At last, a real scoop! I've wanted to interview Antelia for The Post for absolutely ages, and our ninth birthday seemed as good a time as any. Read on and see what she really thinks of the BBC, being aloof and first-person Entries in the Edited Guide. And are we really going to see pirate games on h2g2?
Skankyrich: Antelia, first of all thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed for The Post. I can only apologise for the fact that you've got Skanky instead of Parky, but our budget isn't what it should be.
Antelia (for it is she): You are most welcome.
SR: In my mind, your story is a perfect fairytale. You were just a poor young maiden from the frozen north, apparently destined to wander the slopes of Great Gable dreaming of the 1960s for all eternity. Then, in an old copy of Smash Hits, you read about a mystical place called Carnaby Street and set off for London with all your possessions in a lilac hanky tied to a stick. Accompanied by your faithful Pingu, you suffered many hardships before becoming Producer of h2g2, where you were loved by your subjects for all eternity.
A: That is almost exactly what happened. Have you been spying?
SR: If only you knew. So how did a poor peasant girl from Cumbria get the top job at h2g2?
A: I was at university for many, many years, studying the 100 Years War in real time. (I then studied philosophy until I really couldn't see the point anymore). However, when I finally left Cumbria, in a hurry, I found a job in new media. I worked as a producer for AOL and Yahoo! And a couple of start-ups (including a memorable four-day stint with Trinny and Susannah). I eventually ended up in a minor deity-level role on a start-up, which, though lucrative, was so awful and stressful that I realised that my next job had to be something I really wanted to do. It was either landscape gardening or h2g2.
SR: Landscape gardening? Really?
A: I love gardening but I have a pale complexion and would always have struggled with the summer months.
SR: It's interesting that your PS has the title 'Welcome to My World'. It's easy to read more into that than you intended when you wrote those words. After all, when h2g2 hits ten next year, you'll have been around for 70% of its life, and that shows not only a certain amount of dedication from you, but also how much you have shaped the site personally. Seven years is a long time in a job these days, and you clearly enjoy it to have stayed in it so long. What have been your greatest moments over the last seven years, and where would you like to see h2g2 in seven years' time?
A: It is hard to think of a favourite moment. There are lots of occasions where people just show such amazing kindness and thoughtfulness – spending ages on a project or on Entries or artwork, all for the good of the Guide and other Researchers – and these are all highs which far outweigh any negative things.
Although I am aware that sometimes it doesn't show, I have to say that (calculating a mean average) it's been a joy to work on h2g2. I think we're in a very good position at the moment, but it's been a long time coming. I would love to have shaped it more in terms of technical development, but I still hope that that time is yet to come. However, I feel that making the site a more streamlined offering, keeping the site going and steadily growing, and remaining willing to suggest how the site might move be developed with a bit of funding, regardless of how many times I get knocked back, have put us in a really good position. As ever, I'm not able to say anything definite but it genuinely does feel as if things are picking up a bit for h2g2 in terms of how we are perceived by those who make decisions regarding funding. It's been a bit like being in a band – hammering on doors of people who didn't listen. Last year, someone signed up the Tremeloes and said 'Pioneering user-generated content sites are on their way out.' But I'm hoping we've found our Brian Epstein.
SR: The site itself has clearly changed and evolved over the years, and as a relative newbie to the site the one I've noticed the effects of the most came around the time of Jimster's departure. Up until then, the volunteer groups were all heavily Italic-led and fairly formal. I remember discussing the future with Jimster at the London Meet in 2006 and talking about the way volunteer groups could start to take more of a lead role in h2g2 life, and in the last months of his time at h2g2 we saw three autonomous schemes develop: the Aviators, Curators and Photographers. We've also seen AlexAshman begin an ambitious project to rewrite the Help Pages via PR – almost unthinkable a few years ago.
A: It's amazing and we're thrilled by it all – yet more examples of those acts of kindness I mentioned.
SR: We often see the Italics accused of aloofness, for example that you guys aren't seen in PR often enough, and that we don't see enough 'visible' work from you on the site. But the dissemination of power then was a clue that you were withdrawing from day-to-day life to some extent, as was Jimster's last journal:
...although the staff levels will be staying the same, the team won't have a permanent replacement for me (or, come to think of it, Beth) immediately so Natalie will be working with temporary team members for a while. So that it doesn't cause confusion, they'll be working behind the scenes on the editing, Scout recommendations and general feedback. It might feel like the Italics are a bit quieter for a while, but then that's also because I've tended to be a bit over-chatty at times (14th December 2006)
Now Jimster may have done you a disservice here, because he was a noisy fella and I don't think you post any less (although you may do so more as h2g2Editors than as Antelia). Even so, we're in a position now where it appears that the volunteers do all the onsite work, and you arrange and rubber-stamp things. Can you tell us where the rest of the working week goes?
A: I think in person I am very shy (and Jimster is very chatty!) and that may come across as aloof, which I regret (me seeming aloof, not Jim being chatty). I think I also have felt a bit hamstrung by the things I've not been able to say. Imagine an argument where your wittiest responses are banned for fear of offence and your throwaway remarks might be quoted back at you forever more.
My job changed pretty rapidly after I was brought on. I was initially brought in to manage six Assistant Content Producers (including two specific community managers), but before long the team was cut down to three. Someone then left and wasn't replaced. For some time there were just two of us, and there has never been a permanent third role. Regarding italic presence – I think there are different personal styles, but I would just like to say that being present 'as yourself' (i.e. with your real life identity) in charge of a site with such a large number of users can bring hazards with it, not all of which are readily apparent.
The main point, though is that aside from the administrative/editorial stuff (keeping the process going) there's a lot of stuff to do. It's a bit of a balancing act, as far as the community is concerned, I am accountable for what my bosses decide (for example, the recent age limit change) and as far as my bosses and a variety of BBC departments are concerned, I am accountable for what the h2g2 community says (for example, if something libellous occurs). That's not always an easy position to be in! What that means is that things that seem like easy, quick decisions become extremely complicated and take up lots of time.
We don't make so many personal contributions (in terms of specific identifiable personalities) but we reinstated the Talking Points and changed the front page so that it reflects the content on the site more. There are real people behind h2g2Editors!
SR: I certainly agree that protecting your own identities is important. I'm never too bothered myself – I'm a 32-year-old skinhead – but plenty of Researchers are wary of giving out any personal details, and they're not in the position of making contentious decisions. I presume those same 'hazards' could be apparent at Meets, too.
However, I do think that the 'specific identifiable personalities' are sometimes important. We see h2g2Editors taking care of the official business in EF and so on, as 'they' should, but away from the immediate vicinity of the Front Page we see little of Antelia and Derek. It's important that we see the 'bosses' out and about now and then, just being part of the community. The problem is that if you don't, we tend to just see you in the more obvious places as 'h2g2Editors' and perceive you as aloof.
It's another balancing act. There are only so many hours in the day (although we did see h2g2Editors posting merrily away the other weekend!), and I think everyone appreciates that you can't sit around posting all day. On the other hand, many Researchers feel (and this manifests itself once in a while in ideas like the 'Invite the Italics to Tea Movement') that you haven't quite got the balance right and that we'd really like to see you among your subjects more often.
A: Yes – and although I have mentioned the hazardous element (which comes from a very small number of emails in six years), the vast majority of people (as in life) are lovely and well-meaning. I think it's understandable that people want to see more of an italic presence on-site and regret there isn't more time to do it. We really are going full-tilt at the moment but we'll definitely bear it in mind, especially since it seems to be so noticed when we do. On-site involvement in the way we used to know it would, at the moment, require us taking on more staff and there aren't currently plans for that. However, I wouldn't rule it out for the future.
SR: It certainly is noticed, and appreciated. I think the one thing that almost all the community would agree on is that we'd like to see Antelia and Derek more frequently. This is, of course, a site utterly dependent on volunteers. Do you occasionally log in out of work hours, or have you always had enough by the time you knock off?
A: We really are at full-tilt at the moment, but will definitely bear that in mind. I do log in out of work hours, but it's quite often to check potentially problematic areas, so it doesn't always seem like the natural first place to relax.
SR: That sounds reasonable enough. I myself generally prefer a quick pint rather than trying to extend my work life into my free time. On that note, any chance of seeing you at a Horse and Groom beerfest? And have you ever got back from the pub and posted when you shouldn't have?
A:The Beerfest – are you kidding? I've seen some of the stuff you lot have been drinking! 'Piddle in the Hole' doesn't sound like quite my thing. I'll wait til the alcopops round.
Got back from pub and looked at the site: yes. Got back and posted something I shouldn't have: no. I seem to have a safety catch that stops me from post-pub Internet emailing and posting. If it stopped me singing as well, I'd be a winner.
SR: I'd also like to ask you about h2g2's relationship with the BBC. Where there is annoyance with the site, it generally comes from BBC rules and standards – to take some relatively recent examples, the profanity filter and the banning of under-16s have irked some users (in the latter case, the sudden way it was enforced was as upsetting as the decision to enforce it). When DNA was fresh and new, our users tested everything else (I helped out with testing 606 myself not so long ago) but now we seem to have decisions foisted upon us rather than being anywhere near the forefront. Development seems slow – has our technology now been superseded and, if so, can h2g2 ever keep up?
A: Community management is a balancing act in any company, but at the BBC it's especially complicated as there are so many rules governing what we do. Quite rightly, as we are a public service broadcaster, we have to ensure that we stick to certain guidelines – both because we are paid for by the public but also because if the BBC does something wrong (even if it's fixed swiftly), then it's far more likely to be noticed and treated with more severity than the actions of a commercial company. Great care must be taken.
We resisted the restriction on under-16s for as long as we could. A situation arose and we were told that we could not take the risk of allowing it to spread across BBC sites. We weren't too happy about this, especially about the lack of notice given. Sometimes, though, all we can do is express this – which we did.
I don't think h2g2's technology has been superseded. I think that what was pioneering originally now may appear to have been superseded because it operates within an outdated interface (a skin that was, from its outset, intended to be 'retro'!). Due to the fact that the DNA people had the foresight to invest the platform with a series of features that later became identified as 'Web 2.0', I think h2g2 is only a well-thought-out redesign away from being cutting edge again. We're not the only people to believe that h2g2 was there at the forefront of social networking: see this Totally Communications blog.
I am interested to know how the community as a whole would react to these sorts of changes. If you look at all the elements on the site, and present them in a different way (like feeds, rather than the manual way in which things are done at the moment) then you end up with more of a Myspace or a Facebook in functional terms but instead of trivia (eg 'Natalie is eating a pie') you have real facts, learning and collaboration at its heart. It becomes a totally BBC proposition, but of this century. However, the very mention of Facebook and myspace fill some people with horror. I don't believe that having an easy-to-understand dashboard-type interface needs to lead to trivial content.
SR: I think the community would like to know more. I certainly would. Looking down my Friends List, though, I can only see half-a-dozen people who would have the foggiest idea what you're on about. You'll need to draw us a clearer picture, I think.
It's also worth noting that our demographic here is very different to that which you'd find on Myspace or Facebook. Although older people are now visiting both, they have traditionally appealed most to younger Internet users, and I think that to most people over 40 both Facebook and Myspace are still dirty words. I think you have to be quite about exactly what you're talking about, or people tend to think you're talking about flooding the site with crap pirate games and textspeak.
A: Hm you may have a point...perhaps I should have been more clear! Whatever your opinions on Facebook and Myspace and the range of discourse that occurs on those sites (and I must say that I'm not exactly won over on that front), there is no doubt that they are easy to use and that, as a user, you can track all of your activity immediately after logging in. You don't have to click around checking backwards and forwards – it's possible to find things related to you, almost without trying.
h2g2 has long had this sort of functionality in the form of the conversations list. However, I think the Personal Space could be arranged in a way that made use of the area more efficiently. Ultimately I would like to see a more customisable Personal Space that makes it easier for users to enjoy and share different types of content. I think this would just enhance the power of the editorial proposition that continues to act as h2g2's engine.
I suppose it's a bit like saying that Amazon works very well from a functional point of view – if I wanted to be 'more like Amazon' it wouldn't mean that I wanted h2g2 to sell books, but rather employ collaborative filtering (the technology that can present you with new things of interest based on what you've looked at before).
[Crosses [email protected] pirate games and txtspk off agenda ;-) ]
SR: Sorry – I misspelled 'txtspk'.
So I've talked you out of the pirate game, and the virtual beers are probably out, too. Shame. From what you're saying, I'm imagining a more dynamic and customisable Personal Space than I have right now. So I have a little box telling me that a Researcher on my friends list has created a new entry, and another has posted a new journal. I also have a section where I've entered a few tags, and that tells me that someone has created a new entry containing the word 'Dartmoor', so I'll probably want to take a look at that. And I see that the Aviators have uploaded another new clip to the site, so I'd best check it looks as it should on the page...
That's pretty 2007, though. What I think you're saying is that h2g2 would know that certain people are on my Friends List just by the number of times I respond to their comments, and let me know what they're up to based on that. It would know that I've written and read a lot about Dartmoor, so if someone wrote a new piece I'd be informed automatically. And it would, of course, know that I'm an Aviator.
Is this a reasonably good outline of your ideas?
A: I have to stress that what I said initially was more of a general observation than a set-in-stone plan: h2g2 has so many social networking elements that it isn't quite as out-of-date as people taking a cursory look at its interface might suggest. Still, yes – I'd rather be 2007 than 1999 and it's been some time since the last redesign. The list of plans we're working on at the moment would probably take us to 2089 but hopefully we can make a start on things before then. Blimey, I wish I didn't have to be so vague all the time!
SR: Me too!
A: In short, we know that we have the most intelligent users on the Internet, but it would be nice if you didn't need to be of doctoral-level intelligence just to join the site and get to grips with the editorial process quickly. 'Ease of use' – that would be lovely! That's what we're aiming at.
SR: While we're talking about the site's evolution, it would be great to get your thoughts about the Edited Guide. I used to subscribe to a rather narrow definition of EG Entries, in that they should be very encyclopaedic in nature, but my own views have softened in time and I personally feel that we should be considering more styles of writing – first-person narratives is an oft-quoted suggestion that has caused controversy. I know this is a potential source of 'well, Antelia said...' nonsense in your reply, but with a quieter PR in recent months is there more of a case for the relaxation of the guidelines? Is there an argument for a relaxation of style as long as the key criteria (for example being factual, comprehensive, well-written, authoritative and thoroughly researched) are adhered to?
A: We do periodically consider this and I think we've softened on it a bit too. We do try to compromise and work with authors of Entries that don't immediately fit into the EG guidelines. The Guide as a whole has room for all sorts of types of writing, and obviously the conversations beneath them are extensions of the Entries themselves. However, I feel very strongly that EG guidelines have served us well and we would have to think very carefully before changing them in any way or else risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater...
We have always been able to use first person narrative in Entries (most obviously with the standard '- an h2g2 Researcher' beneath the blockquote) but if we are employing first-person narrative and we aim to be a reliable source I think it's extremely important that we explain why we are doing it and attribute our sources.
SR: There is also a certain amount of frustration among forward-thinking Researchers that we do not have the tools to take the site forward, despite the recent moves to have the site more or less run by volunteers. A number of us have made technical suggestions, from the relaxation of metatags to ways of incorporating Aviators clips safely and without copyright abuse. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of geeks out here who could trial and test technical developments. The standard response to new technical ideas seems to be that the BBC moves slowly and we should be patient, and a cynic might suggest that the ideas we have are left until they are forgotten about. I think the average Researcher's perception is that you care deeply about the site and want to develop it, but are limited by the fact that we're a small fish in a very big pond. Is that fair?
A: Very much, but (and I think I've had an attitude of healthy cynicism regarding our position within the BBC over the years) I would like to say that things look very positive at the moment. We are always stressing to our own powers that be that h2g2 could act as a testbed for future developments. And thanks for this line: To put it bluntly, there are a lot of geeks out here who could trial and test technical developments. Can I (literally!) quote you on that?
SR: Quote me on anything you like! But, without wanting to sound unnecessarily cynical, we have heard the kind of 'stay tuned, something's about to happen' lines before. It's always encouraging to hear, but there's always a bit of me that hears a boy crying wolf. That must be frustrating for you, too, because you can't talk about what's coming up. If it was your own site, you could say 'we're working on a link-up with Yahoo to give us a great new search facility', but as it is you can't even give us a clue.
A: I don't blame people for being cynical; I've definitely felt this way a lot in the past. There have been some extremely depressing times when decision-makers have been negative, or (more commonly, and frustratingly) indifferent towards a site that seems to deliver so much of what the BBC wants to do. It's not fun being the bearer of bad news. (Or again, indifference!)
So, I won't try too hard to convince you. This time I'll just say: I'm a cynic, trust me ;-)
SR: Quiet confidence is generally fairly convincing, I find...
A: Well... I'd wait and see, if I were you! We're very hopeful.
SR: The balance between community and writing is crucial to the success of h2g2. We can look at Wikipedia and say it is a very successful reference site, but has no sense of community nor any scope for creative writing. Likewise, a site such as LiveJournal is fine for blogging every single dull and pointless aspect of one's life, but the site has little scope for creativity. Lots of sites do bits very well, but few, if any, encompass them all.
One of the most interesting aspects of h2g2 is the balance between community and writing; it's unquantifiable and unique. One could write a number of Entries of the Edited Guide Entries without being aware of the depth of community out there, and perhaps vice versa. It's a metropolis consisting of a series of hamlets with a very strong community spirit. I think that if you removed all the crap and advertising from the internet, you'd be left with something that looked like h2g2.
So what do you think makes h2g2 special? What keeps the site fresh for you? Is there anything in particular that you come into work and look forward to reading?
A: I've pulled this apart recently in trying to decide how to argue for development (also, it's very important that the BBC doesn't reproduce what's going on in the private sector), and the thing that makes it unique and very much in line with the BBC's remit is the spirit of collaboration.
Unfortunately, we're quite often in a situation where something similar comes along with similar aims but with more developmental resources and we look as if we're copying it (such as Wikipedia – also newer things like Manalo and Google's Knol) but none of them (yet) seem to combine this with a community in the way that h2g2 does. I genuinely believe our users are the best. I wish it was easy to pin down the magical element that attracts and retains them!
That's something that is quite difficult to explain to other people actually. I know this, because in meetings we've had to try to explain that h2g2's editorial proposition (creation of articles for the Guide) is absolutely crucial to the success of the site, yet many people who have used the site for years and years don't actually create Entries. There's some 'essence' that means that they stay around and create loads of stuff of real interest and value that isn't Edited Guide Entries.
I look forward to reading the Edited Entries on subjects that you don't necessarily find elsewhere. I like things that make me think 'Oh...so that's why!' There are loads, but here are two examples off the top of my head: Thorn, the Missing Letter of the Alphabet (A2922077), and Hagia Sophia (A455230). It's great that there are so many identifiable styles on the site – that it's often possible to guess who has written what without looking at the name.
SR: Well, I think I've taken up enough of your valuable time already. Thank you so much for making time for this chat; it really is appreciated. Before we draw things to a close, is there anything you'd like to say to our lovely readers?
A: I'd like to give my sincere heartfelt thanks to everyone, especially our volunteers, for being so damn great and for keeping this h2g2 show on the road all of these years - not least you, Skanky! There aren't any whistles and bells on-site (yet) but thanks to you all there still isn't anywhere on the Internet quite like h2g2 and we hope that at some point we'll be able to repay your enthusiasm with some development.
In the meantime (though I'll be having a small humanist ceremony with the cat that involves several pies and a crate of Blue Nun): have a spectacular festive season!