"To avoid crowds, visit areas that are less crowded." These comically obvious wise words come from the Twitter account — ahem, X account — of the National Park Service, who has been hitting it out of the park lately (get it?) with its social media content and reaping viral rewards. Who is behind this material? And why has a more than hundred year old government agency chosen to let its hair down on social media?
Amory and Ben talk to the National Park Service's lone social media ranger, Matt Turner, and to Sarah Southerland from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, whose delightfully outrageous social media presence has captured the hearts and funny bones of hundreds of thousands of people.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: A programming note: This episode was written and recorded before Twitter became… X. But hey, it’s still the bird app in our HEARTS, so that’s what we’re stickin’ with for this one. OK, enjoy!
Amory Sivertson: Allow us, for a moment, to impart some free wisdom on you. "Most squirrel bites originate at the front, or 'bitey end' of the squirrel."
Ben: Not wrong! Here's another: "Always hike with proper supplies and equipment. Remember flippy floppies may lead to slippy sloppies."
Amory: Oh man I hate those slippy sloppies. OK, how about this: "It's OK if you fall apart sometimes. S'mores fall apart, and we still love them."
Ben: Damn, right to the core!
Amory: Right to the S'MORE.
Ben: Alright, let's do onnnnne more..
Matt Turner: "To avoid crowds, visit areas that are less crowded."
Amory: THAT was the wizard himself — the architect of these wise words, posted from the Twitter account... of a government agency.
Ben: A government agency that isn't afraid to get a little WILD with its social media posts.
Amory: In fact, you might say this kind of youthful humor is in its NATURE...
Ben: ...Despite the fact that the agency itself is more than a hundred years old.
Amory: We're talkin' about... the National Park Service. PARKS Service?
Matt: It's just park. But, uh, we have lots of parks though.
Ben: I'm Ben Brock Johnson.
Amory: I'm Amory Sivertson, and you're listening to Endless Thread.
Ben: We're coming to you from WBUR, Boston's NPR station. And today, we're kicking off a series about... PARKS. Specifically, how the incredibly online world is impacting the incredibly offline world — the natural, wild, wide open spaces. And, in some cases, making them more accessible, educational, and just downright enjoyable.
Amory: We're starting this series where the idea for it first took root — doom-scrolling on social media only to find... not DOOM. But JOY! And a surprisingly witty sense of humor coming from the National Park Service that has helped it reach millions more people in the last few years… by meeting them where they are: online.
Ben: We are among those millions, of course. And we were curious: What’s the thinking behind this newfound funny approach? How does the National Park Service social media sausage get made, and WHO, exactly, is making that sausage…
Matt: I'm Matt Turner. I'm a social media specialist with the National Park Service, and I work in the office of communications based in Washington, D.C.
Amory: Matt started working for the National Park Service — or NPS — fresh out of college. Handing out brochures in a historic park in Georgia.
Ben: What's your move to get, make sure that people actually take the pamphlet you're trying to give them.
Matt: Um, really just, uh, tell 'em it's free.
Ben: Free! It's free! I swear it's free!
Amory: Parking is not, but the brochure is.
Ben: After brochure passing, Matt became a ranger. He got the cool uniform with the flat hat that pairs well with a woodsy beard like the one Matt dons today. But he also got to start experimenting on social media.
Matt: It's kind of a collateral duty doing social media. You know, after you've given a tour or you know, you're working the desk, maybe you're gonna snap a picture of that bird that flew by and tweet that or, in between, you know, giving a, a house tour at, uh, you know, Harry Truman's house in Missouri. I would, uh, go to his basement and start, uh, doing Facebook posts and anything I could do.
Amory: This surprised me right off the bat. The idea that social media would be baked into the duties of a PARK ranger? It feels a little... oxymoronic, somehow. But for Matt, this was a chance to dabble with his social media "voice." Especially because he was mostly posting to the accounts for individual parks, not from the main NPS accounts. It was safer to try things out.
Matt: I kind of brought a lot more of the. The humor and trying to instill some personality and pull back that curtain a little bit more.
Ben: Matt was a natural, and his colleagues took notice. In 2018, he traded in his park ranger uniform for the keys to the National Park Service social media castle. The voice of NPS on social media was now Matt’s voice. Or WAS it...?
Matt: It depends if you like it or not. I think probably some of it is my personality, but also I think part of it is just the park service over all these years has developed that kind of outdoorsy, family friendly, we know a good dad joke or a pun. I think that is very our aesthetic.
Amory: Like this tweet from back in May, featuring a picture of a banana slug munching on a leaf, and the caption: "Leaf. It's what's for dinner."
Ben: And then there's Matt's take on an old TLC hit: "Don’t go chasing waterfalls… cautiously approach and be careful of slippery conditions. In fact, you may just want to stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to."
Matt: We're not gonna be too edgy or too, you know, far out there. We're not here to roast people, you know, we just want to keep it, uh, really a fun and inviting place, uh, for people to enjoy. And I think, uh we've kind of hopefully, uh, hit that.
Amory: Matt's being modest here. He's more than doubled NPS' Twitter following. He's grown the Instagram following by a whopping 3-4 million people. His social media posts get tens of thousands — sometimes HUNDREDS of thousands — of likes and comments, retweets and shares. In fact, I started seeing NPS' social media content NOT because I was following them, but because so many people were reposting Matt's material.
Matt: You never know what's gonna go kind of viral on social media. So some things get picked up and all of a sudden people are like, you know, is the National Park Service funny? Or, who approved that? Or, you know, what's going on?
Ben: Yes, what IS going on? Why has this government agency chosen to let its hair down on social media?
Amory: The answer... is as old as the media industry itself. If you have something important you need people to hear, you've gotta hook 'em first!
Matt: That's what we kind of try to do with all of our posts, is to get people's attention, get them to read and get that information.
Ben: If Matt can get people's attention with a post like "Don't pet the fluffy cows" with a little bison emoji, mayyyyyybe they'll start reading the rest of the thread where he shares ACTUAL tips for enjoying wildlife safely.
Matt: You know, we don't want to be this big government agency saying, you know, "Don't do that and don't pet that and don't pick that up." And, um, we're gonna say that. But if we can do that in a little bit more meaningful or a nudging way, I think people will appreciate that. And, and hopefully when they get to a park, they'll remember that, you know, "Hey, the Park Service made me laugh about that, and they made a good point. So I'm not gonna get too close to this edge here."
Ben: Another hook that tends to work for Matt? BEAR CONTENT. Like this post: "Hike in groups. Bears like to have options."
Amory: Or this one...
M: "If you come across a bear, never push a slower friend down, even if you feel the friendship is run its course." And that was the one that really took off. People like thought it was funny. People thought we were advocating for murder. People thought we were saving friendships.
Ben: Now, there's no "I" in team, and there's no "I" in Matt Turner, either. Despite the fact that he, alone, is the person behind the National Park Service's official social media content...
Matt: We wanted to start putting out more wildlife safety tweets and information. So we, you know, drafted up some ideas...
Ben: He also doesn't take credit for the upping of the social media game some people have noticed for OTHER federal agencies, like NASA, TSA, and US Fish and Wildlife.
Ben: Do you guys all have like a secret coin that you all get to have or anything like that? Is there any secret badge? Secret, I don't know, pair of shorts that everybody gets?
Matt: No, it's a secret. It's a secret. So...
Ben: Oh man!
Amory: But it's not just the federal agencies who are having fun on social media. Coming up, we take a virtual trip down south and meet another social media sausage-maker who, you might say, has gotten even WILDER.
Sarah Southerland: We like to brag, we're one of the most bio diverse states in the whole country. You can find elk and alligator.
Ben: Where can you find elk AND alligator? You'll find out, in a minute...
Sarah: Hi, I'm Sarah Southerland and I'm the, pffft. LOL, starting over.
A: Sarah Southerland doesn't take herself too seriously. You know what she does take seriously? HYDRATION. Especially where she lives.
Sarah: Like, it's 113 degrees, I think, today in western Oklahoma.
Amory: Oh my god.
Ben: (sings) Ooooooooooklahoma. Where the winters can be in the negative degrees and the summers can be in the low hundreds. Which is why, on a recent hot-as-blazes day, Sarah took to her employer’s Twitter account…
Sarah: I work for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Ben: ...and typed…
Amory: "If you're outdoors in these temperatures, you need to be primarily drinking water, not Red Bull, not ice coffee, not that purple stuff all over TikTok, WATER," with the little claps between each letter. And, uh, I believe you have a Diet Coke next to you right now, Sarah, is this true?
Sarah: No, don't call me out! Yes.
Ben: It's especially ironic that Sarah would be drinking anything BUT water right now because of the more than 100,000 likes she got on that Tweet.
Sarah: I specialize in our social media presence and I serve as our social media coordinator.
Amory: This tweet also got HUNDREDS of replies, and Sarah responded with the kind of witty one-liners she’s become known for in the last year or so by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s more than 200,000 Twitter followers.
Amory: "Is hot coffee acceptable?" The response is, "Why would you do that to your body?"
Sarah: That's just something I feel. Like, I don't…
Amory: Or this one...
Sarah: Somebody said, "Sparkling or still?," like sparkling water or still water, and we said "This isn't Europe."
Ben: Nope, this ISN'T Europe. It's (sings) Oooooooooklahoma. Where the badgers come prancing down the pastures. And that’s just the beginning!
Amory: There are gators, there are snakes of every variety, there are hundred pound fish. I mean, it feels like the Australia of the United States.
Sarah: I've been saying that!
Amory: And Sarah's been saying it to a LARGE audience. On Twitter, on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, or ODWC’s Instagram and Facebook, and a VERY popular TikTok account that's just crossed a quarter of a million followers.
[From THIS TikTok video] Sarah: I’m about to show you a photo of a very gnarly looking spider. If your little baby eyes cannot take it, then this is your time to start scrolling. Alright, 1, 2, 3, ahhhhhh! (audio fades under)
Ben: But Twitter is where we first stumbled on ODWC's accounts.
Amory: So here's one. It says, "If this gets 1 million likes, our boss will let us name her baby Armadillo. Twitter, do your thing," with a little prayer hands emoji.
Sarah: (laughs) I love that one.
Ben: You know who DIDN'T love that one? Her boss' HUSBAND, who didn't get that this was a JOKE.
Sarah: So her husband starts replying in the tweets, but his settings were like, where no one can see them but me.
Amory: Oh no! So he's screaming into the void, like, "No it's not! It's not Armadillo!"
Amory: That tweet DIDN'T get a million likes. YET. It currently sits at about 150,000. But still. For a state wildlife account? Tweets like this have put Oklahoma's wildlife conservation department on the social media map.
Ben: But Sarah says, the reason she was hired back in 2020 as ODWC's first full-time social media coordinator... wasn't to make the department go viral...
Sarah: That happened way later. When I came on here, they were in the middle of "The outdoors are always open" campaign. Like, that was the big communication point.
Amory: And with the indoors at this peak-pandemic time being mostly not open, the department had its hands full.
Sarah: 'Cause we're an agency that focuses on conservation and a whole lot of programs that go into fish and wildlife conservation in the state. like people still hit us up on Facebook every single day asking questions about the law, like hunting and fishing resources. Like, it's very important to be able to get to those, answer them. And like that's what really cemented things that, okay, this can be somebody's job.
B: Step one for Sarah? Wildlife school — AKA, shadowing her new colleagues out in the field to learn things like what the heck a game warden is... which, Sarah says is kinda like a law enforcement officer for wildlife. Or, learning more about the alligator population of Red Slough from a biologist in a cowboy hat. Because... (sings) Ooooooooklahoma.
Sarah: He just pulls up with a boat and he's like, "Okay, we're getting in the water." And I was like, "WITH the alligators?!"
Amory: Oh yeah... WITH the alligators. Sarah learned a LOT. And having some of these more hands-on, down-to-earth experiences with her ODWC colleagues shaped her approach to social media content for the department.
Sarah: So we are a scientific agency full of a lot of science-y people. What if we just stepped back from lingo and stopped talking directly like a scientist, um, and started talking a little bit more like a human being and see what happens.
Ben: Sounding familiar, anyone? It’s been workin’ for Matt and the National Park Service…
Amory: Also familiar? The emphasis on we. Sarah does have a team — albeit, an "informal" one.
Sarah: It's me and basically my coworkers who volunteer out of the goodness of their hearts for no money, who have full-time, other duties, to just goof off with me.
Ben: And Sarah wants people to get to know the team through social media in hopes that the public will be more likely to reach out with their questions if they know that they might get answered by, say, Matt the biologist.
[From THIS TikTok video] Ok so this is a new addition to our eastern Oklahoma bear population...
Amory: Or Smokey, a bear-sized guy who really is named Smokey and who knows how to cook a deer heart.
[From THIS TikTok video (content warning: shows an actual deer heart)] And cut the fat, trim it up, inside it actually looks like this...
Ben: Or the incredibly-named Tell Judkins, a game biologist who happens to know a LOT about plants.
[From THIS TikTok video] All parts of this plant if they’re eaten can actually cause cardiac arrest. DON’T EAT IT.
Ben: One of the top comments on this particular TikTok video, by the way? “I’m learning stuff. Noooo!”
Amory: ODWC’s response? “Muahahahahahaha”
Amory: Sarah’s informal social media team started its overhaul in late 2020 with Facebook and Instagram, where the department already had pretty significant followings. But Twitter, she says... that was a MUCH more intimidating hill to climb.
Sarah: Twitter for anybody is hard, especially for government agencies. It's really big and scary. It is like a marble and a slingshot where it is just things move fast and hard and if it hits something, it's gonna cause some damage. Also, to be fair that everyone who's skeptical about it, this was post 2020, things were tense and Twitter was a place where a lot of that tension went. And to step in of being like, here's what's happening with the quail population. I mean, it's the, there's no win. Like how do you do that? You know?
Ben: But Sarah and her team stuck with this more affable approach. And with that came humor and memes...
Sarah: It was immediately met with backlash because people hate change, but we just like kept consistent and little by little, like let ourselves be a little more human. A little more vulnerable, a little more personable and it, that took us further and further, but it did take time.
Amory: It took... pretty much ALL of 2021, Sarah says.
Sarah: We had puns in there that we'd get like one reply. We did a "Merry Fishmas" campaign that I had so much fun with. Nobody else got it. We photoshopped hats on all those fish!
Ben: But then, in January of 2022, the ODWC's Twitter page had its breakout single...
Sarah: It was a really, really, really cold day. Darrin sent me a text—
Amory: Darrin, a comms department colleague...
Sarah: He was out to go film some wildlife and he sent me a text. Like at six in the morning. it was this old meme of like a mountain lion at the back of the door, and it said if like, if you're cold, they're cold. You know the Sarah McLaughlin like, "In the arms of the angel"?
Amory: Oh yeah, yeah. The MSPCA ads? Yeah.
Sarah: Yes. Yeah. That's what the meme kind of was, but it was a mountain lion. So we took it and flipped it on its side, and I think we said like, "You are cold. They have fur. Do not let them inside." And it blew up like crazy.
Amory: To deal with all of the "You're not my dad!" and "But if not friend, why friend shaped?" kinds of replies, Sarah busted out some of those one-liners and a greatest hits of Ron Swanson memes.
Ben: Then again... remember Sarah's analogy for content on Twitter? A marble in a slingshot? This mountain lion marble was traveling FAST. And in the process, it hit a particular nerve when it comes to wildlife conservation VERY hard. Sarah got a call from her supervisor.
Sarah: She's like, "You have to delete a response on this tweet." I was like, "Okay, which one?" Didn't even have time to argue about it. And she was like, "The one that says, 'danger kitty.'"
Amory: Specifically, "Don't pet the danger kitty,” in response to someone suggesting that they wanted to bring a mountain lion in from the cold. But making jokes about wildlife is a delicate dance. And calling a mountain lion a "danger kitty" was, in retrospect Sarah says, a misstep.
Sarah: Because as an agency you don't want to, like, villainize animals because that can have like negative impacts on how people treat them. And so I was like, "Yeah, delete it." For some reason, thousands of people recognized that we deleted it, even though it was only live for maybe, like, two hours. And so now that's a running joke too.
Ben: Sarah and her team have a system in place now to try to prevent future "danger kitty" debacles.
Sarah: So before we hit tweet, we try our best to predict the most ridiculous, harmful, terrible thing that can happen with anything that we say. And if we can find like a realistic avenue, we don't tweet it.
Ben: Hooooo boy, I like to call this pre-tweeting the oven, Amory.
Amory: That’s actually pretty good. ‘Cause it’s like, you can skip this step… but your cookies might be a DISASTER, you know?
Sarah: We try with our whole heart to make sure that we are good to people and we are good to wildlife. Like, that is our mantra over and over again.
Ben: Matt Turner with the National Park Service also pre-tweets his oven, so to speak. But what does he do when bad behavior in a national park goes viral?
Amory: Like… when a woman stuck her hand into a burning hot spring in Yellowstone National Park earlier this summer. And video of that ill-advised hand-dipping popped off.
Matt: Yeah, we always, I think, are looking for opportunities to message when those kind of things happen without coming off as maybe scolding or calling out people directly.
Ben: Or in this case, scalding.
Matt: Yeah. After that, we did do a post about thermal features in Yellowstone with the whole—
Ben: You did?
Matt: Yeah, yeah. They're so hot right now... and all the time. And that allowed us, I think, to touch on those type of viral things without...
Ben: Touch on. Okay.
Matt: Yeah. See? We’re full of 'em!
Ben: Sarah from ODWC loves a good pun herself, but she also acknowledges that she probably has more flexibility doing social media for a state agency than Matt does working for the National Park Service. She and her team can get pretttttttty weird.
Sarah: We have this little whiteboard that is by my desk, and people sketch their ideas out on it. Like, "The plural of yeet is yurt," which is a phrase that is just, has been on there for months and I have no idea what to do with it.
Amory: That's good! I won't steal it, I promise.
Sarah: I don't think it means anything, so have it!
Amory: Is there an example of one that you did not have high hopes for that took off?
Sarah: Unfortunately, a lot of 'em. Um, so there was one that like Smokey came up with. Um, where he's like, donut holes should be called donut plugs. Um, because that's what they are. And we had this whole little mini argument just like, it's not a plug, it's a part of the donut. And so we tweeted it and it went off that it's just, it gets on the board because that's what we're talking about. Whether it be like this beautiful message about conservation or the outdoors, or if we think donut holes should be named donut plugs.
Ben: Now this is where some of you might be thinking... a tweet about donut holes vs. plugs? THAT's not advancing the mission of wildlife conservation... right?... RIGHT?! Sarah has an interesting take on this.
Sarah: If you are friends with somebody and they are passionate about something, would you be friends with them if all they talk about it was that one thing, if they never engaged with you back? If we're really gonna talk like real people and be real people and be genuine, this is a part of it and people appreciate that because Twitter can be such an ugly, scary place. And if we could be like this little spot where you can engage safely with people from all over, then great. We're gonna keep that going. I feel like that's a part of our brand at this point. Where it's like, yeah, this is kind of a place for everybody.
Ben: This approach seems to be working — both for Sarah, and for Matt from NPS, whose social media followings continue to grow.
Amory: But does a large social media following translate to an improvement in wildlife conservation? Sarah with ODWC says, it's hard to measure... but she attributes more women feeling comfortable reaching out with hunting and fishing questions to her department's TikTok presence. And, she says, just being on more people's radars now BECAUSE of social media has made them privy to things they might not be otherwise.
Sarah: Every time somebody sends me a video on TikTok of like a harmful behavior towards an animal, like there was a trend of picking up possums we get tagged. On Instagram, we had a video go out of this young man on a college campus who was picked up a goose harassed it. We were tagged immediately and game wardens were called immediately. And that was investigated immediately. Like, we're doing good for wildlife by being good to people. And if we can get this messaging out that can build appreciation for like the natural world around them, then we can take bigger steps together.
Ben: Matt is also encouraged by the engagement he's seen with the National Park Service social media accounts — the comments from people saying they’re going to visit one of the parks for the first time because of something they saw on NPS’ social media, and the increased web traffic — and, maybe, FOOT traffic?...
Matt: We'd like to think that's the truth…
Ben: ... to some of the lesser-known national parks that Matt uses social media to highlight.
Amory: Whether you learn something every time you scroll through the National Park Service and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s social media pages, or you just come for the lolz and stay for the post that makes you FEEL like you're going outside, touching grass...
Ben: NOT a fluffy cow or a mountain lion...
Amory: RIGHT. Sarah and Matt hope that, just being able to have this more down-to-earth relationship with, and access to, the natural world online will hopefully inspire you to deepen your relationship with it offline.
Ben: Yeah! To touch some REAL grass. And to feel more empowered when you do.
Sarah: This one lady from the UK responded to one of our tweets saying that she didn't know salamanders were a real thing. She just had seen them on Harry Potter. That was a real conversation that we got to have on Twitter and be like, "Oh my God, no. There's salamanders outside and here's how you find them. Go!" And like, "We will send you maps!" Like, we actually do that! "Have you tried birding? Get on iNaturalist, take a picture of a bird, and a bunch of other people have taken a picture of the same bird and they can tell you exactly what it is! And then now you have friends! And now you know what that bird is!," you know?
Amory: (laughs) "And now your life is figured out!"
Sarah: Yes, "Welcome to the show, kids!"
Amory: With our lives all figured out, we said a hearty see-ya-on-the-Internet to Sarah Southerland and Matt Turner. Although Matt had a few parting wise words for us... This time, about composing social media posts.
Matt: No more than three puns.
Amory: Noted. Noted. Ben, do you have anything else?
Ben: Look, I'm still trying to figure out what, like, if you have some sort of secret... you know how like motorcycle riders will pass each other on the highway and they'll give each other that, like, low wave? Like, is there a park department version of that?
Matt: I don't know. I think maybe just a social media manager one where it's just a nod and probably a sigh or like, "Another day."
Ben: By the way, we asked Matt and Sarah after the fact what they make of all the changes happening in the social media space right now.
Amory: Like Twitter’s on-again-off-again impending doom since Elon Musk bought the platform, and NEW social media spaces like Threads and Blue Sky…
Ben: Their answers were pretty similar, so we’ll leave you with Sarah’s. She says, “The landscape is changing, but change is the only certainty. We're just going to try our best to be present where we're needed and build community on the way.”
[MUSIC + CREDITS]
B: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.
A: This episode was written and produced by me, Amory Sivertson. And co-hosted by me and…
B: Ben Brock Johnson! Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. The rest of our team is Dean Russell, Quincy Walters, Grace Tatter, Samata Joshi, Emily Jankowski and Matt Reed.
A: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between touching grass and reading social media posts about touching grass. Or at least, it is for the next month.
B: Next week, in part two of our PARKS series, we get slimy. Literally.
Amory: To me, this just looks like something took a poop, and then something took a smaller poop next to it.
A: See you then!