Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, “Muster,” is now live. I wrote about my experiences running the Facebook and Twitter accounts for Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, from April 2017 to April 2018. I discuss a few strategies I learned for crafting effective social media posts during that time and the importance of historical sites making a dedicated effort to interpret the past on social media.

Being the social media manager for REER was a high honor and something I take great pride in as a public historian. The chance to participate in the formative stages of a new National Park Service unit’s overall development is rare; that REER is the first NPS unit to make Reconstruction a central interpreting focus of the site is all the more significant. So it was pretty exciting when I got a call from folks in the NPS Southeast Region seeing if I’d be interested in helping to promote the site online. The reason I got that call, I should add, is because of my social media presence on Twitter and my writings on this blog. Someone noticed my historical scholarship and my passion for Reconstruction, and that in turn opened this door for me.

I can’t stress enough to readers how time-consuming it can be to create a good social media post. In addition to having a strong knowledge of a given historical topic, one must work to write and re-write drafts of their posts so that they are clear, concise, and interesting. They also need to find compelling images and make sure those images are copyright-free. For REER I had to come up with an idea, conduct research, write a draft, have that draft reviewed by historians at the NPS Southeast Region, make any necessary changes, and then schedule the post for publication on Facebook and Twitter.

I was in a unique situation with REER because I am based in St. Louis and have never been to South Carolina before. I have a good general knowledge of the Reconstruction era but needed to read up on South Carolina’s particular circumstances during that period (Thomas Holt, Willie Lee Rose, Richard Zuczek, Stephen Wise, and Lawrence S. Rowland helped me a lot). Since the site is currently closed to the public, there were few events going on and I wasn’t part of the daily, on-the-ground experiences at the site. I therefore focused largely on historical content–both nationally and relative to Beaufort–and the historiography of Reconstruction studies. As I mention in the essay, REER had more than 1,100 Facebook followers and 700 Twitter followers by the time I finished. Not bad! It was sometimes challenging to find enough time to consistently update and keep an eye of REER’s social media accounts, but overall I’m proud of the work I did and I hope I can keep helping the site in some capacity moving forward.

Cheers

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Yes, I Am A Historian Who Cares About the Truth

A real photo of WWII soldiers raising an American Flag https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima#/media/File:WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising.jpg

Phil Leigh, a Civil War author and blogger who I’ve never heard of or interacted with before, criticizes me in a recent blog post about the Confederate flag on his website. The issue begins with an essay by Andy Hall. Noticing that a popular photo-shopped image of a World War II Marine in the Pacific with a Confederate flag was going viral on social media, Hall did some quick research and clearly demonstrated that the photo was a fake. I re-blogged the essay here because I appreciated Hall’s detective work and efforts to correct misinformation on the internet. By sharing it on this blog, however, I seemed to have fallen into Leigh’s bad graces.

Leigh argues that both Hall and I ignore tangible evidence that some white southern soldiers flew the Confederate flag during WWII and that they flew it as a genuine expression of southern pride. He also points to a different post of his where he shares nine real images of WWII soldiers with Confederate flags.

Okay, great, but that wasn’t the point of Hall’s post or why I shared it here. Neither Hall nor I deny the existence of Confederate flags among WWII soldiers, and Hall did not write the post with the intention of providing an overview of the flag’s use during the war. The point of the post was to highlight a deliberate attempt to falsify history for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political position and a preferred version of history. The post also highlights how quickly misinformation spreads on social media. If you want to use images of WWII soliders flying Confederate flags, share the real pictures, plain and simple. Why distort the past to promote Confederate heritage today? It’s lazy and dishonest.

Leigh is not finished with me, however. In a detour of his critique of Hall, he also criticizes my recent essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era about Civil War gift shops and concludes that “[Sacco] sees no reason why items displaying the Confederate flag should be sold in Civil War museum gifts shops.” Again, that was not the point of the essay. My argument is that memory scholars and public historians need to undertake a more critical analysis of the items that are sold in these spaces. What do those items say about the ways people remember the Civil War? What are the values of a given historic site, and how do gift shop items reinforce or detract from those larger values and mission of a site? That is not the same as saying all Confederate flags must go, and I even concluded the essay by saying that a “one-size-fits-all solution” to the questions I raise does not exist. If Civil War gift shops want to continue selling Confederate merchandise, great. I think it is more than fair, however, to put that merchandise under a critical lens and push museums to think about gift shops as an extension of their mission. My point is not to engage in “political correctness” or an outright ban on selling Confederate flags, which Leigh and his commenters suggest.

On top of these critiques, Leigh feels the need to point out my employment status to his readers, although he does not do the same for Hall. One wonders why he feels the need to do that other than to suggest that my employer creates a bias that prevents me from practicing honest history, or that I have some sort of alternate motive for writing about history besides seeking truth and understanding. Perhaps there’s a different way to interpret Leigh’s mention of my employment status, but I do find the action very odd regardless.

Let’s get to the bottom of this strange discussion and put it to rest: altering historic photos for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political cause or a preferred version of history is wrong. Sharing these photos online is doubly wrong, and the image in question that Hall exposed as being photo-shopped has unfortunately gone viral. Hall was right to correct it, as he’s done with a lot of bad history over the years on his blog. Why does Leigh feel the need to criticize Hall instead of the people who create and share false history? Furthermore, it’s rather pretentious for someone who does not know me to title their post “Which Historian Cares About the Truth?” and then subtly suggest that I (and Andy Hall) don’t. You’ll have to forgive me if I find such an approach obnoxious and bothersome. It’s one thing to say “I disagree with your conclusions,” but another thing entirely to say that I don’t care about the truth.

I welcome comments of the former variety, but not of the latter. Mr. Leigh suggests readers view both of our essays and draw their own conclusions, and I encourage the same.

Cheers

National Park Service Units Need to Have a Social Media Presence

Over at the NPS Employees Facebook page there was a recent, fascinating conversation about the need for National Park Service units to have a social media presence. The conversation was prompted by this comment:

The NPS should not be building a social media presence. Do [sic] to resource issues related to visitor impacts, it is not in the best interest of the parks to promote and advertise themselves. A social media presence is also counter to the ideological foundations of the park system as a whole. Parks are the safe haven and the escape from “modern life”, why then are we building straight into that?

strongly disagree with this point of view. For one, the NPS Mission statement says nothing about creating safe havens and escapes from “modern life.” The historic and natural sites the NPS runs are in actuality a part of “modern life”: they are living, breathing entities that are preserved, interpreted, and patronized by and for humans living in a modern world. Moreover, the NPS exists for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. Contrary to the above statement, it is imperative that the agency “promote and advertise themselves” to the very people whose tax dollars help subsidize the agency’s operations. The sites exist for their enjoyment.

There is ample justification in the agency’s mission statement for the NPS to have a social media presence. The statement calls for the NPS to promote “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” of the agency’s natural and cultural resources. NPS social media promotes these goals. Off the top of my head I can think of five ways NPS social media advances the agency’s mission:

  1. Provide updates on park conditions & news (particularly important when non-NPS related social media can often share incorrect information across social media and NPS websites take more time to update than social media).
  2. Make announcements for upcoming programs and events at NPS units.
  3. Share relevant scholarship through books, journal articles, online articles and research conducted by NPS staff.
  4. Promote safety and conservation of history and nature.
  5. Expose the agency’s holdings to an online audience that may not have the opportunity to visit a site in person (one commenter pointed out that his friend enjoyed looking at pictures on his phone of NPS sites shared on social media during his lunch break, which is a fantastic example of promoting the NPS Mission to an online audience).

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in getting away from “modern life,” you have the freedom to log off social media and enjoy NPS sites without technology.

Cheers

A Quick Word on the “Sadness” of Appomattox

Appomattox Tweet ULSG

The Appomattox surrender of April 9, 1865 marks the symbolic end of the Civil War and the beginning of a new future for the United States. The generous terms laid out by General Grant and the calls by General Lee to all Confederates to peacefully accept those terms created the foundation for a political reunion between sections (although not necessarily sectional reconciliation) that would be mostly bloodless and free of future warfare and guerrilla attacks. As Mark Snell argued in a blog post that has since been deleted, Appomattox saw the end of the killing and chaos of war. We might add that it also spared the lives of countless younger Americans who would have put their lives in danger had the war continued for months, years, or decades. Appomattox created a path towards the emancipation of four million enslaved people, the establishment of birthright American citizenship no longer determined by skin color, condition of servitude, or the whims of the Supreme Court, and the expansion of voting rights to all male citizens regardless of color (and later all women). It also paved the way for a new conception of freedom that ensures that all people will be protected equally under the law regardless of their background, even though this county has often and continues to fail at meeting that ideal.

The American Civil War was a sad four-year event in our nation’s history that saw the deaths of roughly 750,000 soldiers on both sides. Lives and property were destroyed, fortunes were ruined, and ways of life were drastically altered. But it’s worth asking how this war came about in the first place and why a country dedicated to the principles of republicanism and popular government came to engage in war with itself. The answer can be explained in large part through the lens of slavery and freedom in prewar America, and how the former gave meaning to the latter in the formation of this country. From Jedidiah Purdy’s A Tolerable Anarchy:

Why did American slaveholders call so loudly for freedom? . . . The slaveholders’ special passion for freedom was not despite owning their slaves but exactly because they were masters in a slave society. Slavery gave shape and power to the American idea of freedom. Wherever slavery was widespread, [Edmund] Burke insisted, “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of rank and privilege.” For the freemen of a slaveholding country, freedom was the root of identity and dignity. Freedom gave men’s lives value in their own eyes and honor in others’ . . . Slavery made masters uniquely sensitive to any invasion of their independence (9).

Slavery’s opponents understood this tension and came around to believe the institution was antithetical to American values and a threat to everyone’s freedoms. When the Republican party formed in the 1850s with the explicit goal of taking steps to limit slavery’s growth westward, war became inevitable. The tragedy of slavery–the “freedom” to buy, sell, and own black people as chattel property–died a severe death at Appomattox that was later cemented by a constitutional amendment in December 1865. That anyone could lament that day as a “sad” one speaks to how many Americans still choose to romanticize the Civil War as a noble experiment in Confederate Nationhood or a Brother’s War where “both sides fought for what they believed in” while the legacy of slavery is casually ignored, deflected, and dismissed as a factor in shaping the conditions for war in the 1860s. I want nothing to do with a nostalgic view of the Civil War that portrays the Appomattox Surrender as the saddest day of the war and/or Southern history more generally. In reality, it was one of its greatest days.

Cheers

I’m Not Worried About Teenagers Taking Selfies at National Parks

"What's the Wi-Fi Password for this area?
“What’s the Wi-Fi Password for this area?

The National Park Service recently began debating the merits of adding free public wi-fi to its various units throughout the United States. At Yellowstone, for example, park officials in 2014 discussed the possibility of adding a $34 million fiber-optic line to the park’s facilities, and Director Jon Jarvis made a pledge to have Wi-Fi up and running in all NPS Visitor Centers by the end of 2016. Advocates of adding wi-fi typically make an argument about achieving “relevance” with young people and so-called millennials, while critics argue that wi-fi will detract from the experience of visiting a national park by adding an element of modern life that is costly and distracting. The discussion has been passionate and at times heated, and good points have been made by all sides. But it’s important that any talk of wireless internet and other digital technology in national parks be rooted in actual evidence about the ways people use such technology. Alison Griswold’s unfortunate essay in Quartz demonstrates how all sides have over-inflated their arguments and made the false assumption that digital technology is primarily a concern for millennial audiences only.

Griswold immediately indicates her position with a ridiculous title for her essay: “Democrats want to ruin America’s national parks with Wi-Fi.” That claim assumes that wi-fi would in fact be detrimental to the parks (that hasn’t been proven), that only Democrats support this initiative, and is about as silly as overgeneralizing that “Republicans want to ruin America’s national parks with privatization and fracking initiatives.” While a recent letter to President Obama in support of national parks with wi-fi was in fact penned by Democratic members of Congress, such a characterization of this discussion in blue and red terms is ridiculous and says a lot about the authors of such partisan hitpieces.

The central focus of the Democrats’ letter to the President asserts that “improved connectivity will help to make our parks accessible and engaging to changing park visitor demographics.” This is a flawed approach for several reasons. We might point out, for one, that while outreach efforts to millennials are important, the largest generational demographic currently patronizing National Parks are Baby Boomers, primarily because they have the financial means and the post-retirement freedom to travel. So Baby Boomers must play an integral role in this conversation because it involves more than just millennials on phones. The letter, however, does just that by assuming that adding wi-fi is necessary insofar as it might attract millennials to National Parks. But research about millennials and cell phones suggests that they are not necessarily the social media-obsessed, glued-to-the-phone caricatures they are often portrayed to be. Studies conducted by Michael Welsh, Sue Bennett, and Eszter Hargittai all confirm that millennials are “no better or worse at using technology that the rest of the population.” Millennials’ skill level and comfort with digital technology varies widely; Hargittai points out that socioeconomic factors such as family income levels, parental education, internet access, gender, and geography all shape the ways millennials first become acquainted with technology. In sum, millennials might feel an impulse to take a selfie at the Grand Canyon, but others may opt to go hiking or take in an interpretive program with a ranger. It’s not guaranteed that millennials’ first impulse at a National Park would include pulling out a phone, or that if they did pull out a phone it would only be used for social media-related reasons.

But there’s more. A lengthy study by Pew Research on U.S. smartphone usage suggests that older generations eagerly use digital technology too. 64 percent of all Americans own a smartphone, including 79 percent of Americans aged 30-49 and 57 percent of Americans aged 50-64. More than 50 percent of Americans aged between 30-49 have done online banking or looked up health information on a smartphone, while more than 40 percent have looked up a government service, searched for a job, or viewed real estate listings. More than half of all Americans aged 30-64 have used GPS on their smartphone. One study argues that “Baby Boomers embrace technology as much as younger users,” while a USAToday report finds that seniors are relying on smartphones, the internet, and other digital technology to communicate with loved ones and obtain healthcare-related needs such as filling prescriptions and finding information about local doctors.

Griswold, as a representative of the anti-Wi-Fi crowd, engages in her own distortions about millennials and digital technology. She suggests that “while improving Wi-Fi coverage in Yellowstone might increase its popularity among young people, it could also deter visitors looking to unplug,” a claim she makes without explaining how or why someone who visits a park without a phone might be deterred from visiting because someone else would want to experience a park with a phone. Perhaps she’s subtly suggesting that there’s a “right way” to visit a National Park and that long-time visitors to National Parks resent that their favorite sites are becoming more popular and being experienced in ways that differ from their own. Finally, she paints her own “grim vision of the future” at National Parks: “Wi-Fi campgrounds, and parks teeming with Snapchatting- and Instagramming-millennials.” Oh, the horror!!! Griswold, of course, is creating a caricature of smartphone usage that narrowly defines who uses smartphones and for what purposes they are using those phones.

The point I’m trying to make is that people of all ages use smartphones, access the internet, and embrace digital technology as a means for communicating with others and obtaining important information. Wi-Fi at National Parks could benefit everyone that visits a park, not just millennials.

Rather than portraying Wi-Fi at National Parks as some sort of narcissistic millennial oasis of selfies, tweets, and snapchats, we should broadly consider the ways Wi-Fi enhances and detracts from visitor safety and enjoyment during their experiences at National Parks. How can digital technology enhance learning experiences at National Parks? How could Wi-Fi make visitors and employees safer? Access to Wi-Fi could allow an injured hiker to more easily access help in case of an emergency or allow relatives at home to contact loved ones at isolated parks. It could possibly help someone who takes a wrong turn in their car get back onto the correct street. More than 700 people have died at Grand Canyon National Park since 1850 and about twelve people a year die at the Canyon today. How many of these deaths could have been potentially avoided had Wi-Fi been available? Could NPS employee Chuck Caha’s 2014 death in the heat of Death Valley been avoided had there been Wi-Fi around?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a strong opinion one way or the other on this topic. But I think a reasoned discussion that revolves around the benefits and pitfalls of Wi-Fi as a means for promoting enhanced safety and enjoyment of National Parks makes a lot more sense than debating whether or not teenagers will be taking more selfies on their phones when visiting parks with Wi-Fi.

Cheers

Bridging the Gap Between “Nature” Sites and “History” Sites in the National Park Service (Part 2)

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In my last post I pointed out that there exists a split–both real and perceived–between so-called “nature” parks and “history” parks in the National Park Service, so much so that some agency employees have expressed a wish to transfer history/cultural sites to a new agency. I stated that this proposal was mistaken and argued that the tensions behind this split have existed since FDR and Congress worked to add more than sixty historical sites to the agency in the 1930s, per the desires of NPS leadership.

I think most visitors to National Parks appreciate the diversity of the agency’s holdings in terms of its natural and cultural resources. At the same time, however, this persistent perception of National Parks as places solely dedicated to silence and solitude in nature (cogently expressed by Clay Jenkinson here) remains popular in part because the NPS often chooses to represent itself that way.

Perception

Nature Porn: Any active social media participant within the past five years has noticed what I’d describe as a “photographic turn” in the ways people and organizations share content online. Whereas the Facebook of 2006 was based largely on text-based status updates, users today are probably more likely to share something with a photo in it, whether it’s one from a personal phone or from a website. If you share a photo on Twitter, that photo is now displayed alongside the tweet rather than making users click on a “pic.twitter” link to see the photo (as was the case a few years ago). And of course something like Instagram exists because people love sharing photos.

The Park Service has embraced photographic social media and smartly exploits it for retweets, faves, likes, and shares to garner attention for the agency. And about ninety percent of those photos capture nature/scenic-type imagery: sunrises and sunsets, mountains, deserts, canyons, wildlife, and the general idea that you would get a lot of enjoyment being at these scenic landscapes in person rather than looking at them through a computer screen. While the Park Service Twitter and Facebook accounts do occasionally share pictures of buildings, battlefields, and other related cultural artifacts from historic sites on their feeds, I almost never see them sharing anything in terms of articles, blog posts, historic photos, or links to resources in which people have a chance to learn more about and conduct their own exploration into history. The Department of the Interior (the parent agency of the NPS) never shares anything history related on their social media feeds, even though they too have a role in the preservation and interpretation of U.S. history. This focus on nature porn is understandable but unfortunate given the large number of people who follow these accounts on social media, and it definitely shapes the way people understand the NPS mission.

NPS Logo: The NPS logo also presents its own challenges in conveying the historical and cultural mission of the agency:

NPS Logo

Some of the symbolism behind this logo is obvious. The bison at the very bottom represents wildlife, while the trees and mountains represent nature. These symbols also transmit a message of conservation, preservation, and scenic beauty. Less obvious, however, is the arrowhead shape and design itself, which is intended to represent history and culture. In a way, the NPS’s natural resources take on a more tangible representation than do the cultural. Would most people pick up on the cultural symbolism of this logo on their own? In my experiences, no. To be sure, I like the NPS logo and think it should stay the same. I am merely suggesting that the logo conveys certain messages about the agency’s mission better than others.

Interpreting Natural and Cultural Resources Through Different Disciplinary Lenses

I believe that at most park units the distinction between nature and history is false because almost every unit has elements of both within its boundaries. History sites have scientific and natural elements worthy of interpretation and nature sites have historical elements equally worthy of interpretation. Indeed, history is (partly) scientific and science has a history. Science has a very fascinating history of ideas and processes about the way the world works that interpreters should further explore. Some parks, no doubt, probably do a fine job of educating their audiences about the significance of their park through a multi-disciplinary lens (and more western parks are doing a better job of involving local indigenous groups in interpretive programming), but on a big picture level I think we can all do a better job of creating interpretive programs that push the boundaries of these disciplinary distinctions.

  • How cool would it be to go to Gettysburg and learn about the science behind farming practices in Adams County, Pennsylvania, leading up to the Civil War? Or what about a program about the formation of the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and how the Civil War influenced the creation of that agency?
  • How neat would it be to visit Yellowstone and learn about the political debates on Capitol Hill during U.S. Grant’s presidency (1869-1877) over whether or not the federal government had the right to protect federal lands from settlement in the interest of research and recreation? (Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872).
  • How interesting would it be to visit African Burial Ground in New York and learn about scientific theories of race in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how those theories helped expand and perpetuate African chattel slavery in the Transatlantic world?

These are just a few ideas I have about the sorts of programs that could help bridge this nature/history split in the NPS. Ultimately I think it’s in the agency’s best long-term interest to find ways to incorporate a diversity of disciplinary thought processes in interpretation and education rather than undertaking a costly endeavor to create an entirely new agency for the so-called “history” sites. I also think that building partnerships with history and science organizations could help this process. For example, if a history park doesn’t have any science specialists on staff, why not recruit partners in the local community (college students, citizen scientists, non-profits etc.) to help undertake this work in collaboration with that particular unit? Such a move represents a sharing of interpretive authority with local community members that could help foster a sense of good will and ownership in the NPS mission.

What do you think?

Cheers

Brooks Simpson on President U.S. Grant and His Alleged “Corruption”

Who says Twitter is only good for selfies, LOLcats, and tweeting about coffee?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for The Atlantic, took to Twitter the other day to ask his followers a question about the extent to which President Ulysses S. Grant was “corrupt” compared to his contemporaries. He specifically requested the help of Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University history professor and noted Grant scholar. Simpson fired off a series of tweets in response that conveyed a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation that I find extremely helpful for my own purposes. I get more questions from visitors at my job about Grant’s presidency than about his generalship during the Civil War, and these corruption questions pop up frequently. Simpson’s response will definitely be a part of my arsenal next time I’m asked about Grant’s alleged corruption.

Here’s what Simpson had to say:

There you go.

Cheers