Social Media at the #NAI2011 Workshop

I compare the annual NAI National Workshop to final exams. I spend most of my year building to this one week, during which I go sleepless, subsist almost entirely on buffalo wings and nervous energy, and then crash afterwards until someone wakes me for the holidays.

I have been to 10 NAI National Workshops, and I remember each one distinctly for different reasons. There was the 40 Days of Rain Workshop (Virginia Beach, 2002), the “Wheel of Fortune” Slot Machine Workshop (Reno, 2003), the Shiny Horse Incident Workshop (Wichita, 2007), and, of course, the Shorn Head Workshop (Las Vegas, 2010).

Last week’s Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, will always be the Social Media Workshop to me. Smart phones and tablets were everywhere throughout the event, and there was a steady stream of Tweets and Facebook posts from participants. NAI promoted a Twitter hash tag, #NAI2011, which participants used when Tweeting about the event.

For those not familiar with Twitter, a hash tag is a short phrase or set of characters set off with a pound sign (like #NAI2011) that Twitterers use to link their Tweets to other Tweets. In Twitter, you can click on a hash tag and see all of the Tweets that have included it. Being relatively new to Twitter, I was struck by the following effects of the #NAI2011 hash tag:

It generated buzz:

It connected people—in person and online:

It made people feel bad:

It spread the message:

It expanded the conversation beyond the session rooms:

It gave participating organizations a line of communication to their people:

It provided instant feedback:

It highlighted some of the tangential benefits of the event:

And, of course, it encouraged shenanigans:

I co-presented two sessions during NAI 2011, one on blogging with my esteemed IBD co-author Shea, and one on using social media in interpretation with Friend of IBD Phil Sexton. Both were well attended, but in particular the social media session was packed so full we called it Occupy NAI, and our room monitor was turning people away. That session was popular for three reasons: 1. New media is incredibly important to the field of interpretation. 2. People believed me when I told them that Phil is actually Kenny Rogers. 3. I can’t remember the third reason.

I consider the #NAI2011 hash tag experiment a success. It was widely used by participants, encouraged conversation, facilitated connections, and generated buzz about the event.

Now, on to #NAI2012!

Why Blog: The Interpretive Sourcebook Entry

We’re in Saint Paul, Minnesota, this week for the NAI National Workshop. We’ll be presenting a session on blogging Wednesday, which means we had to prepare actual content (something we’ve done only rarely in three years of blogging). Since writing this blog has inspired the content for the session, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share our paper (written by both of us) with you. Here goes:

Why Blog?
You should blog if there is an audience. As a blogger, it’s important to know your purpose and message, along with where your blog is going to fit in (a common problem for us anyway, and also anyone who identifies themselves as a blogger). We started the Interpretation By Design blog (which we now call simply “The IBD Blog”) in March 2009, about five months after our book by the same name was published. We were aware that there was an audience because multiple presentations at NAI workshops were filled with interest revolving around the subject matter (graphic design and interpretation). Post-presentation conversations (face to face, in emails, on Facebook) led us to create a forum for further discussion. The blog also offered an opportunity for discussion with those not able to attend a presentation or conversation.

Knowing your audience is a tenant of the interpretive profession that can be applied to blogging as well. On the internet, your blog has a potentially large, anonymous audience. IBD is a specialized subsection of two professions (graphic design and interpretation), and it occasionally crosses into other areas of interest (baseball). Just as interpretive sites have streakers, browsers, and students, your blog will have readers who will read every word, while most will pass through from time to time to catch up or see if there is anything of interest to them.

Getting Started
The nature of a blog, where someone has to purposefully come to your page on a regular basis, requires the interest mentioned above as well as knowledge of how a blog differs from a newspaper or book. This less-traditional form of media has room for more opinions, fewer facts, and lots of personality. Where a book is typically focused on one subject or topic, blogs can cover a much wider spectrum within that topic. These positive elements can also be negatives if the blog becomes too much of a personal platform that alienates portions of the audience or is inconsistent in topics.

Before you start a blog, ask yourself why you are doing it. Do you want to create awareness of a site, increase visitation, gain public support for political reasons, or sell a really awesome book that sometimes cracks the top million on Amazon’s rankings? The starting point for setting goals for your blog—as with any other media—is that it should support the mission of your site or organization.

If clear goals are established, you will see your audience grow. A portion of that commitment should be introspective towards building a voice through your writing. Just as front-line interpreters represent their sites to visitors, as the author of a blog, you represent your site to a potentially much larger audience. It’s important that you set an appropriate, engaging tone, and that your writing is interpretive (not just informational).

Nurturing and Maintaining Your Blog
Maintaining a blog is a lot like keeping a pet. It requires constant, consistent nurturing and left unchecked, it might make a mess on your carpet. Just as you can’t keep a pet alive by feeding it a lot for three days then ignoring it for a month, your blog can’t survive without regular attention.

Put another way: Blogs are also like romantic relationships. It’s easy to be enthusiastic when a relationship is new. There’s lots to talk about, it’s new and fun, and it’s your primary point of interest. Then months or years down the road, when you have a cold and other work-related deadlines and the kids are screaming for you to take them to Dairy Queen, the blog might not seem like the most important thing in the world. But without constant attention, the blog suffers and possibly goes away altogether.

Here’s how to keep your blog (or pet or relationship) healthy and vibrant:

  • Give it constant attention. Update your blog, at an absolute minimum, once a week, preferably more often. On our blog, we publish without fail (even on holidays and while we’re on vacation) every Monday (Paul) and Thursday (Shea). If you anticipate a busy schedule, write several posts in advance and use your blogging software (we use WordPress) to schedule them to go live at the appropriate time.
  • Don’t write a Russian novel. You’re more likely to get feedback on shorter posts that ask readers to participate. Our experience has been that posts more than 500 words or so are too long. (This does not stop us from writing long posts. We’re just aware that they’re too long.)
  • Mix it up. Sometimes you need to spice things up (the pet metaphor may break down a little here). In addition to regular posts that occur on a schedule, throw in a quick question, observation, or photo now and again. Commemorate a special event (such as a trip or conference) with a week of “Live from [wherever…]” posts.
  • Communicate. Some readers will simply read your blog and move on. Others will comment regularly. And a select few will comment on nearly every single post. Your commenters are there to engage in a conversation that you started, so be sure to participate. We appreciate all of the comments on Interpretation By Design, and try to show that by responding quickly, giving nicknames to commenters, mentioning them in subsequent posts, and taking suggestions. Even the people who just read and move on are also likely to read the comments.
  • Keep tabs on your blog’s health. You can track statistics on your blog through built-in software (we use a WordPress plugin called StatPress) or an online service like Google Analytics. A healthy blog will get higher and higher hit counts the longer it’s around. Some of these hits will come from random internet users (we get a lot of hits from Googlers searching the term “Phillies font”), but you’ll see consistent growth in numbers as your core readership expands. If you maintain a consistent schedule, your numbers will spike on the days of new posts.
  • Communicate some more. Blogging falls under the umbrella of social media, but it is altogether different from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Maintaining a presence on social media outlets is a great way to alert readers when a new post comes along, or to further the conversations you have on your blog.

Going Viral
Once you have established a routine and a regular readership, you never know what might explode on the internet and garner a lot of attention. For instance, our biggest viral event was caused by, of all things, a flowchart. What started as essentially an inside joke—an example of information design intended to help newcomers to baseball choose a team—was picked up by several national websites, shared extensively on the social networks (including being Tweeted by Katie Couric), and even translated into foreign languages and reposted. Ultimately, it crashed our website.

Obviously, your main focus should be on your core readership, but when that unpredictable viral event occurs, it’s a great way to make a huge number of people aware of your organization and its important mission.

Conclusion
Maintaining a blog is an opportunity for outreach that costs little in terms of finances, but requires great energy and commitment. It should have stated goals, a comfortable tone, regular content, and most importantly, reflect the passion and commitment of the interpreters at your site or organization.

We Fear Change, Part 1: Facebook

We live in turbulent times. REM stopped making music, major college athletic programs change conferences almost daily, and Leonard and Penny split up after more than half a season together (I’m watching Big Bang Theory on Netflix Qwikster, so I’m a little behind the times). With all of this change, it’s a little unsettling when you reach for one of your comfort blankets at the end of a long day only to find that Mark Zuckerberg has knitted it into a completely unfamiliar pattern.

Welcome to what we’re calling Garth Algar “We Fear Change” Week here on IBD. I will discuss Facebook today, and Shea will address Netflix Thursday. Some day down the road, when we’re all emotionally prepared for it, we’ll write about the new logo for the Florida Miami Marlins baseball team.

In the 1992 movie Wayne’s World, the hateful Benjamin Kane (played by Rob Lowe) comes to Garth (Dana Carvey) with the insidious notion of giving arcade tycoon Noah Vanderhoff (Brian Doyle-Murray) a regular interview segment on Wayne and Garth’s cable-access TV show. Garth responds with a simple “We fear change” and starts smashing the robotic hand he’s building with a hammer.

Those of you who use Facebook may have noticed that there have been some changes recently to the design and functionality of the popular social media site. Those of you who don’t use Facebook, this is why two-thirds of the people you know recently spent the better part of a week screaming as though someone (Mark Zuckerberg) had stabbed a fork through their hands.

To say that the reaction to Facebook’s redesign has been negative is a little like saying some people didn’t like the movie Cabin Boy. (Note: One of my favorites.) As with all of Facebook’s previous changes, this one was met with tears, confusion, and threats to cancel accounts (and that was just one guy).

The difference now is that there’s another option. Google+ is gaining momentum and is seen by many as an alternative to Facebook, if only they could get their friends to come along. The irony is that many of Facebook’s changes (increased interactivity, larger images, tweaks to the “list” feature) are in response to the emergence of Google+.

And this is the crux of the issue: Facebook is in the unenviable position of needing to stay current, respond to competitors, and adapt to emerging technology, all while keeping the Garth Algars of the world from freaking out.

The day the changes were unveiled, there was a collective uproar on the site. When I posted on my Facebook page that I didn’t mind the changes (I actually like the new scrolling, Twitter-esque news feed), it garnered a pile of comments, some of them unnecessarily personal. (I will say that I don’t support the changes wholesale; Facebook needs to address the fact that some of the new features have upended privacy settings by allowing friends of friends to see items only meant for a select few.)

The thing is, this all felt familiar to me. I was searching for reactions to the new look on Google and found articles going back years where irate Facebookers were screaming that they wanted the old site back. Every time the site has been updated, features have been added, users resisted, then got used to them and even came to enjoy and rely on them. (In 2006, Facebookers were unhappy with this gimmicky new thing called a “news feed”—now a staple of the Facebook experience.)

Facebook is an optional leisure activity, like watching baseball or visiting interpretive sites. People don’t want to feel confused and annoyed by something they choose to do in their spare time. Any change to a comfortable environment is going to be disruptive to some people.

Interpreters faced with the task of creating materials for visitors—especially repeat visitors—should be extra careful that changes to exhibits, publications, websites, and logos are not just for change’s sake, but for the improvement of a product. If you make drastic, unnecessary changes to a place where visitors come to learn and relax and enjoy some solitude, you may just find your self playing the role of that robotic hand in Wayne’s World.

If you make changes that are warranted and actually improve your product, people will get used to them, but you still may find yourself cursed out on a highway construction sign.

QR Codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC Tags

The longest conversation ever to take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s LinkedIn page was about QR codes, Microsoft tags, and NFC tags. These are technologies used in magazine ads, on billboards and T-shirts, in murder investigations, and in many other media that can be scanned using a smart phone to provide a link to a website or other information. In interpretive settings, they can be used to provide access to information that augments the contents of signs or exhibits.

Here’s a quick breakdown of these technologies:

QR Codes
Based on my own unscientific observation, I feel like you see QR (“Quick Response”) codes more than the other two. About a year ago, I wrote a post about them, which, if it had been an interpretive presentation, would have had the following theme: “This is what QR codes are.” (Sam Ham would be proud.) Since then, I’ve heard from a handful of interpreters about how they’re using QR codes at their sites, including this example from Friend of IBD Bob Hinkle at Cleveland Metroparks.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Lake to Lake Trail features six signs similar to these, which are made of vinyl over aluminum, so they can be replaced quickly and easily for less than a dollar each, according to Bob.

You can read QR codes with the camera on your smart phone with an app called a “QR Reader.” I use an app on my iPhone called (wait for it) QR Reader. You can create QR codes extremely easily on a number of websites called “QR Code Generators,” like the one I use called Kaywa.

One criticism of QR codes is that they’re ugly and boring (also criticisms of the IBD blog authors), but Friend of IBD Phil Sexton shared this link to 15 Beautiful and Creative QR Codes, which shows that they don’t have to be. Above are examples from that article—tags for Fillmore Silver Spring, Louis Vuitton’s mobile site, and Corkbin. The article’s author, , points out that the QR code’s “30% tolerance in readability” allows this room for creativity. (Note that Cleveland Metroparks includes their logo in the middle of their QR code.)

Microsoft Tags
Terre Dunivant of Gaia Graphics and Associates wrote a post on her blog comparing the relative merits of Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes. Terre prefers Microsoft tags for several reasons, including that they offer even more flexibility and room for creativity than QR codes. The examples below (from Microsoft’s website) are tags for Iams, Loescher (a book publisher), and Ciara.

On the negative side, so far as I can tell, you can only create Microsoft tags by signing up for a free account on Microsoft’s website, which I assume will crash your computer. In terms of scanning Microsoft tags, I use an app called Microsoft Tag Reader on the iPhone.

NFC tags
I’ll admit that I have not used this technology. I researched NFC tags to learn more about the rumor that Brett Favre was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, and I was surprised to learn that NFC, in this instance, has nothing to do with the National Football Conference, but rather stands for “Near Field Communication.”

Near Field Communication tags are the relative new kid the block—the Joey McIntyre of mobile data-sharing technology, if you will. NFC tags are different from QR codes and Microsoft tags in that they are actual pieces of hardware rather than printed codes to be scanned. Basically, you purchase and write data to tiny electronic chips, which are then able to share that data with NFC-enabled devices (like some smart phones) that come close to them. The obvious disadvantages to this technology are that you have to create the tags, and not all smart phones are equipped to accept the information. The advantage is that the transfer of data is much easier on the user’s end, provided they have an NFC-enabled phone.

This is technology to watch, but the limited number of people able to take advantage of it at the moment, in my opinion, makes it not quite ready for prime time.

As more and more people have smart phones—including noted Apple critic and new iPhone owner Shea Lewis—interpretive sites are taking advantage of these technologies. But there are questions, of course: What are the best ways to make use of this new technology from a pragmatic standpoint? (Cleveland Metroparks’ easy-switch sign is a good solution.) How do you make information contained in the codes available to those who do not have smart phones? (Note that Cleveland Metroparks has provided a website for those with no smart phone.) How will this technology change in the next six months to 10 years? (If we knew that, we’d be filthy rich.) Can you really justify calling a designated hitter a baseball player? (Clearly not.)

I’m curious to know if you’ve been using any or all of these at your site, and what sort of success you’ve had.

Tube Socks+

If someone hasn’t told you to stop wearing tall tube socks, do so now. A couple years ago a friend and co-worker, who we’ll call Mary Anne Parker (to protect her identity), told me it was time to ditch what she referred to as “the Ph.D.” socks. She often speaks without filters.

Ankle-high or lower socks are preferred these days. I didn’t realize that I looked like Kareem Abdul Jabbar (legs not to scale) in my socks, and that I had fallen behind in what was acceptable coverings for your feet while still providing support and protection of my shins and calves. It was time for a change. This change was going to be slow considering the lifetime supply of tube socks already existing in my dresser drawers. The transformation is now complete but for some reason (occasional interaction with cowboy boots or alternative footwear that is not conducive ankle socks that will be determined at a later date, I’m sure) I kept a couple pairs of my hip waders around.

In a world of change today it is tough to keep up with what is acceptable, current, or the next big thing. So how do you know when to make that jump? Just this week Google+ was released, and I can’t see myself taking it on right now (on top of multiple email accounts, Facebook, making fun of Paul, Twitter, talking to my wife, texting, a blog, making sure my children are breathing, Words With Friends, and a correspondence course on recognizing prison tats) without it being proven to last or the opportunity that it will improve my live or communication amongst my overloaded outlets.

Since we care about you and don’t want you to be the tube socks of social media, here are a few things that I hear about Google+ that may interest you. The hard part for now is that you have to be invited to become a member. This is a rough start for people like Paul, where this brings up memories of junior high school dances and being picked last at softball a few nights ago. It does sound like it has great potential and takes the best (along with all of the weaknesses) of other social media outlets and rolls it into one application. Here are those details promised above.

Google Circles: First can Google do anything without calling it Google _____? Okay, it’s out of my system. Do you have friends on Facebook who you aren’t sure who they are? The answer is yes. Circles, as I call it, allows you to organize your friends in groups like family, friends, high school, collage, band camp (Paul), and co-workers.

Sparks: Allows you to feature articles on your landing page based on your interests. Ever since my brother burned me with a sparkler in 1984, I stay away from sparks.

Hangouts: Allows you to video chat with friends—a feature that will not be popular with lurkers.

Huddles: Allows you to chat in groups. Imagine a place where all of the readers of this blog could meet in one place and discuss use of their, theirs, there, and there’s. I know this was an underlying purpose in the design phase. I’ll see you there Paul and Jeff.

I also hear that there is great interaction between + and Picasa (an excellent free image editing program offered by Google that will soon be called Google Photos, big surprise huh?). More details, a tour, and images can be seen on Google. From there you can see if + is going to become a part of your life.

This may not surprise you, but I haven’t been invited yet. Perhaps that has something to do with my Yahoo email address.

Apps for Interpreters (That We Also Kind of Like)

Most of you know where I stand in the realm of Mac vs. PCs. That doesn’t mean that I have to be against every single product that Apple offers. (Though it is true that the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad are all the exact same product just offered in various sizes.) What I can’t really wrap my mind around is how it is possible for Paul to write a post about iPhone apps and not make fun of the fact that I now have one too. I expect those comments to come rolling in today. Paul did a nice job avoiding hyperbole but I’m here to say these apps will change your life.

.

For the first time ever on a recent birding trip and guided birding boat tour that I led, I didn’t bring a field guide with me. With the Sibley Guide eGuide to Birds app it is not necessary. The app has amazing options for viewing maps, hearing various versions of calls, along with all of the other images and information that the actual field guide offers. There are many other types of bird guides out there that cost less but overall I was most impressed with this one. It is pricy for an app ($29.99) but it is all about priorities. There are also apps for other naturalists’ interests such as field guides for herps, mammals, fish, etc.

.

Speaking of apps for naturalists, LeafSnap is pretty cool too. First, it is beautifully designed. You can look through the browsing section for hours at a time.The feature that has made this app so popular is that you can take a leaf, place it on a white sheet of paper and photograph it (or snap it) and it will provide you with a list of possible species that you can peruse based on your location.

.

If you ever find yourself problem solving or brainstorming and struggling with conceptualizing the issues at hand, SimpleMindMapping is available to you when ever the ideas are flowing. The free version allows you to save and view your mind maps but the paid version allows you to email and share the maps. As with most free technology today, the basic options are free and you pay for advanced elements.

.

Keeping the Star Wars streak alive (and an attempt to continue to isolate any readers we still have) I bring you my favorite Star Wars-related app. I have a demanding job and personal life where at any given moment I’m searching for wisdom and guidance. Where do I turn? Thanks for asking, I turn to the Star Wars Quotes app. If Yoda can’t help me solve a problem, no one can. I also have friends (which may surprise you) who are also Star Wars fans (no we don’t dress up; well, only on special occasions) who are sticklers for accuracy that this app provides.

I tell you that to tell you this: There are quote apps for almost all interest areas that allow you to access information quickly and easily to meet your needs.

Today’s random quote from Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

.

Speaking of quotes you must have, Dragon Dictation allows you to make your own quotes. It allows you speak into your iPhone and will take your transcribed dictation straight into a text message, email, word processing file, Facebook status update, or Tweet. If you need to make a quick note while out on a tour, you need this app. (Also, it’s great if you ever need to tweet or text while driving.) It is amazingly seamless, but struggles with my southern accent at times.

For all of you interpretive naturalist types out there please share your favorites below in the comment section. In the meantime I’ll be listening to bird calls on my iPhone.