BBC’s first twenty years on the World Wide Web – or how to try and tell a digital history.

A couple of years ago I had the idea to chart the history of the BBC’s first twenty years online as a research project.  Why? A couple of approaches to me since leaving the BBC in 2008 and as Professor of Digital Media and Innovation at WMG made me think.  First could I answer a few questions to help a then PHD candidate at Kings College London Department with some background for his research on Blogging and War reporting and the BBC?  I gladly helped out and it was fascinating to see how contemporary history is codified.  It’s somehow different when its your own history that is being laid down however.   It compelled me to turn to my own archives of how we set up the Blogging Platform at the BBC , who came to me first with the idea  and what the confluence of influences were that brought the platform out into the open.  I shall write about that separately another day.

The second approach was from Tim Jones, an Innovation Expert and practitioner whom we had worked with at the BBC but who ran an Innovation practise and who was working on a group of people writing a book called Growth Champions: the Battle for Sustained Innovation Leadership.  Someone had got sick or left the project and I was asked to co-write a chapter at very short notice in the summer of 2011.  My chapter was about Apple and Lego  subtitled “Bringing Magic to the Everyday” the book looked at how companies kept sustaining their innovation leadership.  It was a great time to look at Apple rising as high as it gets.  I had a  problem though.  They don’t grant interviews.  They didn’t even reply to my email request which is a bit of a first in my experience.  To cut a long story short I turned to desk research to start out.  And what did I find?  Only people who loved Steve Jobs, or people who did not love Steve Jobs – hagiography and its opposite.  Then thankfully I found an open archive in Stanford containing Engineers memos and then I found Folklore.org.  Far from ideal not being able to get new material but it taught me a big lesson and raised a few questions.  How is the story of digital change being told?  Is it only CEOs who get to publish their autobiographies, or have their biographies written? In the age of the computer where is the history kept? On hard drives? But the stories prior to blogging where are they? Don’t suppose many people are writing memoirs or keeping diaries in the digital age, or are they just taking other forms?

Anyway it got me thinking about the BBC, how it tells its own story and how others tell it.  I worked there from 1993 to 2008 and witnessed and took part in a very exciting period of organisational transformation.  I felt sure that a lot would have been kept visible via the website from 1997 , in the written archives , perhaps in the oral history archive, and importantly in staff memories and experiences published on their own blogs or on BBC blogs.   I took my idea to Roly Keating, then Head of the BBC’s archive and Online Editor and now Director of the British Library and we talked it through.

Many moons later  I have now started the project  with the BBC History Unit and the BBC’s oral history archive and many of my assumptions have been squashed as I explain on the BBC’s About the BBC blog and develop further here.  Before April comes around again there should be a web page up with some excerpts of the oral history interviews we have conducted so far.  The first step to creating a time line that I had supposed would exist somewhere on paper!

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Filed under bbc, bbc blog network, corporate history, history, memory, oral history

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