While urgent response to Coronavirus means we must stay apart, Dougal Perman explains how digital media can help bring us together, providing the vital human connection that is part of healthy everyday life.


Distanced does not have to mean divided. Creative problem solving and innovative use of technology is closing the gap of social distancing. 

Digital media can bring us closer together, enabling the vital human interaction that is part of normal, healthy daily life.

Meeting people, chance encounters, expressing yourself, feeding off the energy of the audience, inspiring people, supporting each other. All of these things we often consider better in person. Now, due to our necessary response to the COVID-19 crisis, we all have to adapt to experiencing these activities in new ways.

As a production company which has cut itself many times at the bleeding-edge of digital media, we have seen priorities shift rapidly – inspiring uses of readily available technology to connect communities, reach people and replace some of what we have lost for now. What’s most humbling about these innovations, for those of us who work in digital content, is that they are being made by “everyday people”, not us “industry experts.”

It is often claimed that live streaming a show can never be as good as being there.

The vibe you get from a crowd going wild, audience anticipation at an award ceremony, the tension of deep drama, the camaraderie of great comedy, the nerves of the performers and their supporters in a competition. You need to be there to feel it.

Better than live

But the uncomfortable truth for many in the arts and cultural world is that sometimes live streaming an event is better for the spectator than being there. Think about the nuances you miss in theatre, which you gain from the outstanding coverage provided by NT Live. We give you the best seat in the house when we cover cultural competitions like the Glenfiddich Piping Championship, World Highland Dancing Championships or the World Highland Dancing Championship.

Or the sound quality you can enjoy when experiencing concerts online without it being compromised by your position in the auditorium, distance from the PA system or someone talking too loudly or singing along, out of tune in your ear.

But what about when the activity doesn’t have an audience? Creating shows like this have been something of a luxury for us; choosing the best camera angles without having to consider audience lines of sight, mixing the sound for the broadcast, rather than the auditorium, and incorporating pre-recorded video, graphics and audio and not having to figure out how to integrate – or extract it from – the live show.

We have really enjoyed creating programmes like this for Stellar Quines theatre company, Scottish Ballet, the Edinburgh Fringe, Scottish Opera, Sistema Scotland, Skills Development Scotland as well as live music sessions and DJ mixes for our own music brands TRADtv and Radio Magnetic.

Defining the new normal

Digital-last is what we have experienced most, following the action of the event, trying to be as discreet as possible, blending into the background wherever we could because the real world event experience came first.

Digital-first was a concept we didn’t often have the opportunity to explore as much as we would have liked, mostly due to the fact many of our client-commissioned projects were based around existing live events.

Digital-only is capturing and conveying the activity live, or on demand, for an audience who would never otherwise have the chance to experience it. It’s TV or radio for the web – something we have done since we launched Radio Magnetic in March 2001. Now this will be the new normal for perhaps the next year.

That may seem daunting – even for those of us who would have relished the opportunity to do digital-first projects, let along digital-only. However, digital-last is not an option for the foreseeable future. And we might never return to that way of doing things. When we get through the crisis and rediscover the world, it will have changed in ways we cannot yet predict.

Digital-only is our only option

Until the crisis is over, digital-only is the only option we have. It’s not important; it’s essential. People are using social networks to establish community groups to help the most vulnerable people. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom (which has leapfrogged over legacy systems to jump into the public consciousness ahead of older services like GoToMeeting or Adobe Connect and eclipsed expensive old corporate institutions like WebEx) and Google Hangouts are being used for singing groups and business meetings. Gyms, after-school clubs and workshops are live streaming classes. Churches (worship is one of the biggest markets for Livestream.com in the US) continue to pioneer the use of live streaming to bring sermons to their congregations. Musicians and comedians are performing private shows from empty venues or their bedrooms. And, of course, education, which has a head start on most, will deliver school lessons, college classes and university lectures as part of rapidly ramped-up distance learning. Friends and collaborators of ours are even planning to open a virtual pub with board games, quizzes and whatever you want –  and provide for yourself – to drink.

How normal these digital-only communications become depends on how long the crisis –  and thus the need for social distancing – lasts. Rate of infection spread and load on health services will determine the level of social distancing restrictions applied. These factors will influence the uptake, popularity, and longevity of digital-only interaction innovations.

Local, national and international politics have fostered division. That has always happened, but it has been especially evident over the past ten years. Major political interventions such as referendums and elections, have divided nations, communities and even families. Social media is a great — or terrible, depending on how you look at it — amplifier of this kind of division, pushing people into more tribalism than they would otherwise align themselves to. But interestingly, social distancing is healing those divides and closing the distances opened by ideology.

Creating a caring community – together

As we push on through the coronavirus crisis, let us all look out for each other, work together, share ideas, be mindful of why this is all happening and try as much as possible to remain in the present and keep calm. We will get through this. And while the public health and global economy situations are terrifying, collaboration, new working models and community-led innovation are already starting to emerge as some of the positive and empowering aspects of the most significant event in my life so far. (As I write this, I am approaching my 43rd birthday, in a few weeks time.)

Once the crisis has passed, the need for social distancing has diminished and we can enjoy live events once again – whether that is in a few months as some optimists seem to think or, probably more likely, a year from now – we will have some new habits; many of them positive, healthy ones such as improved hygiene, coming together to look after the most vulnerable and using technology to interact in ingenious ways. If these things become our new normal, then once we are free to mix more intimately again, we can continue our new good habits while we reduce the distance and avoid the division.

Featured image by Sam McGhee

This is an edited version of the article first published on Inner Ear,  part of a series exploring digital options during the Covid19 crisis.

Dougal Perman is co-founder and director of Inner Ear. He is also executive chair of the Scottish Music Industry Association, a digital media specialist consultant for XpoNorth and member of the Scottish Government’s Creative Industries Advisory Group.

Photos in this article are from Unsplash and used according to their licence. Credits are provided in the tool-tip image titles (hover over the picture to see).