Can You Help Sharks and Bears by Friending Them on Facebook?
When you know an animal as an individual, you’re much more likely to care about its welfare. That’s the thinking behind a new social media app that developers hope will spur more interest in animal conservation efforts.
As part of ongoing scientific collaborations around the world that study wildlife populations of whale sharks, manta rays, and polar bears, researchers are tagging thousands of animals to track their movements and monitor their daily lives.
A new social media application called “Wild Me” allows users to “friend” these individually trackable animals on Facebook. The developers of the Wild Me app describe what they are attempting to accomplish in this way:
Wild Me is a unique mix of software, science, and conservation. Our project engages the general public by merging wildlife and human social networks, using real world scientific research as a data feed for examining animal populations in a new light…as explorable networks of individuals with social and genetic relationships much like our own.
Each animal has its own bio page with periodic updates, photos and input from researchers who are tracking the animal. Each recorded sighting enables followers to keep up with the animal’s movements and activities.
Increasing Our Perception of the Value of Conserving Animals
“We want people to see these animals as individuals worth conserving,” developer Jason Holmberg told the Washington Post. “To do that, we wanted a social media network that can span space, time — and species.”
Watch a video about how Wild Me came to be and how it works:
Holmberg’s vision is that the app will alert an animal’s friends about where the animal is, what social dynamics it engages in, and even provide information about the researchers who are feeding the app all this information.
Uploaded photos and information updates provided by researchers will, Holmberg hopes, lead to increased engagement and awareness about the individual animal. Its human Facebook friends can watch and wonder where it’s going, what other animals it’s traveling with, whether it has offspring, and more.
The creators of the Wild Me app are hoping that if enough people “friend” an animal and become interested in its ongoing activities, it will galvanize them into caring about the species as a whole. With luck, that level of increased interest will eventually translate into conservation policies that help these species survive and thrive.
“People want to be engaged in conservation, but they get disillusioned when they just sign a petition or donate money and never hear anything on the topic again,” noted conservation biologist and ray expert Andrea Marshall told the Washington Post. “Getting updates on what an animal is doing or what researchers have learned from it will make participants feel involved and connected.”
Marshall likes this app and what it’s trying to do so much that she contributed her own images and data from her extensive Ph.D. dissertation research on giant rays. Others are following suit. According to the Washington Post, Marshall believes providing her manta ray data to Wild Me may be “the single most important things she does for their conservation.”
Pick Your New Animal Friends — Some Even Have Names
A few, but not all, of the thousands of animals currently trackable on Wild Me have actual names. You might choose to follow Stumpy, the 10-ton whale shark who likes to swim off the coast of Western Australia near Ningaloo Reef. There’s also Pringles, another whale shark who frequents the waters near Tofo, Mozambique. How about Zazzy, the polar bear from Churchill, Manitoba?
Is there a downside to anthropomorphizing animals by letting people “friend” them via social media apps? Of course not. It’s interesting and it’s fun. However, some will undoubtedly feel this sort of thing goes a bit far, possibly leading people to treat these animals as sentient individuals (the horror) even though they can’t actually be our “friends” in the real world.
University of Oxford conservation ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein disagrees. “Engagement comes from learning about species as individuals and what their lives are like,” she told the Washington Post. She believes the “Wild Me” app offers a chance for all included species to shine for their human friends, not just the prettier, more charismatic ones everyone already loves.
Go ahead and friend a few animals on “Wild Me.” You might just end up becoming fonder of your new animal friends than those other rather irritating people on Facebook.
Photo credits: Thinkstock