Ben Metcalfe launched Backstage at Open Tech. His presentation can be downloaded here (PowerPoint) and an audio file can be downloaded via the Open Tech 05 site (the talk was one of those given in the Main Theatre). There's a very useful posting on Backstage about the raft of BBC News RSS feeds, including theme-led feeds.
What's happened to the conservative Auntie we grew up with? Earlier this year, Wired News carried a story entitled, 'The Beeb Shall Inherit the Earth' — by Cory: 'America's entertainment industry is committing slow, spectacular suicide, while one of Europe's biggest broadcasters -- the BBC -- is rushing headlong to the future, embracing innovation rather than fighting it. … With Backstage, BBC's online department takes all the goop in its content-management system -- breaking news, editorials and conferences -- and exposes it as a set of standard programming interfaces. Anyone who can hack a little Perl or Python can mix these into any kind of service they can imagine'. (Cory also sums up the BBC's developing relationship with amateur content providers, 'The BBC's news website is the first mainstream news-gathering organization in the Western world to solicit and give prominence to photographs and reporting provided by its visitors', and the Creative Archive — 'an attempt to digitize all the programming the BBC has commissioned, clear the copyrights and post it online with a Creative Commons-like license. This will allow Britons to download the BBC's content, distribute it and noncommercially remix it into their own films, music, gags, projects and school reports'.)
At Open Tech, I found myself sitting just across the aisle from Stef Magdalinski, author of Wikiproxy — the cause-of-origin of which was explained here (4 October, 2004):
News Online doesn’t engage with its users, it doesn’t provide tools that allow me, the licence payer, to slice and dice their stories, and by refusing to link from its body text, it fails to understand how hypertext works. Also, with its conservative link policy … that only connects the BBC to established brands, it snubs the wider web, the great teeming mass of creativity. Patrician is not authoritative. Aloof is not respected. Conservative and fearful is not engaging. The gap between the BBC’s utterly laudable self image and ambitions and delivery could not be any clearer than at News Online. Finally, by not really allowing user interaction or commenting, News Online forces that debate and activity away from its site, and out onto the wild wild web. I’ve known many people at the organisation since its very earliest days. There’s some incredible talent and ideas, and from what I hear, an equal amount of frustration at how difficult it is to get these ideas to fruition.
Wikiproxy is described by Stef Magdalinski as 'a proxy for the site, that does the following things: retrieves a page from News Online, and regexes out “Capitalised Phrases” and acronyms. It then tests these against a database of wikipedia topic titles. If the phrase is a topic in wikipedia, then it’s turned into a hyperlink; uses the technorati API to add a sidebar of links to blogs referencing the story. Now you can see who’s talking about the story from the story itself …'. And instead of suing him, the BBC went away and came back with Backstage.
Two of three Backstage-unleashed projects that Ben whipped through caught my attention (many more here):
I had to leave before the session in the late afternoon when Lee spoke about Headshift's work for the BBC 'that looked at how social tagging might work on BBC News to drive both social bookmarking and user-driven related stories'. This project (which Lee spoke about at Reboot, last month) strikes me as really interesting; there's more on it here and here.
So there's Backstage, BBC Open Source, the Creative Archive Licence Group ('The BBC, the bfi, Channel 4 and the Open University set up the Creative Archive Licence Group to make their archive content available for download under the terms of the Creative Archive Licence - a single, shared user licence scheme for the downloading of moving images, audio and stills') and also Action Network: 'The BBC runs Action Network as an open forum for people to influence issues they care about. Most of the content is written by the public and reflects their views. Content provided by the BBC is clearly marked'. Other signs of movement and change at the Beeb keep popping up: Mildly Diverting posted last week that the BBC had authorised the opportunity 'to watch 'The Mighty Boosh' on broadband. A WEEK BEFORE IT GOES OUT ON THE TELLY', and Paul Mason (Newsnight) blogged Gleneagles and G8 from outside the BBC.
What does all this amount to? To stick with Backstage for a moment, it is clearly a GOOD THING:
This is such a good idea and will, I hope, cement the BBC's leading role in innovating for public good within the mainstream media. It is the latest in a long line of developments that illustrate how the BBC has become a safe harbour for some clever people who are committed to building public value through online media. It also proves, I think, how the internet has revitalised the BBC's public service remit, which was previously becoming a bit lost amidst the management debates, multi-skilling and the growing obsession with competing with lower forms of commercial media. (Lee)
But before we all get too excited, both Lee and Lloyd Shepherd, Head of Development at Guardian Unlimited, have some cautionary words. The BBC is moving boldly, but hasn't declared itself a liberty hall. Under Backstage's terms of service,
You can’t redistribute BBC content; only the BBC can do that. And Backstage is an ideal way to encourage distribution of BBC content around the world (a fundamental tenet of the BBC’s public service charter) but click on a link and you’re back on a BBC page to look at the full content. The simple fact is that the BBC is not distributing full-text content by RSS; only headlines and snippets (this is even true of Backstage’s own RSS feeds). As the BBC itself has said, it expects 10 per cent of its website traffic to be coming from RSS by the end of this year. In other words, RSS is just another effective way of building audience and traffic, and Backstage is a very good way of getting BBC RSS feeds out into wider communities. (Lloyd Shepherd)
Nevertheless, and in the spirit of that well-worn line from Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall', Something there is that doesn't love a wall, something stirs. Stef Magdalinski said how he was 'inspired by meeting Jimmy Wales of wikipedia.org', a venture and a vision that 'precisely illustrates how the collaborative, great unwashed web can create more value than ‘authoritative’ institutions', and it's great to see the BBC responding creatively, interpreting its remit in new ways for this new age. Definitely time not just to watch Auntie, then, but to join in.