Guest Blog – Facebook Nature by Lucy McRobert

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Lucy McRobert is an environmental historian, nature writer, wildlife blogger and Creative Director of the ‘A Focus On Nature’ scheme, which seeks to encourage young people into nature conservation careers in Britain. She gained a First Class degree from the University of Nottingham in 2012; she has written for Nottinghamshire Today in conjunction with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, the Ghosts of Gone Birds international art/conservation symposium, 2020 Vision (2012) and was runner-up in BBC Wildlife magazines ‘Nature Writer of the Year’ competition (2012), as well as blogging regularly for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

 

 

I’ve heard my generation dubbed as many things: the Millennial generation; Generation Y; and even, to my lasting mortification, the ‘TOWIE’ generation. But, there’s one adjective that I’m rather fond of and that is the ‘Facebook’ generation. Whatever your opinion may be of the internet and social media, there’s no getting away from the fact that it was a member of this young, dynamic and intelligent generation who challenged and transformed the way that we view communication, marketing and advertising in the twenty-first century; and like every other industry in the world, British nature conservation has had to adapt, too.

Since Stephen Moss’s Natural Childhood for the National Trust (2012), adapted from Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005), Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) has become a cause célèbre for nature conservation policy-makers and professionals. There is a growing anxiety that children are becoming isolated from the natural world, wary of the supposed dangers, symptoms of our society’s over-reliance on protection laws, stranger-danger and our dependence on modern technology. Many investigations have outlined the potential problems as a consequence – a deficit in the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of our children, and a lack of empathy and understanding of the natural world, with potentially dire consequences for the wider environment.

However, let us examine the bigger picture, which is that ‘Facebook Nature’ (my own terminology) has succeeded in bringing the great outdoors directly into the home, allowing for access and interaction with wildlife in a way that simply isn’t possible in physical terms for most ordinary, hardworking, urban/suburban people. So I’d like to raise a glass to just a few of the positive things that the internet and social media have done for the British nature conservation movement.

FOLLOW THE LEADER – Looking at the basics, Twitter and Facebook have played a staggering role in allowing the nature-loving British public to interact with wildlife experts, TV personalities and eNGOs. This can be a wonderful experience, to see a photo that you ‘Tweeted’ appear on national television, or get a response from a nature conservation hero. Some random figures: BBC Springwatchc.50,000 followers, c.60,000 likes; the average Wildlife Trust – c.3,600 followers, c.1,200 likes; the RSPB – c.56,000 followers, c.35,000 likes – not including thousands who only follow their local region or reserve.

SPINNING THE WEB – If there’s one thing I love about reading an online article, it’s the guaranteed barrage of comments underneath that represent a whole variety of opinions. This kind of intelligent and thoughtful debate (well, mostly…) has been aided by the use of forums and blogging to discuss environmental issues; take Mark’s blog for instance: c.9,000 unique visitors per month, with up to 100 comments per post, reaching an audience of politicians, journalists and conservation professionals as well as normal wildlife enthusiasts. Of course, anyone can say anything on a blog or forum without any credentials or expertise, leading to some outrageous, false or plain boring statements, and so must be treated with necessary caution.

STATUS UPDATE – Citizen Science projects have come on leaps and bounds since the development of the internet. Whilst some, like the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch provide a snapshot in time, on-going surveys, for example BirdTrack, contribute to a growing depth and breadth of information, helping to chart arrival/departure dates of migratory species, and contribute to large scale projects such as the BTO Bird Atlas (2007-11). There were over half a million records submitted to BirdTrack in April 2013, along with 14,600 complete lists, showing a staggering response to improvements in technology (the launch of the BirdTrack App). Detailed surveys like this would be more costly, more time-consuming, and less richly sourced were the data still submitted completely in hard copy.

VIRTUAL PEEPSHOW – Whilst there is the possibility that watching nature on a screen may prevent observation in real life, I prefer to view webcams as stepping-stones to watching nature, especially relevant in areas where wildlife may be less visible. They are inclusive, enhancing a communal identity – for school children and students as well as wildlife junkies, and allow for participation with global audiences; the Nottingham Trent University peregrines have attracted 300,000 views this year, and since January, the Brownsea Island Lagoon camera has attracted over 10,000 visitors, with numbers increasing since the return of the terns. Let’s hope that they start replacing soap operas!

YOU’VE BEEN TAGGED – Wildlife does not respect political boundaries, making the protection of migratory animals very difficult. In recent years, eNGOs have made the most of satellite tagging on birds and mammals to track their movements across continents, often allowing sponsors to track the movements of an individual animal. The WWT stirred up support with the tagging of 11 red-breasted geese in Bulgaria recently, but the award for public engagement has to go to the BTO Cuckoo Tracking project, started in 2011. Maybe it was the celebrity involvement; maybe it’s that the sound of the cuckoo resonates with so many; or maybe it was the optimisation of the internet and social media that has ensured the projects on-going success. Go, Team ‘Chris’!

LIKE • COMMENT • SHARE – Whilst e-petitions can be mildly irritating and arguably irrelevant, evidently we’re not happy to let the government have its wicked way with us. The ‘Stop the Badger Cull’ petition is well past 200k signatures – five times more than the hardcopy petition that halted the Grey Seal Cull (1978). And whilst the torrent of Facebook abuse over Richard Benyon’s proposed buzzard cull seems to have been removed, the Independent’s article attracted 103 overwhelmingly negative comments, 416 retweets, and 1,800 Facebook shares. We are yet to perfect our online campaigning techniques, but it certainly is one way to make your voice heard.

#NATURE – To postulate that the internet can even go a tiny way to replacing our connection with the natural world would be flippant, narrow-minded and dangerous; however, when used intelligently and responsibly, it offers the chance to take British nature conservation to an entirely new level of understanding and interaction. It has the power to educate, excite and engage with a wider audience than any single organisation can achieve through hardcopy publications, or that any educational institution can accomplish when shackled by a counter-productive and safety-conscious curriculum. It has succeeded where every government agency or voluntary body has struggled, by creating a local, national, even global wildlife constituency of millions of individuals interested in the preservation of our natural world. The next ten years will show yet more dramatic changes not only in our ecosystems, but also in the way that we communicate these challenges to a mass audience; it is up to us to decide how far nature and technology can realistically work together for mutual gain.

Thanks to Sarah Thorp (Nottingham Trent University Environment Team); Erin McDaid (Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust); Nick Moran (BirdTrack); Paul Stancliffe (BTO); Paul Morton (Birds of Poole Harbour); Rob Lambert (University of Nottingham); and of course, Mark!

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13 Replies to “Guest Blog – Facebook Nature by Lucy McRobert”

  1. Lucy, I agree with all your comments and the information we now have available to us is outstanding. You have written this from your perspective as being young enough to be my granddaughter and very computer literate which brings me to the one area where I increasingly feel frustrated. I have no wish to join facebook or twitter and increasingly find it annoying when I see an advert highlighting some issue or other, only to find I have to be on facebook to see it. Even on Mark's blog I very occasionally see a reference to something which must have happened on twitter and therefore affects my understanding of what is being discussed.

    That is an oldy's grumble and I do commend everything you say and know you are right but there are some of us out who here who are starting to feel slightly excluded on occasions.

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    1. This is an excellent article by Lucy, and I’ve nothing to add to the comment by Anne below, who has got it spot on.

      Bob – like you I’ve never engaged with Facebook, and thought that twitter was for self-obsessed celebrities. But 6 months ago I was persuaded by my daughter and a younger work colleague to give twitter a try. What a revelation! Through it, I’ve kept up to date with research in my chosen area, followed Andy Musgrove’s attempt to see 1000 species in a 1k square, and learned how the Glaslyn Ospreys are getting on this year. It even helped me nail a long-term bogey bird for my British list!

      So here’s some completely sincere advice. Ask your granddaughter, or another twenty-something, to get you started. It isn’t hard, and there’s lots of advice on the internet (just google ‘beginner’s guide to twitter’).

      Then look me up – I’m at @AndrewLucas103, since you ask!

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  2. Another on-line resource that is doing sterling work in engaging people with nature is Open University's iSpot (http://www.ispot.org.uk/). Basically, it provides a platform for users to upload digital photos of any wildlife they have seen either with an ID supplied or without. Users span a complete range of expertise across a wide range of animal and plant taxa and this iSpot community enables most pictures to be identified and allows people to develop their ID skills and knowledge of wildlife. If you're hot on birds but weak on fungi, say, you can have the pleasure of sharing your bird knowledge with ornithological beginners whilst brushing up your own knowledge of mushrooms and toadstools.
    One potential criticism of all these internet and social media is that they involve us sitting indoors in front of computer screens and thereby keep us away from raw nature but iSpot certainly encourages people to get out there and get to grips with the wildlife in their neighbourhood.

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  3. Well done Lucy for highlighting the many positive things that social media (and the younger generation that built it and made it so successful) have achieved for us all. We hear so much bad press about both. I work as a college lecturer (post-16 students) and I am lucky enough to be surrounded, in my working life, by young people who are massively engaged in nature and really do want to make a difference to their local and global environments - and the internet, facebook, webcams, blogs, and sites like iSpot, are all really valuable in enriching their experiences.

    Bob, I understand your reluctance to join sites like twitter and facebook. I shared your feelings for some years - worried about privacy issues (in my line of work, I have to be very careful), sure that it just wasn't my cup of tea - but, persuaded by colleagues and friends I bit the bullet. I am very glad I did! Through twitter I have met some remarkable people, many of whom I have gone on to actually meet in person (including Mark Avery himself!) and some of whom have become good friends. It is through twitter that I first heard about Mark's blog! On facebook I am very choosy about who I select as a "friend" and very careful about privacy - you don't have to befriend anyone or post anything, you can choose who sees your stuff; but you can still use it as a resource - through the pages I have chosen to "like" on facebook I can keep bang up-to-date with what's going on at my local favourite RSPB reserves, know instantly what the ospreys are up to at Dyfi, see photos of wildlife around the world, hear about rare bird sightings in my area (twitter is also great for instant news updates like that!), I can quickly advise my students of job opportunities, and I can ask/answer questions and speak to experts, in the field, in real time - as well as the more "usual" uses of social media like keeping in touch with friends abroad and seeing photos of friends & family that I would otherwise miss.
    Like it or not, social media is massively influential - and the more people we can persuade to use it for good, constructive, positive action, the better.

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  4. I agree with all of this but I worry it is dangerously wrong. The nub of the argument is under the heading #nature - and I fear for all that follows after the "however" in the second line.

    Yes of course we can all sign bee petitions - but what if we know nothing of bees (or farming) - or of the possible moral hazard in banning neonics? (I signed petitions, but I can't know I did the right thing).

    Supporting nature conservation is certainly an intellectual position, and also an emotional one. But to be powerful, the passion has to be based on deep understanding. John Clare and Edward Thomas didn't sign petitions they wrote of what they knew.

    Social media can engender interest and increase knowledge. They can be positive, in this sphere as in others. But we have been watching powerful natural history programmes on the TV for half a century, yet forest is still felled at will for palm oil plantations. Social media will not change that one bit.

    The nature conservation movement is moving from a phase where it had to trumpet its successes - despite the overall negative trends - to one in which it is increasingly recognising that it - we - are simply failing. To suggest that social media are somehow even part of the answer seems opitimistic at present. It is postmodern ersatz participation and will achieve nothing.

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  5. Of course, anyone with genuine credentials and expertise can say anything on a blog or forum, leading to some outrageous, false or plain boring statements, and so must be treated with necessary caution.

    AC - "postmodern ersatz participation" - Hot Dog A'mighty that's a good one!

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  6. Well done Lucy, a very well thought out, researched and put together blog entry.
    Of course it's always nicer to experience nature, conservation or the great out doors first hand but that’s not always possible for everyone.
    The internet whether it be social media, websites or webcams provides a 24 hour education platform for like minded people to 'dip into' whenever is convenient for them.
    I personally believe it can also boost an individual’s passion to succeed in nature conservation too.
    When I was at school I didn't know a single other birdwatcher or nature lover my age, which in turn meant I was only inspired by what I did and what I saw. Now you can go online and meet whole communities, locally, national or internationally who have the same interests and passions, potentially opening many new doors for individuals who are motivated enough to reach their life ambitions!

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  7. Hmmm.... “postmodern ersatz participation”... yes, it is a good phrase, but it is quite wrong. Social media will not change anything? Why do you think oppressive regimes censor/suppress internet access?

    On a (very) small scale, let me illustrate - last year, on twitter, a couple of people thought it would be interesting to "Bioblitz" their garden, to see what variety of wildlife could be found. The idea took off (I was one of the people who thought it sounded interesting, so I joined in) and several of us had a great time, learned a great deal - using iSpot and iRecord we had access to lots of expertise and advice - interest in the project grew and grew, solely through social media. And this year, it has become a National event!
    (See the website here: http://www.naturewatched.org/gbb.html )
    Hundreds of ordinary people, all across the country, on the 1st and 2nd June, will be spending time observing and learning about the habitats, invertebrates, birds, mammals etc that visit their own patch - and what's more, the data will be collated, verified and used by real experts in the field. Not bad for a little idea started on twitter...
    Social media really does motivate people to actually get up and do things, in a way that passively watching TV never did. What we, as adults and/or educators, need to do is to guide that action in a positive direction.

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