The long slow death of the BBC’s Message boards

The imminent closure of The Archers message board on the BBC website is another milestone along the way to the BBC ditching the format altogether.

The BBC have announced that they will be closing the Archers message board, which has been a part of for some ten years. Naturally, the users are outraged, although the BBC cites only 1,000 regular users out of the 120,000 visiting the Archers site weekly as one of the factors in the decision. The move has inevitably sparked speculation about what happens to the other remaining message boards on the site.

Over on the Points of View board — where a long time ago I used to be a host — Sue_Aitch (U3336990) pointed out the range of message boards that have disappeared over the years.

Here is how the BBC’s message board directory used to look, with over 100 boards listed:

Old messageboard page

And here it is now. With three.

BBC Messageboards in 2013

In some ways I think that message boards belong to the world of the “accidental community”. As Meg Pickard always explained it, you might all end up on a forum because you love a particular band. After a couple of months of chatting about the band, it emerges that a couple of you also like some similar films. You might never have gone to join a film forum, because it isn’t your main passion, but now a community based around one interest begin to explore their other interests. In that sense the Archers message board also reminds me a little of the old Guardian TalkBoards. With a host of in-jokes and regular “off topic” threads, truly all life is there beyond the show itself. Great fun to join in, and sometimes a vital support line for the members. But is there really a role for mainstream media sites to host these spaces?

In my piece about newspaper website comment threads this week, I referenced the BBC’s principles of the web from 2007, which states that the BBC should:

“Link to discussions on the web, don’t host them: Only host web-based discussions where there is a clear rationale”

There is a lot of staff time taken up in managing community spaces. In a Twitter exchange last week, Tom Loosemore suggested that at the height of their popularity in 2003/4, the BBC was spending over £1m a month on moderation of message boards.

It is always difficult for the staff involved when a community space like the Archers is closed. The decision will have been taken well away from the coal-face. Often, though, it is the only couple of people who have been really paying attention to the community who are the people who have to deliver the unwelcome message, and they can become a lightning rod for the anger that users feel.

The coverage of the closure has, of course, veered into inevitable BBC-bashing territory. The word “censor” has been bandied about a lot, and the Mail says that “From next week, critics of the Radio 4 soap will be prevented from posting their views online.”

Well, unless the BBC has also found some way of shutting down every messageboard, blog, forum and comment form on the internet, I rather doubt that it is true. But it does feel like one step closer to the day when the BBC no longer hosts any message boards at all.

Full disclosure: I worked at the BBC between 2000 and 2005. My company Emblem has done consultancy work for the BBC.