This year marks something really quite extraordinary. This is because we can now begin to premise select sentences about the First World War with ‘100 years today…’ On the 28th June we commemorated the centenary anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and last Friday we could do the same for the outbreak of the conflict itself. And there will be many more of these poignant reminders across the next four years. However, what is the best way to share knowledge on this topic with the larger public? Is it at collection days where personal interaction and proud exchange of stories is foregrounded (read about the Oxford Community Collection model here)? Is it at multimedia and interactive events such as the BBC War at Home on Tour (see a BBC video based on a poem from the Great War Archive here) ? Or perhaps we should look more towards the global scope of digital technology and in particular, social media?
Last week, as Engagement Officer, I took part in #TalkingWW1 which was a huge Twitter event coordinated by Professor Mary Beard and a team of historical/cultural experts. Discussions were led by core players in the field such as the Imperial War Museum, Royal British Legion and National Archives. But there were also a number of speakers invited who you would not usually associate with the Great War. For example supermarket giant, Tesco joined the conversation as the company’s founder was WW1 veteran, Jack Cohen. Learn something new everyday… However, as I got stuck into the discussions and posed my burning questions about the period, I couldn’t help but wonder: what can really be learnt from a tweet? What do participants gain from these events and what are the inevitable limitations of this channel of communication and engagement. Here are some of my reflections:
- It is an excellent way of sharing links to user-generated content, teaching resources and helpful websites. This contributes towards offering participants new perspectives and directions to explore in their own research, teaching and thinking.
- It puts enthusiastic people in touch with one another via a common interest.
- It represents a channel through which to connect experts with people who are simply looking to learn more a particular area (Professor A meet citizen historian B and visa versa). For this reason, Twitter can help to break down some of the social and confidence barriers that may exist in a face-to-face situation.
- It sparks new excitement for a topic or event among a potentially new and different demographic. Those who are fiends of Twitter may not necessarily be the same individuals who likely attend a collection day or public event- of course you cannot live by this generalisation but a multi-layered communication strategy does enable you reach the optimum number of people.
- The tweeting character limit means that detailed argument is not possible (but it is unlikely anyone expected this upon entering the discussion).
- The very public nature of the platform means that some participants are not as forthcoming in their opinion for fear of scrutiny and/or judgement.
- Participants have to filter between genuinely useful/relevant content and items of self-promotion.
- There can be so many tweets at one time that unless careful scanning is undertaken, meaningful content to the user can be easily lost.
- What happens to all the useful tweets once the event is over? A savvy system of archiving favourites and translating them so that they are in a way that they are helpful to the user needs to be adopted.
Therefore, as can be seen from above, Twitter events such as #TalkingWW1 certainly have their fair quota of pros and cons characterised mainly by a stream of fresh insight(s) shared by a newly connected network of enthusiasts (professionals and non-professionals alike). There is a lot that can be gained (links, contacts, new ideas). However, the world of Twitter is not one to be underestimated in terms of its complexity. I think, like most systems, once you have become acclimatised to it, it can be difficult to remember the misunderstandings and challenges you faced when you first encountered it. Twitter events do rely upon a confident user group to be able to harness what is exchanged in a beneficial way. Questions over how to navigate around the multiple conversations, how to trawl through the mass of information and then how best to manipulate it so that you can take something away which will enhance your understanding and/or practise, need to be considered. Otherwise, all of the #talking is nothing more than #whitenoise.
Note also, how I used the word ‘exchanged’ above. This is important. That famous ditto ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ really comes into play here since, as I found, the most value can be experienced when you pose questions. You cannot expect the hundreds of others involved to have the same aims and particular curiosities as yourself so seek ways to fulfil these by finding the relevant Tweeters and asking them about your mutual interest. Additionally, why not share a photograph or link you have found useful in the past as this will likely start up interesting conversations. For value to be acquired in any of this, it should be a multi-directional process; lurking in the Twitter shadows will only get you so far but asking a focused question to demonstrate your connection with the cause will accelerate the benefits you gain along with the contacts made.
So to sum, Twitter events are fun (forgot to mention that earlier) and fruitful if you and your audience are competent users of the tool itself. The events represent a dynamic springboard to share interesting content but their specific limitations (reduced detail, technical hurdles etc.) mean that they are best placed as a complementary rather than sole communication channel. Combined face to face and digital engagement, as conceptualised in the Oxford Community Collection Model, remains a strong strategy and not exclusive to the dissemination and learning of World War One history. Many other topics could be adapted to suit this purpose.
If you would like support in using a multifaceted approach to connecting with audiences, contact RunCoCo at: firstname.lastname@example.org We would be happy to offer support with your enquiry.