As an accidental social media guru, I’ve grown increasingly interested in how to use social media to assist with my research. Not just to connect with other academics and to propagate my opinions and ideas to the wider public, but as a source–a place from which to garner public opinion on historical topics and contemporary topics related to my research, as well as a way to collect personal testimonies. I am particularly interested in the crowdsourcing projects some parks and park groups are using to gather personal memories of parks. One of my favorites, titled “My Letchworth,” was located on the Letchworth State Park Facebook page. The project invited people to submit their own memories of the park. These memories were to then be used and displayed in the new nature center that is to be built in the park. The problem? This section of the park’s Facebook page has disappeared.  I’m not even sure if the submissions will actually be used. They are seemingly lost. At least to me.

I think that the potential of these crowdsourcing projects to assist historians is immeasurable and potentially less time-consuming than oral history projects. I’ve been trying to figure out how I could launch a similar project for all of the parks I am focusing on in my dissertation, while still managing to complete the dissertation. The answer is that it can’t be done, but I can still dream.

This realization has not stopped me from scouring the internet for useful commentary. In March and June, at ASEH and CHA, I presented a portion of my research that connects the ecological restoration of the Clarion River to the development of Cook Forest State Park and its surrounding area as a tourism destination. One of my main arguments supporting the interconnection of the two events is the shift of recreational focus in the park from the old-growth timber (for which the park was initially saved) to the river (which was ecologically dead when the park was formed). I asserted that it was safe to assume that the majority of park visitors to Cook Forest probably do not even know about the Forest Cathedral (the stand of virgin timber). I said probably because really I have no direct proof that this is true.

Yesterday on Facebook I noticed that the page Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places – Western PA had posted a photo of the Cook Forest Association memorial fountain in Cook Forest.

Cook ForesT Fountain with Comments

What caught my eye was not necessarily the post, but some of the comments. “As many times I have been to cooks forest I did know this existed. Where is it located there?” asks Wendy I. Ah-ha! Proof! See, many people really do go to Cook Forest without knowing about the Forest Cathedral and old-growth tract.

This discovery elicits many questions that I would love feedback on:

1. How do I cite this?

2. How do we use these comments ethically? Do we remove names? Or, because it is a public forum, is it up for grabs?

3. I’ve seen Twitter and Facebook comments integrated into academic blog posts, such as Mike Commito and Kaleigh Bradley’s article on the Sudbury Superstack, but are there examples of these comments being used in journal articles, dissertations, and monographs?

4. Because social media is so ephemeral, how do we keep track of these comments and their citations? Should we, as historians and other researchers, be keeping detailed screenshots and web addresses? If a comment or page is deleted and we have no concrete proof that it ever existed, such as a screenshot, can we still cite it?

I’m sure there are other issues that need to be addressed pertaining to this topic. I would love to get a discussion going!


Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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