A quick history of the BBC and social media

Radio 1 Club 1968

NB: I was asked to pen a quick summary of social media & the BBC as “background reading” for an internal meeting so republishing here. Its inevitably partial as its meant to be a summary not the definitive history. Also apologies for any errors. They are mine. Thanks especially to Martin Belam, Robin Hamman, Lizzie Jackson, Euan Semple, Andrew Bowden , Daniel Bennett, Kevin Anderson, and Peta Haigh for their memories, help over the years and especially for their blogging. Otherwise i’d never have been able to put this together.

(This post was originally written in July 2011 . Its been updated with new links, projects and comments in April 2014).

A History of Social at BBC Online:

It’s now almost a cliche to say that the BBC has always been social. Radio and TV has, of course, for over 80 years been a catalyst for overwhelming responses from listeners and viewers. Its stories, presenters and DJs have provided the social capital around which thousands of real life (and now online) communities have coalesced, normally without any BBC support or ownership. Staff guidance for tweeting and before that blogging is relatively recent but the infrastructure and policies to support interaction from programmes as diverse as Swap Shop, Blue Peter, Family Favourites and Crimewatch is long standing inside the BBC.

We are prone to imagine that, for example,  the 4 year old Radio 1 Facebook page is  a completely new phenomenon forgetting of course that Radio 1 pioneered and hosted in the late 60s the “Radio 1 Club”;  a ” link between the listeners at home and the D.J.’s and stars” , where alongside a weekly live radio show from various venues in the UK, Radio Times featured a  “members magazine”. And like today there were even disruptive listeners; in 1970 a R1 commissionaire was attacked by “rowdy teenagers” at a club event.

So this very quick canter through 15 Years  20 Years of social media

at BBC Online is, in lots of way, as  the baseball player Yogi Berra so memorably put it. “like Deja Vu, all over again”

1994 -1997 – At B-B-C dot co uk…

1994 –  BBC websites for programmes start to appear from 1994 onwards although the formal launch of BBC Online/BBC News Online is still 3 years away. Email addresses and URLs start to be read out on air. Some news/radio programmes experiment with IRC. This continues sporadically into the next decade until Twitter effectively kills it off in 2009/10.

1997 – 2000: Forums, and Live Chats

1997: BBC Online and BBC News Online formally launch in Nov 1997.

1997 – The first BBC message board launches for the old Radio 4 programme; Home Truths closely followed by EastEnders, & Doctor Who (even though it wasn’t to return to the BBC for another 8 years). A fairly crude third party piece of software was used until replaced by an internal system dubbed Howerd 1 (after Frankie’s 70s stage show “A funny thing happened on the way to a forum” – geddit ?). It was replaced by Howerd2, only meant to be a brief temporary upgrade. It lasted 4 years.

1998 – Lizzie Jackson is hired to become the BBC’s first Category Manager for Communities. The BBC’s community team grows until at its peak there are 8 community managers for different BBC depts.  The BBC’s first guidelines for hosting and moderation are established.

2000-2003 iPresenters & iStudio

2000 – Ashley Highfield joins the BBC as its new “New” Media boss and in the midst of the dot.com crash, purchases online forum; H2G2; (HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy:ie: H2G2), its community , staff and technology (Called DNA after Douglas Noel Adams). Still 5 years before Wikipedia launches and seen by some as a “what if” moment, its technology still effectively powers BBC’s social publishing team 11 years later.

2001: The Joy of Text; a theme night devoted to SMS on BBC One receives the lowest ever ratings share for a prime time BBC One programme in its history although a record 500K texts were received during the evening.

2001: During the 2001 election, Nick Robinson keeps a regularly updated online diary of  quotes, links, photos and text messages, the BBC’s first official formative “blog”. He returns to the BBC in 2005; pronounces “My name is Nick Robinson and I’m a blogger” and is one of the first bloggers on the BBC’s new blog platform. (Developed using Six Aparts’ Movable Type software)

2002: The launch of iPlayer was 6 years away but bbc.co.uk launches, in its Bush House building in Aldwych, a dedicated studio devoted to live chats with celebrities and recruits dubbed iStudio. It recruits a mix of new talent and broadcasters (iPresenters) to host the chats. One of which; Spencer Kelly later goes on to present BBC News’ technology programme BBC Click. The experiment is quietly abandoned when New Media moves to new accommodation in W12 in 2004.


2002: The  rebranding of BBC Online as BBCi and the redesign of the BBC site gives it a site wide toolbar for the first time. One of the permanent links is  an index page: dubbed “Communicate” (“chat, messageboards and more” ). Listing the BBC’s live chats, forums and ways to discuss BBC programmes and topics, it remained there for another 3 years.

2003 – 2005: User Generated Content and the rise of the Citizen Journalist

2003 Internally called “chat around content”;  a web based instant chat service dubbed “BBC Connector” appears on several sites. Never officially “launched” and closed in 2005 it was used during the 2004 Olympics and on sites for Radio 1 and Strictly Come Dancing.

2003: Following Greg Dyke’s Political review  initiated after the 2001 General Election had the lowest turn out on record,  work starts on the The Action Network project, originally called iCan. It launched in 2003 , widely praised with this (ex BBC) academic rightfully calling it the “most high profile and ambitious attempts by a public service broadcaster to foster participation through an online civic commons”.

Again ahead of its time, it failed though to have impact and the mainstreaming of Facebook, petition software and Twitter following the 2005 election meant it was quietly closed in 2008.

2004: Three years after it purchased H2G2, BBC finally migrates its message board/forum portfolio (outside of BBC News) to the DNA  platform. By now the majority of BBC message boards are reactively moderated. Moderation is handled by a third party company. Strict internal governance is introduced to reduce rising pan BBC moderation costs. This moderation model still exists today.

2004: Chris Kimber, until recently the Managing Editor for BBC Radio/Music interactive, says in an interview with The Independent looking back on the last decade:

“Only 10 years ago, radio was a one-way experience, but digital technology has given the radio ears that provide programme-makers with instant feedback. Before they had to rely on getting letters back but now we have chat rooms, message boards, text messaging and e-mail. Programmes can really connect with audiences in a way that 10 years ago they could not

2004: The wealth of user filmed footage of the Boxing Day Indian Ocean earthquake leads to a proposal to create a pilot UGC hub inside BBC Newsgathering;  flitering, verifying and distributing (to TV, and BBC News online) the thousands of images, video and text sent to BBC News..

2004: Pioneering blogs spring up around the BBC (Kevin Anderson’s US Election diary) or using external platforms  (Paul Mason’s G8 focused blog for Newsnight hosted on Typepad).  This leads (in 2005) and advised by Anderson to  Pete Clifton’s (Head of BBC News interactive) notorious internal, but later published in his weekly online column, email where he pledged to no longer launch blogs that “weren’t blogs” which he defined as having permalinks, RSS & comments. A blogs network, powered by Movable Type, launches in the BBC in late 2005.

2004: BBC News migrates its Have Your Say forums to a platform powered by third party software provider; Jive and uses the BBC’s SSO iD system for the first time.

2005-8 “Use the Web as your canvas”

2005: Island Blogging: A BBC Scotland community site that allowed users to blog via the BBC’s pages launches. One of the first hyper local sites, it closed in 2010.

July 7th 2005: The lessons of 7/7 help formalise the BBC News UGC pilot which leads to the creation of a team which later grows to 20 staff and a 24/7 service.

2006: A blog post from Helen Boaden launches the Editors’ blog inside BBC News. A response to the Hutton inquiry ; it aspires to be a place for senior BBC staff to explain their decisions. Similar blogs are later launched for Radio, TV, and BBC Online itself.

2006: Blogging Guidance: After a consultation process using a wiki and the BBC’s internal staff message boards; The BBC publishes staff guidance on blogging for the first time. It is later copied and forms the basis of guidelines for many other public sector organizations.

2006: The BBC’s strategic rethink becomes dubbed BBC2.0 and the BBC publishes a set of 15 web principles to aspire to.  These include “The web is a conversation. Join in: Adopt a relaxed, conversational tone. Admit your mistakes.” And “Link to discussions on the web, don’t host them: Only host web-based discussions where there is a clear rationale”.

A further principle “Treat the entire web as a creative canvas” is more enthusiastically adopted by the BBC as it starts to establishes presences on Flickr, YouTube, Second Life, MySpace, and eventually Facebook and Twitter.

2006: Ashley Highfield makes a speech about social software and the BBC “we absolutely don’t want to become a MySpace or a Flickr or a Friends Reunited, we want to work with these players, to partner our relevant offerings with theirs.”.  Its later highly criticised by ex BBC staffer Tom Coates in one of the most notorious blog posts of the time “Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield ?”

 2006: Brainchild of Robin Hamman, the pioneering BBC Manchester blog launches aiming to collaborate with local bloggers and curate local content. The experiment lasts 2 years. It closes in 2008.

Oct 2006 The 606 message board is replaced by a new 606 community/social network powered by the DNA platform. For a brief period it becomes the largest sport specific social network in the UK. It eventually closes as part of DQF announcements in the summer of 2011.

2007: As part of the BBC’s fledgling Developer Network; Backstage; the BBC works with developer Mario Menti to launch automated Twitter accounts for @bbcnews and @bbcbreaking for the first time. Menti now runs Twitterfeed; the automated twitterfeed service.

2007: Radio 4 launch iPM; a weekly 30 minute radio show that aimed to “source what we do through the best blogs, passionate ‘ear catching’ online debate as well as comments and recommendations of others.” It still runs in 2014 although its online experimentation (sharing potential stories ) is now less prominent.

2008 – 2010: Social Media

2008: BBC updates its blogging guidance to incorporate “social networking”. The BBC’s Director for Editorial Policy; David Jordan said “It does not restrict BBC staff from conducting legitimate activities on the Internet. But it does raise awareness of how crucial the BBC’s reputation for impartiality and objectivity is.”

2008 BBC upgrades it blogs (still being powered by Movable Type) but implements a site wide UI, and integrates comments from DNA for the first time enabling blog comments to use the BBC’s back end moderation platform. By now it has 100+ blogs across all its depts.

2009: BBC appoints its first social media editors; Roo Reynolds in BBC TV (now Rowan Kerek Robertson), Alex Gubbay in BBC News (now Chris Hamilton) and Jem Stone in BBC Radio. Its Communications team later appoints a Head of Engagement; Sophie Brendel.

Presenters and programmes start to use Twitter for the first time but it is still very much a niche activity.

2010: iPlayer v3.0 launches which features Twitter/Facebook integration and friends recommendations/comments for the first time. Take up of the social features is mixed, however, and they are again dropped by 2012.

2010: BBC upgrades its Blogging (now Social Media) Guidelines to incorporate advice for microblogging (ie: Tweeting) for the first time. Hashtags start to appear on TV screens.  BBC News launch a social media training programme for all its staff.

Richard Bacon becomes the first regular BBC presenter to have over a 1m followers on Twitter.

2010: “Live” pages form the cornerstone of the BBC’s Election (and post-Election) pages, World Cup site, and Ashes site.  Embedding tweets, blog posts, links and summaries they remain the key platform to do connected storytelling inside Journalism. BBC TV and Radio deploy third party software; Cover It Live to do likewise for large events such as Glastonbury.

2010: The 10th anniversary of “MustardLand”; The Archers (the Radio 4 soap) message board; One of the few remaining forums inside the BBC, it still attracted over 1m posts (a substantial amount of which are off topic) published live to the server by users every year. It eventually closed in Feb 2013.

2010: The BBC launches its first short url (powered by bit.ly) to encourage sharing inside Facebook and Twitter; http://bbc.in/


As part of DQF announcements, at the beginning of the year,  BBC announces it will consolidate its forums, blogs and replace with “integrated social tools”. It pledges to “not launch its own social network”

– BBC News  (and later Sport) effectively abandon blogs as a stand alone format and integrates them into new Correspondents Pages aggregating an persons articles, tweets and reports; It introduces a character limit to comments for the first time and closes its destination forum Have Your Say. Most other BBC blogs retain the existing design and comment format.

– Twitter replies and retweets outnumber SMS sent to Radio 1 and 5 Live in a month for the first time. The @bbcbreaking twitter account takes off following a series of unprecendented international news stories. It now (April 2014) has close to 10m followers.

Sharetools; a BBC version of “tweet this” and a Facebook “share” button is launched on BBC News and iPlayer. It replaced in some areas of the site; a  “share this” “bar” with links to Digg, Del.ici.ous that had been available, with limited take up, since 2006.

BBC announces the “disposure” of H2G2. It emerges that a consortium of the community and previous H2G2 owners form to buy it back. It still exists via h2g2.com

– One of the first high profile “tweet-alongs” takes place during the 60th anniversary of Radio 4’s The Archers as a double episode sees the death of much loved character Nigel Pargetter. It attracts over 25,000 tweets.  Such events ,either encouraged by the BBC or merely spontaneous activity by fans, listeners and viewers, start become commonplace in the next few years.

2011- 2014  Twitter, Facebook and the mainstream.

By now, although the BBC still publishes tens of thousands of comments per day mostly below the line of news stories; its social media activity is largely focused around sharing content and engaging with viewers and listeners via third party platforms; Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

2011: Radio 1 appoints Ben Cooper as its new Controller and under pressure to maintain engagement with young listeners , embraces social media platforms as part of its strategy. It changes its on air tagline to “Listen,Watch, Share”,and young producers  start to pioneer a raft of on air and online innovations with superfans and communities. Its new Sunday night presenters; Dan and Phil are perhaps better known for their films and interviews on YouTube.

2012: Acknowledging how participating online had been transformed over the last decade the BBC publishes a celebrated piece of research arguing that the long standing 1.9.90 rule was “outmoded” and that  “Participation is now the rule rather than the exception: 77% of the UK online population is now active in some way.”

2013: Use of hashtags in live events, references to tweets in news bulletins , discussing selfies and mentioning the BBC’s and other people’s activity on social media platforms is ubiquitous across nearly every TV and radio network.  BBC issues new guidance about how social media platforms should be referred to on air.

During The Voice in 2013, Will.I.Am reveals the name of his finalist on Twitter first before announcing it on air.

2014: BBC News launches a new short format news bulletin designed for sharing on the photo/video sharing service Instagram now owned by Facebook.

BBC Sport starts to routinely allow viewers to vote on topical questions using Twitter hashtags.


The BBC hosts an event celebrating 20 years since its first website in April 1994  As part of the celebrations it posts a clip of 1994 TV programme; The Net which showcased the “BBC Networking Club” a not for profit subscription website offering some early social networking and bulletin board features.” Which i think is where we came in. 

Further reading:


20 responses to “A quick history of the BBC and social media

  1. sums up the level of the bbc social media..chance to be one of the best…sadly one of the worst more interested in control than enjoying the big world…

  2. Did you mean Bush House on Aldwych for the launch of bbc.co.uk with it’s ‘iStudio’? Bush House has had some odd things there over the years..!

  3. This is what wikis are for… (wink)

    “2000: Still 5 years before Wikipedia launches and seen by some as a “what if” moment, its technology still effectively powers BBC’s social publishing team 11 years later.”

    … you might wish to mention the name of this technology – DNA – which you refer to later in this post

    “2002: The launch of iPlayer was 6 years away but bbc.co.uk launches, in its Bush House building in Aldgate”

    I think you mean Aldwych.

    “It recruits new talent (iPresenters) to host the chats. One of which; Spencer Kelly later goes on to present BBC News’ technology programme BBC Click.”

    This wasn’t Spencer’s first broadcasting job, though it reads like it – he was recruited from Southampton’s Ocean FM (now Capital FM), where he was the breakfast show host for six years.

    “2007: As part of the BBC’s fledgling Developer Network; Backstage; the BBC launches automated Twitter accounts for @bbcnews and @bbcbreaking for the first time.”

    Not sure this is quite right: I thought Mario Menti did this, rather than the BBC (he then handed over the twitter accounts when BBC News were ready?) I might have got this wrong.

    “2009: BBC appoints its first social media editors; Roo Reynolds in BBC TV (now Rowan Kerek Robertson), Alex Gubbay in BBC News (now Chris Hamilton) and Jem Stone in BBC Radio and Music.”

    Audio and Music? Or is that deliberate?

    “2010: The BBC works launches its first shorturl to encourage sharing inside Facebook and Twitter; http://bbc.in/

    – the beginning of this sentence doesn’t make much sense. Works with bit.ly, one would assume?

    Loving your work,


  4. Enjoyed this walk down memory lane, Jem. Thanks!

  5. Fascinating stuff. Certainly worth a read. I was wondering how long it took to research your blog entry.

  6. One of the things I found in my pedestal draw when I was clearing it out for my departure was a black and white printout of a screenshot of BBC Connector. It was taken prior to launch where the (what seemed like) half the BBC’s dev team were using to test out the profanity filter! The filter was amazingly robust, unlike the one on Howerd 1 which steadfastly refused to accept posts about Greg Dyke or Terry Wogan. An exercise to the reader is to work out what Terry did to annoy the filter 😉

    And as for iStudio, well what a waste of time that was although it had an amazing launch party (they’d managed to get some sponsorship from somewhere to pay for it), although best remembered by me for seeing Barbara Windsor in the lift and having to do some drunken coding in order to fix the live chat system. On the day of launch, they also persuaded London Buses not to park up outside the building for the day so they could fill the window with celeb lookalikes. The only good part of that iStudio redevelopment was the wonderful meeting room they built near it where all walls all were whiteboards. Great for collaboration.

    My correction is very minor but the launch of BBCi and the top toolbar was in 2001 – either October or November. It was a complete pain in the neck and I was one of the many people who spent over six months recoding web pages to allow the launch. I got to sit in Bush House overnight as we rolled it all out, getting home at 5:30am having eaten pizza, drunk Coke and generally not found any major problems.

    Anyway, great post – like going back in time some of this. I remember a group of us, including (I think) Tom Loosemore, talking about how the BBC should be blogging back in 2002. No one else was really doing it then. By the time 2005 came along, we looked more like we were following the crowd. Ho hum.

  7. Nice work Mr Stone sir. I forgive you for not mentioning me in this presentation. 😉

  8. Julie – thanks. Good to hear from you. Fond memories of my Glasgow trips and round tables in Bush House 🙂

    James H – yes. Typo. Mixed up by Ald London. Its the Bush House building. Or rather was.

    James C- Hi James. Thanks sir. Some comments about your comments.
    Wiki – Yep. well, er.
    DNA – yep. fair play. made that clearer.
    Spencer Kelly – I did link to his bio but tweaked to hint that he had a broadcasting career before “iPresenters”. Good shout.
    twitterfeed – You’re correct. thats Mario’s doing but he was helped on his way with a Backstage commission in 2007. There’s more on this in the Backstage History ebook no less. http://backstage.bbc.co.uk/
    Audio and music – that’s me being obtuse.
    Bbc.in – bit of a type. and you’re correct. powered by bit.ly

    Shain – research ? Not that long in the end. But I’ve worked at the BBC for a long time now and people like Martin Belam, Kevin Anderson, and Robin Hamman and others have blogged extensively on this subject so plenty of source material 🙂

  9. Brilliant stuff Jem, I’d completely forgotten about the Joy of Text, one of my first BBC projects. I thought Collective (RIP) would get a mention, I know it was one of many DNA services but I think it it was the most innovative of them.

  10. With all the additions and comments, sounds like enough material for an entire e-book!

  11. An interesting article, thank you.

    Perhaps it was the intended audience of this piece that made you unable to mention just how badly received the new Correspondents Pages as blog replacements went down with the regular users.

    I think the attendees at your internal meeting should be required to read all the comments at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2011/05/our_next_step_in_news_blogging.html

    The new BBC News blogs certainly fall far short of the ideals listed by Kevin Anderson that you linked to via http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4727579.stm in at least three of the five principles.

    I don’t think anyone has publicly addressed (well not to the users of BBC Online) how the push to make users diversify towards mainstream commercial social media to discuss BBC matters can possibly lead to anything other than huge and unmanageable amounts of noise from which it is impossible to filter any gems. This may be an inherent problem but the BBC used to be about solving these problems rather than passing the buck. Perhaps an article on the R&D Blog could address ways of integrating some kind of meaningful filter that does not simply look for views that reinforce ones already held views.

    I cannot see that DQF is anything other than a vacuous marketing slogan.

  12. Thanks Jem, this is a nice timeline and a great set of links for future reading.

    There are so many good ideas that were axed. I suppose that’s the way things work when new technologies and ways of interacting emerge. In some ways this does read as a list of unrealised potential.

  13. Jem, re: Mustardland and “it still attracts over 1m posts (a substantial amount of which are off topic) ”

    That’s a very unfair comment. In “The Bull” it is *specified” that the only two things considered off-topic are discussions of The Archers and Word Games. The odd word game might slip through, but otherwise we stick to the rules pretty closely. 🙂

  14. Great memories, thanks Jem! An encyclopaedic account would be impossible and it’s a great account I think, for my part I felt that community sites played quite a big part in the BBC’s social media history in the times when we used to say “online communities” rather than “social media”. iCan, Collective, Get Writing, Film Network, 606 as well as H2G2 which out-survived the other long lost and lovely greats of DNA in the end :0)

  15. A great re-cap of the past years,however you have completly side stepped the issues of BBC Messageboards and why they are closed, you mention Mustardland but how about a re-cap of when different Boards closed over the years, and what they were replaced with.

  16. Hi Jem. If you are interested, I can provide some information on the rationale, people and so forth in the development of Howerd 1 since I was intimately involved.

  17. doug…no we are not the least bit interested x

  18. Jem, just adding to my previous post, alot of people have reacted to this post externally, indeed this blog post has been called many things including “BBC Employee Social Media Love in” how are you sure that the Social media that the BBC have embraced over recent years, is actually preferred by the vast majority of License Fee payers, and is not sommething which BBC Employees have pushed on Licensee Fee payers, to the detriment of Messageboards?

    An open answer to this will get rid of the somewhat suspicous view people have that the BBC is pushing/over promoting,Twiiter etc, against the wishes of Licensee fee payers.

    An answer would be greatly appreciated.


  19. Any chance of an answer Jem, i know this is your personal blog, so apologies for infringing on your territory, this Blog is so intresting i couldn’t resist posting!!

  20. Good Evening Jem, I have just noticed that your Colleague Ian McDonald is promoting your Blog on the BBC Internet Blog http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2011/07/the_five_biggest_stories_at_bb.html i have also posted a link on there as well, because this Blog Post is so fantastic,with that in mind i think it would be pertinent for you to answer my above Questions.

    I realise answering such Questions is highly difficuly seeing as Messageboards seem quite taboo for BBC Staff, but a think a Man with your gravitas and experience in such matters, should be able to answer such Questions.

    Hope to see an answer soon, and keep up the good work on your Blog, it is fantastic!!!

    Kind Regards


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