Earlier this year, the Federal Highway Administration urged states to refrain from using humor on highway signs. While not an outright ban, the FAA said sternly that witty signs like “Use your blink-ah” in Massachusetts and “Turn signals: the original instant message” in Utah are a safety risk.

For those who are disappointed, at least we still have the National Park Service’s social media accounts.

Run by longtime park service employee Matt Turner, the agency’s feeds are a refreshing antidote to the anger and derision that compromise so much of social media. Turner, 41, has a droll wit and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture that he uses to great effect on humorous posts that lead viewers to learn more about parks and wildlife, whether they want to or not. The jokes and puns, combined with cute animal photos, make the park service’s X account one of the most popular government accounts, with 1.3 million followers.(Admittedly, it’s hard to top NASA, which has 79.5 million followers on X.)

Turner didn’t set out to be the official pundit of the National Park Service. A Texas native, he joined the park service at age 22 and his first job was at Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia, where he handed out brochures to visitors and conducted tours. “It was a far cry from social media,” he said.

He earned a master’s degree in history, which was useful as he moved on to other national parks, including the Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site in Illinois and the Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Missouri. In these and other jobs, “when I wasn’t giving tours or working at the desk, I was working on websites or social media,” helping to tell stories about the sites, he told me. That work accelerated when Turner was assigned to work at the Midwest regional office in Omaha, Nebraska, as the park service geared up for its centennial celebration in 2016. Turner moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 2018 for his current position, in which he manages the park service’s Facebook, Instagram and X accounts, and helps other social media managers in government with their messaging.

While the job is mostly based in an office and he hasn’t traveled much in the past few years, Turner said he has visited more than 65 national parks and historic sites across the country, including Zion and Capitol Reef in Utah.

Why the National Park Service uses humor in social media

The National Park Service is, of course, a government agency with a predictably dry mission statement for its social media accounts; it involves reaching new audiences and cultivating a community of park advocates. As such, Turner has to balance his humorous content with respect for the agency and its history. “We want to use our social media in a meaningful way,” he said.

But he’s also aware that it’s a combination of humor and personality that is causing people to view and share his posts, and that the quirkiness of the feeds drives media attention. Last year, for example, The Washington Post shared “8 Hilarious but True Wildlife Trips from the National Park Service.” (One tip was “don’t pet the fluffy cows” — accompanied by an image of a bison.) It’s unlikely that this article would have been written without the “hilarious” part.

Other agencies are using the same tactic, Turner said, adding, “The TSA was an early adapter in being personality driven (in its social media account).” And Turner said he is impressed with what the Washington (state) Department of National Resources and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife are doing with their social media accounts.

As we learned from the recent crackdown on highway signs, however, not everyone appreciates humor in government enterprises.

“There’s always going to be those people you wouldn’t want to stand next to at a party, right? Or prefer their government agencies to be by the book and very stoic,” Turner said. “But I think, for the most part, the positivity outweighs (the complaints of) any people who are critical of the style or the tone.”

Another challenge is when people don’t get the jokes — for example the “second pinecone” punchline on a post about deer would be lost on anyone who doesn’t know about the eating schedule of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits.

And a post about an otter sliding down a hill wouldn’t be as funny for people unfamiliar with the music of Adele.

Also, some posts don’t land exactly as Turner thought they would. On Halloween of 2022, for example, he posted a black and white image of a Sonoran desert toad with glowing eyes, calling it “toad-ally terrifying” and suggesting that people should refrain from licking it. Some news outlets reported on the post seriously, suggesting that toad licking in national parks was becoming a problem. The website of Smithsonian Magazine, for example, published an article saying the park service had posted “an unusual request” and delving into why a demand for toad secretions is bad for the species. (Full disclosure: Deseret published a piece on toad licking, too.) “You never know what’s going to be picked up, so you have to prepare for almost anything,” Turner said.

His favorite posts have been ones about crocheted fish — “just for the halibut” was the tagline — and funny posts about staying safe in national parks are always popular, even when they don’t include photos.

Most posts are educational, but others are just plain fun.

Turner, who met his wife at a national historic site, said that because of the nature of his job, he’s pretty much always checking social media, looking for ideas and seeing how posts are performing, even after business hours. Because of this, he doesn’t put much time into his personal accounts, preferring to focus his attention on America’s parks.

“There are so many unique sites — 429 national park units that range from everything from Yellowstone to the Statue of Liberty and Gettysburg,” he said. And it’s the parks, not Matt Turner, that he hopes people will remember when they see one of his posts. “It’s not about me. The National Park Service is the brand that is speaking.”

And, also, occasionally a bear.