“Closing Mustardland – the end of the Archers messageboard” – Nigel Smith at The Beginning, The Middle and The End

The beginning, the middle and the end” was an event organised by Matt Locke’s Storythings agency, looking at the narrative of digital products.

Nigel Smith was talking about the sometimes painful experience of closing the BBC Archer’s Messageboard, a topic which I blogged about a couple of times during the process. Known affectionately as “Mustardland” to devotees, the closure sparked a great deal of anger and generated national news coverage. It marked nearly the final chapter in a lengthy retreat from hosting communities by the BBC.

Nigel Smith, who is Digital Editor of Radio 4, said that the Archers itself is pretty divisive. The music either puts a smile on your face, or is your cue to switch the channel off abruptly. It has a weekly reach of around 5 million listeners, and the website has around 150,000 unique users a week. Episodes on iPlayer generally get around 70,000 plays. By contrast, the message board had around 10,000 lurkers in an average week, and about 900 regular contributors.

Nigel put the closure in context of the BBC’s community strategy. Eight to ten years ago, he reminded us, the BBC hosted messageboards on just about every topic under the sun. “Including a messageboard on Islam,” he said, adding “and you can imagine how much fun that was to moderate.”

Obeying currybet’s law — the more members of BBC staff or ex-BBC staff in the room the probability of Doctor Who being mentioned approaches one — Nigel cited my favourite sci-fi fantasy show as a classic example. The BBC used to host a Doctor Who forum, that was expensive to maintain and over-run with trolls and poor community behaviour. “That isn’t the BBC’s job”, Nigel said. The BBC’s unique job is to make the best possible Doctor Who — there are plenty of places on the web where fans can then discuss it.

The cost of hosting and moderating messageboards is high compared to other types of content, and has a disproportionate cost per user. There is another problem for media companies like the BBC, Nigel explained, in that there is a real tension between the role of being a mass broadcaster, and having a digitally enabled one-to-one relationship with the audience. Hosting communities on the BBC website created a false expectation that users were part of an official feedback loop. So, Nigel explained, then they felt that their comments weren’t being listened to by the programme makers — “but then we’d never really made that promise.”

This was very much the case when I used to help host the Points Of View section of the BBC’s messageboard in the mid-2000s. The fact that the TV show never followed the agenda of the main topics on the messageboard, quoted users, or responded to any suggestions was a recurring source of anger amongst the users. In truth, I’d never met anyone from the television production team to discuss the boards, and to be honest, at that time, I doubt that any of them ever looked at it.

As Nigel pointed out, one of the problems with closing a community associated with a programme is that by definition you are probably dealing with the show’s most passionately engaged audience. You might only be delivering the message to a small group of über-fans, but it is a difficult message nonetheless. And the figures showed that people using the service weren’t really discussing the show all that much. He showed a screenshot of the front page, revealing that the BBC had hosted something like 1 million conversations about The Archers, and 4 million conversations in the off-topic area known as “The Bull”, after the local Ambridge pub in the soap opera. An additional complication for the BBC is that, as Licence Fee payers, the users feel that they own the service themselves, in a way that doesn’t necessarily apply to other media brands.

The closure was undoubtedly a painful experience for those who loved the board. Nigel spoke about how uncomfortable it was to appear on Radio 4’s Feedback show, where he had to come on and defend the decision immediately after a clip of a cancer sufferer who described the community as one of her few sources of support. No easy task, and not the type of thing you imagine the BBC would spring unexpectedly on many other guests apart from their own staff.

Nigel played out loud at the event a clip I blogged about, where Mustardlander Penny, known as teddyandgypsy on the board, said that corporations would pay “megabucks” for the kind of intelligence about their audience that the BBC Archers messageboard delivered to the BBC. I blogged at the time that if this was true, then brands would be falling over themselves to host the best general interest messageboards on the web, and that isn’t the case. As sincerely held as Penny’s beliefs are, the response in the room to the clip at this event was incredulity. There was even more incredulity in the room when Nigel explained that one Mustardlander on the show ended up saying that if it was a straight choice between axing the messageboard or axing The Archers, the BBC should save the online community, not the programme.

And it was, as Nigel stressed in a positive way, an undoubtedly unique community, which, over the years, had provided a great deal of comfort, support, information and entertainment to the community members. I’ve a lot of sympathy with both Nigel’s position, and that of the people who lost their beloved online community. And I write from a position of experience here. One of the real ironies of working for big media companies and being involved in online communities is that you often find the most recognisable individuals outside the building in the community end up being the public face for unpopular decisions that have been taken elsewhere in the company, and the flak can often be very personal. I’ve had people messaging me at home at anti-social hours, trawling through my net presence to criticise my career and lifestyle decisions, and even death threats on Twitter aimed at my kids over unpopular changes or decisions at the BBC and the Guardian in the past. At the Storythings event Nigel showed some of the things that had been sent to him, and spoke of a cartoon someone made which depicted him throwing himself off the top of a building, echoing a plot-line in the soap.

Nigel had some great advice about handling this situation personally. Firstly, before the plan had been announced, he spent some time auditing his social media presence, tightening up his privacy settings on Facebook and the like, as he expected people to seek him out on the web. He kept his Twitter account public, and found that in general, responding to people who sent an abusive personal message generally elicited a response of “Oh, hang on, I’d lost sight of the fact that there is a real person here.” Quite a few people, he said, deleted their original rude tweet once they’d had a polite personal acknowledgement from him.

Secondly, Nigel helped prepare a really detailed FAQ. In UX-land we often scoff at the FAQ, suggesting it is the last refuge of the scoundrel who hasn’t designed their service properly. In this case, having a set agreed line and paragraph on all the issues is invaluable — not least of which because it gives you URLs to direct angry people to.

Thirdly, in the blog post announcing the closure, he specifically said he would address questions and issues in 4 days time. That meant there wasn’t a mad time-consuming scramble to answer every comment and make the same points over and over again. The four day rule allowed time to group and theme the questions and draw up appropriate responses.

It was really good to hear somebody talk so candidly about the end of a digital service like this. It certainly made me feel that I wasn’t alone in some of my experiences, and to think that perhaps blogging about it will help the next person who ends up caught in the crossfire of the closure of a little-but-passionately used digital service.

Full disclosure: I used to work at the BBC, and worked on some BBC Four projects directly with Nigel Smith in 2003/4. I sometimes work for Mat Locke at Storythings, who organised the event. I was involved in closing the Guardian’s Talkboards community a couple of years ago.

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