The Story’s The Thing

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photo credit: Time Rusted Compass Blog

Gather ‘round, kiddies. Let me tell you a story. Grab yourself a sharpened willow branch and a marshmallow and settle in by the fire. Whoa! Not too close, Shea! You almost burned your seersucker suit! Everyone comfy? Great!

Many years ago, when I was still trying to convince my father that the Internet was not just a fad, I was invited to a local school’s  “Envirothon.” Yes, it was the year 1998, and Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” was burning up the airwaves and a young man named Matt Damon had just won an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting with another actor, whose name I can’t recall.

Anyway, this school decided to have a mini environmental trade show. They invited environmental organizations, government departments, university biologists, and pretty much anyone else whose work related to the environment and phone number was within reach of the school’s Geography teacher. I was invited, since I had just started my own business delivering interpretive school programs and leading tours to local parks and other natural areas.

The school’s gymnasium was set up with massive trade show displays, and numerous classrooms were reserved for break-out talks and presentations. When I arrived at the gym, I felt a rock in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t because of my scarred memories of Phys-Ed teachers throwing a ball at my face during sadistic games of Dodgeball. I was feeling anxious because I saw the incredible displays and technology being set up by some of the other invitees.

One particularly impressive display was set up by the Department of Natural Resources, the government agency in charge of provincial parks (translation for our American audience – Canadian provinces are like individual states, but with larger animals and fewer people, notwithstanding Alaska, which should have been Canadian). Their display had massive tradeshow panels, glossy brochures, and a whole row of computers with big beautiful tube monitors prominently displaying their website and a few other electronic resources for people to browse.

I stood there and looked at my display – some photos, a wolf skull, a wolf pelt, and a carousel tray of slides to show in the breakout room. My plan was to simply tell some good stories, and teach people how to howl like wolves.

I nervously set up my display in one of the break-out rooms and got ready for my presentation. Then, I stood in amazement when the crowds flocked to my tiny room to hear my modest wolf presentation. Over the day, I delivered four packed, standing-room only presentations. Tiny hands stretched out to feel the fur of a wolf. Ceiling tiles and florescent lights transformed into spruce crowns and sparkling stars as heads tilted upwards to howl. There were smiles, giggles, and family bonding.

At the end of the day, I was still in utter surprise that the government representatives stood alone by their moderately used computers all day, while crowds packed in to see my basic presentation and have a glimpse at something foreign to them. And, that’s when I had one of my first Oprah-level “Aha!” moments.

You see, technology is neat. But, unless you can show people something different than what they can do on their own, it won’t attract the crowds. Technology needs to show something new, give people access to things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. And, technology needs to be grounded in a captivating story. The massive, expensive trade-show display was poorly attended because it didn’t do anything special with that technology. A row of computers showing a website that everyone can just see at home does nothing to draw a crowd.

All that technology couldn’t compete with a few props, a great activity, and some captivating stories. But, where technology can be combined with these things, where media is used to support the story instead of replace it, and everything works together to create an experience – that’s where the magic happens.

Now, the water is at a boil, and it is time for some classic hot cocoa! Does anyone want more marshmallows?

Is Pinterest Legal?

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Shhh! Paul’s in Hawaii this week, so I can talk about one of his favorite diversions—Pinterest, and whether what Paul’s involved in yet another illegal Ponzi scheme , err, some of the legal issues with Pinterest.

The Pinterest logo, a script P inside a red circle

Pinterest logo, used under license from www.pinterest.com

Pinterest (www.pinterest.com) is an interesting social media/crowdsourcing tool, where like minded users the world over can virtually “pin” images of similar objects or ideas or concepts together. For instance, I’ve seen examples of interpretive planners using Pinterest to gather ideas or visual media related to projects they are working on. One of the people I work with in Sacramento claims that Pinterest is the exclusive domain of fashion designers, and though I’ve certainly seen Pinterest boards full of fashion-related images, I’ve also run across bird boards, collections of photos of brick walls, sandstone arches, Laurel & Hardy, scrambled eggs, republicans, air hoses, lieutenants, the amazon, and for Paul’s benefit, of course, Hawaii. People can re-pin images create captions when pinning, and comment on pinned images. You can include both still images and video. I think that Paul, being a very visual designer, is drawn to the potential of Pinterest, but also due to the similarity of the Pinterest logo to that of his beloved Phillies.

I follow and lurk on several discussion boards related to Social Media. I do this because I tried keeping my ear to the ground, but it makes my ear dirty, and that didn’t help with anything. Pinterest is a really fascinating idea, BUT… there’s a lot of questions about how Pinterest and copyright laws get along, and the answer may be that they don’t get along very well.

Let’s begin with the Pinterest terms of service. In item 1a, “Your content,” the good people at Pinterest tell you that “Anything that you pin, post, display, or otherwise make available on our Service, including all Intellectual Property Rights (defined below) in such content, is referred to as “User Content.” You retain all of your rights in all of the User Content you post to our Service.” Fair enough.

Item 1d “To Third Parties” says “You therefore agree that any User Content that you post to the Service does not and will not violate any law or infringe the rights of any third party, including without limitation any Intellectual Property Rights (defined below), publicity rights or rights of privacy.” Whoa.

How can I, or anyone else, pin other people’s images onto a Pinterest board? I obviously need their express permission. Take a look around Pinterest. Tell me how many people have gained permission from image owners to pin their images onto a pin board. Didn’t find very many, did’ja? I thought so!

Please keep in mind that I’m not an attorney; heck, I’ve never even played one on TV, so I’m definitely NOT giving legal advice, okay? However, one way to avoid this would be to only publish your own images or recipes. This will guarantee that you own the copyright, but that doesn’t sound like much fun. And speaking of things that aren’t fun, try understanding the length of copyright. The laws regarding copyright protection of been modified many times over the years and are very complex. If you’d like to begin exploring how complex they are, you might start at www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html . Good luck!

By the way, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act more-or-less shields Pinterest from copyright infringement claims, since they merely host user-generated content, leaving you and me, the Pinterest users, on the hook for claims of copyright infringement. In a blog post on Forbes.com, Kai Falkenberg, suggests Pinterest users could avoid copyright infringement claims by “describing” content rather than “captioning” it on Pinterest. Oy, I’m not sure if I like getting legal advice from a blogger.

Now let’s look at the other side. What about content creators? After all, somebody has to come up with something to pin on these boards. I administer a bunch of Facebook pages for my Agency, and I generate a lot of original content for them, writings, photographs, and video. I used to administer websites for another Agency, and I have some personal things in various places around the web. Several times I’ve discovered that my content, and/or my Agency’s content, has been lifted bodily from my sites, most of the time without attribution, and 100% of the time without compensation. I have a friend, a gifted professional photographer who teaches photography, has many high profile clients, and even consults for a major lens manufacturer. He’s been directed by one of his clients to create a Facebook page, and though it’s been up for several months, it remains image-free. “Dave” values his work highly, and he’s far more versed in intellectual property law than I am. “Dave” cannot figure out how to protect his images online in a way that he feels comfortable with, so he won’t make it available that way except through specific sales, with rights assigned, to his clients. Of course I know some other photographers as well who are less  paranoid careful, and use an online presence to boost and promote their skills and business, but there are ways around watermarks and there are hacks around the javascripts that people sometimes use to prevent you from copy-and-pasting their content, and no, I won’t show you what they are.

Pinterest is a really fascinating tool for interpreters. I think that it goes to the very heart of theme generation. You gather like images, others contribute and comment, your mind automatically goes into a sort of thematic organization overdrive. It’s also a great way to plan a party, bone up on your trivia, and waste an awful lot of time, but those are just added benefits.

Copyright laws never anticipated the internet, and copyright violations are all over the place, both intentional and otherwise. I’ve been guilty of it, I’ll bet that you have too. Jeepers, now I feel like a major buzzkill. But the Pinterest model seems to encourage the theft of images. Is there a fair use exemption for Pinterest? In the reading I’ve done about this, some people seem to think so, but they are in the minority. One post I saw even predicted that Pinterest might soon go down the Napster hole, and just go away under the weight of legal claims. I hope not. Pinterest is interesting and helps me think, and besides, what would Paul do all day? Oh yeah, show his Hawaii photos to everyone. Great…

Perhaps this will all get sorted out, but I’m just sayin’, this stuff can get a bit dicey. Oh, just so you know, the Pinterest logo is from their website, and is used under license.

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Demystifying Twitter

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Last week, I spoke at a meeting of Pennsylvania State Parks interpreters about using social media for interpretation. As always, given a microphone and a room full of people, I seized the opportunity to show photos of my family and make a bunch of comments about baseball. I also talked some about social media.

At one point during the presentation, I showed examples of good interpretive tweets. After a lengthy diatribe about the grammatical implications of the phrase “140 characters or fewer” versus “140 characters or less,” I said that I was going to talk about the use of hash tags. Then I looked out at a room full of people whose facial expressions said, “If I swallow my own tongue, I’ll die before I have to hear that guy talk about hash tags.”

So I asked the question: “How many of you have no idea what I’m talking about?” Hands around the room shot up enthusiastically.

As I prepared for this talk, I expected an audience of varied levels of experience and comfort with social media, and that’s exactly what I got. The main point I was trying to make was that interpretive sites should use social media interpretively. But before I could get to that point, I needed to overcome the fact that many people not familiar with social media go to a site like Twitter and are confronted with something like this:

To a newcomer, it looks like hieroglyphics, filled with the sorts of typographic characters you’d associate with the expletives Dagwood would spew after dropping a typewriter on his toe in a comic strip. (Hi, old people! That was a reference just for you!) My point to a room full of interpreters who wanted nothing to do with learning the complex code of the Twitter junkie is that you don’t have to. In fact, I think you’re better off not. Here are the three tips I expressed to demystify Twitter for those new to it:

1. Write what you’re comfortable with.
Interpreters communicate. Social media is a communication process. (Remember, social media is an activity, not a thing.) Interpreters should use social media to communicate their interpretive messages. I think some interpreters resist Twitter because they feel it’s meant for Ashton Kutcher to let the world know what he had for breakfast or how he feels about that thing with the thing. (Look at the theme statement for your next interpretive program. Can it be expressed in under 140 characters? There’s a tweet!)

2. Write full sentences—with punctuation!
The first thing you notice when you log on to Twitter is that it’s filled with fragments, abbreviated terms or words, and seemingly secret codes. Don’t do that. Full, concise, properly punctuated sentences are a breath of fresh air on Twitter. If you try to speak Twitterese because you’re trying to fit in, you’re just convoluting your message.

3. Hash tags equal keywords.
Hash tags are words or phrases set off with this: # (as in #Phillies). Putting this symbol in front of a word or phrase makes that word or phrase clickable, so that you can click on it and see all of the other tweets that have used it.

I believe the phrase hash tags can be intimidating to Twitter newbies because it’s unfamiliar, and it’s so specific to Twitter. But if you think of hash tags as keywords, a concept we’re all familiar with, it’s easier to get your head around. If you want to connect your tweet to similar ones out there on the Twittersphere, simply highlight your keywords with a hash tag. For example:

This technique will help people interested in your subject matter find you, and it helps you avoid the annoying and pointless trend of creating really long hash tags like #iamsocooliamputtingthisentiresentenceinahashtagthatnooneelsewilleveruse.

There you have it. Write concise, interpretive sentences and identify your keywords. You are ready to tweet.

And now that I have your attention, let’s talk about Jimmy Rollins’ average in the leadoff spot compared to lower in the lineup. Hey, where’s everyone going? I haven’t shown you photos from our trip to New Jersey yet! Come back!

PS: One last thing. If you get Legacy magazine, check out John Rudy’s article “How Tweet It Is” in the March/April 2012 issue.

Nonpersonal vs. Personal Interpretation: What Role Does Social Media Play?

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Before he returned to his home planet, never to be heard from by anyone ever again, I used to debate the relative merits of personal interpretation versus nonpersonal interpretation with my esteemed co-author Shane Lucas (or something like that; I can’t really remember his name). Shawn used to say things like this during our graphic design workshops: “It’s always better to have a personal interpreter, but sometimes that’s not possible and you have to use nonpersonal interpretation.”

I used to react negatively to this, in part because it was always fun to disagree with Shamus, but also because it just seemed so final, so certain. Sheldon would challenge me to refute his statement, and I would try to come up with some elaborate scenario in which a really well-designed brochure or wayside panel trumped a guided interpretive experience. (“Suppose you’re allergic to a certain type of after-shave, and the interpreter just happens to be wearing that exact kind of after-shave…”)

Last month, my family and I took a Griswold-style road trip in the family truckster to Arizona. One of our first stops was McDowell Mountain Regional Park, where friend of the family Ranger Amy works. That’s her with my children Maya and Joel.

After a day and a half driving through mostly cold and gray weather in Colorado and New Mexico, we were all glad to be out of the car in sunny, warm Arizona. Ranger Amy took us to one of the great trails at her park and started telling us about all the edible plants along the trail.

Because she’s a friend and because we were getting our own private interpretive walk, I was able to interrupt Ranger Amy and say, “We definitely want to hear about all this and eat a bunch of plants, but we’re really excited about the giant saguaros and we want to go check them out.”

We took a bunch of photos of the saguaros (including this one, which will definitely be on our family Christmas card), investigated the “cactus hotel” (the holes made by birds living in the cacti), and generally poked around the trail at our own pace. Because we had our own personal interpreter with us, we learned a lot and had a great experience. After we got our fix of the saguaros, we continued along the trail and learned about all the edible plants. (I’m pretty sure five-year-old Maya ate her own weight in wolfberries—which we know from Ranger Amy is a relative of the “super food” goji berries.)

Later, I apologized to Ranger Amy for cutting her off at the beginning of the tour, and she laughed. Then she said something that I wish my coauthor Shannon had been there to hear: “Not everyone wants to hang out with a first-person interpreter for an hour.”

Sometimes people have been in a car for a day and a half and they want to stretch their legs. Sometimes they have two children, ages five and eight, who have never seen a saguaro cactus in person and are completely mesmerized. Sometimes people would rather just be under their own steam.

If Ranger Amy had not been a friend or if we had been in a large group tour situation, we would have had to choose between anxiously waiting for a chance to get close to a saguaro, or rudely wandering away from the group during an interpreter’s presentation. Not everyone has a personal interpreter friend they can drag around with them at interpretive sites, so they’re either at the mercy of a stranger or they use nonpersonal interpretation—and sometimes nonpersonal interpretation is the better option for them.

With new and social media becoming more common as interpretive tools, there are more and more opportunities for nonpersonal interpretation. From old-school, one-way options like audio tours and podcasts (is it safe to call podcasts old school yet?) to conversational options like social media. What if sites—in addition to offering personal guided tours—also had an interpreter monitoring their social media outlets during certain hours?

"Dear social media interpreter, is this a goji berry?"

I may not want to hang out with a first-person interpreter every time I visit a park, but if I’m standing in front of a saguaro cactus, I may have a question (“Is it safe for my children to eat this 15-ton cactus?”). Sure, I could call up the appropriate track on my self-guided audio tour or listen to or watch a podcast and hope the question gets answered. But if I’m visiting a cutting-edge site with a dedicated social media interpreter, I could tweet photos or post questions on an interpretive site’s Facebook page and get answers in short order.

I would agree with my coauthor Shady if he said it’s often better to have a first-person interpreter—but not always. Sometime nonpersonal interpretation is preferable, and social media has the potential to make it even better.

Charlie Bit My Blog Post

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I’ve developed a facial tick lately. I haven’t pinpointed the source, yet. It could be that the price of pay phones is going up to $1.00 (insert old man complaint voice here). Or, it could be that every hockey player in the NHL wants to crush Sidney Crosby’s head before it heals (sorry, Paul, but baseball won’t be mentioned in my blog posts – oh wait! I just did. Dang!).

But, I really think the source of my facial tick is that I’ve just sat in too many outreach strategy meetings where some ridiculous manager says, “We need to engage youth. Jenkins! Get us a social media strategy – STAT!”

You see, I shake my head at these managers for several reasons – bad hair, inability to sign forms on the proper line, and a lack of contributions to the meeting snack fund. But, what I shake my head at most is their complete disconnect with what is really popular in social media.

To understand better, I invite you to enter Cal Martin’s dynamic time machine. Step right in, put a cassette tape into the deck, activate the flux capacitor and accelerate to 88 miles per hour. Let me take you on a journey all the way back to 2007. Yes, four years ago, an unsuspecting father filmed his two children and posted the video on YouTube for relatives to see. Four years later, it is now one of the most popular non-commercial postings to YouTube, with over 450 million views. It has earned the family an estimated $200,000 in ad revenue. It is called “Charlie Bit My Finger – again.” Take a peek through the time machine windshield, and enjoy:

It is not clear exactly why this short video was launched into super stardom. It has so many engaging elements – an attention grabbing title, the suspense of  potential injury, kids with accents, and a portly baby named Charlie that thinks biting his brother is hysterically funny. Whatever it is, people can’t help but watch. And then they share it with everyone in their email address books.

The problem is that many people (especially the aforementioned managers) think that they can post some boring video about an organization’s mission, and it will be immediately shared by millions of youth, becoming more popular than “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

You see, youth like social media. But just because you use social media, it doesn’t mean that what you say will attract youth. Social media is just a medium, and content is king. You have to understand your target audience, and you need to have content that appeals to that audience. If you don’t have those two things, chances are your number of “shares” or “likes” will stay in the double digits. And, those will only be from the staff you direct to see it.

Through Media Platypus, we will share with you tips on how to use new media to your advantage, along with stories of wonderful successes and spectacular failures.

So, here’s a tip to start: if you are expecting your video to go viral, and it can’t compete with “Can’t Hug Every Cat” (Songify This’ adaptation of an e-harmony video), then you need to rethink your strategy.

*For hard core geeks like me, the name of this blog post is a tribute to a recent episode of the CBC’s superb program Under the Influence with Terry O’Reilly (April 14th, 2012. Called “Charlie Bit My Ad: When Ads Perform Too Well”).

 

Titanic Tweets

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I’ve never been happy about my personal relationship with Twitter. It seems like a solution in search of a problem. I don’t think that most of the Twitter stuff I see in the media helps. I don’t care what (fill in name of celebrity) is having for lunch.

But there are a couple of things about Twitter that really interest me as an interpreter. One thought is the opportunity to update my audience on changing conditions in natural settings. If I managed a beach, for instance, I would love the opportunity to tweet about tidal conditions, or unexpected riptides, or shark sightings, and include an instant photo from my phone’s camera. If I were back in my beloved high Sierra, I’ve love to tweet about unexpected weather or wildlife sightings, or maybe a natural highlight of the day.

Where I work now, I primarily deal with 19th and 20th century history and technology. How the heck can I use Twitter, a technology that seems to be ideal for transient current happenings when my professional existence is in the period of the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution?

If you’re reading this blog about social media/technology, I’d be very surprised if you weren’t aware that April 15 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Leonardo DiCaprio the Titanic in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Its ironies and tragic circumstances have kept the Titanic in our collective imagination for many years.

photograph of the iceburg that sank the Titanic

What could possibly go wrong?

Even though I might be the only person on the planet who hasn’t seen the 1997 James Cameron film, it didn’t surprise me to learn that someone developed a Twitter account for the Titanic, https://twitter.com/#!/TitanicRealTime/ . It followed the progress of the Titanic in essentially real time. In the feed, we see tweets from different members of the crew and passengers, even a reporter and photographer.

As I scan through their tweets, I’m not at all convinced that they are from contemporaneous sources; they’re kind of lame in certain ways, such as this one from March 12:

#crew The capacity of the lifeboats is somewhat of a concern, only 1,178. If anything were to happen there won’t be enough space…

Well, thank goodness that nothing bad could possibly ever happen to the Titanic. It’s unsinkable, right?

More accurate in content is the Twitter feed for Thomas Jefferson, https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasJefferson . This feed uses quotes from Jefferson’s writings. Jefferson, however, doesn’t seem very prolific, which I find kind of disappointing. At the time I write this, his most recent post was February 27, about six weeks ago. Prior to February, Mr. Jefferson had remained silent since October.

This is too bad. Jefferson’s writings are often brilliant, but perhaps the complexity of rhetoric in the 18th century doesn’t easily lend itself to 140 characters. Moreover, by reading tweets only from Jefferson, that reader will obviously only see Jefferson’s view of his world. In the grand history of the United States, this ignores people like Benjamin Franklin or John Adams, who also played vital roles in the beginnings of the nation. It also filters out a significant portion of his life. Obviously Sally Hemmings’ role in Jefferson’s life and his household would not be reflected in this feed.

But I really am intrigued by the idea of tweeting a daily journal or diary entries for an historic event from several points of view. For some reason, this made me remember the famous CBS radio/television show You Are There.

From 1947 to 1950 on radio, and then on television from 1953 until 1957 (and briefly revived in the 1970s,) the show consisted of dramatic recreations of significant events in world history, covered by reporters from CBS news in the style of breaking news. It was hosted (on television) by Walter Cronkite. At the end of each broadcast, Cronkite would summarize the events of the day, ending with “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times… all things are as they were then, and you were there.”

From the few clips I’ve seen, it was remarkable television.

Here’s some audio from the July 7, 1947 radio show on the assassination of Lincoln: http://youtu.be/Jsr8G8GH68w

And here is the beginning and end of a 1971 broadcast about the battle of the Alamo:

So I have this great idea. What about documenting some event related to my Park using quotes or clips from different sources that relate to the same event using a Twitter feed? This could sort of do the same thing as You Are There, because it would include observations of the same events from different points of view. I could look at diaries, reminisences, newspaper accounts, documentary records, and include photos, sketches, drawings, and paintings! Maybe this is a great idea, but there is that Twitter limit of 140 characters. This could be somewhat difficult. I really hate the Twitter limit; as you will note, I’m somewhat wordy, but with a URL shortener such as goo.gl or bit.ly I can link to related content if people are interested.

I’m currently working on a project that relates to overland emigration in the 1840s. I wonder if I could tweet from several emigrant diaries in the same group coming west in 1846? Emigration to California typically began in late April or May, so this would be a good time to start doing this. Hmm.

Just think—I could be King of the world.

George Takei is a Social Media Genius

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If you use Facebook, chances are you have seen an image shared by actor George Takei, probably within the last 30 minutes. George Takei, Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek, has surfaced as an unlikely social media mega-power with 1.5 million followers.

Let me say right up front that George Takei is not necessarily a genius for what he posts, but rather how he posts. Better than almost any celebrity on any of the social media, he has grasped how and why people use Facebook, and he has used this knowledge to establish a vast online following. As a communicator, he knows his audience.

Ninety percent of what he posts can roughly be described as LOL Cats—photos of animals with funny expressions accompanied by a wacky caption. George Takei has become a clearinghouse for the stuff that your aunt used to forward you by email.

Takei posted this with the comment, "Gorn are the days of cheap auto insurance."

Another 9.9 percent of what George Takei posts is fan art. Individuals submit wacky images to him in the hopes that he will share them. Usually, this fan art involves some sort of send up of Takei’s Star Trek days (the best ones are the ones that make fun of William Shatner; that never gets old), often accompanied by a terrible pun.

Let’s face it: Nobody is proud to laugh at any of these images. No one ever seems to want to admit to laughing at LOL Cats, and people seem to hate puns even more, yet Takei has built a massive following, and nearly everything he posts gets literally thousands of comments, likes, and shares.

Just indulging the guilty pleasures of social media users and having a ton of followers is not what makes George Takei a genius. It’s what he does with the 0.1 percent of his other posts that makes him a genius. Every now and again, mixed in among the “I Haz a Hairball” posts, he’ll slip in something about an upcoming appearance, like a book signing or convention, or a social cause that matters to him. Not too long ago, he generated a lot of publicity by inviting Donald Trump (then a candidate for president) to lunch to discuss his stance on gay marriage.

Social media sites are overrun with celebrities and other outlets either shamelessly self-promoting or preaching their politics to their respective choirs. But George Takei has used his knowledge of how and why people use Facebook to get his messages to more people.

Self-promotion is not an inherently bad thing on the internet. I follow a number of musicians and comedians on Facebook and Twitter just to keep track of their tour schedules. But these are individuals I follow because I am a fan and sought them out, not because the content on their Facebook page or Twitter feeds is particularly great.

Contrarily, I follow George Takei because his name kept showing up in my news feed when friends shared his posts. It never would have occurred to me to seek him out and follow him, but now I and a whole lot of others know when he’s appearing at a Star Trek convention near us because we follow him on Facebook.

As for political or social issues, social media users tend to follow those whose views they agree with. (I don’t have stats on that. Just seems like sort of a common sense thing.) Whether you’re following Keith Olberman or Patricia Heaton, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when political or social issues come up—and that’s most of what they talk about. George Takei’s political and social posts are so infrequent, he’s likely reaching a lot of people who might not agree with him when he does go that direction.

What’s the lesson here? We generate followers by providing almost entirely content that our target audience wants to consume, and only sprinkling in the occasional self-serving information. George Takei’s target audience is social media users who like lighthearted humor. He caters to that audience with great success, then sprinkles in the self-serving and/or political messages that could very well be his entire reason for being online.

If you’re managing the social media page for a nature center or a historical site, nearly everything you post should be about the content that you interpret—the stuff that your target audience wants to consume. The posts about attending a program, buying something from your store, or making a donation—which may be your whole reason for being on the social networks—are okay, but they should be rare.

And given how good George Takei is at Facebook, I can’t wait to see all of the great recipes Leonard Nimoy is posting on Pinterest.

But Is It Interpretive?

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Last month I was asked to present a session on using Social Media in Interpretation at a conference of park professionals. As an advocate and cheerleader for interpretive social media, I’ll go nearly anywhere and talk with nearly any group about this. Generally it’s a lot of fun. I do a talk about some “best practices,” share some experiences and show some tips and tricks to work efficiently with social media as an interpreter. Then naturally I hope for adulation, invitations to consult with fascinating institutions in fabulous places where money is no object—you know, the usual things that all interpreters have available to them.

I’m still waiting. Hmmm.

One of the “best practices” I always mention is to post often, daily if possible, to keep people returning to my pages, and of course, to engage with new visitors. So at this conference, I certainly included this in my talk. All went well, there was a bit of applause, some wonderful follow-up comments and questions, but then the next day, I got stopped cold when a very nice person wanted to talk about social media after hearing my presentation. He really just had one question: “How much of your content is actually interpretive?”

Cue the mental tap dancing. I’m naturally a little paranoid, and even though I firmly believe that it’s not paranoia if they really ARE after you, I immediately became obsessed with wondering what this person had seen on the pages that I referenced that was pointless or wandering or just nonsense. I began looking at some of the FB pages I administer and some of the tweets I’ve written. How many of them are truly interpretive?

Let’s go back to the NAI definition of interpretation for a moment. Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource. How much of what I write or photograph or explain or share fits in with the definition?

Is my content mission based? At the California State Railroad Museum, our mission includes “studying, exhibiting and interpreting selected aspects of railroads and railroading… for the education, enjoyment and entertainment…” of our audience . We strive to be interesting, we try VERY hard to be accurate and factual, and we try and connect our subject matter and resources to seasonal changes, events and conditions in the local area of our parks, and we try to get people excited about what we do and what we have to offer our visitors, which I genuinely believe is entertaining. I think I can logically tie this in with our mission.

I try hard to connect emotionally and intellectually with my audience with every post I write. What would the point be if I didn’t? Sometimes it’s a little harder to be interesting than other times, of course, but our audience wants to know what we’re doing, what we’d like to do, and some of the quirks and details about our resources, collections and activities. A lot of times, just responding to a user question provokes a fascinating discussion involving several people and occasionally I’ll get challenged by commenters, so obviously I’m connected emotionally and intellectually with the audience. Not as connected as my colleague Mr. Caputo, who was called a giant anatomical part, and received an inexplicably weird suggestion for his culinary habits on a different blog recently, but I’m not sure that I would appreciate that level of passion.

What about the meanings inherent in the resource? I think a lot about this one. Sam Ham talks a lot about meaning. According to Sam, we really cannot impart meaning. In his theory, our visitors or audience create their own meaning. We can help them by providing context and being relatable, but we cannot actually impart the meanings that we might want.

This might be where I’m weak. In my quest to fill the bottomless pit of content, and because I enjoy odd tidbits, I sometimes post things that just seem to tickle my fancy, like the recent Facebook post on the California State Railroad Museum site about the ten carload train of Baby Ruth bars shipped from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1927. Our research librarian ran across a Santa Fe employee newsletter article about this with some astounding facts:

photograph of a toy train freight car. It is yellow, with "Lionel Lines" lettering and a Baby Ruth candy bar logo

Can you imagine ten cars full of Baby Ruth bars?

• A trainload (ten cars) equaled 2,286,000 Baby Ruth bars
• Santa Fe shipped eight candy bar trains around the country that year—some 19 million candy bars, or over 3.5 million pounds of Baby Ruths.
• The Curtis Candy Company used two carloads of sugar, nearly two carloads of milk, nearly four carloads of chocolate, five to six carloads of shelled peanuts and between one and a half and two tanker cars of corn syrup each day.

And on and on. I think that I can argue, particularly right after the Easter/chocolate holiday, that most people will have a relatable connection to 2,286,000 candy bars. Some will imagine making a measurable dent in this pile, some will think that they or their children already have, and perhaps some will make a lifelong commitment never, EVER to go near a chocolate bar again. Perhaps some people will plan a freight car robbery, heck, I don’t know. I’m not sure that I could stand the overwhelming smell of 2,286,000 of chocolate, peanuts and whatever chemicals make up a Baby Ruth bar.

Does this connect the audience with the resource? Yeah, I think so. I think I’ve connected in a very visceral way with people’s emotional reaction to chocolate (I know that I have with mine,) and connected them in a lesser way to the important role that trains have and still do play with the nation’s commerce (that’s a lot of nickels for candy bars, folks!) Plus, nearly everybody loves toy trains, right? Huh? C’mon, get with me here!

So, are my posts interpretive? Yeah, I think overwhelmingly so. Sometimes my duty is to promote a program or event, and though I will always try to write what I write from the perspective of an interpreter, marketing isn’t my strong point or primary interest. Some of my posts may fail. Overwhelmingly though, I think that most of what I do fits in as interpretive content. It sure better have. Linking to the Facebook page may cause some of you to prove me drastically wrong. In that case, I’ll hopefully take solace in knowing that Paul was flamed before I was in a blog comment.

The Pepper Hastings Pay Phone Stadium Project

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I learned recently that the modern Internet—the social network Internet—was conceived by an information-starved baseball fan named Pepper Hastings in 1990. Sure, the idea of networking computers worldwide has been around since the 1960s, if not longer, but the Internet as most of us first knew it wasn’t around until the mid-1990s and its evolution from static content to an interactive experience was a phenomenon of the early 2000s. The primary use of the Internet for me, as I am sure it is for most, is to know the exact, up-to-the-second status of baseball games.

(NOTE: Let’s get this out of the way because it’s a pet peeve: Al Gore never claimed that he invented the Internet. And anyone who even laughingly says that he did has been duped by people who like to misrepresent and distort the words of those whose politics they do not like.)

Here’s the thing: Pepper Hastings was not a computer programmer or networking specialist, and he certainly was not trying to invent the Internet. He was the senior editor for Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. He was a baseball fan who wanted to know the exact, up-to-the-second status of baseball games.

As a college student in the early 1990s, I used to follow entire baseball games by watching the sports ticker on the bottom of the screen on CNN Headline News. The problem with CNN Headline News was that it took five or six minutes for it to rotate through all of the scores. If I missed the score I was looking for, I had to sit through the same news stories I had been watching for hours to have another chance.

When I did not have access to cable television, I used a land-line phone* to call a recorded message hosted by the local newspaper,* The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The problem with the recorded message was that it was only updated every half hour or so.

Pepper Hastings used his position at Beckett Baseball Card Monthly to build and publish a list of pay phones* at all of the then-26 Major League Baseball stadiums, with the idea that baseball fans could call these pay phones and ask passersby the score and situation.

The stated desired outcome of this list was “Instantaneous scores during heated pennant races. Verbal interaction with real fans at stadia across the continent, not pre-recorded 1-900 number yakity-yak…” (Sounds like Internet 2.0, if you ask me.) The project resulted in a lot of confused people at baseball stadiums. One Cincinnati Reds usher claimed to answer about 30 calls a night toward the end of the season.

Sadly, none of the numbers function anymore (in fact, many of the actual stadiums themselves are gone), but the genius of the project lives on. Pepper Hasting’s project has been featured on the How to Do Everything Podcast and on the Baseball Prospectus website. In a pre-Internet world, Pepper Hastings devised a solution as good as any iPhone app.

It’s convenient, to be sure, to have access to all of the stats (and the live radio broadcast) of any game from my iPhone. But how nice would it be to live in a world where you could pick up a phone and talk to a stranger actually at the game—to hear the sounds of the game and get updates not in pixels and numbers, but from the perspective of a person actually watching?

What if such a thing existed at nature parks or historic sites? We could scatter pay phones around Yellowstone that people could call to see if there had been a wildlife sighting nearby. First-person interpreters could be on call—instead of a static panel with information, visitors would get the phone number of a living history interpreter.

I think the solution here is obvious: We need to start a MediaPlatypus registry where off-duty interpreter at parks (or baseball fans at baseball games) can list their cell phone numbers. We’ll call it Pay Phone Stadium Project 2.0.

Glossary (for our younger readers)

Land-line Phone – A telephone tethered to a wall. How did you play Angry Birds on such a thing? You did not!

Newspaper – A news website, but printed on actual paper. Every day! You had to cut out your own pop-up ads with scissors.

Pay Phone – Like a pay as you go cell phone that the whole word shared, but bolted to a wall.

Are QR Codes Dead? (I Didn’t Even Know They Were Sick!)

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Because we must not have much else to talk about, Paul Caputo opined to me the other day that he thinks that QR codes may be dead. In case you haven’t been paying attention to shark jumping tech issues, QR codes look like square, deformed crossword puzzles. With a smartphone or a tablet, they can be scanned to open a web link, show some text, play a video, or just about anything else you might want to do with such a device.

urban dictionary definition for "Jump the Shark"

Scan the code — IF YOU DARE

Paul’s reasoning? Since they are being used more prominently in advertising, they’re not quite as geeky anymore. I see them in the home improvement store, on merchandise I buy, in ads in the newspaper, on real estate signs, and even on children’s TV programming. I guess that in Paul’s mind, they’ve jumped the shark because now they’ve become common.

My first inclination is to challenge this reasoning, but hang on for a moment. It turns out that if you search for “are QR codes dead” into your favorite search engine, you get a number of hits. Forbes, blogworld, AdAge and some other blogs have their point of view, but they’re all wrong.

By “all wrong” of course I mean that they disagree with each other, and some of them seem to agree with Paul. Some claim that QR codes and similar technologies are essentially stillborn. After all, the technology for QR codes has been around since 1994, and bar codes, which are a direct predecessor of QR codes, have been commercially used since 1974. Only recently have they become consumer friendly, through technologies that allow regular people to scan and decode them. Marketers and advertisers have, in many cases, glommed onto them and it’s not uncommon today to see them in print ads or on tags in stores, where users are encouraged to scan them for more information. The problem is, most potential users don’t, and there’s the rub.

As far as I can tell, QR codes, or Microsoft Tag, a similar system, don’t yet have wide consumer adoption in the United States. I think that the reason is that the content that is behind the tag is generally stupid or useless. If you’ve ever scanned one in an ad, it is usually just a link to buy the product. Big deal. I’d like to see a video demonstration, or a secret feature of the product, or winning lottery numbers. I don’t need a quick link to purchase the item. The best QR link that I’ve seen commercially, oddly enough, was on a popcorn display at the market. It showed a new feature for the product’s packaging that might actually have a practical use. (If you’re interested in advanced popcorn consumption technology, you can see it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=66Wh-v-AjVk .) As a consumer of interpretive media, I want to see or hear or read something that is above and beyond a static display. Delight, surprise and provoke me. That’s our job as interpreters, fer cryin’ out loud.

I guess that I’m part of the problem. At the California State Railroad Museum, we were the first California State Park to use QR codes in exhibits, but except for one video segment that we produced specifically to be triggered by a QR code, we still link to existing web content from our regular website. To make things more frustrating, even this content hasn’t been optimized for mobile devices. Except for the video, which does just what we want, the content isn’t very compelling, even if it does provide some additional information. This wasn’t the plan, but getting new content online hasn’t been the priority it should have been for us.

Once again, my main theory of compelling interpretation comes into play. Without really good content, all of the technology or pizazz in the world won’t fool people, at least not for long. I think that, as interpreters, we sometimes may not distinguish between the medium and the message, which is a mistake.

A QR code is a tool, just like a brochure or a display or props during a guided walk. I think that a lot of us specifically understand that we need to be relevant with traditional interpretive techniques, but when dealing with new technologies, we may overlook this.

When I wrote the proposal for using QR codes on some of our exhibits, I used the phrase “enhanced interpretation.” My primary thought was that a good interpretive sign that maxes out at less than 100 words will leave some detail-oriented people wanting more information about technical aspects of locomotives, and/or we could use video footage of some of the equipment in actual use to counteract their present display as static objects. We could include oral histories, show details and aspects of our exhibits that visitors would be unable to see physically.

It was and is a great idea, but we haven’t made much progress in implementing it completely. Producing this alternate content requires an investment of time, talent and in some cases money. These are important things to consider, as for all good interpretation.

So Paul, much like the Chicago Cubs, QR Codes are not dead, though they won’t be playing in the interpretive World Series this season. Unlike the Cubs, it’s not due to the curse of the billy goat, but because most people who create the content aren’t doing it effectively. Give us something really interesting, and, to misquote James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, “people will scan, Ray. People will scan.”

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