Chris, whose h2g2 user name is Zelmo Zale, joined the h2g2 team a while ago, but we at the Post felt that we wanted to get to know him a little better. And given the announcement of the redesign, we thought it would be a good opportunity to ask some more questions... which nicely coincided with Vip emailing us and suggesting an interview with Chris...
I'll start with some questions about you. Firstly, what led you to becoming part of the h2g2 staff?
I was already at the BBC when the job came up. For the last two years, I've been working on various programme sites across BBC Online, mainly on factual shows for BBC Two and BBC Three. After lots of short-term projects I was keen to work on something a bit longer-term. I'd be lying if I didn't say that at the time it was just one of a number of BBC jobs I'd applied for – but when it came to the interview, and when I'd had more of a chance to investigate the site, I'd come to realise just what a special place h2g2 is.
Vip: Had you ever read h2g2 before the job came up?
h2g2 was always something I was aware of. I knew it as a repository of great editorial content, with some sort of user generated aspect, that I linked to from time to time from other BBC sites. It was only when I delved deeper that I realised the extent of the community activities and the heritage it has. That's fairly typical, I have to say, of the way the site has in the past sometimes been viewed internally. It's generally been seen as a 'good thing' without quite grasping its potential. And I'd be the first to say that I was as guilty of that as others. It's completely won me over now, by the way. In a way, I'm an example of one of the converted.
Vip: What are your interests? (outside of h2g2, obviously!)
The usual – films, music. I appear on site as Zelmo Zale, and if you've ever stumbled on my Personal Space you'll see I've been diligently recording my 'earworms' – usually the last thing I've listened to on my iPod on my way in – in my journal. Also, I'm a huge comedy nerd, written and performed, so I spend a lot of time watching TV comedy – new and old - and live comedians. Douglas Adams has always been a hero of mine – his connection to the site was a major attraction for me – but I also love Spike Milligan, Pete and Dud, Monty Python, Round the Horn, Porridge. Which makes me sound like I'm about 100 years old, but I also like stuff from this century, like Flight of the Conchords and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I also write scripts in my spare time with a friend, some of which have been performed on stage by actual, professional humans, but I also have a young family so fitting that around childcare and the day job is a feat in itself. I'd have to say I'm also pretty unbeatable on Mario Karts for the Wii, but my son might beg to differ.
Vip: If you had to describe yourself in five adjectives, what would you come up with?
Decisive. No, indecisive, erm... Can I come back to that one?
Vip: Do you have any plans on writing an Entry? If so, on what subject?
I have a few ideas fizzing around. I've just discovered a brilliant French book called Clochemerle, which was made into a TV series in the early 70s, so I'd like to do something on that. I'd also like to maybe write about Edward Lear and Gerard Hoffnung. Mind you, I was also thinking about doing something on Simon Cowell, so it's not all edifying. In truth, writing Entries is something that Sam and I are itching to do more of, and should do more. But it's difficult finding the time at the moment, as we're flat out running the site and prepping the redesign. We're hoping that once we're through 'the big push' we'll have more time for that sort of thing.
Vip: Moving on to the redesign, let's start by asking what will it entail? Is it just a new skin or does it include some more fundamental changes in the way the site is used?
The redesign is first and foremost just that, a redesign. But we're hoping to take the opportunity to add and refine some things. But we're not thinking about any sort of overhaul of the way the site and community works. A company called Illumina came up with a redesign that was basically a reskinning of existing versions of the h2g2 pages last year – which we shared with the community. But at the time there wasn't the resource to implement them. Then, at the start of this year, we got the go-ahead from management for some larger scale development, as well as a chance to review look and feel and navigation. A company called Aerian, who will work with us right through to launch, took the Illumina designs as a starting point, and we're currently working with them on scoping, ready for the work to happen over the summer. The delay has also worked in our favour, as in the meantime the BBC has been developing a suite of tools – such as ways to rate and recommend content – that will hopefully be ready for us to use on the new-look site. We're hoping to publish wireframes on h2g2 very soon, so you can see where we're up to.
Vip: Do we have a timescale for when we expect the re-design to be launched? The 10,000th Entry is due to be entered into the Guide roughly in November (at current rates) so are you planning to tie the two together?
The community has been very patient and, over the years, we're very aware that the site has had more than its fair share of false starts – before my time here, but I know the history - regarding designs and redevelopment. So this time we wanted to be 100% sure that it was going to happen before we started making concrete promises about timeframes. Having said that, all being well the new-look site should be ready for at least a 'soft' launch by the start of autumn. We really hope it happens well before November but the 10,000th Entry is certainly a great landmark to celebrate after launch, and we're looking for things to help promote the site to the wider world in the autumn. It's also been pointed out to us that 10 October 2010 is 101010, and so 42 in binary, so might be a good date to aim for. But, in truth, we can't be that specific. The main thing is that it's happening, there is now the will and the resources to make the redesign a reality, and it'll happen this year.
Vip: Do you have any plans on how you expect to 're-focus on the Edited Guide'?
Editorially, we'll continue to focus on the Edited Guide, and, truthfully, that's mostly where the new functions will be aimed. That is not to say that the unedited Entries aren't important, but in some ways, and the way the site works, those parts sort of look after themselves (or, more specifically, those who curate them look after them). So our attention will remain on the 'approved' sections of the site. And funnily enough we have been talking about what the Edited Guide means to people this week. There is still thinking to be done about what the 'Guide' means and what 'h2g2' represents. Nothing radical but just a slight refocus on what it is people are actually contributing to. But a lot of this has to do with terms of reference rather than any great sea change about what the site is about. The great thing about the make-up of the h2g2 editorial team now is that, while Sam is a long-time member of the community, and has been here since virtually the start, I'm a comparative newcomer to the site. Hopefully I can bring to bear some of my experience of working in other parts of the BBC. I also know what it feels like getting to grips with the site for the first time. But Sam has an instinctive feel for the community, so we can guard against doing anything that risks damaging the ethos of the site.
Vip: Have you any plans to re-define what the Guide should be?
Broadly, we're centring on our strapline, 'The guide to life, the universe and everything, written by you', in that we want to emphasise the community aspect of the content created on the site. That does place the emphasis on the Edited Entries, it's true – but it's the Edited Entries that the rest of the BBC online will usually link to and point towards, knowing that they've come under that extra bit of editorial scrutiny. But the real selling point of h2g2, I think, is the fact that Edited Entries, although collaborated on by a number of people, are written primarily by one person – it's their tone of voice and take on the world. Of course, there's an established style, but the fact that our Entries are 'authored' solely, not written by committee – and therefore don't have the personality squeezed out of them – is what makes them so unique. In business terms, this is what the BBC wants to embrace and celebrate. And if that helps h2g2 sit better with bbc.co.uk's suite of sites – rather than being considered a special case on its own – then all the better. That's what is going to ensure h2g2's future.
Vip: Do you see it as an encyclopedia or as a travel guide, or as something different again?
I think people should be encouraged to write about whatever they have a passion for, an interest in or at least some knowledge of. The rule of thumb, however, is that it should be at least of some benefit to others, either in furthering the understanding of something, sharing knowledge or being of practical help. I see it as a people's encyclopedia. I hate to bring up the W word, but in a recent thread discussing alternative names, someone came up with the tag 'Wittypedia', and I think if you had to sum it up in one word, that's brilliant. In some ways we're already a long way from what the Guide was in Douglas' books - not that that's been a conscious effort. But hopefully we're embracing Douglas' vision of what h2g2 the site should be, a 'collaborative guide', steadily growing, updated and maintained by the people who contribute to it. He also wanted the site to evolve, and to adapt to the locations that the people who use it find themselves in. We're edging towards realising that, and one way to look at the redesign is that it's just the next stage in h2g2's evolution.
Vip: If you do focus on the Edited Guide, some may feel that The Community aspect will suffer. Do you think that will be the case, and, if so, that it's a bad thing?
If you're talking about the part of the Community that is actively engaged in creating and collaborating on Entries with the aim of getting them into the Guide, then this is something we want to strengthen, and is a long-term aim for after the launch of the new-look site. As for the Community beyond that process, we want it to thrive but it is a difficult thing for us, as a central editorial team, to foster. But we're hoping that one feeds the other, that we can close the gap between the groups. Having said that there are wider community aspects that we want to actively promote more. For example, the UnderGuide and your good selves at The Post, which we're aiming to give more prominent homepage promotion. It's important for us to show off the breadth of writing we have on h2g2, and that includes stuff beyond the Edited Guide.
Vip: What do you see as the main challenges that face h2g2 in the short and long term?
I would say the biggest challenge that the site has faced is one that we've already overcome – getting the rest of the BBC to embrace h2g2 for what it is. And the more redevelopment work we do now, getting the site to fit better with the rest of bbc.co.uk, both visually and technically, the more of a secure future we can guarantee for it. The biggest long-term challenge we have is bolstering the active community, to ensure more Edited Entries are being created. And a big part of this is attracting new members of the community, initially to comment and collaborate, then to write Entries and then to make the leap to becoming more active members of the community, such as Scouts and Subs. We still do extremely well in terms of site visitors, so that's unsigned in users, but we need to ensure that there is a steady stream of good new Entries for them to read.
Vip: We've all watched the number of active Researchers dwindle over the last few years – how do you intend to reverse that trend?
Chris: We're hoping that the big leap forward that will come with the redesign, a big part of which is making the site look like it belongs a bit more to this century than the last, should hopefully go a long way towards helping us recruit more researchers. One of the things we're taking the opportunity to do is look at demystifying the process of contributing to h2g2 for newcomers. But without dismantling the current process or making it so easy that there isn't a sense of achievement when something makes its way through Peer Review. However, we're focusing on implementing the redesign before we look seriously at reinvigorating the community, but it's next on the list.
Are there any plans for additional BBC staff members to help you two out?
That's not really a question for me. But it's just us two for the foreseeable future.
Vip: Where do you see h2g2 in five years' time?
While h2g2 is beloved by those who use it, it's still for many an undiscovered gem. I'd love it if the site became every internet user's go-to place for witty, well-informed, surprising, entertaining and well-written content. For many it's already a watchword for that, I'd just love for the word to get out that bit further.