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Tweet Dreams Are Made of This

surgery live

[This post was originally published in an edited form on The TV Show blog]

Twitter has been in the mainstream media a lot in recent months. Surgery Live was the second of three experiments by me run out of Channel 4’s Cross-platform Department using this increasingly popular ‘microblogging’ service in connection with television programmes. The experiment reflects the increasingly common habit of ‘Twittering’ whilst watching TV, plugging in to that behaviour in the context of a bold, educative factual television series – importantly a live one.

[Twitter, if it hasn’t crossed your path, is a website from which you can send short messages (of up to 140 characters) to a network of people who are interested in similar things to you or who to choose to follow your short messages or ‘tweets’.]

When I first saw Twitter a few years ago I thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it. I gave myself the identity SurrealThing on the site because I felt at the time the only way to engage with it was as a persona or character, so I decided to be a Surrealist to match the weirdness of the whole concept. I began tweeting about melting watches and the like. Since then I’ve come to see it as a tool in search of a purpose and the three experiments I’ve commissioned (as Channel 4’s Cross-platform Commissioning Editor for Factual) have been about applying the Twitter tool to a worthwhile mission.

The first experiment, early last summer, was Osama Loves which used Twitter to enable two young British Muslims to go in search of 500 people called Osama right across the Islamic world with a view to illustrating the diversity of Muslim culture. Twitter was used in that instance as a means of updating Channel 4 viewers from areas of the world where they couldn’t get online or didn’t have sufficient bandwidth and were forced to rely on mobile to send in their updates or respond to their followers.

Surgery Live – broadcast live on Channel 4 in May – used Twitter to enable viewers to ask questions and discuss live the surgical procedures featured in the series. Viewers were invited to watch a selection of four fascinating operations live at around 11pm each night of the Surgery Live week. From open heart surgery to awake brain surgery to keyhole surgery, the programmes invited viewers to ask questions of the surgeons via Twitter (or email or phone), all filtered via the production team who selected the most interesting questions which were then posed through the intermediary of the presenter, arch-Twitterer Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News. So a matter of seconds between tweet and the question being asked on live TV.

There is of course a long and honourable tradition of surgeons talking and teaching whilst operating and every effort was made to make the Surgery Live questions and answers no more distracting than that normal medical training practice.

So viewers were encouraged to tweet away during the live operations, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The big difference from the few previous experiments in this area is that this was live TV and you could make an impact with your tweet on the actual TV editorial. Now of course there are echoes of phone-ins and combining TV with forums/chatrooms the best part of a decade ago (notably by Danny Baker on Channel 4) but what this new generation of social media brings is a networked conversation which is global, searchable, tagable and open. In other words, unlike emails, text messages or phones, you can join in a discussion among numerous people from right across the UK and beyond – fellow viewers, experts, medical students, enthusiasts, all manner of interested parties – live and simultaneously.

The online dimension of the project was produced by Windfall Films (who made the TV series) in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. Included on the Surgery Live website was a section on how to use Twitter, to enable anyone unfamiliar with it to get up and running in under 5 minutes. This is part of the Channel’s ‘digital media literacy’ activities.

The third in this series of experiments is the forthcoming Alone in the Wild which will start life properly on Twitter on 27th June (watch this space – there is some early activity already). It revolves around a British man immersing himself alone in the wilderness of the Yukon for three months.

To get a sense of how the Surgery Live experiment panned out I leave it to the words of our viewers/participants. One measure of its impact was that it ‘trended’ #1, #2# or #3 on Twitter every night – that is, for a while around transmission was the 1st, 2nd or 3rd most popular topic globally. Another is that by the second night, if you googled the word “surgery” the Surgery Live website showed up number 2 of 121 Million results.

philroberts: #slive this could be one of the best models for twitter, live interactive feedback brilliant twitter was a great enhancement to the show

manpreet1: Surgery live on channel 4, and #slive, was a great use of a new format.

bruceelrick: @wellcometrust it was a great success on twitter. #slive now 3rd most popular trend on twitter – pretty great achievement!

J_Dizzle_: just watched heart surgery live on channel 4, twitter questions and updates.. very well done. #slive

mjmobbs: #slive excellent, see you tomorrow, really enjoyed the Twitter and Live TV combination.

Furgaline: What a brilliant way to educate people… #slive

warrenfree: Enjoyed watching Channel4 adoption of twitter to allow us to question the surgeons.. Interesting to watch too #slive

OotSandShaman my question was just asked on @surgerylive! man twitter kicks ass

Sarahgrittin09 #slive good to see social networking sites used for more interesting things like this rather than poncy photos and relationship statuses!

vas_876 @ajd90 Hey, looks like #slive has brought loads of us prospective medics to twitter

mygadgetlife: #slive really C4 a great program made all the more enjoyable with twitter but poor scheduling  [some viewers were upset that the live broadcast had to end after its allotted hour]

ellied18: Shame #slive isn’t on for longer… great insight!

wren154: #slive Forget Susan Boyle and all the other wannabes. This programme is showing where Britain’s Got Talent

marcmcg @SurgeryLive please turn SurgeryLive into a weekly series. Most innovative and educational show I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

tweelhouse @krishgm Watching Mondays #slive – totally fascinating. Have a heart condition and helping me better understand what goes on inside me!

Chrissarnowski #slive Thank you Surgery Live; great eyeopener, makes me more determined to pursue my ambitions in medicine…

wisebuddha liking use of twitter integration in a linear tv show good example from C4 in UK more of this in future http://bit.ly/hevJ2 #slive

Update 17.vi.09: Alone in the Wild in Daily Telegraph

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