Tragedy Tweeted: Social Media Use and the Boston Marathon Bombing, Part 2

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A small section of the memorial to the Boston Marathon bombing victims, Copley Square, my photograph

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.

MFA Boston StrongUnlike 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.

BPL

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.

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7 thoughts on “Tragedy Tweeted: Social Media Use and the Boston Marathon Bombing, Part 2

  1. kimconnellyhicks

    I think your post and Mollie’s challenge us all to think hard about the role of institutions on difficult issues. Previously, institution only considered the site and event, but now with the ubiquitous use of social media what will happen? What will be seen on instagram? Your experience and observations during a difficult event has spoken to the role institutions have in a community, but I can’t help to think (brought up in Mollie’s post) how will these institutions now handle the commemoration of the Boston Marathon Bombings. Boston, and these institutions, will now play a role in forming the memory of this event. And (again to Mollie’s post) how will the public response.
    Mollie’s blog post: http://publichistoryonacid.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/poo-tee-weet-sitesofconscience/

    Reply
    1. Hope Shannon Post author

      Kim, I’m so glad you asked about how these institutions will affect the memory of the event. It’s one of the avenues I’d like to explore further. Northeastern University, home to one of Boston’s public history M.A. programs, is working on a digital archive project that I believe the Archives and Records for the City of Boston Archive has collaborated on. The City Archives is the home of the temporary memorial that people built near the bombing sites (the archives staff boxed up the items in the memorial after several weeks, when rain and weathering had begun to affect the material negatively). So I wonder how the digital project will work with the physical material from the city archives, how the city archives will work with the private university working on this semi-public project, and how the digital, the physical, and their collaborative product will be used and understood by the public. And I’d be interested to see any physical exhibits that the city archives planned on its own, though I haven’t seen anything of that nature emerge yet.

      There is also a new initiative called Boston Better that just started that calls on cultural institutions in the Boston area to band together to offer a measure of healing to their audiences. I’m excited to see how this project unfolds and grows, as I’m certain it must.

      Reply
  2. Samantha A. Smith

    Kim’s comment on your post, Hope, make me wonder about the social resopnsiblities that come with social media. Are public historians and institutuions responsible to the public new ways with their implementation of social medias? Does that responsibliity extend beyond their expected usership? Very thought provoking post.

    Reply
  3. meaganmckelly

    Hope, one thing that you said here really stood out to me. You pointed out that none of the institutions that you looked at said anything about the suspect. This, I think, is a really important thing to point out about the difference between the ways in which journalists use social media and the ways historians and historical institutions do (and should). Perhaps I cannot make a comment on what journalist do and should do, as it is their job and not mine, but I will say that I think it is significant that historical institutions felt that their priority, as you said, was to reinforce the fact that they were and felt part of the Boston community. It is the public historians’ job to connect to the public and it just seems very appropriate to me that the primary focus of these institutions during this horrible event was to find and make that connection by focusing on the people of Boston rather than the potential suspect. An important observation on your part…

    Reply
  4. Kyle Roberts

    You’ve got the start of a really interesting and important exploration of social media and community involvement for public history institutions. When you follow this out to other forms of social media, do you expect to find similar trends — that some institutions more actively engage with the crisis at hand across platforms — or do you think institutions select different platforms for different reasons. Issues of access to resources will of course come into play, but I think there is something more powerful here about how the institution envisions itself in relation to the community that it purports to serve. Really looking forward to how this evolves.

    Reply

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