Sometimes we agonise about whether we should try something. What if we can't cope with the traffic? What if the server crashes? What if the language cover is not enough? What about Linux users? What if… what if … someone doesn't like it? Then, sometimes, unaccountably, we stop worrying and just try it.
Let's do that, and hang the issues
That's what happened this week. One of those little windows of opportunity, when pretext, means and mood come together. Pretext: a Europe Day debate on the Future of Europe we wanted to give little more than the standard treatment to. Means: a couple of motivated geeks and some independent server capacity we have recently acquired to cope with our ever-more-demanding Facebook chats. Mood: the boss says to us: "C'mon, I want to see something different here."
So, quick meeting around the small round table. Idea: "you know that thing we've always thought about doing but decided not to because there are too many issues? Yeah. Let's do that, and hang the issues. It's an experiment, people will understand."
Whence the special, one-off, even slightly random, page, whereby 600 or so lucky users last Wednesday discovered:
1. Live streaming of the Great Debate
2. A Twitter feed, based on the hashtag #EUFuture, where people could comment live on the debate
3. A Facebook panel, where they could similarly comment live.
What were the "issues" I mentioned? Well, the worst is that Parliament's video streams are still only viewable, for curiously but genuinely intractable technical reasons buried in the mists of time, via a Windows/windows media combo. (The team, Mac fanboys almost to a fault, are as desperate about this as any user.) However, in the modest 24 hours accorded to them for the purpose, our gifted geeks, fired up by the challenge and the fact of being unshackled from the iron rules of Parliament's official servers, cracked several long-standing problems, viz:
1. The Windows media version of the video stream could be viewed on this separate page in all of the languages.
2. Mac users (and other freaks) could also see the video, albeit with an English-only audio stream, thanks to a smart workaround relying on the EbS stream provide by the Commission, auto-deployed for auto-detected non-Windows folk.
Now, the results weren't perfect (as non-English speaking Mac-heads would doubtless aver), which is why we decided to keep the whole operation off the formal institutional platforms and deliver the whole thing explictly as a beta/experimental exercise for social media types. And you know what? Technically the whole thing went like a dream. Not so much as a glitch. Like, it worked.
If it ain't perfect, well, there are worse things in this world
Editorially, we learnt a few lessons. We mustn't ourselves tweet too much (at least with the hashtag), for example, so as not to flood the Twitter feed with our 22 language feeds. Even one tweet per speaker in the debate, picking up the main point made, equates to 8×22=176 tweets, most of which will be by defintion incomprehensible to the average user. Also, notwithstanding, we clearly saw that Twitter works better than FB for this sort of thing, both for techical and "editorial" reasons. Finally, as ever, success depends on two crucial factors: (i) people knowing you're doing it, and (ii) people finding the subject interesting enough. On the first, we had (inevitably) given hardly any advance warning of what we were doing, while, on the second, there are clearly other occasions where the level of political excitement would be higher. (It is tempting to wonder what audience might have pitched up fo the famous Orbán debate (streaming traffic to which which crashed Parliament's webste) or a discussion of ACTA.)
But none of these reserves matters. We did this in no time for practically no money, it worked and we see those 600 users as very creditable in the circumstances. The key lessons are:
1. We can do it,
2. If it ain't perfect, well, there are worse things in this world. People do understand.
3. We can now scale this thing up.
4. And improve it.
5. Editorilally too, we'll do a bit better next time.
6. There exists a liminal space where we can step ocasionally outside our usual rules, without bringing the roof down on our heads.
So there you are, it was a small earthquake, no-one was hurt, but something did change this week. Personally speaking, it was a great thing to see, reminding me of some of the sagest words of advice I have heard in this job: "Love your geeks!"