Interview with the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones


As part of my research into small firms that are using Web 2.0 technologies. I have interviewed people from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds. However, I had an opportunity this week to interview the BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones. Rory, is not only one of the UK’s top journalists but he covered the “dotbomb” crash during the late 1990’s. In recent times, Rory has become passionate about Social Networking sites, such as Bebo and Facebook.  In fact, in the Interview highlights below, Rory explains why he started using Facebook!

Thanks Rory, for a very stimulating interview!  

Interview Highlights

Q. What is your understanding of Web 2.0?

“My understanding of Web 2.0, is that it concerns content which is user generated. I interviewed Tim Berners-Lee in the past and his original idea for the web was really what we understand today as Web 2.0. When Tim developed the browser, the whole idea was that it would be a tool for its users to upload content that could be easily shared. It was designed not to be a passive medium. However Web 1.0 turned out to be a passive medium. Whereas, Web 2.0 is an active medium and more closer to Tim’s original vision of the Web”.

“Online discussion areas have been around on the Internet for many years. But they were not categorised and they were not mass market. The arrival of added Internet bandwidth has meant that video and audio content becomes practical in that area and that’s all that happened. The original vision of the web has been made possible by greater bandwidth and greater presence online”.

Q. What motivated you to use Facebook?

“I did a story about a year ago on Bebo, the social networking site. I had signed up with a variety of different social networking sites, such as MySpace. I was curious to understand why on earth anyone who was my age would want to use them!”.

“My sixteen year old son, who was also using MySpace at the time, had just signed up to Facebook. He never liked MySpace all that much. He found Facebook much more ‘grown up’, which I thought was interesting. I then decided to join Facebook, and find out if it could be used by the over forties. As as father, I became very aware that every teenager was using social networking sites to communicate with their friends. Teenagers seem to have given up  e-mail”.

“E-mail, doesn’t seem to exist for teenagers. So, I thought there was a phenomenal out there that was worth investigating. But the interesting question was, would it be something that kids did for a brief period, very intensively and then dumped?. E-mail, started with early adopters and then spread up to the very older generation. Was it going to be the same with social networking, or was it very much a teen/student phenomenon? I wrote the piece and it really struck a chord. I suddenly got thousands of messages on Facebook and “friend” requests. It now says infinity on my Facebook homepage!”.

“One of the interesting things about Facebook and it’s a big issue for corporate users as well as individuals is, what kind of public profile are you presenting? Is it a social network, or is it a professional tool? I’m still playing around with what it is and I’m working out where the boundaries are”.

“I was different from most people in that I accepted a lot of ‘friend’ requests. I automatically accepted them at first and then began to think about who were all of these people! Stephen Fry has just gone through the same kind of thing over the last few days”.

“I’ve just written a piece on identity on Facebook. Partly, because I got a really interesting e-mail from an old friend, who runs a new media business. He told me that he met a new media guy, who said he thought social networking was really important and that blogging was also important but he didn’t have time for it. So, he employed somebody and is paying them £1,000 a month to be him online!”

“What happens when your boss, wants to be your Facebook friend? Two of my bosses are my Facebook friends which I’m okay with. However, for some people accepting a “friend” request from a boss could cause a problem. What happens, if they don’t accept it? Could that cause more problems?”

“I’ve been lobbying to have a blog on the BBC technology website for the last six months. There is interest internally. However, the costs of running the blog are too expensive because it has to be pre-moderated. So, one of the reasons I set up the Adventures of Technology group on Facebook, is a way of talking to people about the stores we are covering”.

Q. Apart from Facebook do you, or the BBC use any other Web 2.0 based tools?

“As with many large organisations, the BBC’s employees must adhere to strict I.T. policies that limit software being downloaded from the Internet. Firewalls, prevent us from using of many of the applications on the Web. Recently, there have been some concerns regarding our computer network, as more and more people are spending time online resulting in bandwidth issues”.

“However, the BBC is moving to use more Web 2.0 applications in the future. We now have three BBC channels on YouTube, delivering content to our online viewers”.  

“The BBC have also been working for many years on the online delivery of its content through Video on Demand. The Corporation has developed its own software called the iPlayer, which has just passed through the regulatory process and will be launched on the 27th July. The iPlayer will allow a way of delivering online programming content in a limited time window”.

Q. Are there any BBC journalists who blogs?

“There are actually quite a few of them with blogs which are hosted out of the BBC website. Nick Robinson the BBC’s political editor has a blog. Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business Editor has a blog. Evan Davis, the BBC’s Economics Editor also has a blog“.

Q. Are there any internal polices on what can be blogged and what cannot?

“Absolutely, and that’s one of the great big issues. I’m a very BBC person, I believe in the guidelines and in impartiality. All the BBC guidelines equally apply to blogs as well. In fact, we just had a big report on impartiality of business coverage. In the report it made a point for an equal need for impartiality, whether it be in an online blog, or a broadcast on the Ten O’Clock news. The BBC has particular sets of issues, in that we are licence fee funded. This does affect how ‘Web 2.0’ we can be”.

Q. Are there concerns on user published content?

“A concern I have, is that one can get over obsessed with what people read online. Especially, with a small, self-defined audience. The people who phone the Five Live phone in, may not be the nation. But sometimes we think they are. There’s a very interesting blog called, The Editors Blog here which talks about issues in journalism. A blog post which got the most responses ever, was on the 9/11 conspiracy theory”.

“If you read The Editors Blog and the responses on the 9/11 conspiracy. You would probably end up believing that most of our audience think that 9/11, was a conspiracy set up by the American government and that the BBC was somehow involved as part of that conspiracy! So, there are dangers in reading user generated content. We all have to be aware of that and that we don’t necessarily take the ‘Web 2.0’ type of response as being how we should shape our journalism”.

“The BBC is one of the biggest news broadcasting organisations you can imagine. But, on the technology news reporting side, there are amateur blog enthusiast sites, such as Engadget, TechCrunch, and GigaOm. These sites will publish their news stories very quickly and in a big hurry. Occasionally, with inaccuracies and it will be up there. Where, do we pitch ourselves? That’s a large part of the debate. Do our readers want the big, formal, four hundred word, accurate and considered piece with some nice photos? Or, do they want the, Oh Blimey! I just got an iPhone look at this, type of story?”.  

“So, there is a big debate to be had about how you pitch yourself and how you use these techniques. You then have to ask yourself as a public sector organisation, is it worthwhile? There are very small numbers of people who are going to look at that. If you are a commercial organisation, would it be worthwhile? Would you be able to sell advertising space around that?”.

“This is the year of mega change in media organisations. Recently, The Daily Telegraph has gone multimedia in a big way. They have got a bright, young, new editor who has poured a lot of money into the paper and told all of his journalists they’ve got to be multimedia. So they’ve launched lots of video and podcasting. The next thing you have to ask is, will that pay for itself?. The jury is still out that one. Offline advertising is decreasing sharply, and online advertising is growing slowly, but its not compensating at the moment for offline advertising”.

Q. How do you view amateurs, or wannabe journalists who are using multifunctional devices, with inbuilt cameras and voice recorders to create online content?

“Scared. Actually, I’m a bit agnostic about it. Is it a bit of added noise? Or, will it be a real threat to professional journalism?. I think again, the jury is still out on this one”.

“A few small firms, are successfully using multimedia techniques in promoting their businesses, such as Wiggly Wigglers. Small firms are not going to have big advertising budgets. But, by using fairly cheap multimedia devices to create content, which can be published online. Small firms who exploit this, will have a path to market that they would not have had before. The question for small businesses and larger ones is, how much of your time do you devote that may not be business focused?”

“I’m still slightly agnostic about Web 2.0 and whether the evangelists are right about the complete democratisation of news. I think there will still be gatekeepers who will decide what gets posted out there”.

“For example, will an enthusiast who starts a podcast about up and coming new bands in Birmingham, really going to affect the radio market in Birmingham? This kind of enthusiast would be doing something ‘ultra specialist’, that no professional radio station could afford to do. Should a professional Birmingham radio station change its broadcasting policy in answer to the enthusiast?”.

Q. What do you think are the big challenges for small firms who want to adopt Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and podcasts?

“The big challenges are time, and working out the business justification for it. I do think that very small firms, or individuals present an entirely different case compared to SME’s. For individuals, and very small micro firms, Web 2.0 technologies can give you ‘seriousness and credibility’. Once you grow to ten or twenty people, it can still do that. But, you have to ask yourself, how much of your staff’s time are you are going to invest in updating blogs, or creating podcasts, or other content?”.

“Going back to the early nineties, before the dotcom bubble burst, many small firms bought into the idea of having a web site. At the time, I wondered what value would say, Fred the butcher gain in having a web presence?. He probably wasn’t getting value out of it at that stage. Would Fred get value today? Well, perhaps. How much energy should Fred be devoting to it? Fred could have a blog, for instance he could discuss about this week’s favourite sausage recipe!”

“The very early adopters, sometimes get quite a lot of value out of it. Anybody who comes in six months in, possibly doesn’t for quite a long time. Eventually, it will become established and everyone’s got to do it”.

“At the end of the day, we are talking about relationships with customers. In particular, small businesses that want to have a closer relationships with customers. Yes, I can see it being worth their while. However, there are plenty of small businesses whose relationships with their customers are never going to be that close. You are not really going to need to have relationship with a plumber for example”.

“For, Fred the butcher? Possibly. Especially, if he became a character and wanted to promote himself as a character and instill a bit of loyalty with his customers, there may be a case for it”.

Q. What do you think about the role of social networking in business?

“I think the trouble is people find value in things like social networking when the market is rising. But, I think a lot of businesses will be very short term about this. The relationships won’t be real and therefore people won’t find a compelling reason to go back there”. The question is, what relationship are we talking about?”

“It comes down to a blurring between social networking and professional networking. The whole idea of social networking does suggest a degree of intimacy. Unless, you really believe you want to have that kind of online intimacy in business. I’m not sure if its going be worth it. You’ve got to work out who you want to be intimate as a business with, before you go into it. Are you talking to your customers? Or, are you talking to your peer group?”

Q. Are we heading for a bubble burst 2.0?

“There is a big difference, between now and the 1999 bubble. Last time around, there was a  huge excitement over valuations but not on revenues. In the case of, valuations were very high but the company had virtually zero revenues and the company still floated on the stock market which was crazy. floated on revenues which I compared at the time to the revenues of a large country pub!”

“This time around, we are getting scary valuations again. However, this time its on revenue. Also, there are not that many startup’s that are being funded on crazy valuations. A lot of the bubble is in big stocks of big established companies. Companies such as Google and Apple are not fly by night companies. Google is being valued on incredibly fast growing revenues and not on fast growing user numbers”.

“The slightly worrying thing about Web 2.0 startups is that there is revenue, but it’s all advertising. Every Web 2.0 business model out there on the Internet is advertising based. Under the advertising model, people decided to give their applications away for nothing. Whereas, the mobile phone world is completely different. The mobile model is based on people spending real money in a variety of different ways”.

“Web 2.0 revenue is based on the principle, that you can have whatever you want, as long as you watch a few ads. There’s got to be a point somewhere where the advertising revenue will not fund anything more”.

 “ floated on a valuation at the end of its IPO day for nearly a billion. which has been going for four or five years, sold out recently for $280 million. CBS, would have looked at what people said when Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace. Murdoch bought MySpace for $580 million and everyone said that he was completely barking mad! However, six months or so later, Google then came in with a $900 million advertising deal. In the end, it turned out to be a great deal for Murdoch”.

Q. What advice would you give to small firms who were looking to take the plunge and use Web 2.0 technologies in their own businesses?

“Firstly, I would say go and talk to your customers and see what they are doing and whether they want a closer relationship with you. A small firm needs to think about what it wants to achieve. Is it trying to develop a better relationship with its existing customers? Is it trying to change its customer base? Or, is it trying to change its external  image to its customers?”

“Do that first, before plunging into social networking transparency.  Does your customer, really want to know what you got up to on the weekend, or your personal musical tastes? It is probably a good idea to check with your customers first! Also, take a look at what other firms are doing, e.g. firms such as Wiggly Wigglers“.

“Think about whether your market is going to be interested in your content. Also, look into whether you have the time to invest into creating podcasts and updating blogs. Decide how important your personality is to your business. Web 2.0 is amazingly ego driven. Are you an ego business? There is nothing wrong in being an ego business. However, if you haven’t got the personality for it, you should be careful about doing it!”

Author: Jas

Jas Dhaliwal is a highly experienced International Social Media Strategist. Currently working as AVG Technologies, Director of Communities and Online Engagement, he specialises in building and engaging with social communities across the web. Born and bred in London, he is passionate about technology and social anthropology. Prior to AVG, Jas launched the social media program for Microsoft’s MVP Award program. Jas holds a BSc (Hons) in Information Systems and has an MBA from Brunel University in London, England. You can follow Jas as @Jas on Twitter or on Google+