Paul Caputo

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.

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?

Reader Comments: All Things in Moderation

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There’s nothing more disheartening to me than reading anonymous comments on social media and news websites. I try to make it my own personal policy not to read comments at the end of articles on news websites, especially if those articles have anything to do with climate change, religion, or the designated hitter. Regardless of the topic of the article, reader comments inevitably degenerate into incomprehensible nonsense, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. And if the content of the comments section on news websites is not enough to ruin your day, the grammar surely is.

Because of this aversion, I tend not to comment much on articles or Facebook posts from mass media organizations, but there are occasions when I can’t help myself. I was recently perusing my Facebook news feed when a post from “CBS Philly” linked to a news article with a caption about a grocery store employee being “bit” by a scorpion. My first reaction, because I am a jerk, was “They mean ‘bitten,’ not ‘bit.'” My second reaction, which I actually left as a comment on Facebook, was “Scorpions don’t bite. They sting.”

My comment received a handful of likes and a couple of responses—enough to make it the first to appear under the post because comments were ordered by “top comments” rather than chronologically. I checked back a day later to see if there had been any further response and was mildly startled to find that my comment was gone, presumably deleted by the page’s moderator. I wondered why. The comment was not profane or libelous—maybe a little pedantic, but is that a reason to delete it? All I could figure was that the page’s moderator was embarrassed by the mistake and wanted to get rid of a comment that called attention to it.

I was not annoyed, but the incident had piqued my professional curiosity. So I did what any sane social media user would do. I sent the page a note through the Facebook messaging system. When I did not hear back, I looked up the phone number for the CBS Philly newsroom and called to speak with the social media editor, who was in a meeting (presumably about the biology of scorpions). I left a message, assuming that I would not hear back (which I did not). I considered calling every day until I reached the responsible party, but I felt that I had already over-stepped the bounds of normal behavior, so I unliked their page (that will show them) and let it go.

My interest in this subject was reignited last week, when fellow Media Platypus author Lisa Keys of the Association for Heritage Interpretation in the UK wrote about a project that will rely on crowdsourcing for content. (It’s cool! Go read about it!) Lisa wrote that “the website will need to have a degree of moderation.” I am going to assume that this is representative of that Great British trait of understatement that we all love so much.

Moderating content on social media and other platforms is as much art as it is science, and there is no specific formula for it. (Anyone who has ever been involved in developing a social media policy for an organization knows how far this rabbit hole goes.) Moderating a media outlet boils down to what sort of comments will you allow and what will you disallow. Then beyond that, you have to ask yourself how you make sure the best comments rise to the top. This is usually done through some sort of rating system—letting readers vote comments up or down—but some sites, like Deadspin and Gawker, have sophisticated evaluation techniques that, in my opinion, make their reader comments the least awful out there. (No joke: I think their algorithm bans commenters who say things like “Slow news day?” and “First!”)

Moderating reader comments is one of the most potentially explosive aspects of the social media world. Remember that any time you remove one of your follower’s comments, the potential exists for that person to make a huge stink over it, causing all sorts of bad publicity—whether it’s warranted or not. The most important thing you can do is have a clearly stated policy and follow it religiously. A reasonable starting point is to state that you will remove all spam, hate speech, profanity, libel, and commercial advertising. Interpretive sites would certainly be within their rights to go beyond that and state that they would remove content not related to the content they interpret.

The most important thing when it comes to comment moderation, in my mind, is to remember that while you can control (to a certain degree) the dialogue on your pages, you cannot control what people are saying about you elsewhere. If one of your followers perceives that they have been wronged by faulty or inconsistent moderation, the public relations consequences can be distastrous.

Walking on Eggshells: Commemorating a Tragedy on Social Media

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Last week’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was predictably somber. The tenor of the conversation on social media, in particular, struck a quiet and respectful tone. Many organizations either stayed off social media altogether or posted simple messages of unity and patriotism.

At a time when emotions are raw and tensions are heightened, social media managers have to be particularly sensitive to the messages they put out into the world. Even when intentions are good or mistakes are honest, the already-critical social media masses are on hyper alert on days like 9/11.

This is why it was particularly jarring to see major brands make really egregious errors in judgment last week.

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The Los Angeles Lakers started the day by tweeting a photo of their own controversial star player, Kobe Bryant, wearing the American flag ribbon they and every other team wore the season after the attacks. The social media sphere erupted in outrage that the team would tweet an image of a player to mark the day, culminating in a post on the site Deadspin that simply asked, “The hell?” The Lakers realized their mistake and almost immediately pulled the post (though not before it was screen-captured a billion times). They later offered this apology by email, documented on Yahoo Sports:

We apologize to anyone who took this differently than we intended and were therefore offended by it. We used a photo of how we commemorated 9/11 in the 2001-02 season, shortly after the tragedy occurred, because we wanted to show our support of what we felt at that time and continue to feel now.  Out of respect for the intensely personal nature of how people remember this day, and that we recognize that not everyone understood the intent of our message, we pulled down our tweet and photo.  Ultimately, our intent was to honor the spirit of remembering a day that we should all never forget.

Esquire Magazine had to deal with a different sort of mistake. A truly unfortunate technical glitch on their website caused an image associated with an article about the attacks to be paired with a frivolous headline about looking good on the way to work:

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The reaction on social media was equal parts baffled and irate, and only intensified when Esquire offered this pseudo-apology, as noted on Huffington Post:

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One of the most essential decisions an organization makes is whom to put in charge of social media. The easy thing to do is to hand it over to the tech guy because it feels like technology, but (sweeping generalization alert!) tech guys are notorious for holding everyone in the world in contempt for being hopelessly stupid—and that’s the last person you want responsible for being the voice of your brand. Esquire’s “Relax, everybody” Twitter response to an understandable but horrible technical glitch should have been utter humility. Instead, their snarky response became the story—and the new focal point of the social media mob’s rage.

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Finally, a lesser-known brand made headlines before 9/11 when the Tumbledown Trails golf course offered a tasteless 9/11-themed deal on rounds of golf, as seen on USA Today and a million other sites. The outrage was so intense that two apologies, a promise make donations to the National September 11 Memorial, and the plea on Facebook that “We are a family owned business & proudly support all local charities and have always gave 20% off everyday to all Police, Fire, Emergency, Military, etc.” were not enough to placate the internet masses. The golf course received threats and other vitriol heaped on its Facebook page to the point that they considered closing on 9/11 for their own safety.

Every day brings new challenges for social media managers. How and if we respond to national or international events on behalf of our brands can be an identity-altering decision. On Monday, I stared at my computer screen for 10 minutes when posting a simple message on NAI’s Facebook page that our office in Fort Collins, Colorado, had reopened and staff members were safe after flooding ravaged parts of the state.

What it boils down to is awareness. Whether we specifically acknowledge events in the news or not—from tragedies like wildfires or mass shootings to positive news like holidays or (in my mind) major sporting events—social media managers need to know how to strike an appropriate tone and analyze how their words might be perceived regardless of their intentions.

And then if we do get it wrong, we need to know how to apologize sincerely without telling people to “relax.”

Dealing with negativity and trolls, Al Roker style

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I’m going to say something I’ve never said before, and certainly thought I never would say: I was inspired recently by weatherman Al Roker. One of the things we talk about in social media is how to deal with unfettered negativity and trolls, which, unfortunately, is something you see a lot online.

Most of the time, we argue that you should set standards for your page and make those standards known. Typically, you might delete spam, foul language, and outright slander, but otherwise, you are pretty much forced to let people have their say. Often, people who are negative will go away if you ignore them, but if you engage them, they are encouraged and it only makes things worse.

Al Roker has taken a different approach. He has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, and being a prominent weatherperson, is frequently going to incur the ire of knuckleheads who blame him for things like clouds and rain. However, he has been doing the near impossible for the last month: having a lighthearted, funny exchange with some anonymous dude who picked a fight with him. The Twitter war, which is detailed on the website Gawker, has included some of the following barbs:

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The exchange had the chance to be good because the instigator is clearly just having fun, rather than being malicious or crude. It ends up being extremely funny because mild-mannered celebrity Al Roker, who must get hundreds or thousands of this sort of message, engaged him on his own terms—rather than in any sort of way his publicist would have approved of.

Obviously, we’re all faced with negativity in some way when we manage social media. Any time you engage a troll, you risk inflaming a delicate situation—the absolute worst thing you can do is try to shout down an anonymous jerk who is just looking for attention. We may not always have the opportunity to be funny with people picking fights with us, and when we do, they may not play along like Dr. BAE does here with Al Roker, but this is one of the rare occasions I’ve seen where celebrity/follower Twitter war has been entertaining for any reason beyond the spectacle of people losing their minds.

Hashtags have come to Facebook. What are they and what do you do with them?

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Hashtags are the fire ants of social media. They’re an important if somewhat prickly part of their native habitat, but their invasion of other habitats is causing alarm and painful itching. Hashtags are endemic to Twitter, but they are establishing colonies in other social media outlets like Instagram, Pinterest, and most recently, Facebook.

There are people in the world who like Facebook but hate Twitter. This makes sense to me. (There are also people who think that putting nuts in chocolate is a good idea. This does not make sense to me.)

One of the reasons that I believe some people don’t like Twitter is that it’s imposing and a little confusing at first glance. The very art of micro-blogging requires the use of abbreviations, codes, and awkward, stilted language, resulting in a foreign-looking structure that I think of as “Twitterese.” One of the symbols that makes Twitter so distinct is the hashtag—#—known to people weighing things as the pound sign, to people using telephone keypads as the number sign, to musicians reading sheet music as the sharp symbol, and to 1960s scientists at Bell Laboratories as the octothorpe.

hashtagThe Twitter-haters groaned when hashtags recently showed up on the Facebook landscape, just as residents of Arizona did the first time they discovered a colony of invasive fire ants. (Of course, there’s already a Facebook page called This is not Twitter. Hashtags don’t work here.) But I like to think of hashtags as more commonly accepted types of invasive species, like palm trees in Hawaii or house cats in my house.

Hashtags have the potential to connect your site with new followers and to insert your page into conversations you may not have even known about. In short, hashtags identify and make clickable keywords that you identify in your post. So if blogger, interpreter, and junior astronaut Cal Martin were to post on his own personal Facebook page, “William Shatner personifies my two favorite things: #StarTrek and #Canada,” his post would show up (if Cal’s privacy settings allowed) any time someone clicked on or searched for one of those hashtags.

One trend that you see on Twitter a lot is people hashtagging complete sentences, in what I can only assume is an ironic way. So, because hashtags cannot include punctuation or spaces, you might see blogger and pretend engineer Phil Sexton tweet, “I like trains. #trainsarethebestandanyonewhosaysotherwiseisajerkface.” I honestly don’t understand why people do this other than to be funny, because clearly, clicking on one of these long, full-sentence hashtags will not yield any results.

Here are a few best practices for using hashtags on Facebook:

1. Use simple words or phrases. Apply hashtags to single word or very short phrases. For the hashtag to serve its purpose of connecting you to Facebook users who don’t know about you, it would have to be used (or searched) by someone else.

2. Be relevant. Interpreters should be good at this! Choose terms that are pertinent to your site or message—#conservation, #civilwar, or #saguarocactus, for instance. Hashtagging random words or phrases just to try to show up in as many searches or conversations as possible makes you look like one of those jerks who brings signs to sporting events just to get on TV.

3. Don’t use too many. A post with 10 hashtags in it looks like spam. Identify two or three terms to tag at most.

4. Investigate your hashtag. Especially if you plan to use a specific hashtag regularly, search for it and see how it’s already being used. Search for #conservation, #civilwar, #saguarocactus, or whatever and see what pops up. If no one is using it, it’s not an effective hashtag. If too many people are using it or people are using it in ways that you didn’t expect, your posts may get buried.

5. Tack them on the end. This may be the typographer in me coming out, but I find hashtags mixed in to the middle of sentences distracting. I’d much rather read

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is starting for the AA Reading Fightin Phils tonight. #fightinphils #phillies

instead of

#Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is starting for the AA Reading #FightinPhils tonight.

Like fire ants in the southern United States or house cats in my house, hashtags on Facebook are here to stay. As with all things social media, we may not love this new development, but it’s to our detriment to refuse to use hashtags or to ignore their potential for growing our audiences.

What time of day should you post to Facebook?

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A typical Facebook post reaches one-third of the people it’s going reach in the first 10 minutes of its life, and half of the people it’s going to reach within a half hour (according to the website Marketing Charts). After that first half hour, your Facebook post gradually descends into near-complete obscurity, much like a New York Mets baseball season. (A baseball reference for all of our new friends in New Zealand!)

This means that if you post something witty and amazing and wonderful at the wrong time, your efforts are wasted. (Okay, maybe not wasted, but less fruitful than they could have been.) Here’s the thing: It’s easy to look at this and say, “Okay, we’ll post our stuff when the most people are on Facebook (early evenings and weekends) so that the most people will see it.” The problem with that is that if you post when the most people are on Facebook, you’re competing with all the other social media outlets that are thinking the same thing.

So then you think, “Okay, we’ll post when nobody’s on Facebook (work hours and late evening) so that we won’t have any competition.” The problem with those hours is that nobody’s on Facebook. (Okay, it’s fairer to say fewer people are on Facebook during those hours, but you get the point.)

So your job as a social media manager is to figure out not only what type of content resonates with your followers, but when the posts that you’re posting get the most reaction. In this article on Constant Contact’s social media marketing blog, Danielle Cormier suggests, “Try to find your engagement sweet spot by determining the intersection of time when the majority of your audience is on Facebook and the time when the least overall posting is occurring.”

Most of the articles you read online say that you should use Facebook insights to analyze demographics to make sweeping generalizations about your followers. The problem with this is that you can use sweeping generalizations to arrive at any conclusion you like. (“More than half of our followers are in New Jersey, so they’re probably Mets fans, which means they’re depressed, which means they’re sleeping late, so we’ll avoid posting to Facebook in the early morning.”)

Instead, The Media Platypus-approved method of determining when to post to Facebook is to analyze your past performance and see which posts are getting the most reaction. Thankfully, Facebook makes this easy. If you are an admin of a page, you can export your insights into a sortable, very useful Excel spreadsheet. Simply go to your page, click on the insights section, and then click where it says “Export Data”:

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In the pop-up window that you get, select “Post level data” (I really want to hyphenate “Post-level,” but they didn’t, so I won’t.)

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What you get is an incredibly useful spreadsheet that has all sorts of good information, including dates and times of posts. I’ve included below a screen capture of some insights from Media Platypus’s Facebook page. I sorted the information to list the posts from most to least popular (in terms of reach):

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The first thing that jumps out at me from the modest numbers here is that six of our top seven posts are status updates, while links to pages outside of Facebook are all on the bottom half of the list. In terms of time of day, our three most popular posts happened in the late morning/early afternoon, but to be honest, I’m not certain we vary the timing of our posts enough to really glean from this data what the best time of day for us to post is.

If we really wanted to determine the best time of day to post, we would systematically stage our posts using Facebook’s awesome new scheduling feature. For a solid month, we’d schedule posts of all types (status, links, photos, videos) to land at exactly 9:00am, 2:00pm, and 7:00pm, and then analyze the results.

Even from this small sample size, you can see that the content of the post matters a lot more than the time of day in determining the number of people you reach, but time of day is still a factor. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for determining the best time of day for your posts. The best you can do is look at what you’ve done already and see if there’s a pattern, or be systematic in your approach and analyze your results.

Or if most of your followers are Mets fans, the sweeping generalizations will work just fine.

What Is Social Media? (A Waste of Time?)

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Early last month, I started a one-hour address to a meeting of state parks managers, as I often do, with a question: What is social media? It’s meant to make people stop and think about this thing that we talk about so much and that seems to pervade most aspects of our lives—but that can be so hard to pin down when it comes to defining it.

This question has yielded a number of responses, many of which are more metaphorical than specific (social media is a party, a donut, a bikini, a platypus, etc.), but always fun to talk about. Other responses are interesting, but perhaps not super helpful (social media is an activity rather than a thing, media is a plural word so the questions should be “What are social media?”, etc.). But this meeting of state parks managers was the first time I was stopped in my tracks by a response. The room filled with oppressive silence, a few polite coughs, and then a gruff voice from the back of the room:

I don't know who said it, but I picture him like this.

I don’t know who said it, but I picture him like looking this. Photo by Leroy Skalstad.

It’s a waste of time.

I was taken aback because I go into these talks wanting to be perfectly clear that I am not a social media evangelist. I recognize that there are positives and negatives to social media, and that our job as interpreters is to make it (or them) work for us—to get our messages out there, to promote awareness of certain resources or issues, to reach beyond the boundaries of our site. But the question of whether we should be doing social media at all is not one that I expect.

My first reaction when someone at an interpretive site tells me that they don’t have a Facebook page (let alone a Twitter handle, Pinterest account, or LinkedIn page) is that they had better get one soon, because if they don’t, someone will do it for them. My second response is that having a Facebook page now is what having a website was a decade ago. If you don’t have one, people wonder why not.

I understand what someone means when they say social media is a waste of time. The potential certainly exists for an afternoon to disappear in a puff of cat videos and debates over the relative merits of a fourth Bourne Identity movie* (such a bad idea). But for an interpretive organization or an interpretive site to discount social media out of hand because it might be used frivolously by some is short sighted. In the July/August 2012 issue of Legacy magazine, Kirk Mona wrote an article called “Embracing Technology,” in which he said, “There is no inherent message on Facebook; users create the content. If voices that support nature are absent, then nature is not part of that dialogue.”

And this gets at the crux of my point. If people with meaningful things to say stay away from social media because they think it’s overrun with cat videos and Bourne Identity debates (again, what were they thinking?), then that’s all that will be there. If interpreters populate the social media landscape with their important messages, then those messages will be there.

I had a second opportunity to speak to a captive audience about social media last month—NAI’s first-ever Social Interpretation workshop, a two-day event in Cave Creek, Arizona, whose participants specifically chose to be there, and in some cases went to great lengths to do so. It was an uplifting experience for me, not only because workshop participants were engaging and enthusiastic about the potential social media offers, but because I got to see saguaro cacti (by far my favorite plant) and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in town and some of us found our way to the ballpark. (Shameless plug: NAI is offering a second Social Interpretation class near Saint Louis, September 23 and 24. Click here for information. I’m told the Cardinals will be in town.)

I think it’s time to stop asking whether interpretive sites should be on social media, and start focusing on how we should be using social media. Yes, it’s possible to waste time online, but our job as interpreters is to provide the opportunities for meaningful engagement.

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*As a person who has not been to a movie theater in years and who watches everything on Netflix, some of my popular culture references may be a little dated. And that fourth Bourne movie was terrible. I mean, the agents get their skills from a pill? It completely undermines the awesomeness of the first three movies.

What’s in a meme?

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The word meme has been around a lot longer than LOL Cats, or, for that matter, the Internet. We tend to think of memes as only occurring online—specifically through social media—because they spread so quickly in that venue. In its simplest form, however, a meme is just an idea or concept that is propagated through a culture. It could be anything from boot-cut jeans to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the catch phrase “Hey hey hey!” from the ’80s TV show What’s Happening!

The term meme has its origins in the Greek word mimeme (“to imitate”) but was popularized in 1976 in the book The Selfish Gene, in which author Richard Dawkins compared the spread of an idea through a culture to the passing along of genes in the process of evolution. Today, though, when you hear the word meme, you think of this:

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(I am compelled to note this here: I told my highly educated wife that I was writing about the lofty origin of the word meme and how today the word conjures up images like the above. She scoffed slightly and said, “Seems like a step down,” then spent the next 30 seconds laughing hysterically about how funny the image above is.)

I have written several times about my attempts to build Facebook audiences through what I think of as the “George Takei Approach,” which basically boils down to passing along memes. Takei regularly shares quick or funny status updates or images that generate reactions, which then show up in lots of Facebook news feeds, which gains exposure for his page, which generates new followers for him. (See “George Takei is a Social Media Genius.”)

In one article, “Getting Facebook Likes: Lessons from Two Experiments,” I wrote about how one page that I maintain, Countdown to Spring Training, racked up new page likes every day with little to no effort on my part, while another, Bloggers To Be Named Later, struggled to gain new followers, even though it took more of my time and energy.

I learned through experimenting (and reading George Takei’s book) that I was making two primary mistakes on the Bloggers To Be Named Later Facebook page: I was not posting often enough (we only had two or three posts a week) and I was only posting links to an outside website (the accompanying blog). In short, I realized I had to stop thinking about the Bloggers Facebook page as a mere companion to the website—and I had to start thinking of it as its own individual presence.

So I enlisted the help of some of the other bloggers (there are a lot of us) to moderate the Facebook page with me, and we set to work creating content that would appear only on the Facebook page. The idea was, if we build up the Facebook page using the George Takei Approach, then that drives traffic to the blog when we post links to articles.

We tried to be witty, with text updates like “New Olympic event: Sequestrian, in which horses argue with each other and accomplish nothing” and “They found horse meat in Taco Bell’s ground beef. And that’s the GOOD news.” Some of these were relatively well received, garnering 10 or 12 likes and the occasional comment, while others generated a lot of silence. (My all-time favorite status update so far is this: “Team Netherlands has taken the field. #Neditude,” even though it generated practically no reaction at all. It was doomed from the get-go, because for it to make any sense at all required knowledge of both the Dutch World Baseball Classic team and the Twitter hash tag the Washington Nationals use to rally their fans.)

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528193_380801358684016_224544673_nWe also created images using the visual vernacular of the modern meme—that is, a photo accompanied by text set in the horrible typeface Impact in white with a black outline, sometimes in all caps. (Basically, it’s everything we would have told you not to do back in the days of our Interpretation By Design blog.) We try to be topical and funny, with varying degrees of success.

The examples here play on an over-the-top reaction to the Detroit Tigers’ new Spring Training caps and a little bit of Photoshop fun inspired by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signing a contract extension. (Of course, these images tend to get downloaded and “reappropriated,” so we’re sure to include our name on the actual image.)

The reaction to these has been okay, and we even gain a new Facebook page like every once in a while. Every time a new page like comes along, I think, “The George Takei system is working!” Just as with genes in biology, the more carriers there are to propagate Internet memes, the more likely they are to get propagated. Every time your page gains a new fan, your chances for exposure to a wider audience increase.

So last Sunday morning, I was lollygagging around the house, finding ways to procrastinate rather than do the things I was supposed to be doing, and I put forth what I described later as “the most pandering meme ever”:

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I was startled by the reaction. Within 20 minutes, it became the most-viewed post ever on our page (and we’ve been doing this for more than a year). At the time of this writing, this image is roughly 90 times more popular than our previous most popular post—it has been shared more than 780 times and has reached almost 90,000 Facebook users. We’ve gained a bunch of exposure and a handful of new page likes out of it. (And creating it took just a small fraction of the time it takes to write a blog post.) These numbers are nothing if you are George Takei, but they’re a big deal to us.

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68300_488771351155571_2047432449_nObviously, Internet memes don’t have to be about sports or photos of funny animals. If you follow our friends at Interpretation Canada on Facebook, you’ll notice that they’ve done a meme campaign specific to interpretation, including the gem above, which received 25 likes and was shared 13 times. The Facebook page for McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Arizona has posted a few of these as well, including the very simple and pleasant message here (featuring a photo by Friend of the Platypus Amy Burnett).

The Internet meme is part of the vernacular of Facebook. Seeing that photo with the white text conjures that same feeling that seeing a hand-drawn comic strip used to. You know someone is trying to make you laugh or make a quick emotional appeal, and it draws you in. And once it draws you in, if that image succeeds in connecting with you, you might just share it with your friends. And they might share it with their friends. And before you know it, it’s a real, live meme.

The Wedding Ring Return: The Internet Mob Rules Again

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I wrote last June about the case of bus monitor Karen Klein, who was verbally abused by children on a school bus, then became Internet-famous when a video of that abuse went viral online, then became wealthy when an online Indiegogo fundraising campaign raised more than $700,000 to “Give Karen -The bus monitor- H Klein A Vacation!”

I wrote at the time that it was a victory for the Internet mob, because punk kids got their comeuppance, and a kindly old lady benefited from the kindness of thousands of strangers. But then I had second thoughts, because while it was nice that things turned out well for Karen Klein, there had to be better reasons to pull $700,000 seemingly out of thin air. But then I felt better because Karen Klein used some of that windfall to found an anti-bullying foundation.

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 11.34.37 AMNow the Internet mob is at it again. Billy Ray Harris is a homeless man in Kansas City who saved and returned a diamond engagement ring that was accidentally dropped into his donation cup by a woman named Sarah Darling. The story went viral, and Darling’s husband Bill Krejci started a fundraising campaign on the website Give Forward, which at the time of this writing has raised more than $170,000 from almost 7,500 donors. (Here’s a story from CNN, where I first learned about it.)

Of course, this is a feel-good story that fills us with hope for the human race. A man who clearly could have benefited by taking advantage of a mistake instead does the right thing and benefits even more. I hope the money that’s pouring in for Mr. Harris makes his life considerably happier and that he finds a way to use the windfall to help improve the lives of others.

If you manage an interpretive site, you surely can’t help but look at these stories and think, How could I get thousands of people to recognize the good we do and donate $5 or $10 apiece? What interpretive site couldn’t make their community a better place with a few hundred thousand dollars suddenly landing in its organizational lap?

Could a site like Indiegogo or Give Forward be used to help build a new nature center? So-called crowdfunding is a terrific, inexpensive way to raise funds by word-of-mouth, but what’s the damage to your organization’s reputation if you set a goal of $20,000 and raise $350?

Obviously, the two wildly successful crowdfunding campaigns I write about above took off because their stories went viral. They tugged on heart strings and made us want to do good for people whom the Internet mob felt deserved a break. So here’s the question for an interpretive site that could use a break: How does an organization create the emotional connections necessary to make an online crowdfunding campaign a success?

So this week, I end with question: Has your site tried to use this fundraising method? If so, what have the challenges been? And most importantly, were you successful.

It’s a brave new media world out there, and crowdfunding may be the nontraditional answer to an age-old question: How are we going to pay for all these great things we want to do?

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