Closing Mustardland – the end of the Archers messageboard

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.

19 Responses

  1. Paul June 14, 2013 at 7:02 am ·

    May I just enquire, if it was never the place of the BBC to host the messageboards in the first place, why did they?

  2. Andrew Caspari June 14, 2013 at 9:25 am ·

    Thanks for this piece Martin. I am Nigel’s manager at the BBC and it is nice to see the full story written up like this. I would add that Nigel handled this really well and certainly grew a layer of thick skin along the way.

  3. penelope simpson June 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm ·

    Good to see your piece. I am the infamous TeddyandGypsy whom you see fit to poke fun at. I worked in marketing for thirty years, most of it spent with in a household name PR and marketing company. To rubbish my assertion that blue-chip clients would spend megabucks to gain product information is as puzzling as it is stupid. Marketing is all about a dialogue with the consumer, knowing how they think and feel, what motivates them. The fact that a BBC apparatchik find this strange says more about the BBC than it does about marketing.

    And Nigel performed well on Feedback?

    Really? I was there. He was poorly briefed, defensive rather than informative, unsympathetic in a way that was alienating and a terrible advert for the Beeb. Had he been my client, I can tell you that he would have put up a much better performance and won friends (even ones who disagreed with him) into the bargain.

  4. Trudie M June 15, 2013 at 7:01 pm ·

    Isn’t it the case that messageboards were fashionable then, and aren’t now? I wonder if you recall the changeover from howerd2 to the DNA platform, when the Beeb’s hosts bombarded us with guff about how valuable messageboards were, promoting ‘sticky communities’ and the like, and how posters might even use them on their CVs as evidence of their literacy.

    As for Mustardland, in 2007 it was shortlisted for the Digital Communities category of the Prix Ars Electronica – presumably nominated by the BBC itself, so someone somewhere obviously valued the feedback and community spirit.

  5. Peet McKimmie June 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm ·


    ‘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.” ‘

    The BBC had an invaluable source of immediate feedback, and they threw it away. They simply didn’t want to know when their scriptwriters had written howlingly bad errors into the dialogue – it was an inconvenience to them.

    And as for the costs of running the board, what’s a hundred-million between friends, eh? Oh, wait, that was the other project. The one that had *no* upside.

    I run one of the “replacement” Mustardlands. It costs £70 a *yesr* plus the time of some volunteer moderators. But that was apparently outwith the BBC’s budgets.

  6. Mrsbruce June 16, 2013 at 7:54 pm ·

    His performance was not that good, and it did come across as poorly researched. Maybe he’d forgotten that he was dealing with real people, nay real customers, because that is what we are.

    As for being a recognsable face of the online community. Personally, I wouldn’t have known him from Adam. Maybe if he had spent a bit more time online explaining, instead of thickening his skin against us bad, bad, people, it would have helped the situation.

    I think you’ll also find what annoyed most people was the two weeks notice ‘and I will only communicate by blog’.

    It was also the assumption that we would want to dumb down to tweet, use the ‘unsecure’ facebook or bother being inolved in that vanity press we call ‘blog’.

    As to poking fun at a member of that board by laughing at their view, that is out of order. (so, if my view is not useful, why do companies a/keep trying to pay me for them, and b/ stop the survey if these views fall outwith their survey perameters)?

    There again, after the fiasco of the BBC wasting 150 million of our British pounds on the Gods know what, methinks your skin may need to get even thicker, because it isn’t just your customers who are getting a bit fed up with how things are being run.

  7. amanda white June 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm ·

    Let’s face it. The messageboard was a thorn in the side of the TA production team. That is why it went. Any number of ordinary posters wrote better than the SWs, and all of them had better memories off the top of their heads regarding characters and past storylines than the salary-earning archivist.
    If it was still around the present drivel which laughingly passes for scripts would have been howled down in helplessly-rolling-on-the-floor-mirth.
    But 140 critical characters can be shrugged off while the easily pleaseds’ puffs can be proudly retweeted.
    I now listen only out of sheer incredulity that such unadulterated rubbish can get past first base – even after the 6.30 bottom-scraping comedy slot.

  8. Denise Tomlinson June 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm ·

    For having the temerity to affectionately poke fun at a character based on what I heard in the programme (‘Buntergate’) I was given a very public dressing down and told I was just the sort of poster who was going to cause the end of the boards. I’m amazed it took me 10 years.
    However I have embraced Twitter, it being the weapon of choice for the BBC, and it has the bonus that I’m not modded in a baffling way and I do feel my feelings are being aired, even if, as ever, the BBC couldn’t give a toss.
    Dusty Substances

  9. Steve Rudd June 17, 2013 at 5:04 pm ·

    I should declare an interest here in that I am Slightly Foxed (I was, and still am) the user who started the petition against the closure which gathered 2000 signatures in about 10 days and which was completely ignored by the BBC and the Department for Culture. I specifically logged to because I was going to say what Peet McKimmie said so eloquently above – that I am staggered to find that we weren’t part of the “official feedback loop”, whatever that means. I would love to know how one got to be part of the “official feedback loop” – presumably by attending Vanessa Whitburn’s cocktail parties.

    Anyway, unofficial, official or what, the BBC had a golden opportunity to engage directly with its core users and junked it. In the process, it also got rid of a unique online community that was about much more than just discussing the Archers, though the negative responses to crap story lines were also introduced by the BBC as a red herring in the run-up to closure, as the ground shifted beneath their feet and they realised what a shitstorm they had unleashed.

    I suppose we should not be too surprised at such arrogant behaviour from an organisation that squanders millions on failed digital projects. The BBC is learning the hard lesson though, that the customers you ignore vote with their feet. These days on the Archers web site, you can’t move on the blog for tumbleweed. Perhaps a sterile official feedback channel cluttered with dead spiders is what the BBC wanted. Search me.

    I’d love to see the visitor numbers on which the closure decision was based and the figures now, but of course despite several Freedom of Information requests the BBC refuses to release any of the stats to justify its high-handed and ignorant course of action.

    Anyway, the BBC is right about one thing, it does not have an exclusive lien on either running web sites on programmes or indeed making the programmes themselves. Which sort of begs the question, what are we paying the licence fee for? To feather-bed idiot managers and their untenable decisions, apparently.

  10. Peet McKimmie June 17, 2013 at 10:03 pm ·

    an organisation like the BBC needs a duty lawyer on call 24/7 365 days a year to cover urgent escalation of something on the messageboards. If you could pull that off at £70 a month I’d salute you, and I’d love the number of the lawyer.

    Isn’t that what the Moderators were there for? They would hide any remotely suspect message so the duty lawyer could look at it as time permitted, during normal working hours. (And I run my board for £70 a *year*, not a *month*… It costs me £1.30-odd a week out of my pocket.)

    If the BBC really kept a lawyer on duty 24/7 just so that posters wouldn’t suffer the inconvenience of finding their messages hidden for a few hours, my hat goes off to them.

  11. Peet McKimmie June 18, 2013 at 10:29 am ·

    Even if you assume that the BBC only ever had one moderator on duty on the boards at any given time, and that these people only ever got paid minimum wage, to moderate the board 24/7 365 days a year works out on the back of my envelope to £54,224.40 in salaries alone.

    While I agree with your general point, those figures are still a tad high. The BBC never kept on Moderators just to look at that one message board – they outsourced to an outside company where one minimum-wage moderator would have their eye on dozens of different message boards, thus splitting the costs between them.

    My argument may be a little simplistic, but all I’m trying to get across is that in terms of the BBC’s original mission to “Educate, Inform and Entertain”, the Archers Message Board did all that for what was, in essence, a tiny outlay per user.

  12. Steve Rudd June 18, 2013 at 6:43 pm ·

    Thank you for replying Martin, but since I am apparently not a member of the “official feedback loop”, being instead merely someone who used to listen to the programme and whose licence fee payment helps featherbed the “trebles all round” lifestyle and unaccountable culture of the BBC, clearly I have no say in the matter anyway, so I will save my breath to cool my porridge.

  13. Steve Rudd June 18, 2013 at 8:41 pm ·

    Just to put that £54,224.40 into perspective the BBC Trust’s members spent £31,976.03 on “expenses” alone from April to September 2012. This is for HALF a year.

    The Chairman of the BBC Trust gets paid £110,000 pa for doing “three to four days work a week” and the Vice-Chairman £70,610 pa for approximately 2.5 days work a week. National Trustees each get £37,660pa for approx 2 days a week working, and ordinary trustees each get £35,952pa for the same.

    The figures may be found here:

    Given that the BBC Trust was apparently unwilling/unable to respond to our petition or to intervene in the closure of the Archers’ message board and the gross mismanagement of BBC resources that this high-handed and peremptory decision represented, one could be forgiven for asking the question “what bloody use is it to anyone?”