It’s been a sad week for my mother. One of her beloved guinea pigs died (“We didn’t phone you,” she said, “because we assumed you would see our tribute on Twitter”) and in another cruel twist of technological fate, the BBC announced that it was closing its messageboard for The Archers.
The argument goes that they’re “moving away” from the forum set up, focusing their energy and budget on the bigger, generic social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, with blogs for the lucky few. The last remaining radio messageboard in the Beeb’s online armoury, The Archers’ lovingly-nicknamed ‘Mustardland’ (it’s yellow) attracts around 10,000 visitors and 1,000 regular posters every month. In general terms it’s not a huge audience, but its importance to that audience can’t be underestimated.
Threads reach way beyond the confines of rural Ambridge; every possible topic of modern life, culture and society have been dissected by the community of eager, opinionated listeners. There are regular real-life meet-ups with hundreds of attendees. There have been Archers messageboard marriages. Members of the Archers messageboard have joined forces to transport someone across the country to reach a dying relative. And I know all of this because for years now, my mum has been one of them.
It’s taken her almost a decade to make the small but significant progress from “owning a mobile phone” to “turning on a mobile phone,” and yet she’s quietly become queen of the forum. She’s made friends, given professional advice, battled trolls and used acronyms I’ve never even heard before. It’s perfectly usual for her to start sentences with, “Well, they’re saying on the Archers messageboard…”. When the site closes at the end of this month, she’ll be genuinely a bit bereft.
It’s easy to assume that internet devotion is a young person’s game. Sure, our parents and grandparents have embraced it as a practicality, a means to book holidays, buy presents, do the food shop, trace the family tree… but surely it’s only those of us who came of age with the web who understand the comfort and community that can be found behind a bright, warm computer screen?
After all, if I had a pound for every time one of my elders had made a sarky comment about digital followers not being ‘real’ friends and Facebook functionality hardly worthy of dinner table conversation, I might be able to afford better broadband.
But just like the sarky elders, that attitude is both patronising and just plain wrong. From activism to craft lovers and fantasy fan fiction enthusiasts, wherever there are shared interests, there’s the potential for community – we’re just building it through the sparky, far-reaching realms of the internet rather than a draughty village hall somewhere.
Messageboards may not be the BBC’s imagined future, but who would have thought radio would be either? I’d listen to your fans if I were you, Beeb – they’ve got a keyboard and a wireless router and a nice cup of tea, and they’re not afraid to use them.