New Comment Is Free adds 'blog of comments'

A big day for the Guardian today, as the new community-enabled Comment Is Free makes its debut. Site editor Georgina Henry describes the various mechanical and presentational changes, but one in particular catches my eye.
Each user of the site now has a personal profile page… featuring an ‘instant archive’ of all the comments they’ve added to Cif articles. It’s the realisation of the ‘blog of comments’ concept I described a year ago, prior to the launch of the Telegraph’s own blogging platform:

Every time I add a comment to a Telegraph news story (for example), it would get aggregated on a ‘personal profile’ page… in other words, a de facto ‘news blog’. You automatically see the headline (and first paragraph?) of the story I commented on, followed by what I thought. It lets me write what is effectively a news-driven blog, but does a lot of the copy-and-paste work for me.

The presentation of these profile pages is pretty dreadful. It’s little more than a few lines of metadata, followed by something resembling search results. No customisation options, no uploaded ‘buddy icons’, no RSS feed per user*, no in-profile navigation (other than pagination), no sort options.
So there’s a very long way to go before these profiles become recognised as ‘blogs’. But make no mistake, that’s what they are. It’s blogging without the overhead, and it ties the blogger ever closer to the Guardian brand and site (whose primary navigation Cif now shares).
* In fact, the new Cif’s lack of RSS overall is a real shame. Cif’s biggest problem is that there’s just too much of it. A single RSS feed, covering all topics, isn’t much help. I really hope these are a feature of the topic-based ‘subsites’ Georgina refers to. They’re getting RSS and subject filtering so right elsewhere on the Guardian site… but Cif needs it more than any other section.

BBC's new /topics pages

See, this is what you can do when you’ve got lots of information, all properly tagged and structured. The BBC’s new /topics pages are entirely automated, and pull together content from across their online offerings – iPlayer, the News site, weather, /programmes – into a nicely presented ‘everything we know about X’ page. A modest 66 topics to start with, by my calculation, but the promise of many more. Try these examples: NHS, Gordon Brown, Liechtenstein. (And check out the pretty addressing, too.)
Over on the BBC Internet Blog, Matthew McDonnell explains how it uses ‘a variety of search techniques to create feeds of the latest BBC content’. I’m guessing a lot of it is down to a subject taxonomy, or free-text search for certain keywords. However it works, its beauty is encapsulated by this section:

Because the overhead involved in maintaining these pages is so low, we can cover many more subjects than we could using traditionally edited pages which had to be manually updated by a human being. As the feeds used in /topics are automatic, we can be confident that all the pages are bang up-to-date.

In many respects, this is the ‘holy grail’ of every taxonomy project. Well done to the BBC for actually making it happen; although it’s likely to encourage others to attempt to follow suit. And most will fail. (Yes they will.) And for the future?

We want to include high quality content from outside the BBC to enhance our pages. We’ll be working on providing feeds of news and blogs from sources other than the BBC. Yes, feeds [for you to build into your own website] will be available soon.

It’s genuinely brilliant: can we call it a hybrid of Wikipedia and Wikinews, with the added benefit of trusted editorial oversight? Just please, don’t try it at home.

Here is the news

Some very interesting numbers from Robin Goad at Hitwise, showing just how dominant (or not, he concludes) the BBC News website is in the UK news market.

What I find most interesting is the mix of news providers in this ranking. You’ve got broadcasters, newspapers, portals and aggregators (both social and automated), with no one grouping particularly dominant over any other. The Daily Mail has gone from nowhere to being the national #2; meanwhile, the Independent’s radical redesign has yet to really pay off. And look at the Guardian: below the Telegraph, below Sky News even.
‘The market share of BBC News in the category has increased slightly over the last 3 years,’ Robin observes; ‘but at the same time overall visits to the News and Media category have increased at a much faster rate, and most of this increased traffic has gone to non-BBC sites.’ This, he suggests, ‘points to a healthy and competitive online market in the UK, not one dominated by one player.’
Personally, I’m looking at a market being led by one provider whose share (based on the table above, anyway) adds up to significantly more than its 14 nearest competitors put together. How dominant do you want?

Sky News covers threesome live

There’s no stopping CoverItLive, the specialised live-blogging app. It’s becoming a regular feature on some of the leading political blogs… and now the Sky News website has arrived at the CIL party, carrying a live three-way interview (you can’t really call it a ‘chat’) with the leading candidates in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election this morning.
They’ve used it as a pseudo-chat application, which (as I’ve said before) isn’t its optimal use case. It’s a live blogging tool, intended for one individual to post rapid-fire comments, with occasional contributions from readers. Yes, you can use the same functions to deliver a moderated chat function, but that’s really not the point. To be honest, reading back through the chat transcript, it’s really quite hard to follow without the strong leadership of an active moderator/host.
Still, it’s quite interesting to see the very different approaches to the live chat medium. Lengthy contributions from an eager LibDem candidate, occasionally too eager on the copy-and-paste a few times; mind you, host Martin Stanford did the same a few times. Snappy – almost too snappy? – answers from Labour’s Dunwoody Jr. And (it must be said) very rare contributions from the Tory, who appears to have arrived late.
PS: I’m just sorry they didn’t invite the Monster Raving Loony candidate, The Flying Brick (?) to participate. My favourite from the list of policies on his website: ‘I will introduce piranha to the river Weaver, this will make fishing a spectator sport. Tourism would be increased tenfold and jobs increased in the Leighton Hospital. I propose a new, world leading, ward opened specialising in fish bites.’

Full-text feeds on BBC blogs

It’s great to see the long-awaited improvement to the BBC’s blog infrastructure coming fully on-stream. I’m hearing reports of long, long hours being worked this week; and the inevitable post-launch debugging work continues. The Beeb’s Jem Stone describes the full horror, and scores extra points for an obscure Guns N Roses reference.
But I’ve spotted one interesting development for the ‘bug or feature?’ desk. A few of the Beeb’s blogs are unexpectedly pumping out full text RSS feeds. Not all, it must be said. But as I write this, the feed for the BBC Internet Blog is dropping the entire posting, formatting and all, into the ‘description’ field; the feed for the dotlife blog is delivering the full text, stripped of all formatting, so it renders (in most cases) as a single paragraph. Looking back through the archives I compile as a bi-product of my onepolitics site, it looks like Nick Robinson’s feed was full-text for a brief while, but isn’t any more. Sadly.
If it’s a bug, guys, please don’t fix it. In fact, let it multiply. Given the problems you’ve had supporting the huge volume of comments, it’s probably in your interests to minimise hits to the blogging platform. Let Google Reader and Bloglines share the strain. And encourage us to actually read more of your stuff.

No10 Twittering is front-page news

A bit of a surprise this morning to discover that the venerable Today Programme is on Twitter… with its first tentative tweets as far back as September last year, and a (more or less) daily service since December. The username ‘todaytrial’ doesn’t imply that it’s being taken too seriously… although it’s built into their BBC website pages. I suspect someone may now be regretting that choice of username. And it’s a rather incestuous ‘Following’ list, consisting solely of other BBC services.
Downing Street‘s Twitter efforts are front page news in the Guardian this morning – see the actual text here – which should help them pass the 1500 friends mark imminently. Meanwhile, it looks like the Tories are taking Twitter more seriously, with updates being written in Twhirl – and, intriguingly, nothing from Twitterfeed in a few days. Still only a modest 60-odd friends, though. That Labour account is still nothing more than Twitterfeeding, with no indication if it’s official or not, and an even more modest 21 followers.
PS: I see a few other recent political additions to the Twittersphere include Boris Johnson – who appears to be texting them in; and Comment Is Free, for whom Twitter might be the key to making the whole CiF experience more practical. @brianpaddick has been at it since January; if it’s official, @kenlivingstone is leaving it a bit late.

BBC News site: too wide, too tabular

I’ve given it a fair crack over an extended period, but I’ve reached my conclusion: I just don’t like the redesigned BBC News site. In ‘standard’ conditions, a desktop PC running at 1024×768, it’s clearly an improvement: brighter, more airy, less cramped. But away from the norm, they’ve broken the golden rule of any revamp: don’t make anything worse.
As any website’s usage data will show, most people are now running a 1024×768 screen resolution. And monitors are just getting bigger, right? Wrong. I have four ‘web devices’ I use on a regular basis, and the two I bought most recently – an Asus Eee (classic edition) and a Nintendo Wii, both of which have sold like hot cakes – don’t operate at the larger resolution. So when I look at the majority of pages on the BBC News site, I have to deal with arguably the Number 1 no-no in web usability: horizontal scrolling.
(Curiously though, I see the second-level / subject homepages – eg UK or Politics – the page body remains sized for 800-sized screens?)
What’s infuriating is that (a) for all the BBC’s army of supposed design and usability managers, consultants and experts, nobody considered these widely-used devices worthy of appropriate support; and (b) it doesn’t have to be like that. CSS-based coding using DIVs could allow the site to work ‘well enough’ at 800-width, whilst looking its best at 1024. Instead, the site continues to use TABLE markup for layout, in clear breach of W3C advice dated 1999(!):

Tables should not be used purely as a means to layout document content as this may present problems when rendering to non-visual media. Additionally, when used with graphics, these tables may force users to scroll horizontally to view a table designed on a system with a larger display. To minimize these problems, authors should use style sheets to control layout rather than tables.

When I do a coding job, most of my time is spent working with DIVs and CSS, trying to make designs work acceptably across all browsers and all common setups. It’s not fun. TABLEs would be much easier, much quicker and much cheaper for clients. But coding with DIVs is unquestionably the right thing to do.
The BBC isn’t alone here: the major UK news sites are all – without exception, as far as I can see – forcing screen widths beyond 800 pixels. The Telegraph also uses a TABLE approach; whereas the Guardian and Times don’t. But we expect higher standards from the BBC. And that’s what annoys me most. Like a lot of people, I used to advise that whatever the BBC was doing, we all should be doing too. I don’t feel I can say that now.
Am I just being too idealistic here? And where does it leave government’s commitment to dated accessibility rules: what’s the point, when sites with receiving many times more traffic – the sites which define the typical UK user’s internet experience – are imposing a contradictory de facto standard? I’d be more than happy to go back to TABLE coding.

Highfield quits BBC

I’m sure other people will have much better insight than I into the departure of Ashley Highfield from his £359,000/year job at the BBC. Of course, he’s moving to a not-unrelated position, heading up Project Kangaroo, the video-on-demand joint-venture between the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. The success of iPlayer version 2 may or may not have been a factor… but isn’t it interesting how version 1 has become a dim and distant memory already been wiped from the history books? (See below.)
The Guardian reckons Erik Huggers has been groomed to be his successor:

“There’s a belief that [Huggers] was brought in specially and was being trained up for the job,” said (an) insider, who added that Huggers was well respected within the corporation. He makes stuff happen and is very hands-on. He is a very accomplished public speaker, has a very broad knowledge and will knock heads together.”
The source also said Huggers may find it difficult to move from a very delivery-focused, practical role to the politics of the corporation’s top digital media job. “Ashley’s job is 85% politics, 15% doing things. It will be interesting to see how [Huggers] does.”

Interesting use of the word ‘interesting’ there, obviously.
I suppose it’s a high-profile vote of confidence in the internet as a medium for distributing TV, although it makes the recent spat between Highfield and the country’s ISPs all the more juicy. And it’s probably a good thing for the BBC to have a new hand at the helm.
Over on the BBC’s Internet blog, Nick Reynolds posts the full email to staff from Mark Thompson. (Thanks Nick.) Again, I note the prominent iPlayer reference. It’s amazing how this has become a great moment in UK media history, despite getting it (frankly) so wrong in its first incarnation.
But hang on. I’m most amused by Thompson’s line about iPlayer receiving ’42 million programme requests in its first three months’. This figure seems to come from a press release last week, which proclaimed 42 million ‘in the first three months since its Christmas Day 2007 marketing launch‘. Crucially then, it seems we’re wiping the Microsoft-only, Kontiki-based, wait-forever-to-download product from the history books. Better remove all trace from the archives, guys.
And for the record, has anyone managed successfully to watch programming on a Wii? I’m finding it stops every 20-30 seconds to buffer, making it practically unwatchable.

Is that all there is, BBC?

There’s a new look to the BBC News website. They’ve been working on it ‘for the past few months’. So there’s clearly more to it than just making everything a little bigger – font sizes, white spaces, etc. Isn’t there?
BBC new look
The trouble is… the screenshot currently showing on the BBC Internet Blog homepage shows the old site, not the new one. If Steve Herrmann (or his people) can’t tell the difference, what chance do the rest of us have? (It’s correct elsewhere on the site – eg the extended page – which makes me think it’s a Movable Type problem, but that’s no excuse.)

BBC finally embedding video

BBC embedded Flash playerSteve Herrman, writing on the BBC’s Editors blog, is absolutely right: the move to video embedded on the page is ‘quite a significant moment’ for the Beeb’s website. Except that, judging by the first visible example, it’s got issues. It’s either failing to buffer, or returning an error message.
As explained in more detail on the Internet blog, the move to Flash video means faster processing for them, better quality for international users, and better usability for everyone. Clips will all have their own ‘permalink’ pages on the site, which makes for easier linking – but if you’re thinking of embedding clips on your own site, you’ll be disappointed.
It’s a welcome improvement from the Beeb: the News site’s use of video was starting to look ridiculously dated, when compared to the iPlayer… or indeed, to competitors like Sky, who went down this route almost a year ago. But I think Sky still has the edge in terms of usability. The Beeb’s pages already feel too long to me; I doubt many people ever read to the bottom of a story. By embedding video at the top of the page, as they seem to be doing, it pushes the text content even further down. Sky’s ‘rich sidebar’ treatment gives the best of both worlds.