What Would Thoreau Tweet?

I’m hardly the first person working at the intersection of the environmental movement and digital culture to ask that potentially irreverent, definitely anachronistic question. (See the postscript for  links.) But it’s been on my mind these past few weeks, for a few reasons.

Along with colleagues at Earthwatch, I’ve been thinking about various citizen science apps and other mobile technology science projects, and getting (vicariously) inspired by conferences like the recent London Citizen Cyberscience Summit. (Though I confess I thought the geeks who rule us all had outlawed the use of  “cyber” as a prefix sometime around 1997; do we have Russell T. Davies to thank for its return?)

At the same time, Earthwatch has been slowly and steadily expanding—unlocking?—its social media presence via platforms like PinterestGoogle+, Mightybell, and this new blog.

I’ve felt our digital identity—which used to exist exclusively on our website, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—undergoing some changes. I’m not sure if it’s expansion and diversification (on the good days), or fracturing (on the bad ones)—but it’s…something.

Something fundamental about the way we connect with the worldwide Earthwatch community  is evolving, and a bit more rapidly than I think we yet understand.

What’s the Problem? Don’t You Want More People Following You?

You may be wondering why a social media manager finds anything in this to give him pause and prompt thoughts of Thoreau and Walden Pond. (Other than the fact that it’s a wonderful place to go “off the grid” on days when I can’t  tolerate another Tweet or Like another link…)

Simply put, our digital communications evolution is happening in the context of  Earthwatch’s decidedly non-digital reality: we put people  in the field to help scientists and experience science first-hand.

The Earthwatch experience, as traditionally delivered, sits slightly to the side of what many now understand to be “citizen science,” which stretches from its origins in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts to recent examples of computer crowd sourcing helping biologists unlock a protein’s structure and assisting astronomers mapping the galaxies. Earthwatch expeditions have always been more tactile and less de-centered than these and many other citizen science examples.

Nevertheless, with digital media valued by most (including this writer) precisely because they partially remove those pesky little things called “time and space” as barriers, the urge to think of the Earthwatch experience as something that can be delivered digitally is tempting.

But as someone who lost 7 lbs in ten days on his last Earthwatch expedition, despite eating like the teenagers I helped shepherd up and down southern California’s mountains, I’m all too aware of the non-digital reality of Earthwatch Sweat ™.

Some days, then, I wonder at the potential disconnect between our media and our mission as citizen science and digital culture converge.

(Often, all over my desk.)

Did You Really Just Try to Trademark “Earthwatch Sweat”?

Nearly every day of the year, dedicated Earthwatch scientists and volunteers wake up early, ready their  gear, get into the field, and very often get Earthwatch Sweaty. They also get muddy, cold, wet, tired, or all of the above—in very non-digital ways.

(As well as educated, amazed, inspired, and empowered, of course.)

If you’ll pardon my adapting the argument Thoreau used to explain his Walden experiment, Eathwatchers go to Puerto Rico’s rain forest, or the Mongolian steppe, or mountainous panda reserves in China, or a fossil site in Texas “to live deliberately, to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

(Though our expedition food is usually better than that….)

We often get fantastic content (an obnoxious marketing term, I admit)  from Earthwatchers  about their experiences,  and share them with you more quickly than ever thanks to social media.

Yet I’m painfully, personally aware of what doesn’t come through—what can’t come through—in these nearly instant dispatches.

Ease of transmission about the experience via Tweets or Pins or Likes or Plus Ones doesn’t equal ease of actual communication about the experience.

[We Interrupt This Navel Gazing to Use This Blog to Plug the Things Causing Us to Navel Gaze. Ooh, How Meta.

Allow me to pause here for some self-aware irony: I do hope you’re sharing your photos of your Earthwatch experiences to our Facebook page, especially those team photos we’re gathering in our Expedition Yearbooks; and we urge those of you who use Twitter to include the #Earthwatch and #globaltweet hashtags during your expedition—you’ll need to allow Twitter to use your location—so that we can keep putting Earthwatch expeditions on the map. And look for us to start rolling out expedition-specific hashtags this summer, too.]

Field Science Is Sweaty, Not Tweety, And Not Always Quick.

Fact is: the conservation research we do is necessarily grounded in specific places in time, however far-flung they may seem, as anyone who makes the journey (both imaginative and physical) from Earthwatch Expedition Guide or Expedition Web Pages to first day in the field can tell you.

Additionally, no matter how technologically advanced many of these research projects are, much of the work that Earthwatch volunteers do, day-to-day, involves basic field science tasks that would have been familiar to Thoreau himself: watch, measure, record, map, listen, weigh, sort, clean, prepare and—perhaps most of all—wait.

Yes, as the saying goes, there are, increasingly, apps for that. (One of the best ones is put out by our friends at Project Noah.) But on a basic level, observational and experiential citizen science is always going to require a citizen actually standing (or crouching, or laying, or floating)  in a very particular place, doing a very particular, often very basic, non-high tech task. Sometimes, repeatedly. Usually, without using a smartphone. Often in a stunningly beautiful and amazingly exciting setting, but always with a fundamentally methodical approach.

“Methodical” is the heart of good science, and rarely at the heart of snappy digital communication.

What’s more, the full sensory textures of that experience—as distinct from the factual report, the data,  the images, or even the sounds—may not be transmittable.

No matter how easy it becomes for you to Tweet that you’re helping Earthwatch protect the Dolphins of Greece this summer, or even upload your video of a day on the Mediterranean, the essential scientific and personal aspects (and, dare I say, the spiritual ones?) can only be fully understood while there, bouncing along the waves, feeling the spray, enjoying the camaraderie, and feeling your spirit leap in tandem with each new pod of bottlenose.

Well, Duh. But, Wait: Paradox Ahead!

The should’ve-been-obvious-gap between the actual experience of nature and the rapid communication of it became dramatically clear to me as we all followed the experiences of one of our own recently. Earthwatch’s Head of Global Field Safety, Lloyd Figgins, and his Atlantic Calling partner, Dave Whiddon, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados.

Thanks to technology that still seems like magic, we were able to track Atlantic Calling’s position, hard-earned nautical mile by hard-earned nautical mile. Many times during their 60 day journey I clicked on the live tracker and watched the yellow dot that indicated their position (relayed to my device through who knows how many satellites, cables, or transmitters) make its slow but steady way. And I faithfully followed their Tweets and Facebook updates,and  listened to recorded interviews posted on our website or streamed by their local Oxford, UK, BBC Radio station.

Most of all, though, I anxiously devoured the blog updates their support team provided.

Paradoxically, these blog posts, mere words on the screen,removed significantly in time and immensely in space from Lloyd and Dave’s experience, gave me the fullest sense of what it might feel like to be there in the middle of that ocean. Thus, the most “old-fashioned” of “new” media gave me the greatest, if slowest-to-form, sense of Atlantic Calling.

That’s due in no small part, of course, to the skill of Atlantic Calling’s blogger, Kelly Jordon, but it also has to do with a quirk of technological abstraction: that tracking dot on the screen was simply an unfathomable data point in a sea of blue, at which the mind boggled. Lloyd’s recorded voice was a magic trick, a disquieting  illusion of proximity one knew was false, and so rejected. But the mediated, crafted, edited re-telling of their days by someone else, without many pictures or much technical razzle dazzle, brought me closest to them.

What this means, of course, is that this same sense of intimacy, as opposed to mere immediacy, could have been created by a printed newsletter, book, or collection of letters. (Do we have to start calling these things “ancient media”?)

So it is, also, that a book published in 1854, reflecting on and reshaping the author’s experiences of almost a decade earlier, brings me closer to Thoreau’s own (somewhat less) audacious adventures in building a small cabin by a large pond in order to live deliberately than any other media presentation of it—and I’ve seen plenty—ever could. Or will.

The Where and the What For of the Earthwatch Life

Intimacy vs. immediacy, then. Earthwatch expeditions excel in the former; the media we’re increasingly using to communicate about them favor the latter.

Can we thread the needle? Can we use the shiny new tools without harming what we use them on?

As is often the case, Thoreau may have solved this seemingly modern problem long ago, and given us a useful standard.

(Those of you who remember Walden well knew the quote I’m about to use was coming from the start, didn’t you? Show offs….)

Musing on the excitement over the “instant” communications marvel of his day, the telegraph, Thoreau writes:

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

While I’ll hasten to point out that I don’t think Earthwatch’s mission would ever deserve to be called an “unimproved end,” Thoreau’s larger point—that the technological ability to communicate does not confer importance, quality, or even necessity to the communication—still stands. I suspect most would agree it’s a more important principle now than in his time, precisely because it is so much more widely ignored.

That’s the test for me, then, and for my colleagues, and for you and all members of the Earthwatch community: not how quickly (or how often, or how cheaply, or how widely, or how dazzlingly) we can tell the Earthwatch story, but whether what we say about it is truly important.

In one of my favorite chapters of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau himself attempts to navigate the distance between merely telling people the facts of  his experience and conveying its true meaning, to shift and discern truths deeper than the merely factual.

For us– for me— that has to be a reminder to talk  not just about where Earthwatchers are, or even merely what they’re doing, but what they’re there for on some deeper, less easily communicated level. And, probably, to talk about it a little less quickly, and a lot more deliberately.

What would Thoreau Tweet? Very little, probably.

But very well.


Postscript the First: What Would Thoreau Tweet has already been a blog, of course. (What hasn’t?) While it doesn’t seem to have been active for long, it does seem to have precipitated some other efforts that may be of interest to Earthwatchers. How’s that for connection karma?

Postscript the Second: Let us know in the Comments section below or on our Facebook wall what you want to see in Earthwatch’s communications, especially on this blog.  Tell us what you think it’s essential for us to communicate about Earthwatch. We’ll listen. We may even wait, watch, measure, and ponder, too, before we act–like Thoreau, and like the Earthwatch scientists and volunteers living out those parts of his legacy.