Note: I followed up with Vincent in March 2022 and here’s what he’s been up to since this podcast was first posted:
1. When we spoke more than a decade ago, you were very focused on building community via Twitter, and you’re still very active there. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about engaging on that platform on the topic of cultural heritage?
Twitter has changed a lot since we last spoke and it continues to change but some of the basic tenants remain the same. It’s very important to connect with others interested in your area of interest, whether that be fly fishing, brewing kombucha, or cultural heritage. Search for and follow these accounts, like and comment on their tweets, engage with them. Ask for feedback, create polls, pose questions to encourage interaction with you.
Create Twitter Lists to separate your interests into specific topics, or follow Lists that others have already made. Speaking of change, Lists are now accessible from the main screen with a swipe to the left. You can pin up to five there, so you can very easily flip between them. By making Twitter Lists much more accessible in this way it has made them an even more useful way of filtering the information.
2. You’ve developed websites on Egyptology, with Pyramid Texts Online still commanding attention since our last conversation. What do you think is the key to long-term success in building a last web presence around historical themes?
It has to be useful or interesting to others. I don’t update the Pyramid Texts Online website very often but it is still very popular among those interested in the Pyramid Texts. It specialises in one very specific topic and I think that is the main reason for its continued success.
I regularly receive emails from visitors to the website who want to learn more and I enjoy the discussion that often ensues. Not every interaction has to be on public display and often a deeper and more genuine conversation is enjoyed in private.
Links from reputable sources are of course a valuable asset, and you will likely get these links if you are focused on your niche, specialising in a specific area or topic.
3. Do you have any upcoming projects or interests that you’re currently exploring, and what areas of online media are intriguing to you at the moment?
A new area of online media that I’ve been getting into are 3D models. They are such a great way of experiencing artefacts, exploring inside temples and pyramids, or even understanding the context of a dig site in 3D.
I’ve been sharing ancient Egyptian models on Twitter. One of my followers even printed one of the models on his 3D printer, resulting in his very own statue of Hatshepsut!
A long term project that has had some exciting developments recently is the Earth Pyramid, which is essentially a time capsule for the world in the form of a pyramid.
We’ve got some big players involved, including world leading engineering company Arup. During the construction we’ll be testing some of the main theories of how the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built.
Recently the nation of Senegal has actively embraced the project and is keen to have the Earth Pyramid built there.
There will be four different chambers within the Earth Pyramid, each designed to capture a different aspect of our time on this planet and give everyone in the world who wishes, the opportunity to participate in this global event. The website earthpyramid.org has a more in depth description of the project and I welcome your readers to explore the site to learn more and become involved.
BEGIN ORIGINAL POST >>Have you ever wanted to learn hieroglyphics? What if a podcast could help you with that? There is one out there and it’s produced by this episode’s guest. His name is Vincent Brown. Vincent is kind of a new media renaissance man, with a focus on Egyptology and the pyramids. In addition to the podcast he created, he also maintains blogs and a very active Twitter community. That’s one of the things he’s going to talk about is optimizing your Twitter participation for creating a community: crafting relevant tweets and how to optimize those with hashtags as well. Here’s that interview. [Timestamp #00:01:39.6#]
Vincent Brown: I’m a web designer by trade. Before I got into freelance web design, I was an IT network administrator. I was a trainer as well and taught web design. I actually invented a form of Twitter with some guys in my group. I always thought that it would be fantastic to be able to update a website from a mobile phone. We actually got a prototype working. That was 2006, and in the same month, Twitter came out, so I jumped on to that. That’s the powerful aspect of Twitter–to have it on the sidebar of your blog and have those elements remotely feeding into it. #00:02:53.5#
Jeff Guin: Did you have any concept as to how things would evolve with Twitter? #00:02:54.3#
VB: No way. I wasn’t even thinking about social aspects. I was really just thinking about remotely updating a blog, and of course it’s much more than that. #00:03:05.3#
JG: You have quite a community there. Was it intentional for you to build a community through Twitter? #00:03:21.7#
VB: Originally, I started using it as a news outlet–as a micro-blog. My blog posts take hours to write. I get carried away, so there’s a lack of time for doing regular blog posts. As a way of combating that, I decided to post the micro-updates everyday. I generally put out 10-20 a day through my Google Reader feeds that I’ve developed over the years. And that expanded into doing lessons on Twitter as well. I was learning ancient Egyptian, which being a complex language, is a long-term study. I thought if would be great to help my colleagues who were studying with me to have flash cards. So I started by creating a flashcard for one word each day. At the end of the week, I’d compile them and make a chart, which I put on Flickr. Then I thought a video would be even more effective. So I created a video each week to recap six words. Being a trainer, I knew that learning requires extras like sound and visuals for easy memorization. I added music and different backgrounds and released it as Creative Commons content. I really enjoyed the community collaboration of using others’ content and doing that through Creative Commons is a good way, because it allows all involved to be credited for their work. #00:05:48.5#
JG: And this podcast is still available. I discovered it on iTunes. #00:05:53.3#
VB: Yes, it’s available on YouTube and Vimeo as well. #00:05:58.4#
JG: Who were the folks you interacted with in social media early on? #00:06:01.9#
VB: The Brooklyn Museum was on the forefront early, doing amazing things. They took a few trips to the hospital with their mummy. They did CT scans on a mummy the museum has. Shelley Bernstein, the IT person there, decided to live blog it. I set up a live Twitter feed and embedded it in my blog. I also automated the Twitpics as well so they were coming out on my blog, and encouraged my readers to interact with them so that she was able to receive questions and could ask the curators and scientists questions. The museum also has embraced Flickr in a big way–really pushing The Commons. Flickr was one the first social media companies to embrace the idea of The Commons [here’s a list of participating organizations]. It’s a feature of Flickr, so it was powerful for the museum to put their archives on The Commons. There are a few others: Boston University and Harvard collaborated with Peter Der Manuelian of the Giza Archives, to create some fantastic representations of the Giza plateau and some of the tombs there. #00:08:54.7#
JG: Tell me more about your blog. That really is the heart of your community. #00:08:56.4#
VB: I started it in January 2008. I created a few other websites before that, including Pyramid Texts Online, which is more academic than Talking Pyramids. I traveled to Egypt in 1997. Although the internet was around then, and I did a lot of research online, it was really hard to ascertain which pyramids were open. I was disappointed to arrive at the Great Pyramid and found that two of the three chambers were closed. In fact, another pyramid that I was very interested in going to–the Unas Pyramid in Saqqara, which is the most elaborately inscribed with texts, was sadly closed when I got there. I thought there really should an online resource where travelers can go to find this out. That was impetus behind the site. I also wanted to get into blogging. A website is quite static. Little did I know that a blog requires much more attention, and regular updates. I’m still building up those pyramid pages. I’ve been using social media on those static pages by pulling in, for example, Flickr collections of those individual pyramids. I like that because the content is constantly changing without me having to manually do it myself. #00:11:16.5#
JG: How did you get interested in Egyptology? #00:11:21.5#
VB: It’s hard to pinpoint because I’ve always liked Egyptian music, especially. The first time I picked up a guitar, I wanted to play an middle-eastern sounding riff. It’s my favorite sound. One of my first memories when I was about four-years-old was sitting down with my father to make a cardboard pyramid. It was said that if you put a piece of fruit in a pyramid shape, it will preserve it. It was the era of Uri Geller who was doing the spoon bending tricks. So we put a grape inside and folded it up and sticker-taped the sides. Being four, I wasn’t sure what the word “preserved” meant, so I just thought as long as I could rattle the box and hear it, it was preserved! So that’s my earliest memory. Then, in 1996, I read Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tompkins. It was a pretty comprehensive book that got me really interested in learning more. A year later, I had saved up enough money to go to Egypt and it continued from there. #00:13:34.0#
JG: Is your professional background purely in web design, or are you also a professional archaeologist? #00:13:41.9#
VB: No, I have no professional background in archaeology or Egyptology. #00:13:50.1#
JG: Yet, you’re an authority … #00:13:57.5#
VB: Funny, isn’t it? That’s the nature of the web, combined with passion. If you love something enough and dedicate your time to it, then anyone can master anything. I have a lot of learning to do still. There’s over 100 pyramids in Egypt and that’s a lot of study. Also the language–that’s an ongoing thing that I dive in and out of as time permits. #00:14:29.5#
JG: Let’s talk more about your Flickr stream, because you have a fairly comprehensive set of photos there. Tell me what inspired you to create your photostream and what the future might be for it. #00:14:45.5#
VB: As I said before I first found out about Flickr when I was teaching web design. It was a great project, because there were community organizations who needed websites made, and I had these guys who could create websites. It was a skill-building process in which Flickr became a major tool. Because of the Creative Commons content there, we could legally use Flickr as a source of images for these websites. I opened up my own personal account, and encouraged my friends and family to do the same. In the old days, you would have to compile photos into a five or 10 megabyte attachment in an email that no one wants to receive. Obviously, Flickr is fantastic for holiday photos. I also find it fantastic for research and use it as a search engine. Recently a friend told me about a church he was visiting in Holland, so I went straight to Flickr and found hundreds of photos. He was describing the patterns on the floor, and I responded “Yes, I see.” He says “what do you mean.” He was surprised so much was already on Flickr. It’s a hugely powerful tool. #00:16:49.7#
JG: You’ve got all the big guys covered: Flickr, Twitter, etc. Are there any other forms of social media that you use to deepen your connection with your audience. #00:17:01.5#
VB: There’s also Delicious.com. Delicious is really powerful. I used to have bookmarks, which got really big and unwieldy. Delicious is a terrific online tool that allows you to give your bookmarks tags to keep them organized and relevant. That is also fed into the sidebar of the blog as well. The thing about YouTube is some people don’t realize how you can used for anything other than upload. I only have a few videos of my own online. However, I have created playlists for all sorts of topics, such as individual pyramids. These playlists are added automatically to each pyramid’s page. Apart from the playlists, I’m always favoriting as well. When you arrive at my channel, you always see the most recent video that I’ve favorited. Sometimes I don’t watch all the videos right away and will come back on the weekend and watch them all in the playlist then. #00:19:48.2#
The big news has been the uprising in Egypt. I’ve tried to keep my focus on pyramids, but it’s hard with such a huge event, so I made up a playlist of the Egyptian songs that were written during and after the protests. #00:20:13.6#
JG: Have you found that those events have driven additional traffic to your blog? #00:20:14.3#
VB: Yes. I’m posting more regularly since this is big news. I’ve tried to keep my readers informed about the looting at the individual pyramid fields. That’s been hard. Official reports have been conflicting and it’s very ongoing. #00:21:05.1#
JG: A lot has been made of the role of new media in the social unrest in the Middle East and other places in the world. What’s your opinion? #00:21:14.0#
VB: It seems that is the case. It started with a post on Facebook by the Google executive Wael Ghonim that was an impetus for the uprising. Twitter was a very big part of that as well. We saw when the internet was turned off, that Twitter and Google joined forces to create a service that would allow people to send tweets through a public phone box, or any phone. We saw two giants come together beyond their competition. Then, once the internet was turned off, the people were in the streets and there came a point when social media didn’t matter anymore. But people were still recording video with their phones and other devices. When the internet came back up, we got to see those stories. Social media played a big part, and I don’t know if it would have happened without that first Facebook post. #00:22:55.2#
JG: How do you curate the news that you put out? #00:22:58.3#
VB: It’s very time consuming. It’s a matter of sitting down and skimming through those feeds. I also use Twitter as much as Google Reader. I have a lot of lists that I look at and particular people that I follow on Twitter. It takes me several hours everyday to do that. #00:23:50.3#
JG: Related to Twitter, you mentioned your lists. Explain how you’ve broken your lists down. #00:24:04.7#
VB: My lists are my meat and potatoes. That’s where all the action happens. I’ve got an Egyptologist list that is purely people working in that field. Then there’s a museums list, and a general ancient Egypt news list, which comprises anyone talking about the topic. This lists are private right now as I try to curate the information, but I’m considering opening those up more. #00:25:23.5#
JG: You are for hire as a web designer. What’s your web design specialty? #00:25:37.6#
VB: My specialty is care and attention to the client. I don’t do cookie-cutter sites. Training is important is well. I want to empower the person to be able to update their site as well. For that reason, I used WordPress a lot, so that people can update their content without having to pay me or someone else to do it. I also train them in social media and often set them up with a Flickr account and teach them to make that useful to promote their website. And also using social media to help them promote their site as well, so there’s an ongoing promotion service if they want that. If anyone does want a site made, they can contact me at Talking Pyramids or through my business website “Vintuitive.” People can have a look there if they want to see some of the sites I’ve made. #00:27:14.8#
JG: What’s your strategy for updating your social media? #00:27:18.4#
VB: For Twitter, I post 10-20 updates a day, depending on the news. YouTube, a couple of times a week. Flickr, once a week. Being from South Australia, it’s not easy for me to go and take photos of pyramids. Some I’ve posted have been from the South Australian Museum’s Egypt Room, for example. People also send me photos. Flickr is very powerful for contacting people who have just come back from Egypt. Everyday, I’ll finish my news posts with a photo, usually on Twitter. Those will usually come from a Flickr search. I’m always looking for feedback from visitors to find out which pyramids are open. Official sites will say one thing and things may be totally different on the ground. Ticket prices will also go up and down. It’s a bit time consuming, but it’s also a good way to expand the network. Those people will start following my Flickr stream and blog because they are obviously interested if they cared enough to visit the pyramids. #00:29:37.2#
JG: Do you find that you have different audiences for each of the social tools you are involved with? #00:29:52.8#
VB: They’re very different audiences. I have a lot of schools linking to a post on ancient Egyptian games. I think in year six primary schools, they do a segment on ancient Egypt. That post receives more hits on my blog than any other. I’ve got a post on how to make a paper pyramid that’s very popular with schools as well. I don’t know how many people follow me across these services. There are a lot of people who just follow me on Flickr. Same with Twitter. Some of those people who read my posts of Twitter never go to my blog. Some bloggers will only use Twitter to announce new blog posts. They are shortchanging themselves because Twitter is a fantastic resource for reading. I spend a lot of time reading there. It’s really just a matter of spending time to manage your filtering. I think most people, when they come to Twitter think this is all about “that guy eating a ham sandwich” or “someone watching television.” Of course, it’s about following the right people. #00:31:46.9#
JG: How do you filter you Twitter feeds other than your lists? #00:31:52.4#
VB: I use TweetDeck, which includes rows and rows of searches. I’ll run a search on “egyptian uprising”. There’s the hashtag #Jan25 which is what I tag any post to do with the Egyptian uprising. Hashtags are a big part of emphasizing what’s important on Twitter. I will do searches on particular hashtags and save it in a TweetDeck column. I’ve intentionally kept anything not related to Egypt out of that Twitter stream, and that’s why I have another Twitter account as vinbrown. I use that account for digital archaeology. #00:33:57.7#
JG: This leads to one of my pet peeves, which is use of hashtags. Many people are putting the hash symbol in front of every noun in their tweets, and it’s annoying and unreadable. From your perspective, what is proper hashtag etiquette? #00:34:14.2#
VB: Don’t look at the trending topics and use those hashtags. Too many put something like #justinbieber in front of something that has absolutely nothing to do with him. I always put any hashtag at the front end of my tweet. It’s stripped out of the sidebar on my blog. Its is okay to make up your own hashtag, as I started doing with #digitalarchaeology. It’s being used my a number of archaeologists now. #00:36:24.7#
JG: I’m seeing #digitalarchaeology in a number of tweets beside your own. What does it mean? #00:36:43.1#
VB: In the examples we talked about before, I think the work of organizations like the Brooklyn Museum online would qualify as digital archaeology. Also, much of the efforts to recreated archaeological sites in 3-D is a powerful thing. There’s also people like Sarah Parcak, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Parcak), and egyptologist who specializes in using satellite technology in two ways–not just to search for sites on the ground, but also to use GPS to navigate to those sites on the ground. That process has enabled archaeologists to find new sites. That’s definitely digital archaeology. #00:37:55.4#
JG: Have you been involved in any uses of SecondLife in archaeology? #00:37:58.7#
VB: I dabbled in Second Life for a project of my own. But I found on the Discovery Channel a really innovative project in SecondLife, which was The Book of the Dead. Now we’re not just recreating a three dimensional space. #00:38:49.0#
JG: Are there any unexpected connections you’ve made through your online communication? #00:39:01.2#
VB: One thing I really haven’t talked about it Pyramid Texts Online. I’ve been contacted a lot through that website from people who are doing work in this field. For example, the Toledo Museum wanted to know if there was any way of getting high resolution images of the pyramid texts. It’s a long process of finding those hi-res images, but I did eventually find them. What I did with the site was to create a nonlinear presentation of the texts. There’s contention among Egyptologists regarding how they were originally sequenced. By putting them in a linear format in a book, you’re forcing the reader into a linear sequence. Really, the only way you effectively present them without bias is to present them in a 3-D sense. That’s how Pyramid Texts Online came about, in a two dimensional application of that idea. When you go to the site, you can read the whole north wall of the sarcophagus chamber. I recreated the wall from a photographic plate. Those photos came from an old book called the Pyramid Texts of Unas. Turns out the photos were taken in 1950 by a guy named Fred Husson. I did some research and found that he is still alive and well. I contacted him, and he didn’t have the photos, so it was back the research. Then I found that both of the people who were involved in making that book Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino) and Alexandre Piankoff, were born in the same year and died within a few weeks apart in 1967 before the book was finished. So it was handed over to the curator of the Brooklyn Museum at that time. So I thought, if he finished the book, the images were likely to be in the repository at the Brooklyn Museum. So I contact Shelley Bernstein, who I had the interaction with on the “monitoring the mummies” project, and asked if she could find a record of the images. A week later, she got back to me and said they had found them. It was an exciting moment to have copies of those photographs finally go back to Fred. They were recently used in a publication. #00:43:14.8#
JG: Do you use your own podcast to learn hieroglyphics? #00:43:19.2#
VB: That was the reason I created it. The vocab is the hardest thing. Eventually, you memorize all the signs and realize what they mean, but it’s another thing to know all the vocab. It’s an ongoing thing and I’m still learning. I can read basic steles and funerary inscriptions, but some of the more complicated things like pyramid texts are very difficult. We are now working to create a 3-D representation of the pyramid texts. Part of that recreation will include analysis of the texts from a variety of people, somewhat like a wiki. Each line could be translated, and then updated with additional commentary and viewpoints. The problem with a MediaWiki format is syntax, especially for the older members of the group. #00:46:45.5#
JG: Why do you think that is? Not that wikis are mind-numbingly complex, but why should you need to know any code at all to use one? #00:46:46.4#
VB: Especially with Wikipedia, you would think they would drive that forward. They did recently upgrade their interface, but it’s still not there. It’s a fantastic resource. And you have to think, who’s making these edits if it requires that kind of technical know-how. #00:47:35.2#
JG: I agree. Vincent, thanks so much for visiting with me. #00:47:41.7#
VB: Thank you, Jeff
Additional resources from Vincent:
- A Tumblr page that shows his network of sites and services.
- Subscribe to VOCAB with Bennu on iTunes
- CC Case Study on the Podcast
- Google Docs and Slideshare Study page for Egyptian Vocab
- Panoramio/Google Map of Saqqara that shows sites in a geographically.