Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Uncertainty is Certainly Expected: Twitter and the African Burial Ground National Monument

I love this mock news report about the “historic” Blockbuster video rental store:

“What’s so poignant at this time is the uncertainty. When you get to the Blockbuster, are they going to have your video? Did someone else rent it? Is there going to be a line? Are the alarms going to sound when you walk out the front door?”

The costumed “interpreter’s” line about uncertainty makes me giggle. Lines! Alarms! What travesties! While this “report” makes light of a major transition in the American entertainment industry, uncertainty certainly exists. Uncertainty exists especially about the use of digital media by many parks and historic sites. There are a ton of “what ifs” about moving in this direction, causing hesitation. I see this uncertainty as a major root of resistance by historic sites to seriously grab these social media tools and use them to their fullest ability.

However, it can be done! Effective transitions into social media presences by historic sites can enhance the visitor experience. In the future, I plan to use examples from a variety of historic sites that use social media, but will refer to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan often, as I consider their presence one of the strongest in the National Park Service.  For this post, I will specifically look at their Twitter feed. Currently, their Twitter feed has over 71,000 followers and they have recently launched a Facebook page. The site created its Twitter feed in 2009, but began actively using it in December of 2010. Park staff uses the tool to actively engage followers. A while back, I grilled one of their park rangers, Cyrus, about strategies and theories and he was most obliging.

For visitors to the African Burial Ground National Monument site, providing a Twitter feed allowed a way for visitors to connect on another level. It enhanced the visitor experience by giving visitors a chance to learn more, tweet at, or share about their experience. With budget cuts, management decided to limit the visitor center’s hours, but people still had the opportunity to experience the outside portion of the site. Opening up an online “hub” gave visitors a chance to interact on a different level any time of day or night.

Visitors can interact and ask questions through this medium. The site actively retweets questions, allowing for other followers to see the types of questions visitors have.

Sometimes, a conversation with more than one follower ensues.

Additionally, by engaging with visitors, the site has encouraged new visitors to make a trip to this site.

The African Burial Ground actively follows its followers and engages. Cyrus mentioned his original goal of using the site's Twitter feed dynamically as a way to show social media's potential. His goals include providing a variety of related content regularly throughout the day. By meeting those goals, he has captivated an audience that he would not have otherwise had without this feed.

When I asked about how the site measured success, Cyrus suggested that to consider measuring success both quantitatively and qualitatively. Yes, African Burial Ground National Monument is the most followed, and yes, the park can demonstrate higher numbers of “hits” on links provided because of his feed. The “social” element, however, proves a little more difficult to demonstrate with numbers. Cyrus mentioned the example of an experience he saw when some local folks came out for a program they had not known about before the site’s live-tweets. Isn’t that what historic sites want? Real-live visitors? Especially the kinds of visitors who don’t traditionally visit?

For those who do not see the full potential of social media at historic sites, resistance can be easy. It is too much work! It takes away from the experience! These new-fangled devices will take away the need for visitor centers! No, that’s not it at all! Social media is a tool. Uncertainty is an absolutely valid notion when using a new or different tool, but it shouldn’t inhibit progress! Consider these media types as “hubs,” places where people can interact, albeit digitally. Moving in this direction allows parks and historic sites another means of engaging. Creating these “hubs” and then using these hubs to engage has merit. Social media will not replace parks, like Netflix replaced Blockbuster. Social media will give an opportunity for enhanced visitor experiences.

*Reminder: These thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the National Park Service.

**Special thanks to Ranger Cyrus for all of his help!

***Stay tuned for more discussion on other historic sites and social media engagements.  

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