Social Media and Preservation: The #builtheritage Twitter Chat

Note: We’ve been participating in the #builtheritage Twitter chats for a while now and have found them incredibly interesting and helpful for staff. With that in mind, I reached out to Sarah Heffern and Kayla Jonas Galvin to see if they would share some thoughts about #builtheritage. I hope you enjoy and that you are able to join us at 3pm on the first Wednesday of every month!

by Sarah Heffern, associate director, social media strategy, National Trust for Historic Preservation

When Canadian preservationist Kayla Jonas Galvin approached me and my colleagues in early 2011 about starting a Twitter chat focused on preservation — or “heritage,” as she called it — I was a bit skeptical. I was aware of the growing popularity of Twitter-based chats (which are a scheduled time to discuss a topic using a designated hashtag to gather and organize responses), but wasn’t sure how it would work for preservation. After all, our work involves a lot of detail and nuance, making it a less-than-natural fit for a 140-character medium.

We decided to give it a try, though, and the #builtheritage chat was officially launched in March 2011 with a conversation about adaptive reuse projects. Kayla had spent the weeks prior to the first chat activating her network on Twitter and through her blog, and we used the PreservationNation blog to share news of the chat, along with an explanation of how to participate.

Though that initial chat was considered an experiment — and one we didn’t initially know if we would repeat — it was more successful than any of us expected. The conversation was lively, friendly, and substantive. It turns out that it is possible to have a nuanced conversation about preservation in tiny, tweet-sized bursts.

We’ve now been at it for nearly two years, and taken on a wide variety of topics, including jobs, preservation-themed books, bridging the generation gap in preservation, white elephants, and more. We’ve also dabbled in partnerships, having a very successful chat with Habitat for Humanity and another with our Preservation Green Lab. Each chat draws more than 50 participants (mostly from the U.S. and Canada, though we have also had participants from the UK, Turkey, and Australia), totals 300-500 tweets, and is easily the fastest-paced 60 minutes of each month.

So, how do we do it?

The most important first step was figuring out logistics. We set a date and time — the first Wednesday of the month at 4:00 p.m. Eastern — and rarely deviate from it. We selected a hashtag, #builtheritage, which we use for every single chat. We decided to use TweetChat to manage the chats. We settled on a co-moderated format, where Kayla and I take turn asking the questions and re-tweeting responses.

Questions are a key element. Though the chats are freewheeling, we come prepared each month with four questions on our designated topic and ask a new one every 15 minutes. This provides some much-needed structure to the conversations. Interesting and unexpected tangents do often break out, however, and we have been known to mine those for future topics — like food and preservation and the language of preservation.

As many of the links throughout this post demonstrate, the final element of the chat is capturing the highlights of the conversation using Storify and a complete transcript using TweetArchivist. After all, we are preservationists; documentation is key to our lives, so we like being able to look back and have a record.

If you’re interested in participating in the chat, our next one is Wednesday, February 6 at 4:00 EST. We’ll be discussing historic tax credits. The PreservationNation blog has more information on getting involved.

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