On September 23rd starting at 8pm Eastern time the cast of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (SGU) will produce a 24 hour live audio and video streaming event – SGU-24. The event was my idea, which the Rogues never let me forget, especially as we approach the event and panic starts to set in. This is the first time we are doing anything like this, which reminds me of how experimental our entire endeavor is.
I am not just talking about the SGU, but skeptical activism in general. As a community we seem to be willing to take risks and try out new technology. In early 2005, for example, podcasting was a brand new idea. They were not even included in iTunes. Yet several skeptical podcasts popped up – Skepticality was the first, followed shortly by SGU, and before long there were also Skeptoid, Point of Inquiry (which already existed as a radio show) and others. Skeptical podcasts have always had a solid representation among the top science podcasts, and I think this is partly due to getting established early.
As I have observed before – adopting Web 2.0 and social media early on was critical to the recent surge in skeptical activism. We went from a loose collection of small local groups rallying around three national groups to a large and thriving activist community.
Along the way we have tried various media and outlets. The JREF has found a critical niche with the TAM conferences, and now more have followed suit, including NECSS, which is run by the NESS with the New York City Skeptics. We have produced a television pilot, still stuck in limbo, and we have experimented with other video outlets, such as Hulu and Youtube with varying degrees of success.
I think we have been successful because we are not afraid to fail. The new media allows for low-cost experimentation. The barriers to entry for media content production and distribution have never been lower. So we can come up with an idea and implement it, as long as we have the content and the energy. If we fail, we move on to the next thing. We can follow up on those things which succeed. The movement can therefore grow organically, like a form of adaptive radiation.
Sometimes I get e-mail from readers or listeners who write from the perspective that the skeptical movement is one top-down organization. They may not even be aware of this unspoken assumption in their feedback and suggestions. The truth is the opposite of their impression – there is no master plan, no top-down hierarchy. There are many individuals and small groups all doing their own thing. The only organization is a loose bottom-up style of collaboration, but with many horizontal connections. Shermer once compared it to herding cats, but perhaps it is more like a flock of birds. Birds all follow a few simple rules when flocking, but from that individual behavior emerges the flocking phenomenon. Actually, we are more like a collection of different flocks all heading in the same general direction, mixing, merging, and splitting as we travel.
So now our latest experiment is to put on a 24 hour show. It is, of course, a ton of work – always more than you anticipate. We are now just 11 days away from the event – we are in good shape, but still the pace of work is accelerating. We have many stellar guests locked in – Adam Savage, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, Brian Brushwood, Richard Saunders, George Hrab, and more. The set is almost done – I can’t show you pictures yet, but it is going to be awesome. We have lots of content planned, including taking live questions via Twitter, Skype, and e-mail. It is a bit daunting to think of filling 24 hours with content, we’ll see how that goes.
The whole thing can be a spectacular failure. But even if it is, it will still have served a purpose. Every time we try a new method of promoting science and critical thinking, we see what works and what doesn’t, we learn about our capabilities and resources, we see what people respond to, and the movement matures and adapts a little.
I hope you’ll join us for our latest experiment. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.