There's a huge amount to say about the changes BBC Online announced last week. As a former member of staff with many friends whose jobs under threat, I'm prompted by both personal loyalty and passion for the BBC's mission and purpose to say a lot of things I might regret later. So this post isn't about the overall rights and wrongs of the strategy and cuts. It's about a narrower pet passion and area of interest of ours - social media and accountability.
Ian Hunter has written a concise and lucid post about this on the BBC Internet Blog, setting out some ways the BBC is seeking to move "from a site which offers a few fairly circumscribed social experiences to one which is more social everywhere". The most eye-catching and commented announcments are the closure of the 606 sport messageboard and the so-called "disposal" of h2g2 (in other words, the BBC is trying to find a sympathetic new owner for the latter project). There is also a reiteration of the deliberate trend away from messageboards and towards trying to shepherd interactions and conversations around BBC-generated content (blog posts, some programmes, some news stories).
There is also a restatement of the importance to the BBC's approach to social media of Facebook and Twitter. This itself takes a number of forms. Listeners to the increasingly cash-strapped World Service will have already noticed the extent to which the BBC has made itself dependent on Facebook in particular as CMS, CRM and user engagement strategy combined, with programmes often bypassing the BBC website completely in order to promote their Facebook pages. We've already blogged here about the iPlayer's integration with Facebook and Twitter. And we publicly recommended that the BBC engage more fully with external public conversation and comment around both its content and its strategy.
But there's clearly a danger here as well. In conceding ownership of the social graph, conversation and in many cases content itself to international commercial interests, an accountability deficit may emerge, where the BBC's audience and paymasters are less able to exercise their intellectual rights of ownership in a transparent manner. They may also be less able to own and manage the data they generate around themselves in relation to the BBC. It should be noted that Facebook and Twitter are both still entirely privately owned, unlisted companies.
There are of course additional concerns, such as the BBC losing control over its own content, and the building of private value to individual corporations instead of public or civic value to the commons. There are echoes with the long-running debate over the BBC's support of proprietary over open formats for audio and video. That one resolved pretty happily. And it's important to recognise the legitimate public service argument in support of, say, Windows Media or Facebook, on the grounds of meeting the habits of the audience - standards as defined by level of uptake rather than theoretical openness or public ownership.
As Ian puts it: "Much of this is standard practice across the web, of course, and we need to evolve to meet the changing expectations of our users." Absolutely right. But this in microcosm represents an overall concern with the BBC's online strategy - is there too much of a desire to fit in to the online world as it is, and not enough of a vision for the unique role that the BBC can play in shaping that world?