Guerrilla Interpretation

Interpretation is an art…the true interpreter…goes beyond the apparent to the real, beyond a part to a whole, beyond a truth to a more important truth…Freeman Tilden

The year is 1957. A journalist, playwright, novelist, and radio scriptwriter has wandered the nation in search of interpretive meaning, of the greater truth beyond truth. Freeman Tilden’s charge is to study national park interpretation, and to devise a handbook for future interpreters-in-waiting. Tilden is 74 when the book is published in 1957, a child of the Progressive Movement addressing a Cold War audience.

Consider the nation in the year that Interpreting Our Heritage hits the shelves:

  • U.S. Population: 171,984,130 (a little more than half of what it is today)
  • Eveready produces “AA” size alkaline batteries for use in “personal transistor radios.”
  • Sputnik is launched October 4, ushering in the space age.
  • President Eisenhower sends federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine.
  • One thousand computers are sold.
  • Ages of Bill Gates and Steven Jobs? 2.

Jim Crow thrives in the South, and most African-American and Hispanics are still denied the right to vote won nearly a century before with the blood of over 600,000 Americans in the Civil War. Women are generally closeted in the home (Leave it to Beaver debuts in 1957, the same day as the Sputnik launch). The French had exited Viet Nam in 1954, a country few Americans could find on a map or pronounce. In 1957, Viet Nam quietly simmers on the back burner.

The medium is the message…Marshall McLuhan

The same year, Marshall McLuhan, age 46, is teaching communications and culture seminars at the University of Toronto. McLuhan’s revolutionary work will surface in the near future, with Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man to be published in 1964 and The Medium is the Massage in 1967. McLuhan argues that media are simply extensions of “human sense, bodies, and minds.” McLuhan will write that “everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Fast forward. How do we experience our world today? What if one’s life experiences are largely virtual? According to the Pew Internet and American Life project,

  • Some 15% of online adults use Twitter as of February 2012, and 8% do so on a typical day.
  • The proportion of online adults who use Twitter on a typical day has doubled since May 2011 and has quadrupled since late 2010.
  • African-Americans — Black internet users continue to use Twitter at high rates. More than one quarter of online African-Americans (28%) use Twitter, with 13% doing so on a typical day.
  • Young adults — One quarter (26%) of internet users ages 18-29 use Twitter, nearly double the rate for those ages 30-49. Among the youngest internet users (those ages 18-24), fully 31% are Twitter users.
  • Urban and suburban residents — Residents of urban and suburban areas are significantly more likely to use Twitter than their rural counterparts.

According to Facebook,

  • Worldwide, there are over 1.35 billion monthly active Facebook users (MAUs) which is a 14% increase year over the previous year.
  • 4.5 billion likes were generated daily as of May 2013 which is a 67% increase from August 2012.
  • 864 million people log onto Facebook daily (DAU), which represents a 19% increase year-over-year.
  • Age 25 to 34, at 29.7% of users, is the most common age demographic. • Five new profiles are created every second.
  • Photo uploads total 300 million per day.
  • Average time spent per Facebook visit is 20 minutes.
  • Every 60 seconds on Facebook: 510 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded.
  • 4.75 billion pieces of content shared daily as of May 2013 which is a 94 percent increase from August 2012. (Source: Facebook)
  • 50% of 18-24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up. (Source: The Social Skinny) What this means for you: Facebook is important to these users, and potentially, if done correctly, so is the content you post on it.
  • 7.5 million promoted posts have been made from June 2012 to May 2013.

None of this existed in Tilden’s life.  Tilden believed in the message, in interpretation being “all about the story.”  McLuhan understood, and believed in, the media, and that “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” Tilden and McLuhan reflect the yin-yang of modern interpretation, the delicate balance between medium and message.


The media emerging from today’s digital revolution propel interpretation (or at least its potential) forward at breakneck speeds, yet, at times, interpretation seems wedded to technologies more appropriate for a campfire setting. McLuhan said, “It is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame.” Are we, as interpreters, trying to shoe-horn shiny new pictures into frames several sizes too small? Are we Victorians in the Digital Age?

The Tao of Interpretation is contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent, one formed and shaped by the presence of the other. The opposing forces of media and message move in tandem, and interpretive opportunity and efficacy depend on balancing the two. In this context, both Tilden and McLuhan are right.

Yet the digital revolution has jiggered the scales. Messages are being drowned in a media deluge. Interpreters debate point size and word count for interpretive signs that are road kill before installation. Computer geeks develop applications and then fill the content space with whatever they can lift from a Google search and Wikipedia. And, there is much there to be gleaned. More than 30 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) are shared each month on Facebook alone.

Everyman is an interpreter. Every message has a chance of being heard before atomizing into the void. Everyman decides which pictures are worth keeping (or creating), and Everyman chooses the frame based on comfort, familiarity, and popularity.

Nowhere is the imbalance of media and message more keenly felt than in interpretive planning. Planners are often coupled to clients who have little personal experience with or interest in the emerging media and are more concerned with what they (or their supervisors) believe is appropriate (or politically palatable) rather than most effective. Planners often are ill-equipped to offer recommendations about which medium best connects with which audience. We were taught Tilden;  we live in McLuhan’s world.

Here is an example. The Outdoor Foundation recently published Technology and Social Media as part of its Outdoor Nation series. Here are a few of the findings from that report:

  • Outsiders are moved by bright colors, sunlight, and images of adrenaline pumping excitement when being marketed to, they are also attracted to sweeping landscapes and a sense of oneness.
  • For Outsiders, a social media campaign is successful when it creatively reaches its target audience where they are most likely to be hanging out – on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TV-viewing websites.
  • Outsiders strongly believe that the concept of social media is no passing fad. Some Outsiders are concerned about bringing older generations up to speed as the participation gap continues to widen.

How do we reform interpretive planning and rekindle its relevance? Can’t the same media that threaten to overshadow our messages be harnessed to help us better connect with the public? Is a weblog or a QR code inherently different from a trail guide or interpretive sign? Isn’t our aspiration to go “beyond the apparent to the real” as potent today as in the time of Ozzie and Harriet? Do we really care which media are used as long as they effectively communicate our messages?

The rapid evolution in digital media is only accentuating the need for interpretive planners to adopt new (and, at time, radical) approaches. Consider the forces that are shoving interpretation either forward or to the sidelines.

  • Evolution from people-based to place-based applications.
  • Growth of diverse interpretive platforms (modeled after multi-media publications such as Byliner, the Daily, and Wired) coupled with more participatory forms of interpretive writing (patterned after gonzo journalism). Expansion of interactive, immediate (real time) interpretation with growth of broad band availability.
  • Increased use of Wiki-styled rich text to enhance traditional abbreviated interpretation.
  • Tagging/QR Coding to dynamically enhance static interpretation. Cloud-based, real-time, interactive interpretation delivered across multiple platforms.
  • Seamless information sharing between interpreters, audiences, and individuals.
  • Expanded use of interactive and crowdsourced interpretation for advocacy.

Interpretive planning is not simply about themes, messages, and Tilden’s truths. These elements are critical to elevating our interpretation above the digital din, but in themselves they stand mute without media to loosen their voices. Tilden’s principles remain valid, I suppose, but are effective only when supported by those media that have been adopted by and are familiar to target audiences. Stories are only heard where people are listening.

Interpretation is not the only profession to face this challenge. In 1984, Jay Conrad Levinson published the book Guerilla Marketing. Levinson argued that ‘unconventional’ marketing tools can be used in cases when financial or other resources are limited or non-existent. Guerrilla marketing and communications have evolved (along with digital media) to include approaches that are,

…unexpected and unconventional, potentially interactive, and where consumers are targeted in unexpected places. The objective…is to create a unique, engaging and thought-provoking concept to generate buzz, and consequently turn viral.

Is there an analogous approach with interpretation? What about guerrilla interpretation? Is this a technique that might help catapult the profession back ahead of the digital curve?

Guerilla interpretation uses emerging media and thought-provoking messages (remember Tilden’s “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation) to jolt an audience out of mainstream malaise and indifference. Journalist Warren Berger has explained unconventional guerrilla-style communications as “something that lurks all around, hits us where we live, and invariably takes us by surprise.” Guerrilla interpretation confronts, pricks, and unsettles, using the panoply of media to cast interpretive messages wherever an audience lurks.

Effective interpretive planning must be media agnostic, willing to integrate any medium that bolsters the chances for effectively delivering the interpretive message.

According to the American Press Institute,

Americans follow the news on a wide variety of devices, including through television, radio, print versions of newspapers and magazines, computers, cell phones, tablets, e-readers, and devices such as an Xbox or Playstation that link the internet to a television. Americans on average reported that, during the past week, they followed the news using four different devices or technologies.

“Any medium” naturally includes both traditional and emerging media, blended in a way that suits the singular appetites and proclivities of respective audiences. Audiences are often determined, by race, education, political alignment, interests, and age (to name a few), by the media chosen to distribute the information.

The digital revolution has set the stage for a remarkable advance in interpretive reach and efficacy, but this potential will only be realized when interpretive planners dust off the profession and themselves, and lead it forward.

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts…Marshall McLuhan