Despite not working at the BBC anymore, I was honoured to be able to join Tom Loosemore (whose job title at the BBC is ever-changing, last time it was ‘Head of foresight, BBC New Media and Technology) on stage to collect the award.
I was actually quite shocked when the envelope was read out, because the project was up against some stiff competition from last.fm and others.
Additionally the other sites were more ‘consumer facing’ than backstage, which I felt might have been to our detriment as some of the judges were not technical/industry people (human rights activist Peter Tatchell, for example).
However backstage.bbc.co.uk was chosen, which was fantastic – and a great tribute to everyone who has made it happen at the BBC and of course the community who make the site what it is.
In the last 7 days some pretty negative things have been written about backstage by Tom Coates (ex-BBC now at Yahoo!) in the middle of a mud-slinging post directed towards BBC Director of New Media Ashley Highfield.
I’ve stayed out of the Highfield debate as I just don’t see really what it achieves – regardless of whether I think Tom’s spot on, way off base or somewhere in between.
But I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the criticism Tom has made specifically upon the Backstage project. (I do so personally, and not on behalf of the BBC of course).
And then there’s BBC Backstage – a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely – despite all the talk at conferences around the world – and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds – themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There’s nothing here that’s even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr – a company that I don’t think got into double figures of staff before acquisition – has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what – two years after its inception?
So my first point is that officially backstage.bbc.co.uk is actually a year old (last Sunday). Whilst that’s not a counter to some of Tom’s later points, I think it’s worth remembering that the project has only been operating outside of a limited beta for 12 months – not ‘a couple of years’.
Tom points out that backstage consists of a clumsy mailing list – which is very true. But it’s interesting that most of the other developer networks – such as Google’s and Yahoo’s also use mailing lists as their primary communication mechanism. Sure it’s lo-fi, but it appears to be what the target audience often want. Sometimes fancy social-software isn’t always the answer. Particularly with us command-line loving geeks.
Tom also fails to consider the moderation costs that would have to have been born by the license fee payer if backstage had used a forum. Unfortunately the regulatory position the BBC finds itself in means that it does not enjoy the same editorial freedoms on editorial content (even if it’s user-generated) as Flickr does on it’s Flickr Groups (warning: exteme language behind this link).
Tom compares the achievements of backstage.bbc.co.uk to that of Yahoo, Google or Amazon – but all three of these services have budgets way in excess of the budget that backstage has.
If the figures I’ve heard for Yahoo Developer Network are correct, then backstage launched on a 10th of what Yahoo! Put into the YDN. And I would guess that many of the API’s already existed within the projects, because of the nature of Yahoo!’s business.
I also think it’s unfair on many levels to describe backstage as being just ‘a few RSS feeds … from BBC News and BBC Sport’. For a start it’s not true, there is content from other parts of the BBC on there and also there are other (non-RSS) feeds. The TV listings data now has an API too.
What Tom forgets is that Yahoo! et al are in the business of running a service (well, services) and of course they are synonymous with offering an API. The BBC does content (rather than services) and as such I think the propositions it has made available – often in RSS – is actually appropriate for what people want to do.
RSS is simple and ubiquitous, and practically all scripting and programming languages have at least one no-brainer parser for it.
Finally, Tom cites Flickr has having more API’s than the BBC, even though Flickr has 5000 times less staff than the BBC.
Well, having enjoyed an abridged version of Cal Henderson’s “How we built Flickr” talk I know that Flickr was built with the API first and then the front-end second.
Sure, that’s the correct way of building such applications and it means you immediately have an API you can leverage publicly. And no, the BBC didn’t (and generally still doesn’t) build things like that.
It certainly should from now on, but many of the systems the BBC uses today were already in use in a live environment before Flickr was even a twinkling in Caterina and Stewart’s eyes. I would have liked there to have been some, but (for those existing systems at least) unless it’s budgeted there’s no reason why there ever will be.
On that last point, that in itself is something that was a far greater challenge than anything that I alone could fix/solve/change in the BBC. Sure, I think it’s unfortunate. I’d even go so far and agree with those who’ll say that’s wrong. But welcome to corporate culture.
I’d be the first to agree with Tom’s inference that having 5000 less employees might be a good thing (if you are just building one application) – it certainly cuts out the bureaucracy. But the BBC is building more than one application.
It’s also why I wrote some thoughts about separating innovation teams ‘away from the mothership’ in enterprise environments – which essentially is what Yahoo have done with Flickr (rather than incorporating them into the giant machine). It’s also why I’m now a consultant in this field and no longer a cog in such a machine.
Backstage certainly suffers from the fact that it is constrained by the BBC’s bureaucratic nature, the lack of an API strategy within its enterprise systems, the regulatory requirements placed upon it, and the lack of initial funding for the project early on.
But I also think its many positive and pioneering attributes should also not be forgotten.
For a start the BBC was the first significant original content producer to encourage it’s users to mash-up its content. The Washington Post should be congratulated in its more recent efforts in this area too – but who else in the content game has had the foresight to participate in this arena? I’m hard pushed to name anyone else…
Backstage also was really the first developer network to strive to showcase the efforts of its community from Day 1. Yahoo! Gallery does that now (and I would admit very nicely, albeit certainly on a bigger budget) but it wasn’t a feature when YDN launched. This for me is one of the key things that backstage got right – because it encouraged it’s user-base to submit work by rewarding them with exposure to the not only the BBC but everyone else who was visiting the site.
It’s for these reasons that I believe backstage was recognised with the New Statesmen New Media Awards 2006 Innovation Award last night.