Print Project Proposal: How do people rate history?

When I first began working at historic sites, nobody talked about Yelp.

The rise of the online review aggregator has been felt across virtually every sphere of commercial activity. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp provided a platform for people to write and publish reviews of everything from dentists (true story: I receive regular emails from my dentists’ office asking me to help “get the word out” by posting a good review online) to fancy restaurants, often semi-anonymously. Some sites offered the ability to provide a mere rating, zero to five stars, without requiring any additional explanation. Paul Ford described the Internet as a customer service medium, not a publishing medium, and nowhere is this more evident than the places on the Internet explicitly designed to solicit the input and feedback of customers.

Review sites have become powerful, I suspect, because of their perceived power and influence over the decisions of potential consumers. An online review is publicly accessible from anywhere with an available internet connection, and the websites often have mobile-compatible websites or dedicated apps to allow the perusing and posting of reviews from smartphones. Additionally, most review sites loudly proclaim that they do not allow paid reviewers to post – the implicit assumption being that the reviews found on TripAdvisor might be more honest and accurate because they are voluntary acts performed by “regular” people, instead of curated reviews written by paid professionals who might be bought or influenced by the place under review. For someone in an unfamiliar place, checking TripAdvisor might be the only way to have the feeling that you’re getting a real sense of the area.

Many historic sites rely on the income generated by admission fees and store revenue to fund their operations. A drop in overall visitation can have a serious impact on a site’s ability to hire staff, plan and present programming, and perform necessary preservation and maintenance. Both sites were also in relatively isolated areas, not near major cities. They couldn’t rely on the kinds of visitors who might see a sign on the road and decide to check out the site on impulse; they needed people to make deliberate plans to visit (and spend money) at the site in order to maintain continued financial health. Word-of-mouth was seen as paramount in motivating those visits. If people who visited had positive experiences, they would tell other people, and then those people would visit and have a positive experience, and so on. At both of my most recent places of employment, high-level staff obsessively checked sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, along with the reviews written through Google Maps, to find out if we were successfully generating that positive word-of-mouth.

For my project, I propose to study the content of the reviews posted about two sites: Colonial Michilimackinac and Fort Mackinac, both part of Mackinaw State Historic Parks in northern Michigan. The two sites have some key differences that will make comparing their reviews interesting: Colonial Michilimackinac is a reconstructed 18th century fortified trading post on the mainland just off a major interstate highway, while Fort Mackinac is a partially-preserved 19th century fort on Mackinac Island, accessible only by ferry. I would like to see what things are common to both positive and negative reviews of the two sites, and where the feedback from visitors differs. The project promises to provide some very useful knowledge pertaining to visitor experience: knowing what sort of experiences stick in the minds of visitors long enough to make it into a TripAdvisor review can help a historic site present visitors with programming and interpretation that does the job of teaching them about the history of the site in memorable ways.

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