Unmemorable Musings

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h2g2 - A Missed Opportunity?


Remember the internet in 1999? I do. I was 14 years old, we had our first ever home computer and AOL internet.

We had a book of “Interesting Websites”, because Google hadn’t entered the common lexicon. We had Microsoft Encarta ‘99 on a CD ROM (how swish) because nobody had bothered to invent Wikipedia yet.

I spent my evenings on StarWars.com, trying to find out more about this ace new movie that was going to be released, with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. My dad spent his evenings on a Leeds United email list.

And a bunch of absolute geniuses led by Douglas Noel Adams had spent their evenings launching a website called h2g2. 

It was an online, customisable encyclopaedia, written and edited by volunteers. Two years before Wikipedia was launched.

But it was more than that. Customable personal spaces with “Journals”. Or blogs. Where you could collect Friends and Followers, who’d subscribe to your updates. Four years before MySpace, five years before Facebook, seven years before Twitter.

Imagine if you could go back to 1999, or even 2001, knowing what you know today about how the internet will develop. Imagine that someone offered you the ownership of Wikipedia and MySpace rolled into one.

Well in 2001, that was offered to the BBC and they took control of h2g2. And ten years on, they’re trying to sell it. 

Because h2g2 isn’t what it could have been. And that’s everyone’s fault.

I joined h2g2 on February 22nd 2003. A Saturday. I was 17 years old, working for the Royal Mail and bored. But we could access the BBC website from work, and that led me to h2g2. I signed up, and the rest is history. 

Before drifting away from h2g2 in 2009 to launch Unmemorable Title, I wrote 15 solo Edited Guide Entries on subjects as diverse as Josef Mengele and Lucas Radebe, via the Kaiser Chiefs and how to pair bond gerbils. I did five years as a volunteer Sub Editor, four years as a features writer for the h2g2 Post and more than my fair share of shifts in the Peer Review section.

But I took much more than I put in.

I learned how to write on h2g2. I learned how to pitch a piece to an audience, how to accept criticism and how to stop writing huge run-on sentences with millions of commas. I made some good friends, who I still keep in touch with via Twitter and Facebook.

But when it came down to it, I took what I could from h2g2 and walked away. By 2009, it was obvious that the site was in decline. People weren’t writing as much for the encyclopaedia any more. And instead I took the skills that h2g2 gave me and fucked off. And I wasn’t the only one who failed it.

The much vaunted community decided that conversations about badgers were more important than updating the guide. That someone else would do it. That it didn’t need to be a viable website because the BBC would look after it.

And then the BBC failed it. h2g2 wasn’t promoted by the Beeb, and the supply of new writers dried up. Only a few dozen committed researchers and hundreds of message-board junkies remained. And it wasn’t enough to keep the site going. But still, the BBC online team kept it going.

And then, finally. Fatally. The government failed it. At Rupert Murdoch’s urging, the government decided on an act of cultural vandalism. Huge cuts to the BBC’s market-leading online offering. And predictably, as it always had to be, h2g2 was for the chop.

And I’m gutted.

I’ve spent more time on h2g2 this week, since the guys at The Eword sent me the news on Twitter, than I have in years. And it’s still the same. There’s still only a trickle of entries in the queue for the edited guide. There’s still a hard core of posters committed to arguing about everything and demanding that they should get their kicks for free.

And there’s still a handful of people who criticised my writing style as a 17 year old, and who helped me learn to do it right. And it’s horrible that we won’t be able to help other, bored young wannabe writers who stumble across h2g2.

Because there won’t be a h2g2 anymore.

It should’ve been brilliant.

Filed under h2g2 rant

  1. unmemorablemusings posted this