In 1967 my uncle was the BBC producer on the world’s first worldwide TV broadcast, a programme called Our World which you’ll remember for the famous footage of the Beatles singing ‘All you need is love’. Last night I was involved in another important, if smaller scale, first: a live massively open debate about History, specifically the First World War, extending across TV, Radio and Online via a live blog and Twitter on #ww1. I was just the equivalent of the man in the background banging the tambourine while John Lennon sang: I was one of the tame historians tweeting responses to the Niall Ferguson programme ‘The Pity of War’ and to questions from the public. Nonetheless, here are, in no particular order, a few gut reactions to what was an impressive and enjoyable experience.
1) I don’t yet have the stats of numbers of hits, tweets, new followers, etc. so I can’t comment on how successfully we managed to reach to out and involve new audiences, much less inspire people to go to the bookstore today and start reading up for themselves. However, I was struck by how far it was not just ‘the usual suspects’ getting stuck in. Many of the voices seemed fresh ones.
2) The quality of debate was, on the whole, extremely high. No flaming, no trolling, no ad hominem arguments: just robust discussion of the questions Ferguson and his distinguished guests raised.
3) I think Twitter worked well as a medium. Of course the 140 character limit makes it hard to capture every nuance. But for a broad brush argument of this kind, it worked perfectly well and indeed that discipline, by enforcing concision, concentrated the mind.
4) But, having a blog pulling together prime Tweets and allowing room for slightly longer responses was crucial. Especially, this helped pull together threads which otherwise would have been unclear because of the way Twitter works. This needs skilful editing, though:
5) Don’t try this at home: I didn’t see the preparations – I was lucky enough to walk in just before curtain up – but the BBC team and chair @historyworkstv had clearly spent days prepping. The control centre had about 20 people working flat out, managing the debate and the feeds, with live feeds coming in from TV and Radio. We always forget how hard the swan has to paddle under the surface and technical requirements at this level require extraordinary levels of skill to manage. The ability of experienced broadcasters to remain calm and in control, given the furious pace, was also crucial.
6) Some might find the information overload, with info and questions coming in through multiple screens and both ears, daunting. Personally, I found it invigorating: it reminded me of my former life on a City trading floor, and I’m sure it evoked the same physiological effects. It took me a couple of hours to come down. Yesterday we carried on for three and a half hours: I used to do it for 10 or 11, but I was in my 20s and 30s then: I’m glad I don’t have to do that any more!
Thanks to Tim, Ruth, Martin and Helen for a great evening and to the rest of their team for looking after me and making me feel welcome. I hope they thought it as successful as it seemed to me.