In order to access the BBC’s online TV and radio content now requires a login profile. By tracking the behaviour of each profile the corporation will be able to develop a far more detailed and sophisticated understanding of its audience. This is a structure that seeks to replicate and enhance the power relations of broadcast in the digital age. Market research and the complaints procedure are to be supplemented by automated and permanent consumer surveillance.
BBC viewers are to remain isolated from one another but individually accessible to the centre. Transforming this structure into a network would, at a minimum, giving each of us a profile page and allowing us to communicate with one another in various ways. This is not a trivial task. But it is not insuperably difficult or intolerably expensive, either. As a public service institution, the BBC does need to monetise its users in the way that Facebook, for example, does. This alone saves a lot of investment – the really clever coding at Facebook is designed to figure out things about us that we don’t even know about ourselves. And, because it does not depend on maintaining a commercial edge, the BBC can also provide a different, and in some ways more compelling, user experience.
Facebook wants to understand its users so that it can sell us to advertisers. A public social network could be designed so that we are able to understand one another, on the basis of information we give freely and consciously. Furthermore, it would be free to allow audiences to become active participants in media production, and hence in the formation and reformation of public opinion. If we wanted to learn more about something, or if we wanted to see different perspectives given a public platform, then we could say so in a way that was audible and intelligible to others.
Of course a public network run by the BBC would face challenges that the Silicon Valley monsters can avoid. Much more thought and investment will have to go into tackling the problem of online abuse in particular. But there is nothing untoward about the idea of a network that starts from default of anonymity. Indeed, as the secret ballot shows, anonymity is in some senses a condition for public status.
A public network would not need to cater to us as anything other than citizens and residents. Incorrigibly sociable as we are, friendships would form and people would fall out. But the purpose of the BBC’s network would be to provide us with information about the world, each other and ourselves that we need if we are to make informed political (and aesthetic) judgments. This is something that the BBC is only fitfully able to do at the moment.
The BBC’s audience has few opportunities to make itself known to itself. Twitter users can vent on the #BBCQT hashtag and that is more or less it. The technology allows something much richer and more constructive. Instead of complaining consumers we each and severally become co-operating members of a self-aware body politic.
This is a relatively minor change to the BBC’s online offering that would bring substantial benefits. It is becoming increasingly clear that major changes in the political and economic order are necessary. We would all benefit from public service media where these changes can be debated thoroughly and fairly. There aren’t many votes in media reform, but public media that makes full use of digital technology might mean the difference between success and failure for a reforming administration.