"Can Twitter save Bletchley Park?" - Dr Sue Black talking at the Guardian

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 18 February 2011
“I was standing there, looking at this hut, and it was just falling down. It was a disgrace.” - Dr Sue Black talking about Bletchley Park

We've been holding a series of lunchtime talks at the Guardian's offices, with a mix of internal and external people talking about issues around digital media. A recent guest was Dr Sue Black, who was talking about how social media had played a role in the campaign to save and preserve Bletchley Park, based on a presentation given at the 2010 ‘Museums and the web’ conference.

Dr Black talked about some of the earliest lobbying on the issue, which included a letter to The Times, signed by 97 eminent computer scientists. Interestingly, the digital version of that letter is now behind the paywall, limiting the long term effectiveness of the lengthy tradition of writing a joint letter to the editor of The Times as a way of drawing attention to an issue. Letters to The Telegraph, Independent, The Guardian and Observer stay online and are free to view ;-)

In recent years the campaign has moved to Twitter. Dr Black said that like most people she initially tried Twitter briefly and couldn't see the point. Whatleydude reintroduced her to the service, and from there she ended up sparking the interest of Documentally and Sizemore. They've helped Bletchley Park set up their own Twitter presence, and the whole campaign came alive. Particularly when she hit upon the idea of “Activate the Stephen Fry!”. A tweet in his direction piqued his interest, and suddenly, with his vocal support, the campaign blog leapt from 50 users a day to 8,000.

One of the aspects that most interested Sue about Bletchley Park was the number of women engaged in the code-breaking exercise. She said her expectation was that code breakers would be “twenty men in tweed suits”, but actually 10,000 people were involved, and half of them women. She was involved in making a documentary video about them: "The women of Station X"

What I really liked about Dr Black's talk was that her own personal story was woven into it. She talked about how intimidating it had been for her to originally start attending tech conferences where there might only be 2 women amongst 120 attendees. “Now I'm an egomaniac”, she quipped, “but at the time people staring at me freaked me out”. I have to say that the continual poor behaviour towards women at tech events, and the presence of “booth babes” at shows like the eCommerce Expo make me ashamed for our industry. If ever there was a sector where you'd think the nerds of the world would band together regardless of gender, surely it should be ours.

As a consequence of those early experiences, in 1998 Dr Black set up London BCS Women, and is still involved with the BCSWomen group which, despite numbering 1,500 members, still retains what Sue described as a “friendly family community best friends kind of feel”.

I especially loved her anecdote about the London BCS Women group making it into the newspapers. In an era before Google Alerts, the only reason she knew she had been mentioned in The Mirror was when her sister phoned her from holiday in Spain where by chance she had picked up a copy. Just as the era of Bletchley Park's code-breaking operation seems distant, so does the idea of such a connected digital person not knowing that they'd been referenced by a news organisation.

You can contribute to the campaign to save this Second World War heritage site at Saving Bletchley Park.

3 Comments

Perhaps a team outing is in order?

It shouldn't even come to talk about saving Bletchley Park, for something so important to our history.

The real heroes in this story are the many volunteers who have kept Bletchley Park from closing since the early 90's, and continue to keep it running as a labour of love for zero money and zero personal publicity. The best way to help them and Bletchley Park is to visit the park, or visit their web site, spend money in the shop and donate a few quid. If you visit, please say "thank you" to your tour guide.

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