13 January 2011

The Men Who Stare at Votes

Still on the subject of Twitter and Irish journalism, I sat down last night and watched an altogether very enjoyable edition of Vincent Browne. Martin Mansergh was Fianna Fail's sacrificial Ministerial lamb on the night, sandwiched between a particularly apoplectic Browne and, on his usually sparkling top form, Prof Brian Lucey from TCD. Also present but purely to stop the desk from collapsing under the weight of the hyperbole at Vincent and Martin's end were Dr Nat O'Connor from TASC and the Irish Independent's Aine Kerr, neither of who really got a chance to make a meaningful contribution.

The show is interesting because of its attempted embrace of Twitter as a method of communicating with its audience. The #vinb tag is used by viewers throughout the show, then at the end an attempt is made to read out the best comments. This being Ireland, however, very few of the comments are readable on air, not for profanity, but for their biting nature that makes it almost impossible to deliver them in person to the unfortunate target with a straight face. Last night was just such an example, none of the comments that were read out had I even noticed amidst the cornucopia of slights and asides on the tone and timbre of Minister Mansergh's voice.

Aside from a very timely instance of fact checking on some of Mansergh's more egregious statements, the Twitter feed hovered more between a night at the Rocky Horror with everyone shouting out the appropriate responses at the right moments, and a drunken commentary from the three old fellas propping up the bar on a Monday afternoon. And it was great.

Earlier in the week BBC showed "The Men Who Stare at Goats", and at the same time Jon Ronson, on whose book the film is based, had nothing better to do with his evening than to sit down at home on his couch and watch along, Tweeting his thoughts to the universe and engaging in a Q&A session with the dispersed audience, in effect running a live DVD commentary, brilliant stuff and illuminating in many places. For once I saw the potential of Twitter to act as a two-way form of communication, and add something substantial to the conversation.

This is what Vincent Browne is missing, the interactive element with the audience. There is a vibrant and, at times, deeply funny conversation going on throughout the show, and while he recognises and encourages this element he does so in a traditional old media manner, externally observing the conversation in the same manner as he does the next day's newspapers, picking out the best headlines to discuss briefly on air. To truly embrace the media he should have an official off-air staffer or invited guest acting as an online raconteur throughout the show, engaging with the audience like Ronson did throughout the film. In this way the line between audience and participant is broken down in a productive and positive way, and a real dialogue with the audience occurs.

Now don't get me wrong here, I have no interest in a phone-in show, I don't tune in to something to hear the same conversation I could overhear in a supermarket or the pub, I watch a show like Browne's for him and the guests he has on. I want to hear from people who know what they are talking about because they are in the centre of the events discussed and have a unique perspective, or are experts in their fields. I don't want to be subjected to a torrent of uninvolved and uninformed baseless chatter and idle speculation, I have enough of that going on in my own head thank you very much, but in this age of multi-tasking an ongoing sarcastic and occasionally informative sidebar conversation that I can dip in to or out of as I please without distracting from the main event itself is a nice addition to an already enjoyable show.

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