Yeah, Pokemon Go Is A Real Virtual Thing


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A photo of a gravel street in Old Sacramento with a cartoon figure superimposed on it.

Rhydon has been seen near the Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Beware!

A screenshot showing the Pokemon character "graveler" in front of a steam locomotive

Graveler in front of a steam locomotive at the California State Railroad Museum.


The social media landscape changes so quickly that it’s been difficult for the Media Platypus-ers to keep up with the rapid pace of things. Mostly it’s incremental– changes to Facebook algorithms, reading the extra ninety six pages of the latest ITunes Terms of Service Agreement, and wondering whatever happened to the first part of 2016.

But then comes Pokemon Go, and this seems to be a game changer. A silly game app with ridiculous characters that for many of us harken back to early childhood (or early parenthood) has come back, not to haunt us with memories of bad animation, but to get us out of our chairs and into the real world while searching for a virtual one. What a concept!

For the two or three people who have not heard all of the babble, Pokemon Go is an app for Androids and the iOS platform that puts you in a virtual reality platform on your device. Using your camera and the device’s GPS capabilities, you hunt for various creatures from Pokemon (Sand Shrew, anyone?) and in the right place you’ll find them and have various interactions, battles, and all sorts of nonsense that to the people around you who aren’t playing, will look really, really weird.

This really isn’t the first app that puts virtual reality aspects into historic areas. My historian friend

screenshot of the Ingress app, showing green and blue abstract polygons over a streetmap of a portion of downtown Sacramento California.

Ingress activity in downtown Sacramento. Who knew that there was such turmoil in our State Capital?

Kyle is addicted to Ingress, from the same developer, and in fact the Poke Stops in Pokemon Go are really the same thing that portals are in Ingress. I’ve actually used Ingress and as a result I understand even less of it (and it drains my phone battery,) but it involves portals and power sources that are constantly being seized by either the green or blue guys, and it just depends on what side you’d like to be on. The “adults” who are into Ingress can be also seen exploring historic areas and places they might not have otherwise explored, but rather than chasing silly cartoon characters, they are much more intelligently looking for portals and power centers to seize from the other entity.

I’m officially old these days, so it makes no sense to me, but with age comes perspective (I made this part up) and as an observer and a person who specializes in communication and enlightening people’s worlds, I’m delighted to see these things, even if I think they’re stupid. Why? Because they corollate with a theory I developed about geocaching in the early 2000s, about using technology to get geeky people away from their screens and into the outdoor environment that I think that everyone should be intimately acquainted with.

Without going into detail, I have tech-obsessed relatives who began geocaching, accidentally went outdoors, and without even knowing it, developed walking muscles, got tans, and learned about the natural and cultural environment while finding caches. Today I have a brother-in-law who is a world-class cacher, with thousands of caches to his credit, but he’s still very much a geek, and proudly so.

Pokemon Go is doing the same thing in a much more socially engaging way, or at least it’s really caught critical mass in a way that geocaching just hasn’t. It’s both funny (go to to read people’s complaints about sore legs from too much walking while playing Pokemon Go) to experiences that are directly useful for interpreters ( in that Pokemon Go (and Ingress, and even another app called “Tour Guide” can help you learn about the cultural environment you’re in.) It seems to me that the opportunity to link Pokemon Go and other players with our parks and historic sites is just an opportunity begging to be exploited.

This isn’t to say that these are appropriate everywhere, and indeed, the administrators of Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. have asked people to respect the character and purpose of their sites by not engaging, and honestly I think that it was really stupid for Niantic and Nintendo to populate those sites with Pokemon characters (plus I wish that there was an opt-in/opt-out choice for businesses and landowners) but I’d prefer to dwell on the positive.

On the Facebook Group #diginterp, I asked the question of whether Pokemon Go was a problem for interpretive sites. Overwhelmingly, the answer has been NO! I think that a lot of interpreters and social media types are embracing the opportunity to engage with a new audience segment, sometimes even when they bump into you while staring at their device.

As always, I don’t know what will come of all this, but it’s a great new avenue into engagement. I just hope that we can come up with something that’s a bit more attractive than gravelers, sand shrews, and rattata!

Is blogging dead? Or just this one…


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My appetite for consuming blogs has seriously waned.  Seriously. It’s a rare occasion that read a blog post from headline to comment line. I usually scan a headline, and maybe click on a link if it teases my taste buds but I generally just take a quick bite and move on.

Although when I do come across an interesting one, I dive right in and come out on the other end as satisfied as if I’d just consumed a giant slice of chocolate cake and a large glass of spicy red. I found this one ‘A teenager’s view on Social Media; written by an actual teen’ was a pretty good read, even worth a second helping.

Conversely, it seems I’ve not been cooking up many new blog posts either, and it seems I’m not the only one. Have you noticed? It’s been nearly a year since MP’s  last article – and we have a multi-national team of bloggers. Where did we all go?

Priya Florence on WPeka says “As long as there are readers, there will be bloggers.” So Media Platypus readers – are you there? Do you still have midnight cravings for another missive from the Media Platypus team?

In my head I hear your faint echo of a reply… (I have a very vivid imagination).

quote on wellington waterfront.

But I’d rather have your comments. Yes this blog has been a little less than “best practice” lately. But I know for a fact that social media is still high on many an interpreter’s list of something that want guidance and help on.  And the ethos for 2016 in ‘blogging’ circles is to publish long content less often – quality over quantity.

Huffington Post says;

“… to build a successful blog you just need to become a curator of information for a specific community. What you need to do is, focus on a niche audience, discover their needs and give them valuable information and services.”

But enough about what Huffington P says. What should Media Platypus say?

Our niche audience is interpreters. You are our audience.

Our content focus is social media. So we’d like you tell us a bit more about what you want to know.

What information would you like from us?

  • Case studies?
  • Ideas or opinions?
  • Innovations in technology or evolutions in new media?
  • How to 101?
  • The basics or the latest trends?
  • How to use hashtags? (#lotsofquestions).
  • My new favourite recipe for chocolate cake?

Tell us in the comments, or on the Media Platypus Facebook page. Let’s get some great conversations happening. Then we’ll come up with a plan for action for the coming year.

Food poster.

Oh and by the way, if you want to know who we are, you can find out more here

Selfie-help – can selfies make a meaningful contribution to an interpretation toolbox?


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I’m looking for some selfie-help.

During a recent briefing for a new interpretative project I started thinking about selfies.  It’s not such a jump – the project is a new walking trail with a target audience of youth, families and first-time hikers. The trail has cell coverage for most of its length. My client briefing me pointed out a natural feature that was a popular spot for photos and when she said; “I don’t like the idea of people with their cell-phones out in the natural environment;” my response was, “but they’ll be doing it anyway so why not use it to our advantage?”

Selfies used to be considered bad taste; the exclusive domain of self-centred narcissistic teens on Myspace. But a social media culture shift has occurred, and everyone is doing it. Higher quality shots are possible, helped along by the advances in the photographic capabilities of cell phones; with specific selfie apps soon following.

Even I must confess that both my current Facebook and LinkedIn profile pics are selfies.

Even I must confess that both my current Facebook and LinkedIn profile pics are selfies.

Selfies at their core are self-portraits. People have been painting, drawing, photographing themselves since we used to live in caves. Selfies say “I was here”. They are people-focused and not much of a step away from what tourists have been doing for years – taking photos of themselves at places they have visited to ‘capture memories’.

According to Wikipedia the Oxford English Dictionary declared selfie ‘word of the year’ in November 2013. According to Google 93 million selfies are taken every day on Android devices. And in March 2014 a selfie broke the internet when a selfie taken by Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres was retweeted over 1.8 million times in the first hour of posting (yes we hear about this stuff, even in the antipodes).

We have seen their power used for evil; that bad taste still rises in your throat when people take selfies that seem to be at odds with the place, events and environment.  

New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa freely admits that sculptures and paintings are being damaged by people backing into them for selfie shots. But that hasn’t stopped them from allowing – and in some places encouraging – their use.

“We want visitors to be able to take pictures and share their experience with friends,” says a spokesperson in this media article.

Shantytown long-drop photo opp...

Shantytown long-drop photo opp…

So how do we harness the selfie phenomenon to help facilitate interpretation? Or should we even try? A quick search and brainstorm came up with the following examples of selfies in interpretation, and some thoughts:

Interpretive sites have often encouraged photographs as a way for visitors to interact with their exhibits – see the Shantytown example above. Te Papa has gone so far as installed a mirrored selfie wall.

Encouraging visitors to share their own selfies on a social media platform is a common marketing tool and creates a community of common experience. Could this be done while on the trail perhaps at one of the huts?

This life-sized ranger sign at the glacier below has unwittingly become the co-pilot in many a tourist selfie. So perhaps the same idea could be used to introduce an historic figure at one of the huts or shelters along our trail?

This life-size ranger was intended to draw attention to safety warnings.

This life-size ranger was intended to draw attention to safety warnings but is now featured in many selfies

Check out this instagram – if Laura Ingles Wilder took selfies

What about an app that reveals a ghost figure from the past if you take a selfie at a certain spot? Or some other information at pre-designated, beacon-marked spots?

I’d love to hear from anyone who has attempted these or any other selfie ideas and are willing to share their experiences. Selfie-help – all shares welcome!

Which platform to use to display your selfie community?

Which platform to use to display your selfie community?

Should You Do an Interpretive Podcast?


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I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I listen to them while I run in the morning, while I bike to work, while I do the dishes, and sometimes even at work (depending on the task). I listen to everything from national sports shows (Dan Patrick, Pardon the Interruption) to quirky independent podcasts (How to Do Everything, International Waters). I was rapt with attention each week when the podcast sensation Serial swept the nation. (If you haven’t listened to it, GO NOW.)

And I’ve had personal experiences with podcasting. I was once a litigant on the Judge John Hodgman podcast, hosted by “I’m a PC” guy John Hodgman, who has literally a million Twitter followers, and I have been a guest on the Fielder’s Choice podcast (79 plays and counting!), where I talked about baseball for 90 minutes.

I’ve thought about starting my own podcast, and wondered whether it was worth the time and effort. If you’ve had that same idea, here are some considerations:

Are you passionate about something?
As with all things social media, the first step towards success is to have a specific area of focus that you care about. The nerdier the better! The more narrow you can make your focus, the more likely you are to carve out a niche in a crowded podcast landscape. (This seems like something interpreters should be good at.)

Do you want to be fabulously wealthy?
If so, maybe podcasting is not for you. (Perhaps we can interest you in investment banking.) You’re not going to make a lot, if any, money by podcasting. A more attainable goal for your podcast, and a more appropriate reason for its existence, is branding. A well-received podcast will make you and your organization a voice one that people recognize as expert in a certain subject area.

Are you willing to commit?
There’s nothing worse than a social media outlet that offers super-great content for a while, then disappears without explanation. Like a blog about social media that hasn’t had a new post in three months. (Sorry everyone.) For your podcast, you’ll want to set a schedule and stick to it. Whether it’s monthly or weekly or daily, be sure you have the time and resources—not to mention enough content—to keep a schedule.

Do you already have a social media audience?
It seems obvious, but the best way to launch a successful podcast is to have an audience ready and waiting. Perhaps your interpretive site has a Facebook page or Twitter account with lots of followers. Or maybe you have a newsletter with a wide circulation or a highly trafficked website. Use that audience to drive listeners to your podcast!

Do you have a modicum of technical sensibilities?
Putting a podcast out into the world does not require an engineering degree, but there are some things you’ll need to know (or learn). You’ll need to record your podcast, which requires hardware (a decent microphone is essential) and software like Garage Band (to add intros, music, etc.). If your podcast features interviews or co-hosts in different locations, you’ll need a decent internet connection to transfer voice data over Skype (the preferred method, it seems).

And once you have an edited product, you’ll need to distribute it. I’ve found that Blip.TV is perfect for both video and audio podcasts, as it’s free, and it handles submitting your product to iTunes and other networks.

Do you want to do this?
This is ultimately the most important question. You have the passion, the expertise, a great voice for radio, a huge audience waiting for a new product from you, and the technical expertise to make it happen. But if it feels like a chore to you, it’s going to feel like a chore to your audience. Make it fun for yourself and your chances for success have increased exponentially.

Podcasts are like any social media outlet. It’s easy to start one, but to create and maintain a successful one requires enthusiasm, commitment, and an investment of time and creative energy. But if anyone can do it, interpreters seem like the perfect people to be creating the interesting, entertaining, and focused content this medium requires.

Why Do We Always Need to Change?


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Photograph of a sign in a store window that reads "FREE WIFI & INSPIRATION"

Seen at the REI Store in Roseville CA

Back in May, I talked about some of the hyperbole that constantly surrounds social media trends. If you follow these trends at all, you’re always hearing that [fill in the blank] is now the hot platform, what you know already is obsolete, and there’s something magical that will answer all of your needs just around the corner, especially if you’ll fund my kickstarter account!

In the meantime, the most popular and commonly used platforms are constantly changing things, seemingly to maintain hipness and interest plus deal with constant lawsuits over privacy violations and patent infringement. Less popular ones do the electronic equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

I used to think that a lot of this stuff is done just to tick me off. I really loathe it everytime a platform innovates, and Facebook is the nadir of this annoyance, I guess because it’s the most pervasive platform out there. I hate it for the same reason I hate video games. I never get the doggone thing totally figured out! Just when I feel like I know what’s going on, here comes a shift; a new reality.

Much as it might annoy me, though, these platforms have to innovate constantly. Part of it is litigation. It’s common knowledge that Facebook, Instagram, Google and other platforms are constantly being sued for privacy violations. As a result, they change the way they collect, display and use information.  It’s not benign or necessarily corrective, by the way. Rather than really address privacy issues in a way that most people would be happy with, the changes often just provoke frustration and tick people off. Most recently, privacy settings have changed on personal pages. This and several other things have been explained by Information Week.

They like to change how information is laid out on the platform too. It was just a couple of years ago that Facebook did a major redesign to incorporate cover images. and switch over to a two-column layout. Milestones also appeared, allowing you to highlight significant dates. Nearly everyone I talked with about these things hated them, but we adapted.

Another reason for this constant innovation is to better monetize the platform. It’s one of the things that virtually all of us, I think, totally disregard about social media. Regardless of whether we’re providing content as an individual or on behalf of an interpretive site or business, we are performing unpaid labor for the platform’s owners.

Let me rephrase that. Without our content, Facebook, Instagram, Google +, Foursquare, Tumblr, or whatever has no content to draw viewers. No viewers, no eyeballs, no advertisers, no Silicon Valley, no Mark Zuckerberg, no… Hey, wait! This could be just great! I’m going to set up a Meetup group so we can plan this, and then send out evites, and…


Al Jazeera has a great opinion piece written by E. Alex Jung called Is It Time To Quit Facebook? where he makes his case pretty well. You may have heard about the research project that Facebook used us as Guinea Pigs for, Emotional Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks. You can read the “editorial concern” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for yourself to learn some of the details, but essentially Facebook played everyone who uses the platform by selecting post types that you and I would receive, determining (duh) that happy posts make us more engaged, while sad or non-happy posts decrease our engagement. This might sound kind of silly and obvious, but it’s not if you understand that we are not only an audience, but also unpaid content providers for some of the richest and largest content providers in the world. The study, while verifying something that seems obvious, also gives license to social media platforms to target what we will see, to drive more engagement and therefore sell and charge more for ad content.

How does this concern us, aside from the obvious? Well, for those of us who provide content on behalf of an employer or a beloved interpretive site, perhaps some of our most intellectually important posts are not “happy” enough, and won’t be seen by a large part of our desired audience.

The work we do as interpreters is not at all related to feeding tame deer and reveling in nature’s beauty. Well, part of it is, I guess, but in addition to the “happy” stuff we also interpret tragedy, death, greed, horror, accident and natural disaster. If we don’t, but they are part of our story, we do a disservice to our audience and stakeholders. Who is the world is Facebook or whoever to censor or diminish distribution of what we feel is important to get out to our audiences? Who gave them the right?

I’ve previously opined that social media is the equivalent of a public utility. They are pervasive, ubiquitous, and necessary for a lot of people to keep up in a fast-paced and modern world. I was wrong. A public utility normally provides a level of service commensurate with our ability to pay for the services. My water service won’t be diminished by my mood or the colors of the flowers in my garden. My electricity won’t be cut off if I like to burn lights all night, and my satellite provider won’t change my channel lineup based on what they think I should see. How can social media providers then, filter what I see versus what’s put on the platform and offered for viewing?

They are the owners. We are the unpaid employees, and we are at least partially, suckers for agreeing to be in servitude to them.

I’m not quitting social media; it’s simply too much a part of my life, and it’s definitely a part of my work. I’m not happy about it though.

Is social media a format option for inclusive interpretation?


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Lisa’s research and end question about ‘great online exhibitions’ has prompted some interesting thoughts, and also more questions…

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Norwich Castle and Colchester Castle’s battlements and dungeons in the UK were amongst the flurry of virtual tours created around 2004; at the time heritage sites were addressing their then new legal duty to provide access to services with reasonable physical adjustments. When alterations were deemed to impact unduly on the fabric or nature of the place, site managers and digital designers worked together to create virtual tours. These were sometimes interpretive and with choice of communication formats with subtitles, British Sign Language and audio description. Others simply offered a visual tour thru’ the lens of a video camera or the latest 3D modelling fly thru’.

Today 10 years on digital and social media present a broader than ever range of ways for visitors to access heritage interpretation and engage with their history. From Brighton and Hove Story drop mobile App to downloadable audio description for blind and partially sighted visitors to the Natural History Museum, London’s newly refurbished Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery.

It is an exciting time for opportunities to integrate new interpretive methods with inclusive choice of communication techniques, flexibility and accessibility options. Everyone uses a different range of audio, haptic and visual communication techniques.

However, it still requires a further shift from App and virtual options being considered as only an alternative format, rather than integrated choice. Apps are used as a starting point for museum or heritage sites making interpretive material available when they cannot afford to provide devices for audio description, British Sign Language (BSL), Easy Read tours or large print captions. It is not equal access if this is the only way to access these formats but is a way for visitors to access interpretive material. At the end of the day inclusive design means equality of choice and flexibility in what is on offer.

The Association of Heritage Interpretation (AHI) presented a session on digital interpretation at the annual Museums + Heritage Show in London, UK. One of the key messages was to choose digital technology because it is the most effective way to engage visitors and make interpretation accessible, not because it’s new. The same goes for virtual content and design.

An interesting AHI LinkedIn discussion has recently raised questions about whether to choose subtitles or BSL for an interpretive App. The responses highlight the inclusive approach being to provide choice with both: Some people who use English as their first language may require and use subtitles, but for those who use BSL as their first language the subtitles may not make spoken words accessible. The choice is needed.

In the discussion trail also raises more detailed considerations in creating the BSL presentation:

  • Signs vary regionally therefore for a local history museum it will be important to commission a BSL presenter who knows the local signs.
  • Someone with expertise or at least familiar with subject is more engaging. Shape, City Lit and Tate Modern undertook a project to explore and agree art related signs, how do you sign ‘Impressionism’ and ‘modernism’ or any newer art…ism to be understood and consistently used.
  • Equally a railway or science museum audience would benefit from a presenter who is also a subject expert or enthusiast, familiar with specialist terms.
  • When commissioning a BSL presenter the best are deaf people who use BSL, a sign language interpreter is a different role.

…and don’t stop at the AV screen have you taken account of the full exhibition text for someone who uses BSL as their first language and written English is their second or third language?

The Jodi Award has celebrated several excellent projects for social media and online access ranging from BSL tours to communication format for a broad range of learning abilities. A key aspect of these projects is the central involvement of deaf and disabled people in their development and delivery .

Accessibility options won’t fix it all either but can offer flexibility in

  • image/text magnification;
  • visual contrast;
  • labelled images and content menus indicate content;
  • touch sensitivity adjustment;
  • button or tactile as well as flat-screen interface;
  • audio or haptic as well as visual instruction/interaction;
  • also budget, plan, design for and commission
  • audio description, British Sign Language and Easy Read.

Check and enable accessibility options, also let people know their options and provide options not covered by this such as audio description, British Sign Language and Easy Read.

So as while many streams of thought were prompted by the May Blog, the overriding point is the scope for social media interpretation to integrate and increase choice for interpretation (not just as an alternative); also in creating social media platform or App ask people what works for them and follow-it through to detail design of interface and content.

Cassie Herschel-Shorland

21 July 2014

Cassie is a Committee Trustee for the Association of Heritage Interpretation

The Association for Heritage Interpretation is a key forum for anyone interested in interpretation – the art of helping people explore and appreciate our world.

AHI believes that interpretation enriches our lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experiences and deepening understanding of places, people, events and objects from the past and present.

AHI aims to promote excellence in the practice and provision of interpretation and to gain wider recognition of interpretation as a professional activity.

Online exhibitions – do they work? Hm…


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I recently undertook some research into ‘online exhibitions’ to see what was on offer out there in our wonderful world. What I found was quite enlightening.

The Tate (group of art galleries in the UK) has been experimenting over the last year or so with ‘Twitter tours’ of their exhibitions. In June 2013 one of their curators gave a tour of the Lowry and the painting of modern life exhibition. More recently, the gallery showed off their Matisse exhibition in the same way. See here. During both tours Tweeters were treated to an exclusive preview by using the hashtag #TateTour. The tours presented facts about the artists and their paintings as well as images and videos of the paintings in the gallery space. After the tours the curators invited questions from followers. I didn’t find this type of tour very engaging to be honest (and I think this is evident from the amount of people that asked questions?) but an interesting experiment nonetheless.


Image from here

Other ‘online exhibition tours’ – by far the most popular method used by organisations that I looked at – including one published by The Smithsonian American Art Museum here – provide exhibition slideshows on their host website. The Smithsonian example presents information about the artworks in the exhibition and asks viewers to share ‘personal stories’. Not interpretive, but at least there is a nod towards viewer engagement.


Image from here

The Louvre in Paris, France (probably with a fair bit of cash behind them – it was sponsored by Shiseido) takes viewers through their permanent galleries via a ‘virtual tour’ which enables you to select artworks/artefacts to find out more (information). Very flashy, very expensive, but not very exciting.


Image from here

Then I came across The Canadian Museum of History’s Canada at Play online exhibition about toys and games. See it here.  The exhibition enables viewers to explore different themed ‘rooms’, close-up images of artefacts, images from the library and archive, downloadable catalogues, and archive audio, all of which is accompanied by accessible – and I would go as far to say almost interpretive – text. I spent ages looking at this online exhibition.


Image from here

So what did my research reveal?

I’m not sure many organisations know what their online exhibitions are trying to achieve. Most seem just out to provide content for the sake of it. Also, they don’t seem to have considered who their online audience is and as a result the content is pure information (in some cases the curatorial information is all that you get, e.g. size of artwork/artefact, who needs to know this??). Lastly, save for the Canada at Play exhibition (which I did like), there wasn’t much of an attempt to make the online exhibitions interpretive. Which perhaps is fine for those who already have an interest in the artworks/artefacts/subject matter, but what about the rest of the world?

Some might argue that interpretation is not really interpretation unless it involves the visitor interacting with ‘the real thing’. Without that ‘authentic experience’ then the audience is just taking in information. But I disagree for the most part. Sure, there really is no substitute for standing in front of the Mona Lisa, but what if circumstances don’t allow you? The web is opening up the world to us and it is often the first step of the ‘visitor journey’. If we give someone a great online experience of the Mona Lisa, then perhaps they might decide that they simply must save up and get themselves to France to see the ‘real thing’. And when they get there, they will perhaps understand or appreciate it more because of their initial online experience. If circumstances are prohibitive, then hey let’s have a go at giving them the best experience of the Mona Lisa we can. But – and I stress this ‘but’ – we need to understand more about who is using our online content. As far as I’m concerned, if you are displaying something to an audience then you have to deliver this display in a format that is right for them and if it is intended to engage them then it has to be interpretive. In this an interpretive plan for an ‘online exhibition’ is just as necessary as it is for a site, museum or gallery.

Do you know of any great online exhibitions? Please email me:

Lisa Keys

Lisa is a Committee Trustee for the Association of Heritage Interpretation

The Association for Heritage Interpretation is a key forum for anyone interested in interpretation – the art of helping people explore and appreciate our world.
AHI believes that interpretation enriches our lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experiences and deepening understanding of places, people, events and objects from the past and present.
AHI aims to promote excellence in the practice and provision of interpretation and to gain wider recognition of interpretation as a professional activity.

Don’t Be Boring


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Implementing a social media plan can be overwhelming. There are so many questions about choosing the best platform, the best moderator, and the best content to share. The technological landscape shifts like sand under our feet, the data we use to analyze the reach and impact of our social media presence are ephemeral in a really infuriating way, and even the goals we set as content providers are necessarily difficult to measure. So how can we set hard and fast rules about best practices for a field that can be so difficult to quantify?

Sometimes, we can measure social media success with actual numbers. We know how many Twitter followers we have. We know how many likes, comments, and shares we get on Facebook. And we can track how many people like our Valencia-filtered photos versus our Kelvin-filtered photos on Instagram. (I think those are things on Instagram. That’s not one I do a lot.) But those numbers are more circumstantial evidence in the larger question of whether we are achieving our social media goals.

maplesyrup1As with all things interpretation, our goals should answer this question: Are we getting our message out? When I’m asked to review social media outlets for interpretive sites, I’m frequently surprised to see that they deal far more in information and promotion (“Come visit our new exhibit.” “Buy this sweatshirt.” “Donate to our cause.”) than actual interpretation (“Maple syrup is the lifeblood of the Canadian province of Québec, which is responsible for three quarters of the world’s supply.”). This feels like a missed opportunity to me, like a museum using exhibits to direct visitors to the gift shop.

So, as we struggle to measure and quantify our social media success, I propose this one-and-only, hard-and-fast, unmeasurable rule of social media: Don’t be boring.

I’ve often been intrigued by research (mostly because this research makes me feel better about myself) that says that people who are physically attractive are more likely to be boring conversationalists. The premise is that attractive people don’t get the visual cues that they’re being boring that the rest of us get because we normals are happy to be talking to an attractive person and will listen to anything they have to say. On the other hand, we uglies have to be engaging and interesting in our desperate attempts to keep the beautiful people from averting their gaze from our repulsive faces.

In an article about one such study on Business Insider, researcher Lihi Segal-Caspi says, “Beautiful people tend to focus more on conformity and self-promotion than independence and tolerance.”

When I apply this to social media—especially interpretive social media—is there anything worse than being accused of conformity and self-promotion? We’re not some vapid, handsome face. We’re the Lorax! We speak for the trees! (And whatever the cultural/historical equivalent of the Lorax is!)

When I conduct social media workshops with interpreters, the main point I try to drive home is not about how the technology works or how to use hashtags (or whatever), but how interpreters should be interpretive on social media. Not only does interesting, interpretive online content get your important messages out into the world, it’s more likely to help you achieve your social media goals. Interpretive content, which by its very nature is meant to provoke an audience, is more likely to be shared around by your followers, and is therefore more likely to gain you more followers who are interested in the content you’re sharing. As you build your social media audience through interesting content, you’ll have more eyes to see the (occasional) boring program announcement that you need to share.

Granted, if you’re a well-known site, you might gain followers just out of pure brand recognition (the social media equivalent of attractiveness). But if you’re only posting about the change in your weekend hours or the new line of sweatshirts in your online store, you’re not doing anything to spread your message or achieve your goals, and you’ve become the online equivalent of an empty-headed beauty.

Last month, I attended the NAI International Conference in Suncheon, South Korea, along with fellow Media Platypus author Cal Martin (that’s us at the top of this post with rangers from Korea’s first national park, Jirisan). Cal’s keynote addressed the creative ways that interpreters in Canada deal with the challenges of rapidly changing audiences. My favorite such method that Cal documented was Parks Canada rangers talking to visitors from inside a baby bear costume—a bear costume that was so realistic some visitors asked if it was real even after they heard it talk. 

Interpreters online are faced with the same challenges in a landscape of cat videos and short attention spans, and need to exhibit the same sort of creativity when generating content. So before you hit that “Post” button with your next social media update, the first question you need to ask yourself  might seem obvious, but it’s the only one that matters: Is it boring?

Facebook Isn’t Dead, And Ethan Rotman Should Not Be Coroner


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Last month, Ethan Rotman delivered the Saturday keynote for NAI’s Region 9 workshop in Chico, California. Ethan is the principal of iSpeakeasy, a communication consulting firm. He spoke about the need to embrace innovation in Interpretation, and how if we are to succeed and remain relevant, we need to understand and take advantage of innovation and new technology, to meet our audiences where they live in a communications sense. During this really great and fascinating talk, Ethan casually mentioned “besides, Facebook is dead…” and then continued on.

I really like Ethan, and in fact, I treated him to lunch the day before, partly so I could pick his brain for free or at least for only the cost of a BBQ chicken. Ethan is whip smart, he’s quick, capable, and I suppose he makes a decent living by helping to teach both interpreters and non-interpreters how to communicate well. He’s also very confident and has the certainty of knowing things, when I would probably not be nearly as certain. Doubt is a very important part of my life and my worldview. For instance, although I firmly believe that the Cubs will win their division, grab the NL pennant and go on to a well-deserved World Series sweep in four games, I’m plagued with doubt. This is also true with Ethan’s pronouncement of death on the world’s dominant social media platform.

We’ve alluded to constant change being a given in social media and technology here on Media Platypus many times, and even for old-timey technology such as Facebook, a lot of things have changed in its ten-year history. Targeted ads, selective posts, a seemingly slow but inevitable march toward ‘pay for prominence’ in posts, apparent disregard for user privacy, the stupid layout changes, all of these things seem to tick people off. A Princeton study claims that Facebook will lose 80% of its users in the next four years. They compared the growth curve of Facebook with that of an infectious disease, and that based on their methodology, Facebook peaked in December 2012 and has been declining ever since. This makes logical sense– after you’ve captured nearly everyone in a very short time, your growth potential is severely limited. So, maybe Ethan’s more of an epidemiologist than a coroner. Hmm.

The Deadspin blog is a lot more certain and bombastic. In their piece, Facebook is Dead, Drew Magary is just as certain as Ethan, but I discount a lot of this because Deadspin is one of those smarmy trends-blogs where writers seem to confuse being clever with being insightful. Saying “I don’t use Facebook anymore because anyone with a brain knows that Facebook is terrible” really doesn’t help me understand anything except why I don’t read Deadspin very often.

A much better article is available at (sure hope I spelled it correctly,) The End of Facebook, that discusses FB’s most nefarious problem, the truly weird relationship between ‘likes’ and actual engagement. It’s been pretty well established that for many pages, many of the ‘likes’ are phony, particularly for paid promotion. This is why on some of my agency pages we often see that we have 35 likes when only 26 people have seen a post. Over time, whether you know it or not, your posts are going to fewer and fewer of your friends, on purpose. I won’t take your time here to try and explain it, but take a look at the videos on the blog page. If Facebook is dying, this seems like a type of suicide. It’s also a poor model of communication.

I’m trying to insist that Facebook isn’t dead, because I think that it’s reached the functional equivalent of a public utility—an awful lot of us use FB not only to keep up with our friends and let them know what we’re up to, but also to learn about news and current events, make shopping and lifestyle decisions, and plant our own feet in a virtual public square. Still, I’ve got that nagging doubt that Ethan is blissfully deficient of. If I want and need Facebook to help me understand the world around me, yet it’s filtering what I see based on what I already like, am I putting myself in an echo chamber?

I have several friends who have consciously stopped using Facebook, mostly because it takes up too much of their time. I’ve had relatively long periods when I’ve consciously stopped posting just to see if the world ended (hint: it does not,) but still, FB overall is a convenient place for me to see a bunch of stuff, most of which is unimportant. As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t care what you’ve had for dinner, and I generally don’t care how your doctor’s appointment went unless you coughed on me last night. I really do care what those rascally politicians are lying to me about, I’m very interested in a clever and droll turn of phrase (which, oddly enough reminds me of the wag who dogged the tale,) I love seeing really great examples of the wonders of science, and I greatly appreciate seeing a lot of life’s minor miracles and truly generous things done by everyday people. I’m also incredibly interested in the season’s first sighting of a red flicker at Sutter Buttes, or a short video of spring melt in Yosemite Falls, and finding out a wonderfully superlative yet unknown historic tidbit at an historic site. For me, Facebook and other social media help make my life more complete because of these things.

A list of things that people want Facebook to do, and not do

A griping Facebook meme found on the KMPH 26 Facebook page.

Ethan concentrated his talk on innovation and embracing change. Facebook is definitely NOT innovative these days, and it lost it’s edge years ago. We know this because we see t-shirts with the thumbs-up logo on them and sitcoms often have Facebook jokes. Plus, our moms have accounts, and every doggone business you’ve ever seen has a Facebook page, most of which are useless. It’s this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that I think means it’s still relevant to us in the communications business. It’s a lot easier for me to send someone a Facebook message than to open my email program, sort through all of the spam and then find my friend I need to contact, and I’m pretty sure that he or she will see FB before they’ll see my email.

If I’m doing these things, it’s likely that many of my park visitors are doing the same thing too. This is the public utility function of Facebook. Like it or not, FB is still the most obvious place to engage and reach out to our visitors for the time being, and that’s why it’s still important, as least for me and my employer. There are many other amazing platforms that do amazing things—Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik. Google + (yes Paul!) and on and on. All of them have advantages, plus all of them have the same obsolescence factor going on. To remain relevant, to remain interesting, and to retain users, social media platforms need to continuously innovate and change, but the very change that’s required to attract users and “enhance” our experience is also alienating to many users. Chicken, meet egg.

Each one of these tools can and will become obsolete. Ethan is right—we need to understand, search out and embrace innovation, and at least some of this is technology related. We still need to be intelligent and skeptical and back out once in awhile just to see if we’re still in the forest or just looking at a lone tree.

Oh, and just in case you’ve heard the hype about YouTube being the second most-used search engine in the world, try not to suffer through this:

Connecting in our Parks


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There’s a major controversy in Canada right now. No, not Mayor Rob Ford’s new crack cocaine video. No, not the bloated dead whale in Newfoundland that is a ticking timebomb of exploading gases. No, not the U.S.’s fight with Canada over who should have to claim responsibility for Justin Bieber. This controversy came to my attention when looking at the “What’s trending” box on Facebook.  It said, “Now Trending: Parks Canada”

“Parks Canada? Trending? Seriously?” I asked myself.

Yes, our government agency that manages Canada’s national parks and historic sites was suddenly in the news and all over social media. Why? Because they are looking at installing wifi hotspots at 150 locations throughout the system.

wifi parks

Now, just to be clear, there are a couple of key points to understand. We are talking about wifi hotspots – areas of a few hundred metres where people can access the internet on their devices. Just like a coffee shop. Or an airport. And, these hotspots will only be in specific locations where people gather – such as visitor centres, townsites, and some campgrounds. It will not be available across hundreds of kilometres of wilderness.

Regardless, this story has exploded, and there are very strong comments about it. Here are just a few I pulled from Twitter:

“If you wanted proof that city folk are ruining the world, they’re installing wifi in Canada’s national parks.”

“I think the fact that Parks Canada is even considering wifi in our parks shows what our society values more.”

“Wifi does not grow in parks, so wifi should not go in parks.”

Even 92-year-old author Farley Mowat chimed in with this subtle comment: “It’s a disastrous, stupid, idiotic concept and should be eliminated immediately.” Of course I responded on Twitter by saying, “Funny, I hear the same response from people his age about the internet in general.” But, I digress.

Celebrated Canadian Author Farley Mowat is 93 years old

Celebrated Canadian Author Farley Mowat is 92 years old


At first, I was quite taken aback by the controversy of this issue. But, after reflecting on it overnight, I can see a few reasons the issue has generated such a strong, guttural response:

Story Framing by the Media

In almost all of the media treatments I’ve seen (newspaper, television, online), the story begins somewhat like this: Imagine you are enjoying the serenity of one of Canada’s pristine national parks, when suddenly the silence is interrupted…” The media has purposely framed the story to cause conflict. They suggest that the mere presence of wifi will prevent others from enjoying the solitude and peace of nature. Well, of course people are upset. The media is inciting the public by creating a conflict where one doesn’t actually exist.

Clash of symbols

The public outcry may be a result of the personal symbolism of national parks. Many people see national parks as pristine wilderness – small islands of purity that have to withstand the constant onslaught of human presence and activity. They naturally see this as just another modern intrusion that threatens what a park means to them. Rational or not, this is viewed as a threat to something they hold dear.

Cell phone vs. Wifi

Much of the controversy revolves around cell phone use.  And towers. Comments are flooding in about people not wanting to hear a phone ring 50 kilometres into the backcountry trip or massive cell towers on top of every mountain. Even one of the large television channels had this as the story title when reporting: “Call of the Wifi? The Government plans to erect cell towers in national parks.” This shows a real lack of understanding of the issue. Wifi and cell networks are different. There are no towers going up for a wifi hotspot, and people’s phones are not going to suddenly start ringing because they are in range of wifi.

Need to control

This is where I have a hard time understanding much of the reaction. So many people are rejecting the idea because it doesn’t fit into their opinion of how people should connect with nature. I have heard and read comments saying that if someone needs the internet, they don’t belong in parks. Parks are about disconnecting. People shouldn’t bring that stress with them. The only way to experience nature is through solitude. You get the point. I may agree with some of those feelings on a personal level, but I would never impose that on someone else. Much of the negative reaction I’ve seen shows a bizarre need to control how others connect with nature. To me, it reeks of arrogance and elitism: “The only way to experience nature is the way that I like to experience nature. If you don’t like it, stay away.”

People’s travel habits have changed. The ways that people connect and learn have changed. And, there are many groups of people that are underrepresented as visitors, that may come if their needs are addressed.

How will wifi help? Someone can check the weather to decide what activity to partake in. They can book a canoe rental or a hotel room online. They can download a Parks Canada app that they didn’t know about before arriving. They can use birding apps or plant identification apps on their smartphone or tablet. They can take photos of and report sighting of rare animals. They can let their loved ones know they arrived safely. They can post a selfie to show what an incredible time they are having in nature. They can send a digital postcard. A work-at-home parent can take their kids to a park and still check in to the office. The list is endless…

As I have said before, maybe we should be less judgemental about how people should connect with nature, and just be happy that people connect at all.


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