Digital Archaeology and Public Engagement: Considering your Audience

When I sat down to begin designing and implementing the digital heritage project for my dissertation research, “All of Us Would Walk Together”, there were a number of things that I had to take into consideration about design and the way we were going to communicate the content. I wanted the site to look snazzy, but also to foster communication and interaction. The original objective had been to build something that would demonstrate the results of archaeological and historical research, while also communicating and fostering a discussion about how these results are drawn. A lot of this has emerged from experience using social media for cultural heritage engagement: I’ve found that the public wants more than just the results, they want to know how it happens (think about any archaeological site visit, the most popular activities of public archaeology: isn’t that actually presenting our process, not our results?). Additionally, I think researchers have a responsibility to explain how we draw the conclusions that we draw. How do we use evidence? What limitations are there on the evidence that we have? How far can we go with our conclusions, and where is the boundary? What assumptions are we making? What types of questions can we address, and what questions are outside the realm of serious inquiry?

Before I can present those questions to the public, however, I had to make sure that the tools and technology that I’m using were accessible to the publics that I want to engage (This is not something new to consider. Carol McDavid has been writing about access, the Internet, and Public Archaeology for a decade (McDavid 2002) and Lorna Richardson recently presented and posted about it, as well). Far too often, people simply start a blog or website under the Field of Dreams scenario: If you build it, they will come. Of course, that’s assuming they have the means to get there in the first place. Before you build a webpage, or start up a Facebook page, it’s important to first think about what audience you are hoping to connect with, and what tools they use, and how they access those tools. You may find that a Facebook page isn’t the place where your community hangs out. You may find that building a website with enormous videos on it may be dangerous, because your community still uses dial-up. How does your community access the Internet…or does your community access the Internet?

In this instance, I’m hoping to reach a public audience that is interested in the African American past. While this doesn’t necessarily mean African Americans, I want to make sure that this is a demographic that I tailor the site towards, since it is their history that we’re researching: the website is about the transition from slavery to freedom for the black families and communities who lived and worked on a 19th-century Maryland plantation. Certainly, the site is not exclusively for anybody, but our intent was to make an exhibit that could reach a specific demographic of Internet users.

So, in the process of building the site, and establishing where we were going to put our energies in social media, we began to look at data regarding the use of the Internet by African Americans. I should note a couple things before moving to much further: first, we were given limited resources, both in time and money, to get this project off the ground. So, we weren’t able to do the types of things I would have ideally preferred, such as conducting surveys regarding Internet usage, particularly in our local community. Instead, we have relied on available data regarding national Internet usage, particularly studies from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

First, it is important to be able to justify the use of the Internet in general. There is little doubt that Internet usage has skyrocketed over the past decade in all demographics. This trend is true also for African Americans: from 2000 to 2011, Internet usage has increased from 35% to 71%, and access to broadband has also increased, rising 10% from 2009 to 2010 for African American households. While these numbers still indicate a digital divide, particularly among lower-class households, the trends certainly suggest that using the Internet is a justifiable means to disseminate knowledge to African American groups.

This, of course, begs a second question: how are these groups accessing the Internet? Simply building a website does not mean that people will automatically see it. It has to be done in a format that makes it accessible. Recent studies indicate that mobile technology is the primary means that African Americans access the Internet. As of February 2012, the rate of smartphone usage increased from 35% to 46%, with African American users accounting for 49%. Even more importantly for us as we begin constructing a website is that as of April 2012, 64% of African Americans who use the Internet access it via their cell phones, 12% higher than Caucasian users. And, these numbers are growing, indicating that these trends aren’t going to slow down.

Coupled with this trend is that African Americans use Twitter at a very high rate. This makes since, because Twitter is a highly mobile social network. One only needs to follow the African American Burial Ground on Twitter, by far and away one of the most popular cultural heritage accounts using the service, to recognize that something is going on. Pew Research indicates that “More than one quarter of online African-Americans (28%) use Twitter, with 13% doing so on a typical day”. While that may seem like a small number, it is more than twice the amount of Caucasian users of Twitter. These researchers further stipulated that the use of Twitter correlated with the use of mobile phones, with 17% of African American Twitter users accessing it on mobile phones, as compared to 7% of Caucasian Twitter users. This difference is significant.

When considering what type of technology to build this exhibit around, therefore, we wanted to ensure that the website would be accessible via mobile devices, and that we developed and maintained a presence on Twitter. Fortunately, this wasn’t too difficult for us to manage, since the limited time we had available meant that when we purchased a web theme, we had to ensure that it would be smartphone friendly. As for Twitter, we will be launching our account in conjunction with the launch of the exhibit. By doing our homework, we hope that our energies will be focused in the right areas, and that we can both maximize our engagement through the right channels and tools.

Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration other realities about Internet usage in our local communities, which differs in many respects. For example, the local African American community in St. Mary’s County is rural: the studies above, while they do indicate that mobile and smartphone usage in rural communities is growing, do not suggest that the usage is particularly high. Similarly, and I know this through personal experience, not all cell providers allow for quality Internet access. This means that we need to ensure that our site is accessible at various Internet speeds, that local institutions such as libraries and schools are aware of its availability. More importantly, it means that we need to provide additional means for interacting and collaborating with our local community that is non-digital. Fortunately, we are beginning to work with these groups to see how we can provide these opportunities.

McDavid, Carol. (2002). From Real Space to Cyberspace: The Internet and Public Archaeological Practice. (Doctoral Dissertation), University of Cambridge, Cambridge.



  1. L Richardson
    September 22, 2012

    Hi Terry, 

    two good books I’ve found to read on this issue: Stevens & O’Hara ‘Inequality.Com: Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide’ and Witte & Mannnon ‘The Internet and Social Inequalities’All bestLorna

  2. terry p » This Week’s Dirt: 9/14-9/21
    September 23, 2012

    […] I’ve also been plugging away at a number of projects, including an article for publication, a digital exhibit that you can read a bit more about here, and, of course, the […]

  3. Scott Clark
    May 6, 2013

    Excellent! Digital archaeology is something I’m very interested in, and you’ve highlighted some of the basic considerations for access, platforms, etc. I also love the idea tying together digital archaeology with meta data and geo-spatial experiences … with site blogs, Google Earth geospatial visualization…and even virtual reality immersion tools such as Oculus Rift. Public archaeology via immersion. Think about a Pandora for archaeological / anthropological world which connects sites, finds, interpretations and publications for a specific area of interest (corresp to musical interest,) resulting in a “feed” customized for a specific type of person. I fantasize about the 13 year old Jr. High student wondering… “show me the relationship between my family history and this site?” …”put that new artifact in context?”… “what’s happened recently at this dig site?” … and having the taxonomy presented to them in a completely customized perspective.

    • Terry Brock
      May 6, 2013

      Scott…thanks for comment. The possibilities in the digital world are endless, and I regularly say that we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the web’s potential. It has been one of my biggest criticisms of online teaching, in that each class I’ve taken has only been trying to replicate the in class experience on the web. I’ve always thought that there must be something that online can do (besides making it more accessible) that in class can’t. When we figure that out (and make it affordable and easy to do), then we’ll be on to something.


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