Page last updated at 14:03 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 15:03 UK

Charting the Digital Revolution

CMS detector, Cern
The World Wide Web was first created at the Cern lab in Geneva.

Russell Barnes
Producer, Digital Revolution

It was just 20 years ago that a young computer programmer called Tim Berners-Lee approached his supervisor at CERN with a blueprint for linking information online that we know today as the World Wide Web.

His boss' response - "vague, but exciting" - underplays the significance of the invention that has gone on to transform almost every facet of our daily lives.

After 20 years of rapid innovation and dizzying change, it seems like a good time to look back at how things have moved on since 1989 and to consider just how the web has revolutionised our world.

I am producing Digital Revolution (working title), a landmark series of programmes for BBC Two that examines precisely this question.

We want to get to grips with the meaning of the runaway phenomenon that has connected us all up in ways we could never have imagined back in 1989, has plugged us into the library of human knowledge and yet has thrown into question comfortable, centuries-old assumptions about privacy, identity, nationality and ownership.

Jargon busting

I first came onboard in February, a novice to tweets and Twitter, Digg, Delicious, even good old eBay, and feeling, I must admit, rather queasy about the bamboozling jargon associated with the web.

But I could see from the outset that a traditional approach to documentary making just wouldn't make sense for the Digital Revolution project.

Tim Berners-Lee, AP
Tim Berners-Lee started the web to help scientists communicate

In order to scratch beneath the surface of what's really happening online, we realised that we as a team would have to engage the people who use the web all the time. Web users have the best stories and sharpest arguments in this fast-moving area and we need to open up a dialogue with them that will help shape the series.

We don't want this to be one medium reflecting on another from a safe distance. We want to bridge the gap.

So we have decided to adopt a radical, open-source approach to the production process. We don't just want to observe bloggers from on high; we want to blog ourselves and get feedback and comment on our ideas.

And we have already taken the first step. Our presenter, the Guardian journalist and academic Aleks Krotoski, has just posted her first manifesto - about who holds power on the web - on our blog at

This is a clarion call to web users all over the globe to tell us whether they think the web is the utopia it once promised to be - a sharing, open, level playing field - or whether, as Aleks argues, the hierarchy and inequality endemic in human society have spread to the web of today, populated by cliques and big brands.

The blog will be updated regularly with posts from Aleks and a number of guest bloggers, including Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales and musician and performing rights campaigner Feargal Sharkey. The online crowd now have an opportunity to tell us what they really think - and have a unique opportunity to influence the team's thinking.

It's a wonderful experiment and I hope it will have consequences for the way TV is produced in the future, pioneering a way in which we can share the fun, the highs and lows, and perhaps even some of the hard graft of making films.
Russell Barnes

One of the pitfalls of the information age was illustrated recently when a sociology student added a false quote to composer Maurice Jarre's Wikipedia entry hours after his death.

The ruse was only revealed a month later when the student confessed his deceit to the mainstream press outlets that had replicated the bogus quote in their obituaries.

I love Wikipedia and think its scale, speed and by and large its overwhelming accuracy, is an extraordinary testament to the innate human desire to collaborate to get things right.

But incidents like the Jarre entry do raise an interesting question for our production about how the web, not just in Wikipedia but also through the blogosphere, can so easily confer authority on false information and disseminate it instantly and worldwide as fact. In the age of the web, how do we know what to trust? That's going to be an interesting part of our research process.

Social experiment

The second phase of our online project will begin in September. We want to share our rushes online, as they are filmed, including our encounters with the web's head honchos.

We hope to release those under a permissive licence so that web users can re-use them or do their own mash-ups as they please. Whenever we can, we're trying to rewrite the traditional BBC script and create something truer to the spirit of the web.

Aleks Krotoski, Aleks Krotoski
Social media researcher Aleks Krotoski is presenting the series

Each programme in our series will attempt to debunk myths about the web and ask us to look again at how we think about the web.

So in our next phase, and working in partnership with Tim Berners-Lee's Web Science Research Initiative, we will be engaging web users in a number of online experiments that we hope will put long-held assumptions to the test.

For instance, it is said we now write more than we read, but what percentage of web users create genuinely new content out there? We want to find out.

Are there still six degrees of separation between anyone on the planet or has Facebook crushed it to two? How far can Aleks Krotoski, our presenter, disappear on the web? Or are all our click-streams and traces genuinely inerasable - have we entered an age of cyber immortality?

Finally, in the last phase of production, after transmission of the series on BBC Two, our website will host a fully interactive version of the series that will remain online indefinitely.

Here web users will be able to browse through shortform video clips linking off to all the debate and discussion that we've generated on and around the web.

It's a wonderful experiment and I hope it will have consequences for the way TV is produced in the future, pioneering a way in which we can share the fun, the highs and lows, and perhaps even some of the hard graft of making films. The production itself, in a sense, becomes part of the entertainment. Why not?

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