In Praise of Dr. Monica Stephens and Social Network Analysis


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segments of visual analysis maps based on twitter and other social media content

A few weeks ago, I was browsing a news site that I read occasionally. “Occasionally” generally means that I have a tight deadline for something and can’t think, so I read some arcane news or comment, hoping that it will trigger some creative thought before I wander too far into the weeds. ANYWAY…

I saw a reference to an infographic that mapped hate speech based on twitter content. Using phrases and words associated with racism, homophobia and discrimination against the disabled population, the volume of this kind of twitter content was plotted over a map of the US:hatemap


My first visceral reaction was focused on the point of the infographic. Why? How in this day? Who? This is a very powerful graphic. Then I started marveling at the idea behind this and the power of asking these questions, as well as having the talent to ask them and use technology to generate answers. This is not only a powerful graphic, but a powerful tool.

While we fret and discuss our privacy and what the government might be listening to and reading that we hope and assume should be our own, private content, there are people such as Monica Stephens who are trolling for information to ask questions that need to be asked. Dr. Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Geography at my alma mater, Humboldt State University in Arcata CA. Her work makes me even happier about the money that I give the University annually, and it will probably influence my future giving. This particular graphic attracted some media attention, as shown here, here and here.

This is really a very powerful tool, but not unlike Tim Taylor in the TV Series Tool Time there is a very human desire to use this power for perhaps some not-so-serious uses. My favorite, because the mere word is a meme at my workplace, is a graphic showing mention of zombies in the Google Maps database:

zombie-distributionWell, there you go. For my friend Robert, who seems to both fear and welcome the coming Zombie Apocalypse, this will further his ambivalence, if that’s possible.

Oddly enough, the map shows that the former Soviet Union, Africa, most of Asia, and South America are much safer than the United States, and sorry Sarah, but New Zealand seems to have significant risk as well. Cal, if I were you, I’d head for the Northwest Territories or the Yukon. Also, stay away from Japan! I’m not even sure that Gamera can save them. For some of the rest of us, we may spend more time in Google Maps trying to find some of the zombie references. You know, of course, what this really signifies though, don’cha?


Sorry. I couldn’t resist, but really, it does signify brains! Whether it’s specifically Dr. Stephens, or one of her students, or someone at the Oxford Institute, who host lots of visualized data from Dr. Stephens and others, this is a brilliantly simple idea. In a certain way, it’s very similar to creating a word cloud that you sometimes see on blogs. They visualize how often words or phrases are used in a document, much like the Visualization Project uses color or icons to indicate density of speech or resources or references to something. For those of us who are visual, this is an easy way to understand the answer to a question. In fact, this kind of display is something that I used to know how to do within the GIS interface at a former employer. We could plot tree density, wildlife population and habitat, basically anything within our database. This is just another GIS application.

So my hat’s off to Dr. Stephens, her students, and others who work on developing the technology to find data, ask the questions, and plug in the data in a way that can be visualized by people like me. This is a fabulous communication tool, immensely compelling and easy to understand by nearly anyone. This is one of the truly great outcomes of our increasing use and reliance of social media. In the Geography of Hate graphic, we find a disturbing reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to educate, enlighten and rethink who we are as a society, but we could also plot a graphic of tweets based on kindness or good deeds done, or even mentions of the Phillies, just to keep Mr. Caputo engaged.

There are some really fascinating infographics using this general idea at Take a gander when you get a chance!

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.

Visiting Through the Screen


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(photo credit: BBC Nature)

(photo credit: BBC Nature)

A few years ago, I was leading a guided hike in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. The program was for a group of junior high students in a near-urban park where black bears and cougars sometimes frequent. Everything was new to these kids. It was like they had never had a moment outside their perfectly groomed yards before.

During the hike, I did notice something odd, though. Every time I stopped to show these 15 kids something neat – a bat house, skunk cabbage, or bear claw marks on a tree – out came 15 phones to snap pictures and capture video. Then they would huddle together to show each other and send photos/video to their friends. The kids were experiencing nature through their phones! At first it annoyed me. Why can’t people step away from their technology for one hour to enjoy their surroundings? But, then I realized something else. The technology was just a conduit, a go-between through which these students connect with nature. In some ways, it isn’t so different from experiencing nature through your binoculars or camera.

As interpreters, we are tasked with connecting people with “the real thing.” And, even though first-hand experiences are our ultimate goal, are they the only meaningful way that people can connect with nature (or culture/history/science/art/whatever else you interpret)?

I remember enjoying a CD-ROM I once received as a gift in the 1990s. Yes, remember CD-ROMs? Well, this one was called the “Digital Field Trip to the Rainforest,” produced by a Canadian company called Digital Frog International (named because of their clever use of technology to save frogs from biology class dissections). It was wonderful. Basically, it was a guided walk through an actual rainforest trail in Belize, Central America. Each stop had a 360 degree view of a stop along that trail. There were little pop-ups with info on plants and animals, interactive games, and puzzles. I remember feeling very connected with rainforests, even though I wasn’t actually there. If you had asked me to reach into my MC Hammer pants and pull out money to donate to rainforest conservation, I wouldn’t have hesitated.

Now that's a backpack! Google employee hiking in front of Green Gables House in PEI National Park (photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper)

Now that’s a backpack! Google employee hiking in front of Green Gables House in PEI National Park
(photo credit: The Guardian Newspaper)

Why do I bring this up? Well, flash forward 15 years to today. Google has just formed a partnership with Parks Canada to use its streetview technology in various national parks in Canada. Right now, as I type, Google employees are travelling all around the land of Anne of Green Gables – Prince Edward Island National Park. With 360 degree cameras mounted on backpacks, they are hiking various trails and visiting historic buildings. Once online, anyone with an internet connection will be able to visit many of Canada’s iconic parks from anywhere in the world.

Undoubtedly, many people will criticize this approach and say that nothing can compare with the thrill of actually visiting these places. And, they would be mostly right. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.  Connection can happen many different ways, and some people might never get to visit these wonderful places except online.

Case in point – seven years ago, I started doing short television segments about Metro Vancouver Parks.  They took a few days to plan and film, but they were very far reaching, viewed by as many as 40,000 people per airing. At the time, we debated if my time would be better spent connecting actual visitors to these places, or if I should spend some of my time doing video clips to reach a large number of people that might not ever visit. You can see me in one of these segments here (After watching “Hidden Wonders” try watching “Bats”). Well, now there is no question in my mind. People felt very attached to these video segments. We reached people who visit the parks regularly, as well as people that can’t, sometimes due to disabilities or other barriers. And, in the end, these clips received more online hits than another clip of a building demolition (bats before buildings!).

I’ve watched video clips of arctic parks and international destinations that I may never get to in my lifetime. Yet, I feel powerfully connected to them. In the end, perhaps it is not important how people connect with these places, only that they feel a connection at all.

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”:


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.)


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):

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 12.09.06 PM

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.

Sirocco kākāpō – a social media success story


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Sirocco-kakapo twitter-avatar

He has all the trappings of a superstar. Friends in high places, a viral YouTube video, over 20,000 online Twitter followers and Facebook fans, and a tell-all biography. He has his own catch phrase. He’s charismatic, smells good, chases tail and is generally only seen after hours. And he’s just won an international popularity contest.

So how exactly did a flightless, nocturnal parrot beat out tigers, meerkats and African elephants to win the title of world’s favourite endangered species?

world's favourite -

ARKive celebrated their 10th birthday with a world’s favourite endangered species competition, and kakapo won!

Through the power of social media and a powerful online persona that rallied support from his followers to gain 9% of the total 14,000 votes from 162 countries.

Sirocco the kākāpō is a real bird, and not just a cleverly created anthropomorphic character dreamed up by marketing geniuses (although real humanoids do help Sirocco craft his online content).

sirocco-online, copyright Department of Conservation.

Copyright Department of Conservation.

He found fame on the BBC TV series ‘Last Chance to See’ when he was caught on camera trying to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine – while presenter Stephen Fry watched and helpfully provided commentary.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) seized the opportunity to harness this viral attention, and leapt into the then-new world of government social media. In 2010 his role was officially recognised by New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key, when he was appointed the ‘Official Spokesbird for Conservation’.

Sirocco is not only a valuable ambassador for kākāpō (of which there are only 124 left – and are found only in New Zealand, on offshore islands) but he also helps spread the wider conservation message to his worldwide fan base.

So what is the secret to the success of Sirocco?

At first glance, he’s an avatar. An avatar is often referred to as your online brand; a small, square image that tells others who YOU are. A good avatar is both eye-catching and memorable – you want people to notice it, and you want people to associate it with you. Sirrocco is a beautiful bright green – so yeah he stands out from the twittering crowd.

The most successful avatars are the ones that help people connect with you (and your brand) on a personal level. To do this well, it has to have a face; it’s been well proven that humans are wired to recognize and remember faces. Sirrocco has got this down too. His owl-like face portrays a sense of wisdom beyond his species but this is tempered against a cheeky characterisation that has earned him dedicated fans such comedian Stephen Fry.

Sirocco avatars.

Sirocco on Twitter and Facebook

But go deeper beyond (or behind) the avatar and you find; “Sirocco uses social media in the way it was originally intended,” says Elizabeth Marenzi, one of Sirocco’s online minders.

“Social media is about individuals, not brands and companies. It’s a place for relationships and conversations. For a big and quite complex organisation like DOC, social Sirocco provides a simple way for people to connect and build a relationship with us. He’s real, he has a face, and he’s charismatic, unthreatening and fun. People really do love him. Establishing a community around him is easy because people naturally feel an affinity and loyalty to him,” she says.

Sirrocco’s online content is about his own adventures, and of other quirky or nationally significant conservation issues. He also makes a point of tying his messages into wider trends, like celebrity weddings, big national events and viral videos, thus spreading the conservation message in a fun, hopeful and culturally mainstream way.

Life of Pi.

Sirocco stays abreast of cultural events

Sirocco not only works his own popular Facebook and Twitter accounts but, importantly, also contributes to conversations happening elsewhere in the social web.

“This approach has captured the heads, hearts and hands of large new communities of people who now engage with conservation in a way that they enjoy and understand,” says Elizabeth.

But does social-media savvy Sirocco actually make a difference to conservation? How can a like or a share contribute to the cause?

living legend; copyright Department of Conservation.

World famous in New Zealand, Sirocco tours the country at least once a year

Just ask 13 year old Natalie Shaheen. This US girl, who has never been to New Zealand, sent DOC over $3,000 to go towards saving the kākāpō . She asked for money in lieu of gifts at her Bat Mitzvah. Why? Because she connected with Sirocco online and wanted to help. It’s as simple as that.

Sirocco keeps us up-to-date with how hard saving the world really is. His top post for 2012 was the devastating news that there was one less kākāpō in the world. “Too sad to skraarrk”, says Sirocco.

Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden once said “the first step toward change is awareness.” He was talking about self-esteem, but as interpreters we are often just looking to achieve that first step in people. From, raising awareness that might lead onto understanding, from understanding to action. Once we have got people to take that first step, we need to guide them to the next. In social media terms it might be donate now, sign this petition, become a virtual kākāpō, share this story. After that it could be lobby the government, volunteer, become part of the story. Who knows, Sirocco might end up skraarking about you!

Spam Spam Spam Spam!


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photograph of a can of SPAM

Spam! Photo by Dave Crosby and retrieved from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

This is a tale about spam.

Not the overly salty, state meat of Hawai’i spam, but comment spam. Not the creation of Hormel, used to feed our hungry, greatest generation troops, marketed as “tasty pork shoulder and ham” on the old Burns & Allen Radio Show, but the spam that we all see, the spam that is unfortunately part of everyone’s digital life. So what else is there to say?

Well, first, a few metrics about why Spam is important to know something about. In a quick search, I’ve found these stats, which, sadly, are not all that surprising:

  1. 14.5 billion spam messages are generated each day.
  2. Researchers estimate that spam makes up somewhere between 45 and 73% of all emails.
  3. The United States is the largest generator (and receiver) of spam messages.
  4. Spam costs businesses over $20 billion dollars annually.
  5. 90% of all spam is in English, but relax. In 2012, it was 96%.

One of the frustrating things about writing a blog is that it’s quite difficult to measure the effects of what I write. We count on comments for feedback. It’s one thing to look at the statistics of hits, but the feedback lets us know what you’re thinking about what we’re thinking.

Unfortunately, most of the comments we receive here at Media Platypus are spam. Obvious, crude, idiotic spam, but at least they’re different than the ones that hit my inbox. These are bot-generated attempts to submit comments that they hope will be posted, assuming that our readers are dumb enough to click on their links. Fortunately, WordPress, our host, is pretty good about identifying spam, and we moderate all of the comments. Here are a couple of interesting examples, with the links redacted:

  • michael kors handbags…Simple scratches and dents to the bodywork are easy to repair using a soft mallet for panel beating and abrasive paper, spray paint and filler for paintwork repairs….
  • Alexander Wang online…I enjoy you because of your own labor on this web site. My aunt really loves participating in research and it’s obvious why. Most of us hear all relating to the dynamic tactic you offer very helpful guides by means of the web site and even recommend p…
  • Louis Vuitton Outlet…How perhaps you have create a blog appear this sick!? Email me should you get the ability and share your perception. Id be appreciative!…

You get the idea. When I have time to read them, they kind of crack me up, because I just can’t understand how they think they could fool anyone. And it’s a good thing that I’m patient with them because there seems to have been a delay in my latest financial plan, which involves receiving a rather large payment from a very highly placed officer in a Nigerian bank, but I digress.

After a couple of weeks of seeing this nonsense, you think you’ve seen what spam looks like and you think you have it nailed, but a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to learn about a whole new and somewhat more sophisticated attempt to spam us at my workplace. This one is pretty cool, and whoever is running it has actually gone to a bit of work. For this part of the story, I’ve included several links that are safe and won’t harm your computer, but I recommend that you don’t click on links within the sites I refer to. Spam and malware is an insidious and thoroughly evil thing, and there’s no sense in taunting or playing with evil things, okay?

Many people know that I work at the California State Railroad Museum, which is the largest institution of its type in North America, and one of the largest in the world. We are pretty well known and pretty popular, and we regularly hear and get questions from across the country and around the world. One day, we received this email to our info account:

This is an enquiry e-mail via from:
Jessica King <>

Hi California State Railroad Museum!

My name is Jessica and I am writing to you on behalf of the Laramie Public Library. I’d like to thank you for offering some great info on your page – – I have been referring to it as I gather new materials on trains and railroads, and many of the resources on your page have been a huge help!

I’d also like to let you know about this great guide on model trains that one of our local railroad enthusiasts, Derek, came across while helping me:
Model Trains and More Freight Hobbies!
http://redacted link

It’d be great if you could include this page on your website! Derek (a high school sophomore) and I have found it to be very informative and we think the people who visit your site will find it to be quite interesting, too!

Thanks for your time, and please shoot me an e-mail if you decide to add this to your site. Derek would be thrilled to see that he’s helping to share information on a topic he is so passionate about!

Jessica King

We get a lot of things in this general vein, but something just didn’t ring quite true. With a lot of the unsolicited emails we get, I often will just google the address or at least open it in a browser. If nothing else, it helps me understand who I might be corresponding with, so I can better answer their questions. On this one though, there were some red flags:

  • the .net domain for a public library seemed weird. I expected a .gov or perhaps .
  • “Jessica” seems to be speaking on behalf of “Derek,” who is allegedly a High School sophomore. She seems to have no title (librarian, researcher, volunteer, etc.,) and she’s endorsing something from a High Schooler. I’m kinda thinking that even if Derek isn’t allowed to use email, she might have had him write his own query even if she sent it from her own account.
  • If “Derek” is doing research, and contacts the largest railroad research library in the country, why isn’t he asking us a question?

So off I went to look at the “library” site,, which seemed not overtly spammy or phony, but there were a couple of things that stuck out:

  1. there’s no indication where the physical facility is, what their hours are, etc. Hmmmm.
  2. The website appears very clean and template based, but seems a bit odd that it doesn’t seem to reflect anything that would seem Wyoming related to me. After all, libraries should and usually are reflections of the community.

So then I Googled “Laramie Public Library” (…0.0…1c.1.12.psy-ab.P-K7Mcn_ZWc&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.45960087,d.cGE&fp=59522ab026b941d4&biw=1092&bih=837 )

I note that does indeed come up in the search results, but the real Library in Laramie, Wyoming is the Albany County Public Library. There is also a Laramie County Library System ( with libraries in Cheyenne, Pine Bluffs and Burns Wyoming. None of these seem to be connected with , and outside of a website with, admittedly, several layers of pages that look good, but ultimately are just generic nonsense, there’s nothing there.

Then I went to the page that “Jessica” and “Derek” endorsed, which is a rather shallow essay about something related to model railroads, then I went to the site’s home page. It’s for a company that deals with shipping logistics.

The site itself is an ersatz blog. I don’t know the details of this stuff, but there are web consultants who encourage companies to set up blog sites rather than a traditional web presence, with the theory being that their customers may return for repeat visits if there is new content, and that a blog may appear more personal than a regular website, plus it’s cheaper than a real website. I’ve seen several of these. Some of the blog entries tend to go into weird subjects not even remotely related to the company’s business, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are people who write essays on all sorts of subjects that are sold or provided to these sites as part of a site management strategy.

So to test this, I searched Google using phrases from the essay about model trains. Many times you can match entire paragraphs of generic content with other online sources– it’s one of the quick and dirty ways to find plagarism. I didn’t match the essay, but I found a site that seems to have dozens or hundreds of nonsense phrases and sentences. If you’re interested, you can go to: . It’s a just a text file. My fave is

  • In April 2001, a boy wandered away from his family and was discovered dead, with indications of a dingo attack.

This gets back to some of the comments we receive here at Media Platypus. They likely don’t originate from whoever put this particular site together, but it’s the same sort of stuff, and it’s a huge global business. If you glance through the file, the variety and sheer insanity of the variety of phrases is incredible. I also climbed up the file tree in this site, and there are other pages, even a list of names (which I assume are generated names for spam emails and such) as well as some of those pages I occasionally see when doing a broad search for a subject, that are weird lists of shopping sources for something. Here’s an example:

What does it all mean?

In our case, it means that this spammer seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to try and get us to link to some inane essay for no discernable reason. I simply don’t understand what benefit the logistics company might get from this. It seems like a lot of work for nothing.

Secondly, this seems to speak of a bit of human interaction in making spam more sophisticated. Someone had to create this site. It uses a professional template, and unlike a lot of foreign sites, there seems to be good grammar and spelling, so it’s not as obvious as many things we know absolutely to be spam.

Was all of this created specifically to spam the California State Railroad Museum? Nah. I suspect that “Jessica” sends lots of emails on behalf of “Derek” to enthusiastically promote “his” discovery of information about trains, carpeting, heirloom tomatoes, ball bearings, analgesics, roofing materials and perhaps kiwi smoothies.

Frankly, I’m kind of impressed with this level of sophistication, and as a communicator, any method of communicating interests me, but it’s also something to keep in mind to keep our social media and online presence relevant and safe for our audience to visit. It’s just another thing to know.

p.s. I’ve just got to admit that I’m sort of looking forward to seeing what kind of spam comments will be generated  and sent as comments to this post. There seems to be a kind of “circle of life” quality to the possiblity. In the meantime, here are a couple of goodies:

Worst spam comment found on a Google search:

Museum of comment spam:

And of course, the absolute best expression of spam, EVER:


Welcome Home, Commander Hadfield


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15 years ago, I met the now famous Commander Chris Hadfield. I was creating a Space Camp at IMAX Theatre in Winnipeg in conjunction with the film, Mission to Mir. Yes, it was a neat project, but to me, it was just an excuse to legally spin kids in a “spaceball” until they vomited.

Well, Chris Hadfield was passing through town, promoting the film and the Canadian Space Agency (the agency responsible for the “Canadarm“). He was on a fast promotional tour, with very little spare time. Yet, he took the time to meet with me and film a personal message to the Space Camp participants, instructing them on their “mission.” I was pleasantly surprised that this busy astronaut made time for a group of children in Winnipeg.

Today, Chris Hadfield is a household name. Earlier this week, he returned to Earth after a four month mission as commander of the International Space Station (ISS). During his time in orbit, he amazed and inspired people from around the world.

We watched him discuss life in zeroG, including how to go to the bathroom, clip nails, and try to cry in space.

He answered questions from students through live feeds, sang songs with the Barenaked Ladies in real time, and posted some of the most beautiful images of Earth I’ve ever seen.

One of Chris Hadfield's stunning photos he tweeted from the International Space Station

One of Chris Hadfield’s stunning photos he tweeted from the International Space Station with the caption “The Greek islands, like delicate, shattered eggshell pieces.”


One of Commander Hadfield’s great achievements is that he demonstrated, better than anyone I can think of, the power of using interpretive techniques through social media. His videos, photos, and vivid descriptions of life on the ISS brilliantly connected people with space (and Earth), and turned on a whole generation to science. He built strong emotional and intellectual connections, related his messages to his audience, used drama and surprise to provoke us and maintain our interest, and connected everything to the higher messages, or intangibles, of the resource.

As a result, Commander Hadfield skyrocketed to social media superstardom over the last four months.  He currently has over 90,000 subscribers and 11 million views to his YouTube channel and almost one million followers on his Twitter account. In addition, the Canadian Space Agency has been posting most of the videos of Commander Hadfield, with over 25 million views on their channel. In essence, he has shown how to harness the power of social media the way an interpreter would – to connect us, inspire us, and make a difference in the world.

Before returning to Earth this week, he posted one last video – a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”  The video has since gone viral, with over 10 million views in just three days. It is a beautiful rendition, but also a fitting summary of his time in space, and a wonderful example of how he used the arts to connect people with science.

This mission to the ISS wasn’t just about station repairs and the numerous scientific experiments performed in zero gravity. This was also about connecting millions of people to the wonders of space and science, and showing the world from a new perspective.

Well done, Commander. Mission accomplished.

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.


*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.

Historypin Is Not A Wrestling Move For Old People!


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For whatever reason, I seem to have morphed into the guy here at Media Platypus who comments on new ideas and technology (at least to me) in social media that relate to interpretive communication. Sure, you can comment and demonstrate your memes, or work baseball metaphors into everything you write, perhaps clone yourself with a 3-d printer, and sometimes I wish that I had those talents. But I’m still looking for the holy grail of interpretive social media. I want something that

  • communicates visually and/or aurally
  • something that packs a punch
  • something that’s easy to use and understand
  • something that involves my audience, invites participation, and is genuinely interpretive.

Yeah, I put three items into the last bullet. The list was getting too long. Anyway, as I was saying, I’m always looking for something that’s perfect, free and will catch on. So far, my batting average is somewhere north of nothing, south of everything, but I’ll keep trying.

Yesterday I was introduced to a website called historypin ( which is a wonderfully simple idea; just pin images, or audio, or video files onto a map. People can then look for photos by clicking on them using a Google map interface. Better yet, you can also pin them to Google Street View to overlay an historic photo on today’s street view.

composite photo of an small iron crane used for lifting freight off and onto railcars. The lefthand view is circa 1917. The righthand view is from February 2011

Ex-SPRR freight crane compared circa 1917 and 2011, in Old Sacramento State Historic Park

So what? Who cares? In some ways, this is kind of similar to the use of Panoramio photos on Google Earth. Panoramio is kind of the death of Google Earth for research, and those stupid squares everywhere on the landforms are just annoying (unless of course you turn the layer off.) It seems like any jackanape can post their idiotic photos on Google Earth, and many of them are mis-located and mis-identified. I hope that doesn’t happen with historypin.

“HP,” which definitely does NOT refer to Hewlett-Packard in this use, was created by a nifty non-profit called called We Are What We Do. “WAWWD” is a London-based group who works to change public attitudes about things. From their mission statement, they “work with and for 100s of companies and charities to help them engage more people and do more good.” Historypin is one of their ideas–a way to engage people with the land, with the past, and with society, wonderfully simple and wonderfully brilliant.

Here’s where it connects with interpreters, communications, and social media. Look again at the snippet of their mission statement. Isn’t it true in the larger sense that interpreters want to “help engage more people and do more good”? Doesn’t this get right to the heart of Tilden’s principle of interpretation provoking people?

Our society is morphing at a pace that is tremendous and awful in speed. I work in historic interpretation, and though I’m not really afraid of the future, and I genuinely enjoy my creature comforts and modern technology, I find context, comfort and fulfillment in the past. I joke about it when people ask me why I enjoy history so much. I tell them that it’s nice to know that Hitler will lose, but people who engage with history understand not only this ‘comfort food’ view, but also know that, by understanding our past, we may avoid some mistakes in the future.

By understanding where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we can provide a direction for the future and help us to understand the present. I haven’t yet had time to dig much into historypin yet, but I can tell you that it can help us do these things. For those who work with more natural history than I do, historypin can also help you spread outreach about natural resources. As an aside, by the way, I really don’t see a divide between cultural and natural history. Our culture is a reaction to and dependent on natural resources (or scarcity thereof) and our environment is a result of the interactions between society and nature, but that’s another story entirely.

For those of us who work in public agencies or non-profits, who desperately want to share our resources with everyone, but are stymied by budgets, timeframes, resource and staff shortages, this can be a wonderful opportunity to expand our reach. We can share images, video, and audio. Just imagine the possibilities!

I talk about this stuff all the time, which really annoys my cat and my wife, occasionally interrupting their sleep. One of the complaints I get is that if I focus on these non-personal ways of communication, then I must not care about face-to-face contact. Nonsense! Nothing about digital or non-personal interpretive media can ever replace in-person contacts. Nothing I can write in a description or record in a video can anticipate or react to body language or subtle nuance, or take advantage of interpretive moments. Digital technology shouldn’t be thought of as replacing humans interacting with one another (though we know it happens all the time.) Rather, these technologies are opportunities to expand our audience, to show things that we may not be able to show or demonstrate in person, or to visit vast areas that would not be logically possible in a physical sense.

Methinks that I doth protest too much sometimes. Maybe this video will help some to understand why I’m so excited by this. Now, if I can just find the time to comb our archives for interesting photos and information to share. Lack of time is the ultimate barrier to getting everything done that I’d like to work on; how about you?


Connecting Interpreters Across the Kilometres


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Wow, how times have changed.

I remember when I first started working as a park interpreter. All the interpreters from various parks would try to stay in touch with each other all summer. Every month, we would each type out a page of funny stories and put it in the mail. Then, one interpreter would receive them, photocopy and staple them together, and mail a copy to each one of us. Receiving the package would feel like winning the lottery, sure to snap me out of any mid-summer burnout.

In between receiving these “newsletters,” we would try to touch base by telephone. Some of us would even call up other sites and pretend to be visitors and ask questions like, “What day is your Saturday Amphitheatre program?” just to listen to our colleagues try to remain professional.

I cherished those newsletters and phone calls because they connected me to a greater community of people. And, as I sat isolated in a small log museum in the middle of nowhere, it made me proud to be an interpreter.

The tiny Whiteshell Natural History Mueum, where I spent four summers learning about life, the universe, and everything

The tiny Whiteshell Natural History Mueum, where I spent four summers learning about life, the universe, and everything (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Technology sure has changed a lot since then. Today, when we interpreters talk about technology, we often talk about it only in terms of new media for exhibit purposes. However, we are using technology in other ways as well. Technology is also something that keeps us together as a profession.

For example, Interpretation Canada (IC) finished their 4th annual online conference last fall. Interpreters thousands of kilometres from each other (oh, Paul and Phil, a kilometre is 0.6 of a mile) were transported to a virtual auditorium where we joked, compared weather, and shared resources while participating in 6 online presentations. In addition, the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) held several sessions online for their national workshop in November, and continue to have several webinars through the year. 

But now, technology is being used by the interpretive profession in yet another way. It is being used to advocate for the profession. Faced with potential cuts to personal interpretation in Manitoba’s provincial parks (including the log museum where I worked), Interpretation Canada is using the power of online petitions to influence the government before they make the cuts. In just under two weeks, over 400 people have signed the online petition, adding wonderful comments that showcase the power of interpretation. Just check out this quote from one park visitor who signed:

I grew up camping. My parents taught me a lot about being country folk, but I’m a city dweller and my children need to learn about the resources and land we live in. My youngest has autism and has many questions and the interpreter at Birds Hill Park last summer answered all his questions, had great patience, and opened my son’s eyes up about bugs. I no longer listen to him scream at the sight of a bug.

Will it make a difference in the decisions of the government? We shall see. But two things are certain: 1. Technology is allowing people from around the world to connect and let their voices be heard, and 2. Interpretation as a profession is stronger because of it.

So, my dear platypus friends, add your voice to the petition here (people from around the world are signing) and know that technology helps make our profession stronger.

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