Building Blizzards

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Thanks to everybody who has joined the h2g2 community and helped us to create the Guide so far, and a warm welcome to anyone visiting us for the first time. We're off to a great start. We have the first snowflake. Now let's build a blizzard.
— From 'A Welcome and Thank-you Message from Douglas Adams'.

Last week, I was lucky enough to have the chance to write the Editorial for this esteemed organ, and used the opportunity to talk a bit about my experiences with a social networking site Facebook. I wrote a little bit about the work we put in together to build the Ultimate Guide to Life, the Universe and Everything and the sense of community that builds. As a comment on
our philosophy here, I think it was quite a nice little piece. Infact, all was not well in Utopia.

Even as I typed those words, journals were starting to pop up here and there lamenting h2g2's demise. We've all seen those journals before, but this time there was a difference. The writers were, in general, not disaffected Researchers but committed writers and volunteers whose combined contribution to the site is very significant. Furthermore, the reaction to these comments was stifled — usually the reaction would be something along the lines of 'well, let's do this about it', sparking positive debate and action — but this time there was much
agreement and laying of roses. It was almost as if the BBC had announced that the site would be closing at the end of the week.

The reason given most often for the malaise was the Front Page. There has been a steady slowing of new Entries being published, with more and more being recycled for a second showing. This, of course, only papers over a deeper problem; either not enough Entries are being written, or not enough Entries that are considered good enough are being written. I took a quick look at Peer Review, for the first time in several months.

I was pretty shocked.

You see, I've been involved in PR almost non-stop since my arrival here. I submitted my first Entry into Peer Review within a week of joining the site. I became a Scout as soon as they would let me, and was involved with it almost daily until May this year, when a busy summer of work ahead forced me to take a step back and hand in my beloved badge. During that whole time, it was very rare to see less
than four or five pages of Entries in review, and when I heard it mentioned once or twice over the summer that there really was a bit of a shortage of Entries, you know, I put it down to a quiet summer and thought little more of it. So when I looked and found less than a page and a half, the depth of the problem hit me. The usual names were in there; Eco Worrier, Galaxy Babe and Bob Stafford making up a good chunk of the submissions, with other regulars making up a page's worth. It was particularly noteworthy that a few of those regular writers had expressed their dissatisfaction in recent days. The remainder of submissions were the sort that, as a seasoned reviewer, you don't expect to make it; half-abandoned Entries eventually destined for the Flea Market. The whole future of the site appeared to
be in the hands of just a few Researchers. Instead of building a blizzard, most of – myself included – appeared to be lounging on a beach in St Tropez.

I don't bandy around terms like 'the whole future of the site' without thought, so perhaps I'd better explain what I mean. We use h2g2 for many reasons: for creative writing, role-play, journaling and debating. In terms of the site's specific value to those who hold the purse strings — and I'm speaking as one who has never been employed by the BBC, but this sounds reasonable — the 'user-generated content' we create via PR and the Front Page is what sets it apart from mere message boards. Without a steady flow of new Entries on the Front Page, would the BBC continue to pay for two full-time staff to run the site in a time when even the BBC Natural History Unit is suffering major cutbacks? Personally, I doubt it.

Now, I love this site. I've made some great friends here, some of whom have become good friends in the non-typing world as well. I've enjoyed writing every single Entry and participating in the volunteer schemes. I've played Phantasy Phootball and organised Fantasy Krikkit. Hell, they've even trusted me with the powers of a Curator and let me edit The Post now and then. For me, it wasn't over untilthe fat executive sang, but we needed to take action. Fast.

The problem with these initiatives is that they don't ever seem to last; people respond very well and write a couple of new Entries and get active in PR, but the enthusiasm soon fades. Within a month or two, we're back where we started. I realised we needed something more sustainable, something that could have a long-term effect, something that people could buy into and commit to month after month. The last thing we needed was one of those pages that people subscribe to
because it's a good idea, then forget about.

So I decided to come up with a new page that people could sign up to if they thought it was a good idea. I put it together rather quicker than expected, after coming back from a couple of pints in the pub to find another depressing journal. The new h2g2 Researchers' Group was formed. In it, I set about recruiting a group of uber-Researchers tasked with saving the Guide. If you don't think you'd like to be one, don't stop reading — we still need you.

It's not just about writing Entries. Researchers have noted that they have become disenfranchised with the Guide for a number of reasons, which I have tried to address in the group. For a start, there have been grumbles that some Entries do not get reviewed as often as they might, and we all know it is disheartening to spend a long time on a piece only to find it ignored. A long-standing complaint has been that the Edited Guide Writing Workshop doesn't get enough attention, which is a fair comment — it's no good expecting all Entries to arrive in PR in a completed state if no one is helping new Researchers work on their Entries.

While it's not just about writing Entries, though, it is about writing Entries. I've asked everyone who signs up to the group to commit themselves to contributing at least one, preferably two, Entries to Peer Review every month, whether they are new Entries, Updates or Flea Market rescues. We need to have sixty Entries a month to maintain three on the Front Page every day, and the h2g2 Researchers' Group will aim to provide two-thirds of those; either with twenty Researchers contributing two a month, forty writing one a month, or something in between.

If you feel you have the time and commitment to join, I would urge you to do so. If you don't, we really do need every hand on deck. If you have ten minutes to spare, read an Entry in PR and leave a comment. If you haven't written for a while, give us another Entry. If you're an ACE, encourage new Researchers to get involved in PR as writers or reviewers (or, ideally, both). The Edited Guide is so crucial to our survival, and is in such a need of attention, that I feel it is incumbent on all of us to spend a little more time on it in any way we can.

So where is all this getting us? Well, in terms of the Group itself, we've had several people sign up and, though there's a long way to go, a nice chunk of Entries for the month are covered if people follow their pledge through1. More than that, the sense of finality has been replaced by a new wave of optimism; I've seen plenty of responses on threads saying 'I can't commit to that much, but I've written an Entry/will do more reviewing/am helping a newbie out with their writing'. I've even had a couple of emails through from Researchers saying that the group has given them a new impetus, even if they can't
commit to a specific quota. People are looking to the future rather than the past; discussions are taking place about the future of the Guide, not its decline. And, most importantly, the number of Entries in Peer Review has doubled in the last week.

I'm not trying to take credit for that, of course, but the change in the atmosphere is tangible. The key, this time, is that we don't stop. After a month, don't just think the problem has been fixed and relax. We have a community to be proud of, but the moment we take our eye off the ball we're in danger of losing it. We need to keep contributing and improving this site, we need to keep innovating and welcoming new Researchers. Most of all, we need to remember that this is a very special site indeed, but we need to give back something in exchange for the pleasure it gives us. I rambled on last week about h2g2 in the Editorial, but Paff put it succinctly and perfectly:

In reality I already realise that hootoo has the longevity. This place is a serious long-term commitment. And I like that.

Amen. Thanks for listening.

h2g2 Volunteer Groups and Related Articles Archive


15.11.07 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1I should also say an enormous 'thank you' to Fizzymouse and Psycorp, who seem to have been everywhere cajoling, encouraging and writing, and who have been very supportive of the whole idea — with a few more like these two, our future would be assured.

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