The BBC struggles with concept of 'tech bubble'
Only bad people have bad thoughts, says Newsnight
The BBC has a real problem with social media. It's delighted when something new appears. It slips into the patrician role that comes naturally to broadcasters – and especially the BBC. It can express childlike wonderment – Wow! – at something new and amazing. Getting beyond that though, is where the trouble starts.
Perhaps the BBC is haunted by the idea that people simply get on and use new communication tools without "Auntie's" assistance. The viewers typically also have much more realistic expectations of the technology than, say, pundits. So we keep hearing wonderment, and advice on how get online, a bit like a slightly mad primary school teacher.
The gears really grind when something more critical is required. This week the corporation's news flagship Newsnight – one of the last remaining TV programmes for grown-ups – asked if there was a "tech bubble". Investment is pouring into social media startups. Would it all end in tears?
Yet having the posed the question, the report and discussion that followed were designed to dispel understanding and analysis. Before long it had turned into a gathering of the Unicorn Preservation Society. We were even told that only people who might want to describe the web investments a "bubble" were self-serving opportunists. Bad people, in other words, thinking bad thoughts.
Newsnight turned to two dot.com era stalwarts: socialite Julie Meyer (a sort of lender of last resort to desperate start-ups) and LastMinute.com founder Brent Hoberman. Joining them for the panel discussion was a media studies lecturer called Chris Brauer, who has a vested interest in the outcome. He is a director of "a strategic advisory and interactive services firm solving digital media challenges for a global portfolio of clients". It wasn't hard to guess his view. Alongside him was – inexplicably – Boo.com founder Ernst Malmstein. And another man with a horse in the race, Bob Metcalfe, beamed in from the US. Metcalfe is a partner in Polaris Ventures, and the horses are here.
Was 2011 like 1999? No, insisted Brauer.
"They have all sorts of revenue models and are more stable than 1999," he said. He went on to suggest that anyone who feared the speculation might end had dark motives. Don't listen to the spoilsports, he said:
"We've got to be really careful about calling it a bubble. A lot of people want to be seen to be anticipate it," Brauer mused.
"They want to be the ones to say we warned you," chimed in the presenter, Mishal Husain, with the delight of someone at last recognising an idea they felt comfortable with.
Now as a thought experiment, try substituting the word "finance bubble" for "tech bubble", and "credit derivatives" for "web startups" in the text you've just read. In each case, the viewer needs to know the basis for the valuation. How is it calculated? What is it measured against? What's the track record of third-party web add-ons for turning into profitable companies? Do companies float, or are they bought out?
At no point did Newsnight try to explain where the value might be. Rory Cellan Jones might have been handy here, for although he's a paid up member of the Twitter cult, he knows a bullshit-powered business case when he sees it.