h2g2 is an online community engaged in the construction of a guide to life, the universe, and everything. Much of it is encyclopedic, but the site also covers more idiosyncratic subjects, such as plastic bag bras, teaching your cat to fetch, or burying oneself in sand.
The site takes its name from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a fictional publication found in the book, radio and television series of the same name. It was founded in April 1999 as the Earth edition of the Hitchhiker's Guide by the author of the series, Douglas Adams, and his friends and colleagues at The Digital Village. h2g2 serves as a handy abbreviation for that rather lengthy title, with the advantage that most people are able to spell it.
Like many other dot-com companies, Adams' company TDV ran into financial difficulties towards the end of 2000 and eventually ceased operations. In January 2001, the management of the site was taken over by the BBC, and moved to bbc.co.uk (then part of BBCi). During this takeover there was a lengthy intermission during which the site was unavailable, which the community refers to as "Rupert" - an obscure reference from one of Adams' books.
h2g2 has a strong community feel, with a largely helpful user base. The site is rich in graphics, which are designed by a volunteer team of community artists. The site is generally considered quite user-friendly, particularly towards newbies who are usually welcomed by volunteers known as ACEs (see below). Like all communities, discussion ranges from the friendly to the less friendly, but for the most part Researchers work together well.
Articles typically aim for a slightly humorous, but correct and well-written treatment of their subject matter. Every article has an associated discussion area, which allows for multiple threads, called Conversations.
Terms and Conditions
In order to contribute to the site, it is necessary to register and to agree to the h2g2 "House Rules" and the general BBC Terms and Conditions. Registered users are called Researchers. Researchers retain the copyright to their articles, but grant the BBC a non-exclusive license to do pretty much whatever they like with them.
The House Rules prohibit various things, including racism, "hard-core" swearing, spamming, languages other than English, and "otherwise objectionable" material. The Terms and Conditions are more legalistic, and prohibit material that is not the submitter's own and original work, defamatory material, etc.
When the site became part of BBCi, the BBC insisted on moderating all contributions to the site soon after they were made. However, they were eventually persuaded that the h2g2 Community could be trusted to a system of "Reactive Moderation", in which posts are not checked by moderators unless a complaint is made. Individual user accounts are sometimes put on "pre-moderation", meaning that any posts they make are not displayed until they have been reviewed by a moderator.
Occasionally, there has been an issue that is particularly contentious, or that makes the BBC's libel lawyers particularly nervous, and discussion of this issue may be moderated differently. For example:
Additionally, several Entries have been deleted by the h2g2 Editors, at the behest of the BBC's "Editorial Policy" unit, headed by Stephen Wittle .
h2g2 is really two separate but complementary Guides, one Edited and one Unedited. The Unedited Guide is described in a separate section below. The Edited Guide consists of articles (usually called 'Entries') which have passed through a peer review process, and then been checked and tidied up first by a volunteer sub-editor and then, more briefly, by an in-house editor. As of September 12th, 2003, the Edited Guide consisted of 5832 Entries. From September 22nd, 2003, new entries were added at a rate of at least 10 per week.
On h2g2, entries are peer reviewed by any members of the community who feel like spending a little time reading and commenting. Some of these may be specialists on the topic, but generally most are not. Therefore it becomes obvious whether the average Researcher can understand an Entry, but does mean that mistakes can slip into the Edited Guide.
Once an entry has been picked by a Scout (see later) and leaves Peer Review, it can no longer be modified or updated by its author. However, the author can still update the unedited version, which remains in the wider unedited guide.
Sub-editors, likewise, are not generally experts on the material they are editing, which is assigned on a more or less random basis. Sub-editing is mainly limited to ensuring readability and conformance to the h2g2 house style, though the amount of changes made varies from one Entry to another.
Some sub-editors tend to discuss changes with the Researcher who wrote the Entry to make sure that they are correct in their information and written in the right way. However, this is entirely at the individual sub-editor's discretion. h2g2 lacks an effective change control system, and this often leads to errors creeping in at this stage.
The in-house editors make few changes - the most visible of which is appending a "Related BBC links" section to entries that includes a link for readers to search BBCi for other entries on the same subject.
After many years of discussion, h2g2 has now adopted a formal update system. This consists of an Update Forum, which works in the same way as Peer Review, allowing a new version of an existing entry to be submitted for full review. Small but important modifications can be fast-tracked with a posting on the relevant feedback page.
There are two workshops where help can be obtained in preparing an article for Peer Review. The Collaborative Writing Workshop is where people can collaborate to create an entry. At the Writing Workshop, entries that are not yet ready for Peer Review can be improved. Another review forum, the Flea Market, is where abandoned Entries that fall outside the writing guidelines and have been left in Peer Review are moved, so that other researchers can polish them up for Peer Review.
There is also an Alternative Writing Workshop, where entries that don't adhere to the Writing Guidelines can be worked on.
The Unedited Guide
The Edited Guide forms only a small part of h2g2 as a whole. Most of the site's 'cultural life' takes place in the far larger Unedited Guide, which contains, amongst other things, various clubs and societies, discussion areas, Researchers' h2g2 homepages (known as their 'Personal Spaces'), and writing workshops. The Unedited Guide can also contain fiction, although this cannot be submitted for inclusion to the Edited Guide, which only contains factual information.
If an article does not make it through the Peer Review process, the original (unedited) entry can still be viewed, as before, in the Unedited Guide. It can, of course, also be rewritten by the author(s) and submitted again at a later date.
The UnderGuide is h2g2's most ambitious attempt to bring the attention of the community's best entries that fall outside of the Edited Guide's Guidelines. The UnderGuide and its volunteers have a similar structure to the Edited Guide's volunteers. They have scouts, but call them miners. They have sub editors, but their name is gem polishers. Miners inhabit the Alternative Writing Workshop to comment on entries and pick them for the UG.
The bulk of site activity takes place in United Kingdom (GMT/BST) daytime, which is when the in-house London based team (known as 'The Italics', see below), is there. But at other times, the US, Canadian and Australian researchers are also very active.
The Italics (technically 'the Editors'), the inhouse editors of h2g2, are the only people on the site who get paid (by the BBC) for what they do. They monitor the content of the Edited Guide and oversee the general development of community life. They are named for the way their names appear in conversations, in bold italics, to keep people from impersonating them. There are informal nicknames for the editors such as 'The Powers That Be', 'The Towers', 'The Powers in the Towers' and 'Pisa People'.
The core personnel have changed considerably since h2g2 started in 1999. The first editor, Mark Moxon, left in 2002, and many other Italics have also been replaced. Of the original TDV team, only Jim Lynn, the original Technical Lead, and Peta Haigh the Community Editor, remain working on the site, although most of their time is spent developing the DNA software base and community system for other uses within the BBC, as part of the DNA team.
There are five different kinds of volunteer on the site, with varying responsibilities. Any researcher can apply to become a volunteer; if accepted, they gain a badge for their personal space, advertising their status as a member of that particular group:
- Aces (the name is an acronym for Assistant Community Editor) are responsible for welcoming new users and assisting them in becoming active and experienced members of h2g2. No statistics are publicly available, but this approach ensures that a large proportion of initially active Researchers continue to contribute. Aces are also expected to take a responsible role within the community, encouraging discussion and debate.
- Scouts are responsible for making sure that quality work does not languish in Peer Review for too long. They keep an eye open for entries that have received a favourable response from other Researchers, and pick a few each month to recommend for inclusion in the Edited Guide. The picks are reviewed by the "Italics" and then forwarded to a sub-editor.
- Sub-editors check and edit Entries to be added to the Edited Guide. After that is done, the new Edited Entry is posted to the front page for a day, and one in five articles is awarded its own professionally drawn picture. Once Edited, the original authors cannot change the articles anymore, although there is a small team of Sub-editors who continuously trawl old edited entries repairing broken links, making updates, and so forth. These were the first volunteers, originally hand picked, who used to do the jobs of scouts as well prior to the creation of Peer Review.
- Community Artists contribute the art that illustrates many of the entries. The team has to provide three graphics every day and an additional four every Wednesday. Their art is credited at the bottom of the page they have illustrated. Everyone on h2g2 has some respect for the artists.
- University Field Researchers wrote groups of entries based around a common theme, aiming to provide a comprehensive guide to a specific subject. These projects often became quite involved, and took several months to complete. Once finished, they were usually featured on the h2g2 home page for a week. This scheme was closed on June 25, 2003, though previous Field Researchers retained their badges. 
Clubs and societies
h2g2 is large enough to have many unofficial clubs and societies, set up and maintained by researchers. Examples include:
- The Musicians' Guild - self explanatory; this is a place for musicians to gather and discuss musical topics.
- The Zaphodistas - Loosely based on Mexico's Zapatista rebels, the Zaphodistas campaign for researcher rights, for example, to include external images on h2g2 pages.
- The Freedom from Faith Foundation - An organization of free-thinkers, the FFFF is a forum for non-dogmatic discussion of philosophical and religious issues.
- The Society for the Addition of a Towel Smiley - This is a group that campaigned (successfully) to have a graphic representing a towel added to the extensive list of h2g2 smileys.
- The Thingites - This is a group that campaigns (not yet successfully) to have the days of the week renamed (chiefly to rename 'Thursday' as 'Thing'). The group is also attempting (as yet also unsuccessfully) to have one of their threads ('No no no!!') recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest thread in any chat community in the world. (As of March 7, 2005, that particular thread had over 73,300 posts, so maybe they have a point.)
- The Terranic Army - This virtual army used to have online battles on their own World War battlefield. The army is now in general disuse, although many copycat societies have emerged.
The Post is h2g2's own virtual broadsheet newspaper, published weekly by a community member, and featuring articles, interviews and cartoons by h2g2 researchers. It is edited by a few dedicated h2g2 researchers, not paid in-house editors. The Post provides an outlet for comment and for sharing experiences, and often features content that is not intended to form a part of the Edited Guide.
The h2g2 community also investigates its own progress at times, for example in the h2g2 Reports, written by a varied group of Researchers on a relatively infrequent basis.
The engine for h2g2 - and all of its related 'sister' communities in the BBC, such as "360", "Get Writing" and "Peoples War" - is affectionately known as DNA, after the initials of Douglas (Noel) Adams. The DNA technology was introduced a few months after the BBC takeover. Before this technology, there was 'Ripley' which was named after the character from the film Aliens, in homage to the quote "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." Before that there was a technology with no particular name, which subsequently gained the retronym Llama. All of the BBC messageboards are currently in the process of being moved onto the DNA engine.
Adams himself was rather involved in the website in its early days. His account name (of course) was DNA, and his user number was 42, a reference to the famous joke in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that the answer to the big question of Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. When Adams died, in May 2001, his personal space was the focus for a huge reaction from the community. Tributes and messages poured in at a rate of about one every two minutes.
Adams' legacy is still felt on h2g2, and naturally the site is peppered with references to the Hitchhiker books; it is, however, not a fan site, and was never intended as such.
h2g2 has four different 'skins' which are different ways of viewing the site. Users can set their options menu to view the site in one or other of the skins when they are logged in. Some skins are more popular than others; some even have fanclubs. It is possible to switch between skins while not logged in by altering the URL, for example changing http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/classic/A918434 to http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A918434 would alter the skin from Classic Goo to Alabaster.
- Classic Goo was the first skin. It has large white text on a blue background. The first programmers of h2g2 nicknamed it 'Goo' but it appears as /classic in the URL.
- Alabaster was the second skin. Its layout is most like the rest of the internet, with small black text on a white background. The look of the skin is generally described as orange and green. This skin was considered necessary to help attract people who are used to the rest of the internet. One of the programmers behind h2g2, Jim Lynn, apparently chose between the names Porcelain and Alabaster, chosen because he compared the skin to a toilet.
- Brunel is the newest official skin, and consequently it is the default format for visitors who are not logged in. It has black text on white backgrounds, and was designed to look more like the rest of the BBC. The border colours vary depending on what type of Entry is being viewed, and can be determined by creators of Entries by using special GuideML tags; the h2g2 Front Page changes its colour scheme with its content. This skin is generally considered as having the best layout, as it has several useful buttons that are not on the other skins.
- Plain was designed for Digibox, Palm and Pocket PC users who can't load the more graphic alabaster, brunel or classic. It is basically just... plain. The Plain skin is not officially supported on the site, so it has not undergone the same level of testing as the other skins and has a few small problems. Unlike the other site skins, plain allows registered site users to define and use their own Style Sheet if they so wish.