Category Archives: h2g2


What is h2g2?

h2g2 is a world-wide community which strives to write a practical guide to life, the universe, and everything. Through this shared ambition researchers form strong friendships, develop their writing skills, and continue a legacy created by the author Douglas Adams.
Silly Willy – (London)

So it is a website which does many things well – it’s a community and a resource, but the one thing it does exceptionally is train writers, (which makes it a great place for readers):

It helped me learn to write … I’ve gone from a spotty, self-important seventeen year old to a confident pen-for-hire thanks to h2g2, The Post and PR. Oh, and thanks to people like Pin and Gnomon, it also taught me how to use constructive criticism to improve. A hard, but useful lesson.
Mr606 – (Salford)

A brief history

H2G2 was founded by Douglas Adams and Robbie Stamp in 1999 as an early experiment in online communities and collaborative writing. They founded”The Earth Edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. By the end of 2000 the site was struggling financially but Ashely Highfield, the newly appointed head of BBC Online, persuaded the BBC to take it on,  However, the site was never fully aligned with the BBC’s online strategies; it wasn’t pinned to a programme for a start, and they never saw the possibilities of selecting some of it for print. So it languished while Wikipedia over-took it, blogging platforms became the places to write opinion pieces or diaries, and eventually FaceBook trounced everything as a social network. Finally, just one day short of a decade later, the BBC announced it was “disposing” of H2G2.

Here the users explain what h2g2 is, and what it can become.

A good read

In the midst of discussing the writing, it is easy to lose track of the pleasures of reading h2g2.

At the heart of h2g2 lies an expanding and often quirky Edited Guide with more than 10,000 non-fiction entries. But h2g2 isn’t and never was Wikipedia’s competition.  It’s hard to explain but easy to show the difference between the two sites. Take socks, for example. Wikipedia has this to say about the subject:

“A sock is an item of clothing worn on the feet. The foot is among the heaviest producers of sweat in the body, as it is able to produce over a pint of perspiration per day.”

There’s more, but you get the idea.

H2G2 also mentions socks. It unabashedly discusses The Joy of Socks, finds Alternative Uses for Socks, struggles with Holy Sock – an Ontological Dichotomy, and ponders How To Take Socks Off – And Live. Not only can you learn How To Knit A Pair of Socks, you can also discuss your knitting project at The h2g2 Craft Guild.

Wikipedia tells you what you may need to know; h2g2 tells you what you might want to learn.

Happy Nerd – (California)

It’s a good place to read on a regular basis:

I’ve built a comfortable routine around reliable and fulfilling reading pleasure, in which the Post has been a stand-out.  I’ve wondered at some truly remarkable writers … There are two among them all who I know are simply on a different plane … They are Funderlik and Tonsil Revenge.
Pinniped – (South Yorkshire)

H2G2 encourages other kinds of non-fiction: memoirs, opinion pieces, reflective non-fiction and, tucked away in the corners, there are fiction and poetry. The only genres not on h2g2 are the ones slathered across the rest of the internet: there’s no fan-fiction, no slash-fiction and no porn.

The H2G2 Community

The community’s strength is in part due to its astonishing diversity. Aged from 16 to 80, researchers can be found on all continents, and come from all social backgrounds. They include students, teachers, bankers, doctors, security guards, lorry drivers, railway engineers and silver surfers.
Icy North

A silly, intelligent, lovable bunch of people who called themselves the internet weirdos, hootooizens, h2g2ers  …  It’s funky, it’s [playful], it’s informative, and above all, it is a community-centered site.
Montana Redhead – (California)

The warmth of the community is palpable. It has enabled members to form friendships they value around the world.

H2G2 contributors around the world

H2G2 contributors around the world

Here is Hypatia’s account of her husband’s funeral; Frank was not a member of the site but her online friends chose to honour her and commemorate his passing in Missouri:

Then we announced the balloon release. … When we started reading out the names of the cities where people were participating I nearly lost it. I am still amazed over the whole thing. We began by reading the names in the US. The audience was clearly impressed. Then we did all of the places in the UK. A couple of whispered ‘Wow!s ‘ could be heard in the chapel. Then we did the four in Europe and ended with the candles in Melbourne. As we changed time zones, we told them what time it was where the balloons were being released and the candles lighted. We ended with Pimm’s lovely remark – “There will be balloons rising free around the world and sparks of gentle light near the seas saying Frank is remembered and wishing him Godspeed.”
Hypatia – (Missouri)

The international nature of the community has proven a benefit to many.

Titania is Swedish:

I’ve improved my English tremendously, discovered I can write entries and even poetry in a foreign language.
Titania – (Sweden )

Maria is Spanish:

h2g2 is the best alternative to living in an English speaking country for those learners who want and need a linguistic immersion.
Maria – (Spain)

Bel is German:

I had some basic knowledge of English, but not enough to understand jokes (puns were particularly hard to understand, as were things written in dialect) …  I ended up taking over as Post Editor.
Bel – (Germany)

H2G2’s intelligent acceptance of people for who and what they are is mentioned by several users:

It’s been a stabilising influence in my life. I’ve been kicked out of my religious community, and lost a bunch of friends, but you’re all still here. And still as mad as ever. Being gay isn’t a big deal, but when I was coming out I thought it would be. It was comforting to know that no one here would care a bit.
TRiG – (Eire)

Intelligent (and silly) debate

If diversity and inclusivity don’t attract you, then perhaps intelligence and a variety of debate will:

I also think I owe a lot of my current philosophy on life to the people of H2G2. I came onto the site as a somewhat wishy washy “lapsed Catholic”. Now I’m an atheist, which is still relatively unusual on this island.
Woodpigeon – (Eire)

I don’t think h2g2 could be replaced by message boards or Facebook, … [It] always seems more thoughtful, you can often see ideas grow and minds change throughout the course of a conversation thread. …[ threads here]… are so varied, and the responses can be so eye-opening. Some of the topics … at the moment cover criminals rights, lots of threads about how to save h2g2, petty hates, useless facts, the weather local to you and what is the speed of beards – where else would you find that kind of variety in one place?
Deb –  (West Midlands)

H2g2 in a nutshell

So to sum up: hg2 is a site centred around writing, where what you write is constructively critiqued in a way that improved your ability to write; it’s full of great things to read and it is a community of playful people who enjoy each others’ company.

H2G2  is the most unbland thing I’ve ever encountered.
Effers –  (London)


I’m distracted this week by the campaign to #saveH2G2.

What is H2G2, and why should you care?

H2G2 is one of the community sites shivering under the BBC’s axe. It was bought by the BBC on the 25th January 2001 and a decade later less one day the BBC announced it will be “disposed of”. “Disposed of”, note, not “closed” because there is something here of great vitality.

H2G2 is an open access writing site, where you’ll get thoughtful and constructive feedback on what you write through a system of writing workshops and peer review and where you can make friends (and enemies) that you’ll value for life.

H2g2'S new front page - the new skin is a bit buggy - oh the irony

H2g2’S new front page – the new skin is a bit buggy – oh the irony

But whenever I try to say more I just end up saying what it isn’t:

  • It’s not Wikipedia even though it predated it as an experiment in user-generated content and on-line communities being founded in 1999 by the late, tall, Douglas Adams as “the earth edition of the HitchHiker’sGuide to the Galaxy”.
  • But it’s not a fan site.  It really isn’t.  “Hootizens” respect DNA, but  don’t revere him.
  • It’s not a blog-and-comment site though users have their own “journals” and create “entries” with “conversations” hanging off them.
  • It’s not a creative writing site though there is a lot of creative writing on it.
  • It’s not even primarily a social network though it predates just about all of the ones still standing,  and it’s not  “a small town in cyberspace” though that is how I’ve described it for years. Well, a decade, I guess.

And after –  or because of – it’s indescribable past it now faces an uncertain future.  Nick Reynolds (Social Media Executive, BBC Online) and Jim Lynn (who developed the original platform) both express cryptic goodwill and commitment to the community.  But it’s hard to see who’d want to buy the site.

The future then and now

One of the great wistfulnesses about h2g2 is the difference between what it could have been and what it was.  Douglas Adams was an astonishing visionary about all things online…

49 minutes of uncanny prescience.
Where we are now predicted way back then
by Douglas Adams in 1990.

… but  the BBC never really took first mover’s advantage in any of the then-cool things that h2g2 was first to have.  And now the BBC are disposing of what has become a site that even those of us who love it have to admit is quaint.

Community action

And how have the h2g2 community responded?

By and large, pretty well.  As Nick Reynolds said:

H2G2 is the best behaved and most civilised community I’ve ever encountered. The way that you have reacted to the news is a great credit to you.

Members of the community have gathered in a Google Group called the h2g2 Continuity Consortium (h2g2c2 – geddit) and are trying to put the show on right here in the barn… er… server farm.

Some of the comment is skeptical,  but slightly to my surprise, I think we’ll succeed, partly because we are not trying to buy the site off the BBC. We want to ensure that the best possible group runs the site, but are rather reluctantly aware that group might end up being us.

We will succeed in the short term because the BBC is not pulling the plug immediately, because we’ve been overwhelmed by offers of server space, by advice from people who’ve done the same thing in other online communities, and by practical support from within the community.

And I think we will succeed in the long term because we are so old.  We know each other.   We’ve fought, flirted, argued and made up across timezones and forums for a long time.  We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, stood godparents to each others children, and grown from being school-children to adults, collecting relevant (and gloriously irrelevant) skills, experiences and qualifications in the process.

We know how the internet works, how online communities and social media and web servers and all the things that Douglas Adams predicted but the rest of us took ten years to find out.

And best of all, it turns out that we are not just a bunch of quirky names and flirty posts, but also a bunch of coders and project managers, change programme leaders, doctors and people claiming disability benefit or who are just plain on the dole.  We have skilz and we have time.  (A lot of the former and a bit of the latter).

In management speak, we’ve Stormed (ye gods how we’ve stormed) Formed and Normed (and abNormed, but that’s a different story).

Now we are ready to Perform.

The medium is the model

One cardinal sin of requirements gathering is to discuss the solution during a meeting arranged to understand what the Business wants.  Traditionally, the Business tell you their requirements and you go away and build them.  You don’t bother their pretty little heads with technical limitations, you overcome them.   You are custom coders, geeks and gods.

I’m not so sure.  I think discussing what is and isn’t possible is an essential part of the requirements process, one you should introduce into the debate early on. The “no solutioning” rule may have been valid when every system was hand crafted from scratch by guys with PhDs  and leather patches on their elbows.  In those far off days better IT systems gave you a strategic advantage which could last for years.  But as Nick Carr reminds us, IT Is a commodity now, and our systems are customised rather than custom-built.

I believe it can be appropriate to touch on solutions during a requirements gathering exercise, so long as the discussion doesn’t suck all the time out of the room.  Technical limitations provide constraints, sure, but constraints don’t have to be a bad thing:  necesity is the mother of invention, and all that.  I would argue that the medium is the model.  You can only push the boundaries once you really understand them.  The Business don’t have an unfettered imagination; they want what they’ve already got but faster.   But maybe there’s a completely different way that’s better, and they need to be shaken up a little to be able to think of it:  I’m trying not to say ‘break the mould’ or ‘paradigm shift’ here.

Here’s a concrete example: Wikipedia and a BBC site called H2G2.  As you know anyone can correct an error in a Wikipedia entry at any time.  It’s hard now to remember how new this shared authorship model actually is.  No encyclopedia could be written like that before the Internet.  A few years before Wikipedia was launched, Douglas Adams created H2G2 as ‘The Earth Edition of the Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’.  It’s an online encyclopedia, but to get an “edited” entry on H2G2 takes months or even years.  Correcting one takes even longer.  This is because H2G2 has a print-based model with locked-down page ownership and a process of peer review with sub-editors and editors.  This model perpetuates constraints imposed by typescripts, compositors and printing presses.  It’s sad, but the only thing that stopped the team from building Wikipedia was their own imaginations.  They focused on what they wanted to build (the same thing, but on-line) and then built it.  They could have broken that mould and shifted that paradigm if they had let themselves riff off how it could be built and let that influence what they wanted (a new way of people to work together to create an encyclopedia).  I don’t blame them: it was 1998 and the web was new and no-one really understood it.

This is why I think it helps to introduce solutioning to the conversation because it helps the Business move on from the-same-but-faster (or larger, or pinker, or whatever) and in to areas that really are different and new.  You may introduce constraints, but you also open up new avenues and spark brand new ideas.

So I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about solutions in requirements meetings.

Heretic that I am.