The OU hosted an event today, in collaboration with the BBC and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement called 'Engaging citizens: media, research and the public'. It was an interesting day with presentations from the excellent Mary Beard, the BBC's Martin Davidson and Tristram Hunt from Queen Mary's. All the speakers were engaging and talked about the relationship between academics and media and some of the tensions and benefits collaboration brought.
In the panel session the issue of public engagement and particularly reach came up, and how could we get to 'non-BBC' audiences. Mary Beard gave a good answer, saying that she is a Classicist, she usually speaks to a hundred or so people, if she can make a programme that reaches thousands, then that's a win, and she'd 'worry about their postcodes' later. Which is I think the right attitude, no matter what you do, not everyone is going to be interested in classical history. Tristram Hunt used a quote from Bush's presidential campaign, that of 'the soft bigotry of low expectations', in this context to suggest that we dumb down or transform content to meet a middle class perception of the needs of others, only succeeding in patronising them.
But what all of this set me thinking was that the whole concept of 'public engagement' seems very rooted in traditional media. It has as its assumption a control of what is 'put out there' and thus a need to ensure that it meets the needs of the public. Public engagement becomes an issue because of economics – it costs lots of money to make traditional broadcast and so you have to a) demonstrate value for money by engaging 'the public' and b) need to meet as many different audiences with the same piece of content as possible.
If we switch to a new media (I know,I know – when will it stop being new?), then these two restrictions disappear, or diminish anyway. This is particularly true if we adopt a 'low friction' model of production from academic activity – we make slidecasts of talks, video interviews, lectures, podcasts, blog posts and put papers up online. Any one piece of output is not likely to engage all of the public, but some will, and they will engage small, interested groups.
This is classic Long Tail distribution – lots of content, each piece of which appeals to only a few individuals, but the cumulative effect is that of engagement. And academic work produces lots of content – it can almost be seen as a Long Tail content production system. This view may also remove some of the tensions in the academic – broadcast relationship: there is no requirement to appeal to a mass audience.
There will undoubtedly still be a place for academics who are good on TV and radio, but this provides an alternative view of public engagement. If we were to think of how you could get better public engagement around this type of content then the focus would shift – it might not be about content but about tools, or promotion, or community.