Last week I took a group of MA Online Journalism students to visit the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub. It was a hugely informative conversation about how the biggest team of its kind in the world manages an enormous flow of texts, comments, images and other media (If you want to see more, Caroline Beavon has video of the whole thing, while I recorded a couple of Audioboos answering questions posed via Twitter).
As we were discussing the changing nature of the hub – it is increasingly looking to engage with users beyond the core BBC audience – it became apparent that there is a paradox at the heart of what the BBC does here – and by extension, any UGC effort. And it’s a paradox around objectivity and neutrality.
I’ve often felt that the BBC is slightly hamstrung in its social media efforts by its requirement to remain objective. Objectivity makes it harder to stimulate conversations. You can start them – but once they get going, you have to remain on the sidelines, expressing no opinion either way.
I’ve written before on how online journalists should be a mix of the ideal party host and ideal party guest. Staying on the sidelines allows you to play the host, but restricts your ability to truly perform the ‘guest’ role.
The Switzerland of social media
But what I realised during this visit was that objectivity also makes it easier to attract contributions in the first place. Striving to remain neutral in any conversation means that (most) people see your space as ‘safe’ for whatever they have to contribute.
Carrying the analogy further, in this case the BBC is like a warehouse party where the host has gathered an enormous crowd but you’re not entirely sure who they are or whether they like you.
Perhaps the problem here is the catch-all phrase ‘UGC’ (which the BBC’s Matthew Eltringham dislikes). The BBC is perhaps better positioned than any other news organisation to act as a focal point for certain types of UGC – raw footage, witness texts and other generic news event-related other material – largely because it strives to achieve a neutral position.
On the other hand, organisations with a defined ideological leaning have an advantage in other types of UGC- for example, ‘sticky’ conversation such as comment threads – because they can lay their cards on the table, get stuck in and inspire the sorts of strong reactions that stimulate debate.
The BBC, for those types of content, is reliant on users to perform that role.
In short, it’s an ecosystem with a place for both the BBC and news organisations on all points of the political spectrum.
To simplify enormously, the BBC’s objectivity gives it an advantage as a neutral ground for submitting content; left- or right-leaning news websites have an advantage in being able to stir opinion – but they will always have a smaller audience for that.
Enormous thanks to Matthew Eltringham and Trushar Barot for welcoming the students to the BBC, as well as their conversation and insights.