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

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

In one of his final acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama utilized the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Reconstruction Era National Monument (REER) in Beaufort, South Carolina, as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) on January 12, 2017. Like many historians of the Civil War era, I was thrilled to hear that the NPS would finally have a site dedicated to interpreting the Reconstruction era on its own terms. For public history, no longer would Reconstruction exist only as a brief interpretive footnote or be simply ignored at a Civil War history site. Finally, Americans from all backgrounds would get to see a tangible representation of a greatly misunderstood era in this country’s history; a time in which dynamic changes to America’s political, social, and economic life transformed the country after the Civil War.[1]

The Old Beaufort Fire House will function as the Visitor Center for Reconstruction Era National Monument when it opens to the public. Courtesy of the Reconstruction Era National Monument, National Park Service.

Given the significance of this event for the future of Civil War era history, it came as a great surprise and a high honor when I was asked in April 2017 to manage REER’s social media accounts. Over the next year I created more than 250 Facebook and Twitter posts dedicated to interpreting Reconstruction. With these posts I aimed to discuss significant events and people from the era, the historiography of Reconstruction, and why Beaufort is a remarkable symbol of Reconstruction’s enduring significance. I tried to move beyond common stories of allegedly corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags towards posts about African Americans, women, Native American Indians, and others. My overarching goal was to portray Reconstruction as a fluid, dynamic era that was in some ways the country’s first civil rights movement.[2]

It is hard to determine the true success of these social media posts. Counting the number of likes, retweets, and reactions is one way to measure success, but it is tough to determine if those reacting to the posts actually do anything beyond the act of tapping their phone screen. Do they mention REER to a friend in polite conversation, go to the library to read about Reconstruction, or make plans to travel to South Carolina to learn about the Civil War era?[3] What I do know is that by the end of my experience this past April, REER’s Facebook page had more than 1,100 followers and its Twitter page had more than 700 followers.

In the course of my work I learned a lot about interpreting history on social media. I believe some of the strategies I developed for REER’s social media posts can be relevant for others looking to create compelling social media posts about the history of the Civil War era. What follows are three takeaways for interpreting the past on social media.

Build alliances with like-minded historical sites: When I began working for REER I received valuable assistance from Chris Barr and Emmanuel Dabney, two talented public historians working at NPS Civil War battlefields. They helped REER during its early months and started using the #ParkSpotlight hashtag to highlight other NPS units with connections to the Reconstruction era. I found this to be a useful strategy in a number of ways. For one, it gives credit to and celebrates the work of other NPS units working to interpret the Civil War era. Equally important, by tagging these sites in our posts, we made them aware of REER’s social media presence. For instance, I highlighted places like Nicodemus National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, and Appomattox National Historical Park while working for REER.

Know your platform and always share interesting photos and links: One of the most important realizations I made during this experience is that one cannot assume that all social media platforms have the same user base. Facebook is most heavily used by millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers; young people under twenty-one are much more likely to use Instagram and/or Twitter on a regular basis than Facebook. Conversely, Twitter is fun for emojis and GIF-based tweets, but it can be awkward to use those tools when creating Facebook posts.

No one wants to read a dissertation-length post on Facebook. Brevity is a virtue on social media. I found, however, that one- or two-paragraph FB posts received positive reactions from users.[4] A good example of a well-received post is the one below about Congressman Joseph Rainey.

Screenshot of Facebook post about Congressman Joseph Rainey for Reconstruction Era National Monument. Courtesy of the author.

In my opinion, there are three crucial keys to a good post, regardless of platform:

1.  An attractive picture that draws attention to the post.
2. Clear, concise text that is not overwhelming for readers.
3. When possible, provide clickable links for users to learn more. Whenever there exists a good article on a historical topic, direct readers to that article rather than trying to tell the whole story yourself. I am not an expert on all things Reconstruction; sometimes it’s best to highlight other historians and resources that can do an effective job of discussing a particular topic for users.

Establish a cohesive theme for your posts: About halfway through my experience I talked with historian Kate Masur—a leader in the effort to establish REER—about what I could do to improve my posts. She recommended that I develop a monthly theme to help guide the direction of my interpretations. It was a valuable idea that did much to boost the reach of my posts.

The most notable example occurred this past February. To celebrate Black History Month, I decided to highlight the experiences of fourteen African American men and women who were politically active in South Carolina during Reconstruction. On Facebook I wrote short descriptions for each individual that were posted throughout the month, while on Twitter I created a tweet thread that I periodically updated (you can see the thread here). Several individuals and organizations sent me messages saying how exciting it was to check their social media every morning to learn a new tidbit about the Reconstruction era.

A screenshot from Reconstruction Era National Monument’s Twitter page. Courtesy of the author.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War sesquicentennial was the use of social media as a medium for conversations about the Civil War’s legacy. No longer confined solely to the classroom or historical site, the stuff of the past is shared on the internet by historians and lay audiences alike on a literal minute-by-minute basis. Social media is already and will continue to be an active medium for the creation of historical knowledge and memories, but also for misinformation and myths. As historian and educator Kevin M. Levin points out, “the ease with which we can access and contribute to the web makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse. The internet is both a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion.”[5]

The work of managing social media at a Civil War era historic site may not be considered a top priority by a site’s leaders. Conducting historical research, crafting clear and concise language, and interpreting complex history in a roughly 100-word post is very time consuming. For public historians trying to balance on-site educational programming with social media outreach, establishing a consistent presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms can be difficult. But social media managers at these sites can play an important role in the sharing of accurate, fascinating, and even inspiring historical content if they make it a priority in their daily work.

 

 

[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument to Reconstruction,” New York Times, January 12, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/arts/president-obama-designates-national-monuments-to-civil-rights-history.html; Sarah Jones Weicksel, “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction,” AHA Today, March 8, 2018, accessed May 29, 2018, http://blog.historians.org/2018/03/struggle-commemorate-reconstruction/.

[2] In addition to standard overviews of Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Douglas Egerton, Eric Foner, and Heather Cox Richardson, I read the following books on Reconstruction in South Carolina: Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: Norton, 1973); Willie Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964); Lou Faulkner Williams, The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

[3] Reconstruction Era National Monument is not yet open to the public, reinforcing the importance of having a strong social media presence to provide contact info and assistance to those wanting to learn more about the site.

[4] Not all NPS social media managers agree with me, and I did receive some criticism for occasionally making my posts too long.

[5] Kevin M. Levin, “The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 6, 2016, accessed June 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remedy-spread-fake-news-history-teachers-180961310/.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.