There must be some good karma attached to this job...
Cambridge-based Chameleon Studios recently rebuilt the Dalai Lama’s official website, having created the original site in 2006. Chas Ashford-Hodges, creative director, explains how this local company came to manage the online presence of a renowned religious leader based some 4,000 miles away.
It was 2008. We were travelling against the flow of the thousands filing out of the Nottingham Arena. Backstage, we made our way through a maze of corridors until we reached a door. With dry mouths and nervous laughs, we waited. The door opened, and before us sat one of the world’s most iconic spiritual leaders.
He beamed, hopped nimbly to his feet, clasped our hands between his in greeting, and invited us to take our seat. His entourage departed, and Chameleon technical director Garth Lauckner and I found ourselves in a private audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Back in 2005, when a colleague interested in Buddhist philosophy offered the Office of His Holiness a domain name and pro bono design assistance, we never dreamt it would lead us to this moment. But the approach started a dialogue that eventually led to Chameleon being commissioned to create a new version of the official dalailama.com site in 2006.
Only the most basic level of web development was available at that time in northern India, where the Dalai Lama’s Dharamsala home is located. His team was looking to the West for an agency to create his online home. The Office of His Holiness cannot accept donations; they have a small team and limited budget for operational matters like IT or marketing. His Holiness was never going to be a big client in financial terms. The project was destined to be ‘pro bono’ in every sense.
Much has changed since we created dalailama.com and set up his official @dalailama account on Twitter. His Holiness has embraced social media and tweets words of wisdom regularly to his 13 million followers, while following no-one himself. He also has a presence on Instagram, where his official photographer Tenzin Choejor – whose father was a State Oracle of Tibet – posts images of joyful meetings with everyone from world leaders to school children. In 2017, social networking and live broadcasts need to be integrated into websites. It was time for His Holiness to have a new site.
There was also the question of accessibility. A global appetite for the Dalai Lama’s teachings means that, in time, his site will be extended into 15 other languages and dialects including Mongolian and Tamil. His team wants to put his teachings at anyone’s fingertips: rich or poor, urban or rural, wherever they are in the world. All signs point to developing countries skipping the era of desktop computers and going straight to mobile, so it was vital for the new site to be extremely mobile friendly. So much so, that the mobile experience drove this build, and an official mobile app is also in development.
Some things, however, have not changed in the last decade. His Holiness remains a controversial figure and his IT, including his website, is a prime target for those with malicious intent. Perhaps the most crucial challenge to overcome was the matter of security. For this we worked with specialists from a US-based internet security firm that aspires to make the web more secure. They host high profile, vulnerable sites free of charge so that they can monitor and control incoming malicious activity. On assessing His Holiness’s IT network, they discovered it was riddled with spyware – virtually every keystroke was being picked up.
We made a diverse and international project team: hosting on the West Coast, Chameleon in Cambridge and the client in the foothills of the Himalayas. Thank goodness for Skype. We did get the opportunity to welcome the only non-Tibetan member of the Office, when His Holiness’ media officer made a detour from Brussels, where the Dalai Lama was speaking, to spend two days at our offices.
Don left Silicon Valley in the 70s to travel around India, but not before he’d experimented in computing with one Bill Gates. He joined the Office of His Holiness following 16 years of Buddhism study, and it was inevitable that His Holiness’s IT requirements would gravitate to him.
He travels as part of the Dalai Lama’s entourage, with the remit to take His Holiness’s activity to the world, uploading news and videos, organising live streaming of events and running the social media accounts.
Making it easy and quick for him to make website changes wherever he might be and at whatever time of day was one of our main objectives.
I don’t recall exactly what was said in our private audience with the Dalai Lama that day in 2008. Yet I do feel the experience of meeting him crystalised our commitment to making pro bono work central to our philosophy. Since then it has been part of our ethos to make time to help those with more purpose than budget. We are grateful for our success and keen to give something back, and counterbalancing commercial work with not-for-profit projects creates a real feel-good factor for the team.
Recently, His Holiness tweeted: “The ultimate source of happiness for self and others is compassion, concern for others and being of service to them.” We couldn’t agree more.