This is part two in a two-part blog post. Part one can be found here.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, I wondered how Boston-area history and cultural institutions dealt with the topic of the bombing in their social media posts. I decided to look at small and large institutions that use Twitter, cover a wide array of historical and/or cultural topics, and are located within Boston’s city limits. I found that their Twitter use varied widely, with some posting about the bombing once or twice, some posting a half-dozen times, and others posting frequently over the course of several weeks.
In the wake of the bombing, some posted to Twitter minimally or not at all. Historic New England, a New England-wide preservation organization headquartered in Boston, only posted one message on Twitter related to the bombings. It indicated that it would be closed all day on Friday, April 19th, the day that police in Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, and Somerville searched for the bombing suspects and brought all activity in the region to a halt. Like Historic New England, the only thing that the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) posted on Twitter was a note indicating that it would also be closed on April 19th.
Some institutions posted more detailed messages. The Paul Revere House, a house museum, and the Boston Athenaeum, a library and museum, offered condolences to the victims of the explosions and, during the police action against the suspects on April 19th, wrote that they could not open.
The Old South Meeting House (OSMH) tweeted similar condolence and closure messages, retweeted posts about vigil locations, retweeted a post asking people to donate to the One Fund (a charity that benefits bombing victims and their families), and announced that it would participate in a city-organized moment of silence on April 22nd.
The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the Boston Public Library (BPL) posted Twitter messages more frequently than the others I surveyed. The MFA offered condolences to those affected by the bombings, waived admission fees and suggested people find solace in the museum’s art collection, posted pictures of art loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a gesture of solidarity, posted pictures of “Boston Strong” banners strung outside the MFA’s entrance, posted event details for its Memorial Day weekend community open house, and shared images that showed quilt squares from the “To Boston With Love” quilt project displayed in the museum.
Unlike the MFA, the Boston Public Library did not offer any message of sorrow. It posted information about the central branch location’s closure. Unlike other institutions I looked at, the BPL’s central branch is located within the area that police and federal agents cordoned off after the bombing. The BPL was closed until April 24th, an unprecedented nine-day closure. Between the 15th and the 24th, the BPL tweeted that it would waive fines for books overdue during this period. Other Twitter users sent Tweets to the BPL, concerned for the institution’s well-being.
When the library reopened, Twitter users sent greetings expressing their happiness for its return. At least three tweets mentioned that its opening helped the city regain a sense of normalcy. With the exception of a BPL tweet about books that can help children deal with grief, most tweets about the bombing discussed the library’s reopening or responded to other Twitter users welcoming it back.
What conclusions can we draw from the ways that these institutions utilized social media after the Boston Marathon bombing? First, none of the institutions posted messages that contained names or pictures of the bombing victims or suspects. Messages were vague. Perhaps the composers lacked words to express what they felt or wanted to make sure the messages spoke to as broad an audience as possible. Maybe they felt that the news outlets were responsible for the names and violent details. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these. Regardless, posts emphasized a commiseration with a community that the organizations felt they belonged to and a mutual grief that they felt they shared with their social media audience.
In addition, organizations tweeted about topics they felt comfortable speaking about. This may seem obvious but it helps to reveal how an institution views its own role in a community. The Museum of Fine Arts opened its doors to share its art and displayed thousands of quilt squares collected from around the world. It utilized its global network and resources to reach beyond Boston and bring symbols of national- and world-wide sympathy back home. The Boston Public Library thanked people for welcoming its return, recognizing what its closure symbolized for a city dependent on its constancy. The Massachusetts Historical Society and Historic New England are not as Boston-specific as the BPL or even the MFA (its size and the school attached ensure that it has strong local ties), and may not have felt the same sort of responsibility to offer comfort through Twitter.
There are many ways one might expand on this topic. My cursory investigation left out dozens of Boston history and cultural institutions that use social media. I also looked at Boston and ignored institutions in the larger metro-area. I did not look at Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, or other social media sites that institutions might use to convey messages in different ways. I did not explore here how the nature of Twitter might have affected the types of messages tweeted. I did not analyze the groups that were founded in response to the bombing—groups like the One Fund and Northeastern University’s “Our Marathon” Project– or draw conclusions about their social media use. Perhaps I’ll investigate these in later blog posts. Regardless of these limitations, two ideas stand firm. Boston institutions that used Twitter felt that they belonged to the wider community and that they shared their audience’s grief. They did not look at their public from the outside. They also used their collections and resources to guide the content and purpose of their tweets.