To: The Queen, Subject: My Dog

When her dog died under mysterious circumstances after a veterinary operation in Bristol, England, Janet Mahoney was distraught, then angry.

But most of all, she felt alone–until she heard from pet owners with similar tales. There was the woman from Kent whose Yorkshire terrier died after it was injected with a drug licensed for use only on cattle and a woman in Wales whose elderly cat was put down without her consent.


Now with the help of iCan, an innovative commu-nity portal turned blog site turned rallying point launched by the British Broadcasting Corp., Mahoney is running an action group campaigning for broad changes in the oversight and accountability of veterinarians.

ICan ( may be the most radical example yet of “social software”–the catchall term for Web tools like blogs and wikis (collectively edited sites) that encourage social interaction.

With bloglike simplicity, iCan lets campaigners like Mahoney research any issue that riles them–whether it’s speed bumps, local schools, garbage collections, or noisy neighbors–learn basic campaigning skills and set up minisites to attract like-minded people from their neighborhoods and around the UK. It then hooks up campaigners to an online database of local members of Parliament (MPs), councillors, pressure groups, local and central government departments, and other official organizations.

What’s in this for the BBC? Basically, the broadcaster sees iCan as a way to get closer to its customers. Under the terms of a royal charter–and in return for approximately $4 billion in state funding–the BBC is charged with informing and educating its audiences as well as entertaining them. When voter turnout at the election in 2001 fell to 59% (pathetically low by British standards), BBC boss Greg Dyke wanted to know how much the public-service broadcaster was to blame and ordered a review of the BBC’s political coverage. Voters, it discovered, felt the stream of news coming out of London had little to do with ordinary people.

Dyke demanded big ideas–and he got iCan. “But iCan is not about politics!” stresses Martin Vogel, leader of the 15-person BBC project team. “It’s about the issues that affect your life. It shows people they’re not alone and gives them tools to make things happen on a local, national, or maybe even global scale. Global campaigns often start locally.”

ICan is also juicing up the BBC’s news-gathering operation, getting TV and radio reporters closer to the issues that its viewers and listeners are really inter-ested in. Bloggers are fond of citing the “power-law curve” to explain the gulf between the half-dozen stories that are featured on 30-minute TV news broadcasts and the thousands of personal, local issues that affect people. Each year, a handful of those issues propel themselves up the power-law curve to become national or even global stories. With iCan, the BBC hopes to spot those stories early and catch them first. So during the current trial period, four reporters mine the iCan Web site daily for leads.


In October, a BBC TV crew followed Mahoney to Buckingham Palace where she presented a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to the Queen–a keen dog owner herself. It’s a virtuous circle, says Alice Bouverie, who covered the story for the BBC’s local news in Bristol. “With iCan, we can tap into these kinds of stories much earlier, but at the same time, coverage can give the campaigns greater momentum,” she says.

Vogel has only until March of this year to prove iCan’s worth to the BBC. The early results are encouraging–but the BBC’s online activities are under attack from rival broadcasters and news organizations who say the BBC abuses its position of dominance. And within a week of iCan’s launch in November, a rival “iCan’t” spoof page had appeared on the Web. Critics doubt that the BBC can remain impartial and avoid the perception of endorsing any given campaign.

And get this. There are even anti-BBC campaigns running on iCan. “People are actively testing our impartiality,” says Vogel. “But what they’re actually doing is giving us a great opportunity to prove to people they can trust us.”