The BBC has twin, conflicting pressures that give its web presence a certain flavour. On the one hand, because public service broadcasting does have a certain freedom, then it can adopt technologies quite early, if only on the small scale. This is the driving force behind fringe successes like BBC Backstage.
On the other, whole strata of the BBC consist of HR-brained, middle-management types who have used the recent recourse to “compliance” as an excuse to take control of programme commissioning, production and distribution. They’ve always been around, though, and they don’t get the way media has worked for the past five years: they don’t even care that they don’t get it. Their job consists of setting up processes, proving they’re perfectly suited to the BBC’s organisation, and then making sure those processes never get changed, ever, until the Daily Mail says so.
In between these two influences—early and therefore slightly confused adopter, and irredeemable and therefore utterly confused luddite—the BBC sometimes seems to inhabit an alternative-universe internet. It’s so similar to our own in so many ways, because the long-term influence of pragmatic web development is to level off differences in useability and user experience, but it’s just different enough from our own to create an occasional cognitive dissonance in the site visitor or otherwise service consumer.
The example which always springs to mind is email addresses. If you wanted to email Adam Buxton, presenter of (among other things) a show on BBC 6Music, you might try email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. Then you might try all of those, but with abuxton, or adam.buxton2. After they’ve all bounced, in desperation and with full knowledge of what people tend to do on dinosaur services like Hotmail, you’d guess at firstname.lastname@example.org and give up in disgust.
You’d certainly never guess email@example.com . You wouldn’t be alone: Adam and Joe have been presenting that show for over a year now, and only Joe seems to be able to rattle it off, and then not consistently. The email address requires prior knowledge of the internals of the BBC, and it’s brittle, in the sense that it’s tied to a programme rather than a contact; it uses a number and the word ‘and’, both of which can confuse over radio; and arguably it breaks the convention of email addresses—where the organization has control over the domain, so not at a provider like Hotmail—being of the approximate form name@organization .
Why has the BBC got itself into this weird mess with email addresses? Lots of alternatives exist, and there’s nothing to stop it setting up DNS records to accept email to, for example, 6music.bbc.co.uk. My guess is that whatever convention worked was adopted early when no other popular conventions exist, and now that convention has become a point of process, trapped in amber and cement by management. Pretty soon it’ll be a charming tradition of nonsensical epithets, and the BBC will be busy gently, amicably and harmlessly weirding the next wave of their electronic communication with the nation.