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.

Web 2.0 and the Human Element

“We’ll need to rethink a few things.”

That’s the closing thesis of The Machine is Us/ing Us, a YouTube video about Web 2.0 produced by Michael Wesch, an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Among the things that will need rethinking, according to Wesch, are copyright, authorship, identify, aesthetics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, and ourselves. Quite the list.

We can add one more thing to that list: how historic memory institutions (museums, historic sites, archives, etc.) create, maintain, or re-capture relevance in the age of smartphone apps, YouTube videos, and Wikipedia pages created by, in Alison Miner’s words, “created [for free] by someone who’s just f*****g off at their corporate office job.” Miner’s piece, titled “if everything on the internet has to be free, why isn’t my healthcare, too?“, lays out one concern: “institutions will pay for a 2 year digitization project, and fancy equipment for that, but don’t want to employ another archivist so that there is actual CONTEXT to the things they digitize.”

When I was going through training to work at historic sites, one thing my trainers stressed was that the modern visitor has so many options to replace spending money to travel and visit a historic memory institution. Why waste a weekend and possibly hundreds of dollars traveling to watch someone demonstrate how a musket is loaded and fired when there are thousands of videos posted by re-enactors on YouTube? Why go to a museum when fifteen minutes on Google might answer all your questions? Michael Peter Edson says in Dark Matter that “It’s likely that the public doesn’t think of what memory institutions often do as being sufficiently accessible, smart, joyous, attentive, generous, welcoming, imaginative, bold, educational or meaningful to merit much of their attention.”

The web can be a huge source of publicity, visitors, and revenue. But these benefits only accrue to historic memory institutions that can engage and harness that potential in productive ways. Using the web to just increase the number of people who can view content fails to grasp the thing the web, especially Web 2.0, has best enabled: the ability to feel like you are being heard. In Why Wasn’t I Consulted, Paul Ford says “The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium… Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”

Historic memory institutions can piggyback on that tapped need by making their online presence interactive and engaging, instead of just viewing it as an extension of their brick-and-mortar offerings. An excellent example of this kind of engagement is Fort Ticonderoga’s social media presence: Fort Ticonderoga presents ways for people to exercise their knowledge by posting weekly challenges asking people to look at a partial image of an artifact from the Fort’s collection and attempt to guess what the artifact is.

An important caution to remember is that this sort of engagement cannot rely solely on capturing the brief spotlight of social media fame. The Museum of English Rural Life might make headlines for being funny on Twitter but memes cannot be a replacement for the work of historians. To quote Alison Miner: “we can’t rely on the hot flash of meme-popularity to justify our existence, because our jobs require a long period of time to be done well. and fundamentally, the archives and other collections deserve better than a momentary blitz of attention.” Historic memory institutions must endeavor to use the web in ways that spark long-term interest, not just momentary acknowledgement.

It is also important to remember that there are some things that online engagement cannot do. Barring massive improvements in virtual reality, viewing the most engaging online content cannot replicate the physical sensations that come with in-person visits to historic sites. Watching a video of a musket firing cannot fully replicate the ways that watching that same demonstration in person affects the senses. Web content is also incapable of having a conversation, which is critical to effective historic education. One historic site where I worked had floated the idea of adding QR codes to various exhibit spaces. A visitor who scanned the code with their smartphone would be able to watch a video of an interpreter in historic clothing present information about the exhibit. One reason this project was scrapped, apparently, was that members of the interpretation team pointed out that replacing on-site interpreters with videos would remove the ability of visitors to ask questions and have extended conversations. That human element cannot become devalued by the flashiness and novelty of digital content, no matter how essential an online presence is.

Digital Tool Review: Wordle

Wordle is a simple program (from the user side – I don’t know enough about coding to judge whether a lot is going on under the hood) which creates word clouds. Word clouds, for the unfamiliar, are a way of visualizing which words are used or found most frequently in a given text. Word clouds have become very fashionable in all sorts of presentations, because they allow a presenter to illustrate the key or central themes of a piece of text in a very easy-to-understand visual format. A word cloud is both a means and an end. A presenter might cite a statistic which is difficult for a listener to comprehend. Showing a word cloud dominated by a word presents the same information in a more visually striking way.

Here’s an example. This is the Course Description for History and New Media course:

To use Wordle, I downloaded the Mac app from the website. The web browser version will do the same thing as the downloadable app, but it relies on a piece of Java which many browsers no longer support. The app also requires Java but the software it needs is still supported and can be downloaded as an update from Java for free. I copied the text of the course description and then pasted into the text box which appears when the app is launched and hit “Go.” This generated the word cloud. Words which are used more often will be larger, so whatever words are the biggest are the ones used the most. Here’s that same text in word cloud form:

Wordle has several benefits for presenters: it is free, and usable on both web browsers or as a downloaded application. It does the computing and graphic design needed to produce a word cloud; a presenter who doesn’t have the time or resources to create a word cloud themselves can simply copy-and-paste text and then choose from a variety of styles and fonts. Using the simple drop-down menus, the creator of the world cloud can opt to remove common words in a number of languages. This ensures that the word clouds aren’t dominated by words without serious historical meaning, like “the.” You can also alter the graphic design of the word cloud in a number of ways: you can adjust how many words are included in the word cloud and how the words are arranged.

For an example of how Wordle might be used in a presentation, I decided to input the text of two related documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (amendments not included). This could be used by a scholar of early American history to illustrate the similarities and differences between the two documents.

Here is the word cloud that Wordle generated from the Declaration of Independence:

And here is the one generated from the Constitution:

A presenter could point to words which appeared in both word clouds, such as “States,” as well as illustrate the differences between the two documents. By altering the number of words included in the word cloud, presenters can make these contrasts even more obvious. Having these two images in a presentation would enhance its educational power, especially for visual learners.

Introducing Isaac Makos

Introducing Isaac Makos

My name is Isaac Makos and I’ve traveled to the past every summer for the last five years.

Public history appeared on my radar when I worked for two summers as a living history intern at Fort Necessity National Battlefield. I dressed in the uniform of a Virginia militiaman, talking to visitors at the only French and Indian War battlefield in the National Park Service. My family was a frequent visitor to national parks and historic sites, but I hadn’t given much thought to the people who were giving the tours and answering the questions until I became one myself. That experience set me on a path that has led me to pursue a Master’s in Public History from American University. Working and interning in the public history field has also taken me around the country, from Farmington PA to Harpers Ferry WV to Ticonderoga NY to Mackinaw City MI. Along the way I learned skills from both past and present: I was trained to load and fire a black powder musket, and I also completed a digital history project during an Honors Term at my undergraduate college.

I decided to pursue a Masters in order to improve my understanding of public history from both the theoretical and practical sides. Earning that degree in Washington, D.C. gives me the chance to learn and practice public history in one of the richest concentrations of history in the United States.

In this History and New Media course specifically, I’m hoping to come out of the course with more knowledge of how to integrate physical and digital interpretation. I’ve seen historic sites experiment and try to find ways to use the centrality of smartphones and the Internet in daily life to their advantage, and enhance the educational potential of the site. After this class I hope to be able to contribute to those conversations in meaningful ways.

I’m fascinated by the relationship between the public and digital history. How does the “average person” use the various forms of new media in the context of history? What can historians, especially public historians, do to leverage existing digital relationships between people and history, or build new ones? I hope to emerge from this course with a better idea of what the answers to those questions might look like.

Photo Credit: My Parents