(part six in a series)
John Heckman, a.k.a.the Tattooed Historian, might be the grand-daddy of the Civil War Zoom Boom. Since hitting the scene, Heckman has used social media made a full-court press to not just talk about Civil War history but also the field of Civil War history. As part of that, he’s been doing livestream video interviews on Facebook for years, often from his “home base” at the Garryowen Irish Pub in Gettysburg. John had taken a sabbatical earlier this year and made his comeback just as the pandemic lockdowns started to kick in, and he found that his digital platform had already positioned him to take advantage of the changing landscape.
CM: You’ve been using Facebook as a place to do interviews for a while. Can you give me just a quick bit of background on that?
JH: Conducting live-stream interviews has been a foundational component of my mission with The Tattooed Historian brand. I wanted to get more history out to the public without fees or friction. So I initially started at conferences, including the Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference, where I would interview speakers after their presentations. It was free publicity for the speakers and the hosting agency, and my brand could reach new audiences. Everybody wins, and that’s the way I like it.
CM: You went quiet for a while but came roaring back right about the time the pandemic lockdown was really ramping up. Did you see an opportunity due to the lockdown?
JH: It was kind of funny in that at the beginning of March, I went to a conference in Ontario and did a presentation on how historians can reach larger audiences using social media. And then I became ill right afterwards for over five weeks. During that time, I was planning my comeback, so to speak. I wanted to create and document my journey as a historian more than ever not only because we were going on lockdown, but the busy work it provides is therapeutic to my spirit. “The Tattooed Historian” became a legacy project, and it is nothing for me to spend twelve to fourteen hours a day working on it. I knew we would have the largest amount of people needing quality content, so I focused on that opportunity.
CM: What sort of viewership have you attracted?
JH: My live stream interviews bring in anywhere from 2,000 views up to 7,500 at the extreme end. That’s the total within 48 hours. Watching live at one time shifts between 55 and 110 or so. I’m delighted with the numbers since we’re usually on at the same time as others!
CM: There does seem to be a glut of programming during that “prime time” slot.
JH: Sadly! We’re pulling from each other in that moment. When mine is done, I usually seek out another to watch to try to help.
CM: I remember a conversation you and I had once where you talked about wanting to create a program that felt like ESPN but for Civil War history. With all these Zoom chats on Facebook these days, it looks like that has happened in spades! How do you feel about that?
JH: I have a bad habit of never being satisfied. I’m always wanting to do more, create something else, try something new. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with what I’ve done, but I can’t stand being complacent in the slightest. So I love how far the brand has come and I enjoy every minute I spend talking with other historians, but there’s so much more I have in mind. I still want to create that Sportscenter feel to something, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Honestly, I feel like I haven’t even started to do all that I want to do.
CM: There’s a lot of content out there now. Is there anything you do in particular that makes yours stand apart from the others?
JH: I think my emphasis on bringing new voices to the conversation is important. I bring on some historians who don’t get much airtime. I also love to work with students because they’re often underappreciated. In fact, when I saw all of the conferences being canceled, I decided to schedule a digital conference so they could showcase their work to thousands online. That’s simply called The Tattooed Historian’s Digital Conference and will take place on my Facebook on June 20. I have six awesome presenters, and I’m already being asked if I’ll be doing another one. I’m hoping that grows into something cool for more history students to take part in.
CM: You’ve told me before that your numbers tend to skew younger.
JH: Approximately 65% of viewers are under the age of 50, with many of that number under the age of 40. Our main viewership is in the United States and Canada, but we do have regular viewers from the U.K. and Australia.
CM: Have you tried to take a particular angle with the content that you’ve created?
JH: I’ve always wanted this content to be friction-free. Meaning that there’s no “pay to play” or “pay for play” format. You won’t pay for my content. On top of this, the environment is inclusive of all races, genders, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, and so on. In other words, it’s an even playing field and one that is welcoming to all who are interested in good, authentic history.
CM: Have there been any particular challenges?
JH: From time to time there has been some resentment from some in the field who feel that I’m disrespecting the way we do history. I’ve received hateful emails and private messages saying that I’m “ruining history” or that my model will “bankrupt historians” because I “just give it away.” However, now that we’re all concentrating on being online to get our messages out, I see some of those same historians doing exactly what they called me out on. Just like historical memory: we are driven by the times.
CM: Anything I haven’t asked on the subject that you’d like to add?
JH: A word of advice for those historians who want to create something online: do it. But do it authentically. Don’t try to be like somebody else. Don’t try to “fake it until you make it.” Be yourself, teach the history that you want to teach, and most importantly, bring value to your audience. If you’re only in it for yourself, you’ll fail. And in all reality, that’s a lesson for life in general.
For more about the Tattooed Historian, you can see a quick interview I did with him on the ECW YouTube page.