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"Liking" Trees Takes on a New Meaning As Harvard's Arnold Arboretum pushes into social media, trees and technology form an unexpected partnership


By Steve Bradt


hile the planet’s trees outnumber humans roughly 60 to 1, they’re bit players in the burgeoning world of social media; few magnolias or maples have gone viral on YouTube. Lindens, lilacs, and larches aren’t attracting thousands of Twitter followers. Willows and walnuts haven’t garnered many “likes” on Facebook. But Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum aims to change that, giving the world’s trees a place alongside more charismatic species—the kittens and panda cubs that have rocketed to prominence via social media. Already recognized as one of the world’s bestdocumented botanical collections, the Arboretum’s 15,000 trees, shrubs, and woody vines are now making the leap into our hyper-networked world. In the process, the Arboretum aims to create arboreal celebrities, as it were, whose roots and canopies extend far beyond its 281 acres in the Boston neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roslindale. 12

Volume 5, Issue 1

“We’re charged, as a University, with sharing, and with making the world at large a more informed place,” says William (Ned) Friedman, the Arboretum’s director and the Arnold professor of organismic and evolutionary biology. Noting that many of the Arboretum’s 250,000 annual visitors speak Russian and Chinese—among many other languages—Friedman says, “We want to interact with 6 billion people, not just 250,000. Social media has the capacity to internationalize us.” Seeing the forest for the trees When he became the Arboretum’s director two years ago—joining Harvard after a decade and a half on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder—Friedman faced a steep climb to refashion the institution into the rising social-media star it is today. Working with a small committee of staffers—including George Morris, the Arboretum’s director of information technology, applications programmer

The Arnold Arboretum uses a number of social media tools to spread the word about their programs and collections. Above, visitors snap photographs of the Arboretum’s collections. Many of these images will make their way to the Arboretum’s Flickr stream, Twitter, or Facebook pages. Visitors can also use their smartphones to access an interactive map of the grounds.

Donna Tremonte, and director of science facilitation Faye Rosin—Friedman set out to freshen the Arboretum’s online persona. “It doesn’t exist at the Arboretum if it’s not on our web site,” Friedman recalls telling his colleagues. Morris and Tremonte worked to modernize the site and move it to a content management system, allowing a much larger group of Arboretum staffers to post material. A Flickr stream opened the site even more broadly by soliciting photos of “My Arboretum” from visitors. This democratization of content creation quickly lent the Arboretum’s site a needed dose of