The Frankie Roberto Interview

2 Conversations

The Frankie Roberto Interview

Frankie meets... Chris the

Chris the Italic
on his
new job and the world of dot-coms.

Landing a new job, Chris discovered h2g2 whilst surfing the net during
company time. He joined
very early on in the site's development, where, under the nickname of 'beeline' he knew nearly all the other researchers, so
small was the initial population at that time. He got into the site
so much that it caused his work to come to an almost complete halt
for two years, he tells me. I ask him why he was initially attracted to

'After spending a month or two thinking that the Web was just a huge,
impersonal information repository, it was a very pleasant surprise to find
actual 'people' having actual 'conversations', and spending much of the time
seeming to have actual 'fun'. Getting to know the site and the people on it
was, and still is, really terrific. No shyness, no intimidation, almost
total acceptance of people for
their minds alone. It was, by turns, extraordinary, hilarious, surreal and

Online communities have the great power to be able to bring people
together from different backgrounds and lifestyles, often proving to be a
mind-opening experience. Though the sheer diversity can initially be a
little disconcerting, it leads to a very interesting medium. Chris tells me
about how this affected him.

'I had a fairly
intense period on Douglas Adams's own site, the fan site Floor42
, and on h2g2 where I was forced
to re-adjust my opinions and prejudices about, well, nearly everything in
fact. Being educated in private schools, and generally mixing with people like
myself, I had very little experience with dealing with other people's
opinions and views. I was pretty intolerant of people that I thought I was
'better than' and considered what I had learned of language and other
cultural traits to be 'right' while anyone who differed was 'wrong' somehow.
I inevitably got into some flame wars, but someone was kind and patient
enough to take me aside and give me 'the little talk' about snobbery and
prejudice. It was quite a shock to the system, but utterly, utterly
necessary and

Chris was immediately keen to become part of the team, excited by the
cutting-edge dot com world. He sent off a CV and application letter and
hoped for the best. Though he didn't get offered a job, he did later get
invited to become a sub-editor along with nine other researchers to form the
initial sub-editing volunteer team. After happily sub-editing for a year,
the inevitable happened and the dot-com bubble began to burst. I ask Chris
what he thought of this development.

'After a while my thoughts about the whole point of h2g2
became a little confused. I wondered
whether it could possibly work, whether this sort of 'Internet within the
Internet' was a good idea. Of course, I was missing the point a bit, and it
was this kind of thinking that helped cause the general dot-com collapse.
I visited the site less and less as it grew more and more. It was probably
the Smaller And Smaller Fish In Larger And Larger Bowl syndrome
as much as anything. Still, I kept up the subbing and constantly checked
that the pipework behind Hope's Spring wasn't bunged up with

Suddenly the site disappeared for a short period of time and re-appeared
under the suprise ownership of the BBC. This meant that h2g2 could continue
without the burden of having to try and make money and could be properly
supported by BBC Resources. There were some changes though, and some
Researchers began to be unhappy with the moderation and restrictions which
the BBC introduced. I ask Chris what he thought of the BBC takeover

'Well the site would no longer exist if the BBC hadn't stepped in,
so that's certainly in their favour! The BBC has been running its website,
on which there are several other communities, for many years, and they have
a very carefully thought-out editorial policy on what can and can't be done
on it. Obviously not everyone will fully understand or appreciate these
policies, but I can't think of another site where there is so much open
discussion about how the site can go on expanding. h2g2 is somewhat of a
flagship in this respect, and it's lucky to have a secure and well-known
host that will let it push back the boundaries of what communities can

What about the opposition to the changes?

'For those of us that don't want to swear everywhere, there's really
any difference at all under the BBC: you can still come on-site, chat and
write entries just like you always could. The hard thing is dealing with
people who lose sight of what is realistic. Some people genuinely believe
they have a basic human right to say and do whatever they want on any
website, and it's almost impossible to convince them fistly that they don't,
fact, have those rights, and secondly that, even if they did, other people's
rights 'not to be offended' would come first. Most people get it after a
while, but some just get lost on the excitement of argument and attention,
and it's generally their voices that are the loudest, but the
least effective.'

Then when Anna, the Deputy Editor, went off for
leave in June 2001, Chris applied for the six month position and a couple of
weeks later was attempting to drink his own weight in celebratory beer. For
the first time in his life, he tells me, he has a job that he actually
wants to be doing. I ask him how he feels about working for h2g2.

'I sit with the rest of the team feeling distinctly like some
impostor who's bribed a naive genie for an extra wish - I'll be discovered
any minute and ejected, and have to hang around second-hand brass lamp
Bush House is vast, and I still grin occasionally, while walking through its
enormous front doors and security. The food is good (they have proper school
puddings and custard
every day!) and the facilities are generally sound, as they would have to be
for an institution that employs tens of thousands of people. There's also
the prestige of working for such a well-known and
trusted 'brand'. I actually feel quite lucky and proud to work here. And I
love finally being able to hang out on h2g2 and not get fired for it. In
fact, I'd get fired if I didn't hang out here...'

So what kind of thing have they got him doing?

'I'm running the Sub-editors and the Scouts volunteer schemes and
doing a lot of
subbing. A normal day involves making sure the Subs and
Scouts have all the help they need, and maybe recruiting a few more who've
volunteered. The new in-house tools make the job of tracking entries so much
simpler than it used to be, and I can generally get my administration-type
jobs done in the morning. Afternoons are often taken up with sorting out
projects in the h2g2 University and replying to any postings I've become
involved with. After that, I help
out Sam and Ashley with the entries that the Subs send back in. The staff
here are experts. They've been doing this for over two years, and they were
immediately very welcoming and helpful as I flailed around the complexities
of 'backstage' for the first few weeks. It's only temporary though, Anna
will be back to reclaim her rightful position towards the end of the year.
In the meantime, I'm learning everything I need to know from the others, and
am still reeling now and again at the sheer diversity of people and subjects
that pass across my desktop each day.'

I ask how he thinks things might have changed from the original set

'The atmosphere was obviously never going to have the same 'wackiness'
that in the original dot-com office, so we're all getting used to working in
a slightly different way, although we're certain that h2g2 can still satisfy
the same aims it always had - to foster an active community that likes to
write. It's the first time the BBC has acquired something like this, and
it's obviously the first
time h2g2's been taken over, so there is a lot of learning going on on both

What is the BBC Office like?

'We're all sat together at one end of a large, open-plan office which
shortly be up for redecoration (and air conditioning!). There are seven
floors of New Media and World Service radio people above us, and we get to
talk to them occasionally about h2g2 and their own projects. It's pretty
stimulating, actually, and people all over the BBC are usually more than
willing to talk about their work. As far as showbiz people are concerned,
they're all over at Television Centre, which is a few miles away in West
London. Maybe we'll be the new
showbiz celebrities of the Net-based future, Ahem...'

Anyone who has played the Douglaus Adams computer game 'Starship Titanic' will realise the importance of
getting an upgrade. I ask Chris what the main difference between being a
Researcher and an Italic are.

'Changing from Researcher to staff member was an odd feeling. The most
notable thing is that I don't have nearly as much time to hang about
chatting any more. Now that I
appear as an Italic I occasionally worry that some people might make some
judgements about what I say before they read what I actually write. People
are still perfectly pleasant, though, which is reassuring.'

Do you still surf h2g2 at the weekends?

'No, my weekends are very off-line. 'Real Life' is still more
than the Internet. So far...'

I ask what he thinks the most valuble thing about h2g2 is.

'The community, without hesitation. It's
truly representative of a Real Life community, albeit one that is on-line
and has
some appreciation of Douglas Adams, which does narrow
the demographic rather. It's got its jokers, its solid rocks, its
enthusiasts and its nut-bars. It's also got its volunteers - people who are
prepared to do a great deal of work for the site and their fellow
Researchers, and all for no
material gain, save the satisfaction they get from helping out on something
they like. The Subs, Scouts, Aces and Gurus all do a fantastic job of
keeping the entries coming and the people happy, and we just couldn't do it
without them. And that's to say nothing of the tens of thousands of
Researchers who write thousands of simply excellent entries. You are all
completely amazing. Yes, you as well - you at the back there...'

As the creater of h2g2 and the person whose idea the whole concept came
from, Douglas Adams is closely connected with the site, and many of the
Researchers are big fans. Does this
limit the site's scope a bit?

'Not really, because h2g2 can be anything to anyone. You can talk and
about anything you want. Although it obviously appeals to DNA's fans, h2g2
is not in itself a fan site: it's very open and flexible and the community
defines the scope of the site to a very large extent. I mean, just look at
the h2g2 Post - its springing into existence was entirely spontaneous, at
the whim of a few enthusiastic Researchers. I love that.'

As the community gets stronger, having meet-ups and getting to know each
other more, there's a danger that it might have become a clique. Has this

'Well, it's only a clique in as much as any group of people that like
to hang
out together are a 'clique'. There was this excellent TV programme recently
which described people by saying which 'tribes' they belong to, which I
think is a useful model. We all happen to belong to the tribe 'Douglas Adams
Appreciators', amongst others, so we have at least one thing in common. This
is a starting point for people to find out what else they have in common,
which is often quite a lot. The thing to watch out for with cliques is the
exclusion of non-members that the clique thinks are somehow below them. I
don't see that happening at h2g2
really. Just about everyone is welcoming and accepting of other people.
Maybe that's a general trait of the tribe of Douglaus Adams

I'm a huge fan of Douglas Adams like everyone else here, but if we want
the community
to keep on growing and become as big as possible, we need to attract
other non-fans. How might the site promote itself?

'Well, that's something we've been discussing for a while, how to
extend the
brand and reach more people. It's also something the BBC will be able to
help out with because, let's face it, they already reach a very, very large
number of people. We have lots of ideas in development that will help to
extend the community beyond Douglas Adams fans, though it's worth bearing
in mind that
there's already a sizable portion of the community who aren't Hitchhiker

Moving on to the future, I ask if Chris is planning on going to any of
the upcoming meet-ups.

'I love the meet-ups. I'm naturally a little shy, but it's always a
great feeling to meet people who've made the effort just to come along and
want to meet you too. I guess my next one will be at Christmas, but I'm
nearly always willing to be dragged into an earlier one if the opportunity
presents itself. Unfortunately, I'm going to be in the South of France
during the Alton
Towers trip. Well, I say 'unfortunately', but it's hard to sound like
you mean it when you're talking about the South of France...'

What about after the BBC contract is up?

'It's hard to see how the expansion of h2g2 will go in the next few
but I'm determined to be a part of it. When my six months is up, I'd love to
stay on if there's room. If the job of Chief Scientific Officer comes up,
I'll even get the required bowl haircut and pointy otoplasty...'

And finally, I ask if Chris can reveal any clues as to what new changes
the community
can expect over the next few months.

'Well, Peer Review is due to be improved within the next few months to
it much easier for Researchers and Scouts to submit and pick entries for the
Guide. But you know that's public knowledge, I'm sure. We'll also be sending Sam
on a fact-finding mission to Mars. He likes the colour red, you

Hmm, sounds intriguing....

Frankie Roberto

Next Week: Dragonfly on the Musehome.

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