BBC and the social software revolution

There’s a lot of buzz about the BBC’s recent announcement:
MediaGuardian.co.uk | Media | BBC unveils radical revamp of website

The BBC today unveiled radical plans to rebuild its website around user-generated content, including blogs and home videos, with the aim of creating a public service version of MySpace.com.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about the difficulties newspapers and traditional broadcast news and information outlets are facing due to the explosion of the Web. And by explosion, I mean not the ecommerce fixation of 6-7 years ago, but the sort of afterboom of the social web. How Craigslist is eating the lunch of local newspapers, because (according to Craig, and I’m paraphrasing him here, from the very excellent interview I heard via podcast) newspapers are supposed to be a community service, and that’s how they work best and how a community values them most.

The authority they derive in their news coverage is an after effect of how well they make themselves into an essential social organ.

The BBC sees this clearly and is doing something about it … rather than whining about the changing world and trying to sandbag against it, they’re adopting the new paradigm.

And that new paradigm is the peer-to-peer world. A relatively new book, “The Wealth of Networks,” takes Metcalfe’s law seriously, and explains the point that many others have been making for a while. From an interview at Open Business:

By “commons-based peer production” I mean any one of a wide range of collaborative efforts we are seeing emerging on the Net in which a group of people engages in a cooperative production enterprise that effectively produces information goods without price signals or managerial commands.

The interview goes on to cover the non-monetary incentives for this kind of co-production. Any enlightened HR person will tell you, though, that similar non-monetary incentives have always been primary drivers for workers; it’s what makes people care about what they’re doing. Getting paid is necessary, but it’s not the immediate incentive every minute of the work day. (If it *is* the main incentive of most workers in an organization, the organization is doomed.)

But enabling people to work this way is something most organizations aren’t used to doing. Which is why there’s an exponential increase in interest about “social software” and how to use it for business. I’m a big fan of the stuff, but it’s only as good as the organization using it: like any other software, it doesn’t fix anything on its own, it only gives people more opportunities to fix things together.

Maybe this is why CFO magazine has an article just a few days old about “Office Collaboration, the Wiki Way.” Maybe it’s why Kleiner Perkins is backing Visible Path’s vision to take social software to the serious corporate world? And maybe it’s why Forrester has an online session happening tomorrow called “Social Computing: How Networks Erode Institutional Power, And What to Do About It” with a blurb like this:

Easy connections brought about by cheap devices, modular content, and shared computing resources are having a profound impact on our global economy and social structure. Individuals increasingly take cues from one another rather than from institutional sources like corporations, media outlets, religions, and political bodies. To thrive in an era of Social Computing, companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists.

(The report from February is for sale here.)

A lot of this might be a little far-fetched. People and institutions don’t change overnight, and certain pockets of corporate culture have more inertia than others. Still, it’s one thing to talk about it like it’s the sci-fi future: then it’s just theoretical and not especially pressing. But it’s another to see it happening all around you. That’s when it’s time to at least have a strategy.