been going on for almost the entire time the site has been open, that it is almost incomprehensible that a world can exist where you will not spend some time of every day lounging on the virtual sofas there and catching up on what the others have been doing, sipping virtual tea and talking about, well, life, the universe and everything.
But the thing is that there hasn’t been much change for a while. Discussion about what the site is for, why we are all there and how we can improve it have long since died down. No point in talking about something when you aren’t going to get a chance to do anything about it. There’s also a lack of fresh blood due to the fact that we’ve been relegated to a back, unfrequented ally of the Beeb’s website.
Which is why, when the news broke that the BBC was going to try to ‘dispose’ of the site, you first drew a horrified, although not particularly surprised breath, and then, when the community rallied behind one of its members when he decided to form a consortium to try to save it, you found yourself feeling both excited and optimistic.
Whether the Community Consortium takes over, or whether the site goes to someone else, it could be the best thing to have happened to the place in a long time.
You are quite looking forward to it.
And you would encourage everyone to have a poke around at hootoo and the Consortium’s website. While for those on Twitter, there will be regular updates from @h2g2c2 and samples of the writing on the site from @h2g2_Guide.