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Oct. 27, 2011, 4:30 p.m.

Cyborg no more! The BBC moves to human-edited Twitter feeds

Auntie Beeb’s social media editor: “We want to be tweeting with value.”

Move over, auto-tweets: This week, the BBC has switched its @BBCNews Twitter feed to all-human curation. (One small step for a news feed; one giant leap for newsfeedkind.)

It’s a lot like the experiment The New York Times tried with human Twitter curation this spring…except that it’s not an experiment. It’s a new strategy. One that involves, at the moment, a team of four people working across three core Twitter feeds — @BBCNews, @BBCBreaking, and @BBCWorld.

“We want to be tweeting with value,” Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ social media editor, told me of the move. “Are we exposing our best content, and also tweeting intelligently?” Simply sending out a story is an important first step in Twitter practice, particularly in an environment that finds more and more people getting their news through social channels. But then: “What can we add to that story?”

What the Times experiment and its analogues (the all-human @WSJ, for example) have made clear is that human-tweeted headlines are almost always more effective — more engaging, more inviting, more generally interesting — than headlines that are obviously auto-tweeted. Send out some humanity, get some back in return — we know that, anecdotally and implicitly. The real question, Hamilton points out, is how best to navigate that knowledge, particularly given news outlets’ typical mixture of limitless ambition and limited resources. How many people will do the job of tweeting? In shifts, or working collaboratively? Would a cyborg approach — some tweets that are auto-generated, some that are editor-written — be more efficient than an all-human affair?

Ultimately, “you’ve got to do it in a way that fits your brand,” Hamilton notes. And brands, as helpful as they can be in determining Twitter feeds’ voice and content, can also be limiting. Social media guidelines are notorious for their negative orientation: Don’t do X. And, whoa, definitely don’t do Y. (The BBC’s main don’t is actually refreshing: “Don’t do anything stupid.”) Though the BBC’s foray into human-only Twitter territory is still in its early stages, Hamilton notes, “we think we’ve managed to do it in a way that works for us — and hopefully should be successful.”

Part of the strategy involves unique treatments for the BBC’s unique feeds. While @BBCBreaking — the BBC’s most-followed, and in some sense top-priority, account — has been editor-curated for a while now (you can see evidence of that in its most recent tweets, which, though they consist of straightforward headlines, occasionally add notes like “more soon” to suggest a human touch), @BBCNews and @BBCWorld, prior to this week’s move, were both cyborg accounts that were mainly driven by auto-generated tweets, with some human-curated content thrown in for good measure.

“What we’ve done is turn off the auto-feed on @BBCNews during the UK daytime,” Hamilton says. “That’s the first stage.” (While human editors will be tweeting, among the four of them, almost — almost — 24/7, auto-tweets will resume during the hours when the humans aren’t around to tweet.) “We’re going to see how it goes, but what we’d like to do is roll that out to @BBCWorld, as well,” he notes, with @BBCNews being the transition’s case.

This incremental approach goes for engaging in Twitter-based conversations, as well. Like a lot of big media outlets, the BBC gets a lot of mentions and replies. And while, “fundamentally, Twitter is supposed to be a two-way platform,” Hamilton notes, engaging everyone simply isn’t realistic. And “we don’t want to do it in a piecemeal way,” Hamilton notes. So, “for us, it’s about nailing the core editorial proposition first”; the next step will be figuring out how best to scale conversations.

Fortunately for the BBC, and for its followers both on Twitter and elsewhere, they’ll have time to do all the figuring out. While the NYT’s experiment with all-human curation was just that — an experiment, with a deliberately defined endpoint — the BBC’s move, while experimental in the broader sense, will be an ongoing effort. “We’re not calling it an experiment or a trial,” Hamilton says, “because our intention is that we’re going to be keeping it going.” Which means that they have the freedom to figure things out slowly, organically — humanly. “We’ve got a plan,” Hamilton notes. But also: “We’re just feeling our way and seeing how it works.”

POSTED     Oct. 27, 2011, 4:30 p.m.
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