As I’ve mentioned on Twitter but perhaps not here, the topic of my master’s degree project involves the use of social media for environmental education (I won’t bore you with too many details, but step one is going to be a survey of nature center administrators on if and how it’s used by their organizations). Recently I went to an environmental education conference and was surprised by the skeptical and even hostile reactions of some of the people there when I told them about my project – one woman literally made a face and cried “Social media? Oh, bleah!”
Apparently I need to have some sort of defense prepared.
I can understand where they’re coming from. A lot of environmental educators (very rightly!) see part of their job as getting kids away from their computer screens and outside into nature, and I think they hear the phrase “social media” and immediately think of something that’s going to cause people to spend even more time sitting in front of their computers. There’s also a perception among a lot of people, not just environmental educators, that social media is a frivolous waste of time – once when I mentioned to someone that I’m on Twitter their reaction was “Oh, so you, what, post updates about what you ate for breakfast?”
However, I would argue that social media actually has a lot of potential for environmental education – and even for getting people outside. Speaking from my own experience, I can definitely say I spend more time walking around outside in the woods and know more about natural history than I would if I didn’t blog. Blogging (and the need to come up with stuff to blog about) has pushed me to become a better photographer, to learn more about plants and insects and many other topics, and to simply spend more time outside looking at stuff. Additionally, it’s plugged me into a community of people with similar interests, something I wasn’t really expecting when I started but which has been incredibly fulfilling. Twitter too, and because Twitter is much more immediate and faster-moving than a blog it has its own unique uses – when we had that fantastic aurora a couple weeks ago, after I came in from watching it I typed “northern lights” into the search box in Twitter, and immediately had a good idea of how far south it had extended as I scrolled through tweets from Tennessee and Texas. Another time someone I follow posted a photo of a salamander they’d come across and I found myself debating with several other people from different parts of the country whether it was a tiger or spotted, all of us posting links to more photos and other resources as we tried to arrive at an ID.
And it’s not just me. Believe it or not, there is research and literature to back me up. A 2005 NEETF report on environmental literacy in America found that one of the biggest motivators for engaging in environmentally responsible behavior is feeling that you are part of a community of other people doing the same. Guess what social networks provide? And my new favorite study is one that just came out this year, analyzing how a Facebook app designed to disseminate information about climate change and provide a forum for discussing environmentally responsible behavior affected its participants (“Environmental learning in online social networks: adopting environmentally responsible behaviors,” by Robelia, Greenhow, and Burton, in the August 2011 issue of Environmental Education Research). They found that not only did participants’ level of environmental literacy increase, but their level of real-life, not-on-the-internet environmental activism and behavior increased. Unlike posting your bra color in your Facebook status (the ladies know what I’m talking about), this is not just “slacktivism”!
Every environmental educator needs to read this series of articles on social media for scientists (or, “why every scientist should tweet”), because the same principles apply. I find social media immensely useful and fun, but even those who don’t have to admit that for better or worse this is simply how people communicate now – EE has to adapt, or it risks becoming irrelevant.