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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 17:28 GMT
Message boards: our response
By Chris Russell
BBC Sport Development Editor

Thanks for everyone's understanding and comments this week on the frustrating problems we have been having with our message boards and the forced closure of 606.

I can't stress enough how serious these problems have been. It is not just about better technology or bigger servers. Every week we deal with hundreds of thousands of posts from tens of thousands of users.

I expect any other service on the web would struggle with such numbers and I suppose it's the main reason why we claim 606 to be the "UK's biggest football debate".

So first of all, let me explain why we had to close. Some people asked why we had "scheduled" this work during a period when there were big talking points like Sven, Gary Neville and the transfer window.

Somebody even said it was because Manchester United had beaten Liverpool on Sunday!

Please believe me that we didn't schedule anything. Late last week we had to shut down twice at short notice during peak times and we realised that if we opened 606 on Monday or Tuesday morning the system would simply fall over, mainly due to problems with the longer threads.

So I hope you'll appreciate our honesty when we say that this was good old-fashioned crisis management! No conspiracies just the only way to fix things was to close.

The good news is that the work that was done has resulted in a significant improvement, although I'm aware that the system is still far from trouble free.

Coping with the increase

So let me try to explain the issues in some detail and give you an idea of what we (and you) will have to do to safeguard 606's future, as well as the other BBC Sport boards.

There are a number of reasons for the current problems but the main one is simply the relentless increase in posting of 606.

The rise in usage since we moved to our new system last summer has been amazing and it is nice to be running a service which so many people clearly find so valuable and enjoyable. It was designed superbly in the sense that it works so well for so many.

Of course if we were a TV or radio programme then we would not mind more viewers or listeners. The problem with a website is that every extra post puts an extra strain on the system.

Could your local library or leisure centre cope with twice as many customers in six months compared to what it gets now? I doubt it - they would need more space and more people to keep things ticking over - and a virtual web space is really no different to a real building in that sense.

We do not have the budget to keep adding more hardware to the system. And if we did then I fear we would be in a position familiar to any of us who uses the roads - more lanes on the motorway seems to mean more traffic and still the same old traffic jams.

What we have to do is introduce are some "speed bumps" to control it all, and of course ensure that we make the system work as efficiently as possible. The technical team are now absolutely fixed on this issue.

However this isn't just about technology either. Managing this service to the BBC's editorial standards requires significant amounts of hosting and moderating.

Some of you have commented recently about less host presence on the service and you are right. This is down to the increasingly difficult job of managing the sizeable minority of users who persist in coming onto the boards and abusing other people with offensive and sometimes illegal content.

Unfortunately we are having to move hosts towards basic moderation at certain times as well.

Action plan

The good news is that it wasn't just the technical team who had time to properly assess the various problems while we were closed.

Hosts, moderators and editors all had a welcome chance to discuss the various urgent issues that are threatening 606's future using time we simply don't get on any normal day.

Now that we have done this, it is time to share what we are going to do - and what we are considering over the forthcoming weeks and months.

I and the hosts will be around on Discuss 606 to talk about this in the coming days. Please join us and help us improve things.

Future opening hours

We are resisting the temptation to make any planned reductions here, but the system is under enormous pressure during normal office hours, especially the lunch hour peak.

While we work in the background to sort things out we may have to make emergency closures at this time, although we do hope to avoid them.

You can help too by considering what you are posting, possibly rationing it a little if you can and also using the boards at other times.

I appreciate this is not suitable for many but then for the same reason you can drive faster on a motorway at 9pm than in the rush hour.

Longer term one of the possible features we may introduce at busy times is to stop people posting more than one message every few minutes.

I know this will annoy some of you but it will be for the greater good, to keep the service open.

Off topic

Many users have emailed and posted this week pointing out that in places 606 and some of the other boards have become like general chatrooms rather than our aim of "good-natured football discussion".

We will be cracking down on the number of off-topic posts for two main reasons: to try to reduce load on the system (longer threads demand a lot more) and also to reduce the amount of content that we have to moderate (off topic chat is more likely to break house rules).

From now on any threads that start completely off-topic will be taken down as soon as we see them - or you alert us.

When a thread starts on-topic but moves off it then we will soon be able to make a thread "read-only" so we keep the excellent football debate at the top and stop the off-topic chat before it gets out of hand.

I know that not everyone will be happy with this but I also have read many hundreds of emails and posts urging us to take such action.

If you are someone who wants to help safeguard the future of 606 then, as with existing house rules, you will be able to help us enforce this one by hitting the complain button.

If you want a more general chat area then you will be aware that these exist in a number of places on the web.

And if you want to discuss non-football issues in depth then of course there are BBC and other message boards for almost any subject you care to mention!

We might point this out if we do make a thread read-only that there is somewhere to discuss this.

Older content

One of the technical issues that many of you have spotted is the fact that your posting histories still link back to all posts and threads since the relaunches last summer.

You have suggested we remove links to threads older than a certain time or which nobody is replying to anymore.

Good idea - and in defence of our hard-working technical team they did not launch the new service unaware of the dangers of this.

Many of you will remember how much worse the old system was and how desperate we all were for the new one.

We always planned to fix this - and the staggering growth means we've now had to prioritise the job of sorting this.

Long threads and more team topics

We have already taken action against long threads. Any which go beyond a certain limit may be removed or made read-only, while we are working on a feature to actually prevent a thread getting bigger than a given number, while possibly creating a new "part 2".

Many of you have emailed to point out that some of the long threads were effectively people trying to set up team topics for non-Premiership clubs.

I am very sympathetic to this. I might be a fan of a Premiership club but not one that is yet safe from the drop - and I'd be doubly disappointed if relegation meant no 606 topic as well.

However we cannot do this straightaway, simply because the hosts are too busy chasing all these problems. As their boss, I cannot expect any more from them at the moment!

But here's a deal: if you help us with the current problems then we will be in a position where we can introduce more topics for more teams in the near future.

Home teams

On the subject of team topics, many of you have suggested that we crack down on the wind-up merchants by asking users to select their team and then restricting people to one club topic.

We think that this is a potentially good idea although it will take time to build - and it also depends on more teams having their own topic (see above).

We would still like to keep the Premiership and Championship areas for debate between people from different clubs but I hope you agree that this will stop the completely unnecessary attacks on clubs that seem to plague the club topics.

Of course the people concerned could stop them now if they wanted!

Offensive material, banning and pre-moderation

That leads me nicely on to the kind of content that, as the person charged with upholding editorial standards around the BBC Sport message boards, makes me wince at best. Sometimes frankly it makes me sick to the stomach.

We all know the kind of thing I'm talking about - and we are not prepared to tolerate anyone whose main purpose on our message boards is to annoy and offend those who want to talk about football, cricket or any sport.

As with the technical problems we need to stop this or close the service but we cannot do this alone.

We need everyone who is interested in maintaining the service to help. So please keep alerting us to offensive content and we will keep chasing the offenders.

And please don't just reply or worse quote the offending material. It just adds to the workload.

We will also be looking at whether quoting messages is more trouble than it is worth. Would you prefer to return to the old "threaded" view of conversations? Let us know.

We also get asked a lot about whether we can ban more effectively by IP addresses or emails. I think this is easier to implement for smaller sites without the hundreds of thousands of registered users that the BBC has across all its services.

We need to remain accessible to any licence fee payer so targetting certain free email services or IP addresses carries the risk of somebody innocent being prevented from using a service.

However we're continuing to explore different ways of cracking down on repeat offenders and I'd warn anyone that this will include reporting them to their employer, place of education or internet service provider, with the resulting legal or other action that may follow.

That is not an idle threat either. Everyone who signs up for 606 or other BBC services agrees to our conditions of service, where all users agree to our right to share information about users with relevant third parties.

Finally on this, one further idea I read which I believe merits investigation is putting all new accounts into pre-mod for a certain short period of time.

This might have two positive effects - to stop people who have been banned or pre-modded coming straight back and also to ensure that new users behave themselves before using the boards. Let me know what you think.

Restricting demand

Alongside this talk of unsuitable content let me highlight how much I appreciate that the vast majority of the content on 606 is exactly what the BBC and I believe most users want from the service.

The comments, opinions and observations of most of you add far, far more to the BBC Sport website than what irresponsible wind-up merchants take away and I want to reassure everyone just how much I plus my own bosses value this service.

Coping with and paying for this user-generated content is one of the major challenges the BBC will face now and in coming years, but I do want to point out that charging for the service, which a number of people have suggested, is simply not an option.

Others often reply to such posts correctly pointing out that anyone who pays a TV licence is already being charged for the message boards. Our job is to use that money wisely. Yours is to make sure you pay your licence fee!

Sharing community management with users

Many of you have made the suggestion that certain respected users start helping us manage certain areas. I think there is merit in this suggestion, although we will have to be careful about this and trial it properly to ensure that it really would work and not add to problems.

We will work on a plan to see how to do this, but in the meantime please help us out by using the complain button as frequently as you like to highlight genuinely unsuitable content. Everyone really can help moderate just by doing this.

It is also worth me pointing out at this stage, to those that don't realise, that we do not and cannot read every message ourselves.

This community is too big for any moderation team to realistically manage. Someone suggested we should read the whole board every hour but we would probably need a big licence fee increase for that alone.

Next steps

This is merely a flavour of some of your ideas and ours. The important thing for us to do is to maintain a sensible dialogue about this.

I'd like us to become more open about what we're doing and also debate changes with you, so please use the postform on this page to let me know what you think - or go on Discuss 606 where I'll return in the coming days and we can discuss it further.

Please send us your comments via Discuss 606 or using the form on the right of the page.

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