(part one in a series)
It’s been a while since I’ve channel surfed on TV, but Civil War buffs scrolling through their evening Facebook feeds might feel a little deja vu these days. Since the pandemic lock-down triggered stay-at-home orders across the country, the amount of Civil War-related programming has exploded online as work-at-home historians have found new ways to engage the public through digital media. Particularly popular have been the grids full of talking heads courtesy of Zoom.
Zoom is a conferencing platform that allows people in different physical locations to get together on the computer for meetings. People can see and hear each other in real time, and they can share graphics and screen views. It’s been an especially popular platform for businesses.
While several historians have taken advantage of digital technology as a way to share history—Gerry Prokopowicz’s Civil War Talk Radio, around since 2004, might be the granddaddy of all—Zoom hit the public history scene in late March/early April. The Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Tattooed Historian were early adopters (we’ll talk with them later in the series). However, the new Zoom craze really erupted in force thanks to the American Battlefield Trust, which brought panels of historians together in an array that looked like the old Hollywood Squares—day after day, evening after evening.
“A few months before the COVID crisis, Larry Swiader, our director of digital strategy, introduced us to Zoom as a platform that we should potentially use to engage with students and teachers,” says Kris White, senior education manager at the American Battlefield Trust. “When the quarantine struck, and members questioned how a land-based history organization could engage with members who couldn’t get out to the battlefields, we quickly pivoted and put together ‘Zoom Goes the History.’”
White says the Trust already had a proven track record of engaging members and fans through popular Facebook LIVE videos. “We figured we could do something similar with Zoom—tell compelling stories, discuss history, and have fun while engaging with our audience,” he says.
White and his boss, the Trust’s chief historian, Garry Adelman, conceived a series of daily programs that would use Zoom to interview panels of historians about a wide array of topics. The first, “Great Attacks and Counterattacks at Gettysburg,” aired Wednesday, April 8 and has since amassed more than eleven thousand views (and counting). At press time, the Trust had produced 27 “Zoom Goes the History” chats on topics ranging from Civil War, Revolutionary War, and War of 1812 history; pop culture; archeology; preservation; behind-the-scenes at the Trust; and more.
The wide array of topics has allowed the Trust to cast a wide net, but it has also come with its headaches—scheduling, foremost among them.
“It was like pulling teeth to get historians to respond to the project,” he says, “which is not uncommon in the field.” Some historians, he explains, are not allowed to speak on camera due to HR restrictions at their job; others did not feel comfortable in the Zoom setting; others couldn’t get the timing or topics to work.
While some online critics called out the Trust for featuring too many white males, White says the organization made a concerted effort going into the project to be as inclusive as possible.
“To pull back the curtain, we asked nearly 85 historians to be a part of this project . . . historians that ran the gamut—and historians that would do well on this platform,” he explains. “We sent out the first round to about 30 historians, and eight committed to the project. We sent out the next blast to 54 historians, and by the end, we had 21 responses.”
After the project launched, the search continued for additional, diverse voices, which became easier once people could see the product online and understand what they were getting into, White adds.
Watching the Zoom programs also inspired people to pitch programming ideas to the Trust. “I can’t tell you the number of solicitations we have received—most of them out of left field, and most were cringe worthy,” White admits. He adds: “It’s always funny to see the break between what public historians and academic historians deem interesting or important.”
The wide net has offered a lot of flexibility, but it has also required discipline. “Keeping people focused on our core audience and our core mission, which is talking about war and preserving battlefields, is top priority,” White says. “It is easy to slip off into subject areas that are important to 3-5 people, but leaves the other 370-thousand audience members saying, ‘Why are you covering this topic or that topic?’ And then there is the flip side: showing our members that war is more than just battles, more than mud and blood. There are human, economic, social, and countless other impacts before, during, and after a conflict. Walking that topic tightrope is difficult.”
As “Zoom Goes the History” took off, other organizations also started offering Zoom-based programming.
“It’s always a great thing to see people passionate—in a positive way—about history, or wanting to learn more about any subject. There can never be too many history buffs,” White says. “Granted, though, there are so many people and organizations now taking this approach that it really does make it difficult to get a message or programming out there, especially for smaller organizations with fewer Facebook or YouTube followers.”
One of the great boons, but also great curses of digital technology is that it has democratized history, so nearly anyone can put content out there, and that content may or may not have editorial oversight.
“You do have to be cognizant of where you are getting the content from during these sessions,” White cautions. “There are leading historians and trusted history organizations leading these sessions like the Trust, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, and the National World War II Museum, just to name a few. And I can guarantee that the people on there know the subject matter well.” Others, he says, “you might take with a grain of salt, but it doesn’t hurt to try something new.”
He notes that some of the programs feature groups of the same historians interviewing each other over and over.
Adelman says each episode of “Zoom Goes the History” garners anywhere between 120-500 viewers watching live, with an average of around 240. In the first week afterwards, the videos will rack up anywhere between 4,000 and 14,000 views. “I’d average them out around 9000 views reaching about 22000 people on Facebook each,” Adelman explains. “So far, those we have posted on YouTube haven’t taken off, but we are trying.” Viewership there nets anywhere from one to two-thousand more views.
Over the next few days, I’ll spend a little time doing some “channel surfing” of my own, and we’ll talk with some of the other historians who have been using Zoom to share history. That 7:00-9:00 p.m. EDT window gets pretty busy some evenings, so we’ll have a lot to sort through. Tune in and join us!