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About Us: Just Who Are you Anyway

Simon Pitt | Internet | Thursday 29th July 2010

I recently came across this well intentioned rant on Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror:
The lack of an "About Me" page-- or a simple name to attach to the author's writing -- is unforgivable. But it's still a problem today. Every time a reader encounters a blog with no name in the byline, no background on the author, and no simple way to click through to find out anything about the author, it strains credulity to the breaking point. It devalues not only the author's writing, but the credibility of blogging in general.
Oh dear. Image Dissectors only has a measly two paragraphs about it actually is. And the second of those is mainly about where the name comes from.

Image Dissectors About Us Page


We do at least have bylines though (however controversial they are), so we're better than the Economist, Wikipedia or the ex-Radiophonic Workshop, which infamously never named individual engineers.

In fact, when it comes to saying who we are, I've spent far longer saying who I'm not than saying who I am.

The phrase "About Us" has become a standard part of website design. Do a search for "About Us" and you'll be presented with lists of management blurb about every company imaginable. You'll even find aboutus.org - a site that just provides "about us" pages for hundreds of websites.

But what do we even mean by "About us"? What is does "About us" actually tell you about us? What do you expect to see? Our names? Our jobs? How much does that actually tell you "about us"?
We let our work define us. When people say to us, what do you do we say "oh, I'm a baker" or "I'm a crash investigator" - we don't say "oh, I get in late and eat cold spring roles in front of repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer... in a room full of carpets stained with dried up tears. And yourself?"
The Armando Iannucci Shows, Episode 2

Assuming that, on an About Us page, you don't want to know that I once ate a fish finger frozen or that Robert has a mortal fear of asphalt, what do you want to know?

Web useability expert Jakob Neilsen has done a study of About Us pages on websites, and says that websites are very bad at saying anything about themselves:
success for finding out what the company or organization does actually dropped [...] In place of a frank summary of the business, marketese and blah-blah text ruled the day on many sites.
Neilsen suggests that the About Us page should have four elements:
  1. Tagline on the homepage: A few words or a brief sentence summarizing what the organization does.
  2. Summary: 1-2 paragraphs at the top of the main About Us page that offer a bit more detail about the organization's goal and main accomplishments.
  3. Fact sheet: A section following the summary that elaborates on its key points and other essential facts about the organization.
  4. Detailed information: Subsidiary pages with more depth for people who want to learn more about the organization.
We have #1. Our almost blandly accurate tagline: "Interesting articles about media stuff". We also have #2: 1-2 paragraphs that offer information about our main goals. But after that we don't have any more. We don't have a fact sheet. And we don't have any "subsidiary pages". But how much more information would you want to know?

For Neilsen explaining who you are is a trust issue:
Trust and credibility are major issues on the Web, where even the biggest company exists as only a few words and pictures in a browser window. The most deceitful and unethical company can look as good as a company with a long history of community involvement and honest customer relationships. Explaining who you are and where you come from does matter
Which is, of course, what Atwood said. So perhaps they're both on to something here.

So, it's probably time we wrote an "About Us" section that actually told you who Robert and I are; or, failing that, what we do.

This should be a relatively simple matter, though, surely? We can just say what we do and be done with it. Can't we?

As you may have guessed, from some of the articles on the site, I work for the BBC. The BBC has a set of guidelines, with the catchy name of: Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Networking and other third party websites (including blogs, microblogs and personal web-space).

The Internet, as the BBC explains "provides a number of benefits in which BBC staff may wish to participate". However, to misquote Spiderman, with great benefits comes great responsibility. As the BBC Acceptable Use Policy states under section 6.2:
When you provide content (on the internet, intranet or in emails) you must ensure that it is clear when you are expressing a personal view and when you are expressing the view of the BBC.
This is why Steve Bowbrick, BBC Blogs Editor, has to spend most of his limited Twitter space in the Bio section explaining that this is his personal twitter account

Consequently, I have to tell you that the opinions on this site are my personal view. When I say that I think something, that does not mean that is the considered view of the entire BBC. So when I say that I hate gherkins, this does not mean that the BBC, as an entity hates gherkins or that the BBC are announcing that Gherkins are objectively hateful. Nor does it mean that the BBC loves gherkins. In fact, to cut a long story short, whatever I say about gherkins bares no relation to what the BBC thinks about gherkins at all.

BBC Policy also states that I'm not allowed to tell you just anything about what I do. That's fair enough. But I'm also not allowed to tell you about BBC policies. It's like a super-injunction - it's Trafigura all over again.
Personal blogs, microblogs and websites should not reveal confidential information about the BBC. This might include aspects of BBC policy or details of internal BBC discussions.
Presumably, not this particular policy though, since it's available for everyone to read on the BBC website.

Not only am I obliged to spell out that not all of my opinions exactly coincide with the BBC, but need to explain what I do at the BBC.
on social networking sites, when they identify themselves as BBC staff members they must make clear that they are not a member of editorial staff. This can be achieved by stating the position (or type of position) they hold at the BBC in their work details.
I joined the BBC in August 2008, working in the Programme Transfer Team, the department which digitises and restores old programmes for broadcast on Radio 7. Radio 7 even made a little programme about us; I suppose as a sort of thank you. The highlight of the programme was probably one of the Radio 7 staff explaining how he fills in a spreadsheet in Excel and eMails it over to the programme transfer team each week. Spreadsheet! Excel! They're just not like us mortals are they, those showbiz types!

In August 2009 I moved to work in Radio Drama as a Production Management Assistant, which is where I work now. I've also been a content assistant producer (the BBC name for a web editor) and worked on a couple of BBC websites.

And that's how I pay the rent - or, as we've come to think of it, "what I do".

On many sites, the "About" section reflects the values, style and attitude of that site. That's why on Twitter, the "bio" section is limited to the same 140 as each tweet. And Jakob Nielsen's About page is split up into headings and bullet points.

And similarly on Image Dissectors, rather than just tell you who I am, what we have hear is a meandering meta-account of the background, significance and styles of About Us pages.

SP



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