Hello, Sam – and congratulations! How does it feel to be the man at the top of the Greatest Community on t'Internet?
Hi Rich, it's great. I love h2g2. I really believe in the site and I'm trying to make sure we're around for another 10 years. I think the site is as relevant now as it's ever been, if not more so. We may be 'ticking over' a bit at the minute, we may have very much lagged behind in terms of 'development', but the general ethos of h2g2 still stands up to scrutiny. It's a genuinely great internet destination. h2g2 is an entertaining, welcoming place that celebrates creativity. It has a civil online community, interested in learning and sharing its knowledge with others. And, directly or indirectly, the site invokes the spirit and general playful curiosity of Douglas Adams. We're also here to keep on building the online guide to Life, The Universe and Everything. Slow and steady wins the race...
The BBC did a great thing in 'saving' h2g2 but since it's been here, the site has been in a sort-of stasis, especially in terms of development. It's not always been obvious what to do with h2g2, strategically speaking, but leaving it just to tick over with no coherent plan, so to speak, is definitely no longer an option. Everything the BBC owns has to be properly accounted for and a clearly defined reason for its existence. One of the challenges is reminding the community that h2g2 is a BBC site and there are certain things we *have* to do in order to survive, ie, have a site design that complies with BBC design standards, and to get the site ready for a new registration system due in February. If we don't do this, h2g2 is kaput. So it's my job to make sure we do do it!
Of course, you were around right at the start of h2g2, right back in the The Digital Village days. In fact, you've been around for so long I think Shazz has a photo of you somewhere. How did you get involved in the first place?
I saw an advert in the newspaper. It had all the usual stuff in it but it also mentioned that 'a sense of humour would be welcome'. Where I was then currently working, nobody smiled. It was a stressful, humourless place. A place devoid of humour. Everybody was run down and practically forced to take 'echinacea' in the Winter lest we take any dreaded sick leave and fail to meet the incessant barrage of deadlines. The advert made me want to work there, and not where I was, in grimsville. I was called to an interview and proceeded to give one of the worst interviews ever recorded in Western Europe in the last 200 hundred years. I didn't get the job.
However, I wrote a letter to the then editor, Mark Moxon, apologising for my awful interview. (I didn't know the Hitchhiker's books but I thought it would be a good idea to dress like a sort-of hitchhiker for the interview, not really knowing what one looked like. I ended up wearing big boots, green military trousers and a smart tweed jacket with an odd-coloured knitted tie. I'm cringing into my keyboard as I type this, banging my head against the keys.)
I promised to improve my skills (and also my interview technique and dress sense) and we kept in touch. One day, suffering from a deadly bout of man-flu which laid me low for about two hours in the afternoon, I called The Digital Village to let them know I'd moved house and might they be so kind to keep my records up-to-date, etc etc. As luck would have it, they were looking for someone new and the very next day I got the call for another interview. Which I somehow passed. Mark Moxon was a truly inspirational boss and has since become a good friend.
And why on earth did you leave?
As many of you know I'm also a songwriter and I left to have a go at making an album of my own and giving my music career a real go. Which leads on to your next question...
Since then, of course, you've been making some fantastic music (you can check out Sam's music at Sam's MySpace). Your roots certainly seem to be in 70s folk and pop – Zeppelinesque acoustic guitars, melodies right out of the Bowie songbook and some fine, fine lyrics. It's fine stuff, and you left h2g2 to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. Were the NME not interested?
Ha! The NME were absolutely not interested! (But then again I never sent them anything...) Truthfully, I didn't really know what I was doing – I still don't. It was a leap in the dark – the void it felt like a times – but I just wanted to see if I could concentrate on writing and recording for a while. I finished my album, exhausted and utterly skint, but was then asked by a lovely folk singer called Karine Polwart – who was at that time Radio 2 Folk Singer of the year – to support her on a UK tour. And that was a great experience. My music career has really been a thing of organic wonder (or befuddlement). I like to think of it as Corinthian in spirit. From there on I've met and worked with lots of wonderful folk, many of whom are great friends – singers, songwriters, musicians – and I've done many gigs here and abroad. I also started co-writing with a very dear old friend of mine...
What else have you been up to since 2004?
Well, I've been doing odd jobs here and there – some work at the BBC as well, including odd spots with h2g2 – also lots of gigging. I got married to my lovely wife Henri (short for Henrietta) and I started co-writing with Tom Baxter, one of my best friends. He's a terrific singer/songwriter and I wrote a couple of songs with him that became successful: 'Better', which was a hit in Ireland and then covered by Boyzone last year as part of their comeback, their last single in fact; and 'Miracle', which was used by the BBC in two terrific video montages summing up their coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and Para-Olympic Games.
I'm very proud of the song 'Better'. It was first sung by Tom at my wedding, for me and Henri, long before it was ever released or known about, and now it's become a very popular song for newly-weds to have as their first dance.
I was very sad indeed to hear about the death of Stephen Gately. I very much wanted to meet him to thank him and the Boyz for covering the song and for singing it so sweetly. It was a real shock to learn the news, and my wife, Tom and myself are very sad indeed about it.
Let's just clear up one mystery once and for all. There's a section of the community who mourn for Derek del Mundo like a departed and lamented long-lost friend, and another who quite knowledgeably claim that you are he. Now – bearing in mind when you answer that some of us do use Twitter – which is true?
Sorry, Derek was me. I was popping back and forth on the site and other casual staff were doing the same so I thought it'd make sense to create one online persona who other people could use. In retrospect I'm not sure it was such a great idea. Also, Jim Sangster had a torrid time being seriously hounded by a user a while back and so there were also real questions around using real-life identities on site.
Now that you've got that meddlesome Natalie out of the way and world domination is within your grasp, you can bend and shape the site according to your every whim. Mwahh-hah-hah-hah. There have been a number of conversations about the future of the site over the last year which have led to some excellent suggestions for the way forward – most of them contradictory in true h2g2 style. Are you a man with a clear vision for the future, and what are your priorities
As I said before, my main priority is to ensure the continuation of the site. To do that, h2g2 needs to be more closely integrated within the BBC and not be seen as some odd adjunct, one that could quite easily be jettisoned, especially in these increasingly parsimonious times. We have to justify our position, make a valid case for the site. We've already gone a long way to doing that by having a very successful MOT. The next thing is to get the site's infrastructure compliant to BBC visual guidelines and then to transfer over to a new registration process. This is absolutely crucial to the site's continuing existence.
When this 'base', as it were, has then been attended to – when the site is in a more secure position internally – I want to see a renewed focus on the writing side of things. I want the Volunteer Groups to be more active and I want us as staff to spend much more time in Peer Review (staff currently being 'me' at the minute).
I think we can then really push for more innovation on site and so we'll be doing a load of 'Ask the Community' stuff around that to see what ideas you want implementing. Right now we're at Stage One in what I hope is a long, gradual process in developing the site. Truthfully, though, I have very little real power or say in what happens on a bigger level: all the strategic and budget decisions, those which directly have a great effect on our site, are not anything I am party to. I can try my best to work hard and influence what goes on internally, in how h2g2 is perceived, but I don't have my hands on any purse strings. Sadly, I don't make the big decisions. I'm just not senior enough!
However, my immediate boss is a guy called Nick Reynolds and he's a fantastic bloke – I get on really well with him – and he's very fond of h2g2, doing his bit at a higher level than me in fighting the good fight.
It's clearly going to be a busy time for you, with the redesign imminent and the results of the MOT to deal with. The community, on the other hand, has always liked its Editors to be fairly visible; dipping into PR, joining in Nighthoover-related chat, submitting occasional Post articles, that sort of thing. How hands-on do you think you'll be able to be, given your time constraints, and are we ever likely to see you in Ask at 2am after one too many beers?
It's very hard for me to be as visible as maybe some would like, although I will try. I'm often in meetings and doing work that is h2g2-related but which is not connected with me posting on site. For instance, during this whole re-design process, which in itself has been quite a challenge to get my head round, I had also been preparing stuff to try and get h2g2 a good mention in a recent Online Access Forum chaired by Newsnight host Gavin Esler, a big 'media literacy' event with some impressive folk in attendance (including the inspirational Martha Lane Fox, the legendary Johnny Ball, Director General Mark Thompson and various other industry big wigs).
And h2g2 did indeed get a very good mention as one of those BBC sites that successfully plays its part in trying to reach out to first-time internet users by being a very welcoming environment where community members will genuinely help people. This sort of thing goes a long way to helping our case in the long-term and it's the kind of thing I do, which is not immediately apparent to users.
Also, in terms of getting folk online who've never used email before or gone near a computer, I'm really interested in this kind of thing. I'd love it if we could set up some kind of Genius Bar-type place – the h2g2 Brain Box or something similar – where some of our best geeks and geniuses could help first-time users get used to using the internet in kindly and non-intimidating fashion. A sort of meeting place where two sets of folk with very different skill sets and online experience can meet and learn from each other. I know this happens already all over the site, but I was thinking maybe we could do it in a more formalized, coherent way. Share your knowledge, learn something new. I think, in part at least, that's what h2g2's about.
Finally, h2g2 has an eclectic and diverse community, and we have a particular knack of pulling in opposite directions in three – and often four – dimensions at the same time. If you could harness all that energy and get it directed towards one aspect of the site, what would we all be working on? Or is all that chaos and dispute all part of the charm?
I definitely think the 'chaos and dispute' are part of the charm. I also think in a broad brush-stroke kind-of way, I'd like everyone to continue to focus their energies on being creative, on having fun and helping others reach their potential. I also think the way we seem to delight in being curious on this site, and that sense of playful intelligence and courtesy to others, is one of the great wonders of h2g2. Bringing that out and celebrating that – on the site as a whole and in individuals who use the site – is an important motivator for us.
In a not-so-broad-brush-stroke kind-of way, I want us to re-focus on the Edited Guide and writing for the Edited Guide and on Peer Review. There are thousands of folk that read the stuff you all write on h2g2 and it brings a lot of people a lot of joy. As mobile devices get more whizzy with every passing year, I want to see h2g2 being an obvious destination for folk to visit, to get that serendipitous glow, when they find themselves reading something they didn't even know they wanted to while waiting for the 8.39 to Hackney Central.
Then there's GPS stuff, uploading pictures, video etc... All this stuff I really want to see happen.
Finally, I also really love it when people rescue Entries from the Flea Market, polish them up and re-submit them back into Peer Review and get them on to the front page.