The Perils of Social Media

Note: Since my relationship with Paul has been strained after a week where his Philadelphia Phillies blatantly stole free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee from my New York Yankees, I’m unsure that I can continue working on this blog with him. With that, along with the fact that we received a lengthy rebuttal to Paul’s post on social media earlier this week, it was decided that my post would be replaced with this one from our first guest blogger. Right now, I’m happy to give up my space to anyone who disagrees with Paul.

In the meantime I’m going to take the rest of the week off in order to reflect on the good times and place careful thought about the future of Paul and Shea. I’m glad to introduce Phil Broder, director of education at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, as our first-ever guest blogger on IBD. —Shea

Here’s what I’m not:

  • Antisocial
  • Antitechnology
  • A Luddite
  • Incommunicado
  • A curmudgeon.

Well, to be fair, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I find a measure of joy in needling Paul and Shea, in rooting for the underdog, in taking the uphill side of an argument. I’m not in the social media resister camp (and I heartily dislike Paul’s division of social media into two camps—adopters and resisters; for an example of the idiocy of splitting any issue into just two camps, I need only point to Congress), but neither am I the first to jump with both feet into something new (case in point: today news outlets are reporting that stylish UGG footwear can cause knee, hip, and back problems. My lack of personal style saved me again). “How like fish we are,” said Aldo Leopold, “ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time. And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.”

I’m not prepared yet to bite into that hook. Social media is a tool, and like most tools, if properly used, it can build great things. But put a hammer into the hands of a toddler, and you’ll be dealing with smashed fingers, broken glass, holes in walls, and bedlam. Too many social media users are hammer-swinging toddlers (and I just had the most disturbing image of Shea in an argyle diaper). So let me start with what I find wrong with social media.

First, I strongly believe that we need to be present where we are. Most electronic devices tend to pull our attention from our surroundings. Who hasn’t been leading a program when someone’s phone rang? Ever watched someone miss a sunset because they were looking at a 4” screen? Does checking-in on Foursquare really enhance a visit to the Grand Canyon? Edward Abbey proposed banning even maps from wilderness areas. Wonder what Cactus Ed would say about an iPhone with built-in GPS, a Peterson’s field guide app, ratings of campgrounds, Google Earth, and a Groupon for a discount at the nearest Campmor shop? If we truly want to end nature deficit disorder, we need to stop contributing to it with all the social media distractions.

Too many people use social media as a substitute for real conversation. Posting something on your Facebook page isn’t the same as telling me about it. Maybe it’s easier for you, but what message should I get when family members relay important news via Facebook? My takeaway is that I’m not important enough for my sister to pick up a phone. In interpretation we talk about starting a dialogue with visitors, but Facebook users mostly seem to be monologue-ists. If you expect me to converse with you, don’t begin the conversation with a Facebook post.

Likewise, if you want to start an intelligent conversation, don’t use Twitter. At a mere 271 words, the Gettysburg Address is a classic example of brevity. Still, it’s too long to be Tweeted. Here’s how the writers of “The Daily Show” rewrote it for our modern era:

(And if you haven’t discovered, you’re missing some of the best revisionist history out there.) I’m concerned that any idea that can’t be boiled down to 140 characters will be ignored. Sociologists will tell you that the telephone effectively ended the age of letter writing, and now texting is ending the age of the phone call. Is Tweeting going to end the well-thought-out and supported argument? My greatest objection to Sarah Palin isn’t her politics, it’s that she seems to be trying to appeal mainly to people who can’t digest anything longer than 140 characters. Twitter is the lowest common denominator of communication.

Does anyone else find something appalling about the use of “friend” as a verb? I have many close friends, relationships that I’ve spent years cultivating, and they’re precious to me beyond value. Calling someone a “friend” just because you’ve clicked on them demeans and devalues the word. If you’ve got a Friends group at your park, zoo, or museum, would you rather have one friend who does volunteer work and makes an annual donation, or 100 “friends” who appear as tiny pictures on your Facebook page? And as far as getting in touch with old high school classmates, look, two decades ago they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and catching up with them through social media is just an exercise in phoniness.

Let’s consider the message you’re sending out through social media. Is it important? Does it have value? In what way does it improve the world? Let’s face it, just because some people can talk doesn’t mean they should. Social media is a huge outlet for a lot of people who just don’t have much to say, but haven’t learned to keep their mouth closed. Nobody wants to know the intimate details of your daily life, what you’re wearing, what you ate, or that you’re sitting down to watch “Jersey Shore.” Really, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere generating electricity to run the computers of vapid fools who want the whole world to know that they think we should all stop picking on Britney Spears? (As an aside, the backlash to mindless tweeting has begun. Recently, an AIDS charity enlisted stars like Ryan Seacrest, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, who promised to go “dead” on Twitter and Facebook until people donated $1million to the charity. A group of sensible people saw an opportunity, and encouraged people to donate to other AIDS charities. Their strategy worked. The charity couldn’t raise the million dollars, and world went without Gaga and Kardashian for a few days, until finally they gave up and reneged on the deal.)

Several social media sites seem bent on turning everything into a popularity contest. I like making my own decisions, not running with the herd. It matters to me that the news I read is accurate, and it scares me that it can be so easily manipulated on Digg and Reddit by the opinions of the masses. If your main concern is how many Facebook friends you have, or getting Pinged everywhere you go, then I’d just rather not know you.

Now, having said all that, let’s look at the positive uses of social media. MySpace has been a boon to small-time musicians for reaching out to their fans. I’ll never again have to pay $15 for a CD only to find that there’s one good song and 11 pieces of crap. Facebook is useful for people with a shared interest who may not actually know each other; I use it to communicate with other dog park users so that I’ll know when my Lab’s posse will be there, instead of just crossing my fingers and driving nine miles to find out.

Can social media work for interpretation? In some cases, yes. I know a musician who spent a summer in New York City on her “Where In The Truck Is Chloe?” tour. Every day she’d pile her guitar and amp into a pickup truck, tweet to all her fans where she’d be and when, then show up there, play a few songs, and leave when the cops showed up. What a great way to generate buzz! I’m stealing the idea; our turtle mascot will tweet the location of his next appearance, show up at some local beach or boardwalk or restaurant, slap hands with a bunch of kids while another naturalist shows off some real turtles, and then off we go. Social media presents a means for getting the word out about a program without having to wait for the next quarterly newsletter. Wonder what would happen if I tweeted “going kayaking at 5pm. Anybody wanna come with?” Or how about “dolphin stranded @ the point. Need helpers 4 rescue ASAP!”

Even Mark Zuckerberg will admit that Facebook was created as a means to help people connect. Instead, it’s become millions of billboards, with most of us no more than commuters trying to figure out what to pay attention to without having an accident. If you’re using social media to just blindly throw information into the cybersphere, hoping that it will hit someone who finds it useful, you’re mostly just contributing to the white noise that disconnects too many people from the natural world. Remember Tilden’s second principle: “Information is not interpretation.” But If you’ve given it thought, and come up with a plan for using social media to create dialogue, if you’re tweeting to provoke (there’s that Tilden guy again!), social media has plenty of potential.

Am I a curmudgeon? Quite probably. But he who knows enough is enough will always have enough. And when I’m confronted by someone blathering on about the tweet that they copied to their Facebook page to share with their 1,156 “friends,” when I hear people whose main goal is to attract fans to their blog, when I’m forced to endure perversions of language brought on by someone who only knows how to communicate using two thumbs on a tiny keyboard, well, I’ve had enough.

17 thoughts on “The Perils of Social Media

  1. Shea, cry about it, Saddlebags! Here’s a photo of you wearing your #34 Cliff Lee Phillies T-shirt in Florida (a collector’s item because he’s #33 now; Roy Halladay is #34). I think it should be your profile photo on Facebook.

  2. And Phil, I’m not convinced that we’re saying different things (my post just has a positive spin on it because of my sunshiny disposition and cheerful outlook): Used correctly, social media can be useful and powerful for interpretive organizations.

    If your objection to social media is that some people use it frivolously or poorly, then there are a lot of other things you could put on that list, like Photoshop or beer.

  3. I object when the MAJORITY of people use something frivolously or poorly. Like Facebook or the passing lane on the Garden State Parkway. As for beer, I believe NAI has a solution for that; everyone needs to attend an Interpretive Beer Tasting program led by Ira Bletz of the East Bay Regional Park District.

  4. The Interpretive Beer Tasting program remains one of my favorite NIW memories, and I will leave it at that.

    I do have to say that our facility’s Facebook page has definitely helped members and visitors who live far away (which is most of them) stay connected with the Center and up-to-date with our activities (new webcams, upcoming events, etc.).

    However, I am definitely a Twitter resister. I can’t figure that stuff out. And I’ve never heard of FourSquare! I agree that social media has its place, as Paul said, when used correctly.

  5. First, a shout out to my friend Shea, nice seats buddy, is that a baseball game, soccer match or are we enjoying some cricket from a safe distance? (see photo of Shea in Paul’s comment)

    I feel it necessary to chime in here about the use, or miss-use of social media. Phil, I really appreciate the guts it takes to talk about the frivolous use of various forms of social media on a blog. Unfortunately I missed the recent meteor shower as I was all consumed by your article and couldn’t bring myself to look up from my iPad.

    I recently worked with our web designer to create an iPhone/iPad/iTouch app for Arkansas State Parks. We had been approached by several other application developers who promised us all kinds of capabilities such as gps trail maps which would allow the user to walk an entire trail without once being distracted by the flora and fauna surrounding them, not to mention those pesky views. In some cases it seemed that you could travel the trail without having to get up off the couch (although you’d have to make your own arrangements for getting something out of the fridge, these things are not perfect yet). All this seemed wonderful and I was very excited about downloading every tree, stream, mountain and interpreter we have in the park system into a phone.

    Suddenly it hit me!

    No, it wasn’t the touchy feel good stuff of park interpretation, the tree-hugging joy of the park experience that made me stop to think for a moment. No, it was the technology that left me scratching my head. You see, many of our parks have very poor cell phone reception and in many cases, none at all. What good would an app be that was designed to be the experience when it wouldn’t work in the place it was designed to exploit?

    The limitations of the technology may have been a message from the divine. Basically it made me dust off a few brain cells that had been idle since the days of playing in the woods as a kid when we didn’t need anything to take into the woods with us except our imaginations. Everything we needed was already there.

    That was it!

    Everything was already there! The parks have trails, playgrounds, programs, events, beauty! All I need to do is get the people there. They wouldn’t need cell phone and Wi-Fi service. So the decision was made. We created an app that was all about getting people to the parks. Helping them find the park that meets their needs at any given time. Want a trail, well open the app and find a trail. Want to go camping? Well open the app and find a park with camping….simple.

    And this is how social media and the devices that convey that media should work. We have a great facebook page where we tell people about what is happening in parks and use photos and stories to inspire them to make the trip. But we really have nothing for people while they are in the park, they should already be busy. I’m reminded about something I once heard David Crosby say at a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert (reminded because they are playing right now on my computer), “Be quiet, this is wooden music and if you’re too loud, you just might miss it.” The noise and craziness is fine when you’re making your plans but the plan should be to visit a park, not find yet another place to experience your phone.

    As a marketer, I’ve been playing with the geo-location apps lately. I’ve found that I usually do my check-ins while waiting in line or waiting on food/beer. I’m trying to decide if there is a correlation between an increase in check-ins at a given restaurant and slower service. Really, if I have time to go through all the stuff to check-in on my phone then it is taking too long for my beer….er….food. It’s really like in the photo of Shea in Paul’s comment. Shea paid money (did he really?) for a t-shirt that allows him to advertise for the Phillies. I have to ask what does Shea actually get out of it. I mean, even if he were a Phillies fan, he could enjoy the respect and camaraderie of both the other Phillies fans in the world but he would also have to deal with the disgust of the rest of the world over his poor choice of ball teams. The same could be said concerning my recent check-in at a local restaurant. The only winner is the location.

    Now if for some reason I die before I give up on this whole geo-location thing I would like someone to please check me into the cemetery on foursquare with the following status, “just lying around, waiting for something to happen.” On Gowalla it should say, “It’s full of stars…”

    (Disclaimer: Joe Jacobs works very hard as the Marketing & Revenue Manager for Arkansas State Parks. His comments are his own and not those of the Arkansas State Parks or any other sane minded entity. The part of the comment about the Arkansas State Parks iPhone app is not meant as an advertisement for the app which can be downloaded for FREE here: but whatever works.)

    P.S. Paul – Shea told me to put in all the stuff about the Phillies.

  6. I thought Facebook was exclusively for making smarta$$ comments to and about your real friends, who can handle said comments. And enjoying the masochism of the comments they’ll fling back. Am I wrong?

  7. I have now taken to encouraging folks at my interpretive programs to be “in the moment” by holding up MY cell phone and announcing that I am turning it off so I can do a good job of interpreting for them without its distraction. I ask them to do the same so they can have a good experience and be a good audience. I do the same thing with parents at children’s programs, telling them I’m making this small sacrifice to do a good job educating their children, and ask them to turn off their cellphone so they can help their child learn. I think it’s helping some… but why do I have to do it? If folks really actually used their manners, they would be a respectful audience and turn the d%*^*% things off, ah well….It would be nice if the cellphone makers put a little timer in the thing so it would turn itself back on after say, an hour or so…. but they never will….

  8. I read this post because I am a fan of IBD on Facebook and saw the little blurb about it. 🙂

  9. I think Joe may have set the record for longest comment ever.

    Uber Jeff, the gauntlet has been thrown!

  10. As someone who’s interested in any form of interpretive media, from the lowest-tech manual interactive to the highest-tech gadget, I had to take the bait and respond on this topic…

    First off, I want to echo much of what Phil says (with some caveats, below). He’s right in that this is an extremely complex area, with a huge range of issues and variations. Consequently, to say there are only Adopters and Resisters is (I think) an oversimplification. For instance, I would describe myself as an ‘Enthusiastic Skeptic” – someone who is intrigued by the potential of certain technology, but often finds that the promise doesn’t live up to reality. And sometimes, the salesperson promise of what it can do isn’t necessarily going to deliver a strictly interpretive dividend…though it may do other things. Matching media to objectives is critical in this regard.

    For instance (and this is reflected in both Paul and Phil’s post), social media along the lines of Facebook and Twitter is a powerful marketing/promotion/facilitation tool. In itself, that’s great. But unfortunately this is often confused with interpretation in the traditional sense – by both interpreters and their professional colleagues, which may include their managers, marketing and visitor services staff. This presents a problem (the Optimism Police would call it a ‘Challenge’) for interpretive planners, program managers and even front-line delivery people. Marketing people are especially keen to engage in social media because of its potential to promote products and services to across many channels, casting a very wide net indeed, and all at relatively low cost. When you confuse marketing and interpretation to the point where they are no longer recognizably different, and are handled the same way, I think it’s a concern.

    Increasingly, interpretation is being told it must be relevant in order to gain support. Good planners know that you should approach visitor experiences from a holistic viewpoint, considering all factors both before, during and after the visit. Technology is often (incorrectly) seen as a innovative, and no one wants to be left behind. So, it’s not a surprise when interpreters are told that in order to be successful, they need to abandon old ways of doing things and adopt new ones. However, when management is measuring success, what criteria are they using? What happens when it’s just about numbers – e,g, of Facebook friends, or hits on a web site, or Twitter followers – and not about substantive messages and on-site experiences? Is it still interpretation…or are we now talking about marketing?

    Blogging is, IMHO, on a different level than Facebook and has much greater potential as an interpretive tool, while still retaining a social media aspect. There are so many good examples of museum/park/zoo/aquarium/etc. blogs that are done very well as educational/public engagement tools and have built very strong online followings.

    Yes, social media outlets cater heavily to ‘virtual visitors’ – people who may never visit in person – but since when is it important only to communicate to those who are already visiting? You may be communicating with future visitors, or a child whose imagination is sparked sufficiently by what they saw on your blog that they decide one day to become an archaeologist or a park ranger. You may also be talking to a voter – perhaps someone too old or disabled to visit in person, but who is first on the phone to complain to their elected officials when your place is faced with a funding cut.

    I think that technology and social media are often used interchangeably, again an over-simplification. We should take care not to suggest that every device is for social media purposes. Using gadgets/apps to facilitate visitor experiences, for instance trail and camping information, is just as valid as using a paper brochure or website. It does add to the confusion when you consider that many social media networks are ‘connected’ to technological gadgets (e.g. smartphones).

    I felt compelled to mention that there is a risk in assuming that people engaging in social media all do so in a superficial or vapid manner. I may not completely understand it, but I know for a fact that my nephew regards his ‘online friends’ as real friends. He talks to them constantly, sometimes about very personal things, and seems to take events in their lives very seriously. Many of these people are ‘real world friends’ whom he goes to school with, etc. He regards his Facebooking and txting as a completely legitimate and highly efficient form of communication, no different really (except perhaps easier since he’s connected like a Cyborg) than using a phone. Alien to me, perhaps, but there it is.

    OK so there’s my long two cents. Not trying to pick a fight with anyone, just wanted to share my thoughts. Consider it a measure of how much I enjoy reading the IBD blog, usually as a Lurker but today decided to wade in.

  11. Hi. It seems a lot of the followers of this blog know each other so let me introduce myself before I throw in my two cents. My name is Eric Knackmuhs and I am an interpreter with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy on the Alcatraz Night Tour. I am also a student in Stephen F. Austin State University’s Masters of Science in Resource Interpretation program. Throughout the course of my study I have become a reluctant user of social media, in part because it makes our online program possible but that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to respond to a few things Phil originally posted and share an example or two of effective use of social media that hasn’t been mentioned yet.

    I agree with much of what has been said here in that what is most important is a wise use of social media. It should enhance, not replace real life experiences and conversation. As Phil mentioned tweeting to provoke visitors, past, present and future, can be an effective way to engage people. I recently started following a few dozen NPS sites on twitter and many of their posts link to news articles, weather information, employee and/or visitor blogs, photos, upcoming interpretive programs, contests, community events…etc. I think you should try tweeting things like “going kayaking at 5pm. Anybody wanna come with?” and see what happens. Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site does a great job provoking (me at least) people to want to learn more about their site by doing this. Here’s an example of two tweets from a few days ago.

    PuukoholaNPS We’re whale watching right now! Come join us! #Hawaii #travel #event #humpback 11:37 AM Dec 16th via HootSuite

    PuukoholaNPS Can’t be a part of our “Splash Into Whale Season” program today? Listen live to the whales we are watching @ #Hawaii 10:41 AM Dec 16th via HootSuite

    Sitting here in San Francisco, obviously I am not going to be able to make it out there but it provided a spark that made me appreciate being able to virtually see what was going on and reminded me I could head out to a local spot at Point Reyes National Seashore here in the Bay Area and do the same thing. For me, these tweets generated interest and enthusiasm for a park I had previously never even heard of and provided a spark to learn more about the issues that make their park unique.

    In addition to generating buzz for potential visitors I think social media can also effectively reiterate park themes and reinforce positive experiences for past visitors. A great example comes from Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Facebook page.

    Last night was our coldest of the season so far at -15 degrees F. Theodore Roosevelt wrote of cold winter nights, “…The great fire-place of the ranch house is choked with blazing logs, and at night we have to sleep under so many blankets that the weight is fairly oppressive.” The photo is of Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross cabin bedroom window. (NK)

    I enjoyed visiting this park over the summer and taking the tour of the cabin so just seeing this post reinforced a positive experience for me. But what is more is that I think this photo and caption reiterate park themes such as the sacrifice, hardship and loneliness of ranching and the determination of the men who did it. At the same time, I can tell from Roosevelt’s writing that he enjoyed it and it had a therapeutic effect for him because that was something highlighted during my visit. So it’s just a little reminder, another little spark, that helps you continue to appreciate a place you visited.

    Well, I might have rambled off a little bit there but the point is I think there is a good consensus here. Social media is a tool, that when effectively employed, can enhance the visitor experience and even provide opportunities for interpreters to collaborate (that might be a separate topic though). However, there is a danger in using social media like too many teenagers and celebrities to inundate potential park stewards with nonsense. Thanks for reading.

  12. Phil, based on the overwhelmingly positive comments about your post, this offically ends the trial period for guest bloggers on IBD. I can’t handle the fact that there were no comments begging for the return of Shea. I’m way to fragile.

    Joe, I didn’t know that you knew how to communicate in more than 140 characters. Which brings up the fact that this is one of the longest posts in IBD history and no doubt solicited the longest comments. Just in case anyone is scoring at home.

    Gorge, thanks for inserting the pic. It is great to place a face with the name. You can also link a gravatar to you email address and have a pic next to all of your comments. Check out Keep the comments coming.

    Leigh, nice gravatar.

    Eric, welcome to IBD! Many of us got to know each other through this blog and social media. Glad to have you part of this dysfunctional family.

  13. “Most electronic devices tend to pull our attention from our surroundings.”

    That one sentence encapsulates what bugs me about the feverish obesession with finding a role for smartphones and other gadgets in interpretation. One day, there may be apps that help visitors “Be – Here – Now”, but until then your words should be wriytten in letters of fire above every interpretive planner’s desk.

  14. Oh, well said! I maintain a blog or two, but I use them (mostly) as interpretive tools to share some of the nifty things I find while walking, paddling, etc. Facebook, however, leaves me cold. I’ve tried it (and Twitter), but quite frankly, I just don’t see the point. If I want to write to someone, I send him/her an email…it isn’t intended for the whole world to read. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon, too.

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