In June 2013 an innovative idea was born at the Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE). For years TIE has been funding cutting edge research and actively supports the advancement of environmental science. However the infamous gap between theory and practice has blocked research results from reaching wider audiences and creating impact beyond the academic bubble.
In the era of social media the evolution of communication is evident and surely creates numerous opportunities for existing practices to be enhanced. Such practice that needs to change is academic research. What if the findings of academic research could be translated in simple language for wider audiences to comprehend? With the goal to leverage the awareness of environmental sustainability issues, the idea to communicate research through social media storytelling was born!
In their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives,” Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, discuss the impact of social networks. More specifically in chapter 8 “Hyperconnected,” they begin the discussion on social networks with a reference to the popular Internet game “World of Warcraft” and illustrate how a game modification by its programmers to challenge the advanced players, had unexpected consequences that resembled such of real life. Scientist of all kinds studied the incident to draw conclusions on the relation between a virtual world and reality.
The authors argue that regardless of the rapid advancement of communication technologies, from a letter to an email to inhibiting a virtual world on the premises of on-line gaming; humanity does not strive away from its past and its tendency to form traditional relationships but rather moves closer to it. On the other hand, when virtual reality becomes a case study to understand human behavior, could this be true?
Sherry Turkle, in her recent TED talk: Connected, but alone? argues that technology evolution and in particular the multiple communication ways via the Internet and advanced telephone devices, do not only change the way we contact one another but also change who we are and how we relate to others. When people log in their social media profiles or simply sent a text, they substitute their loneliness and feel connected in the absence of actual human interaction. The current connection patterns allow individuals to chose who they want to be “friends” with, what to say or even how they wish to be portrayed.
Christakis and Fowler argue that virtual worlds differ from reality because in a game you can customize everything. Players seem to create virtual lives quite similar to their real ones, but in the new space they can choose how they look, who they relate to or where they want to be instantly, knowing that even if they lose and die, they can start over from the comfort of their virtual home. Not so many years back, one would argue that such case scenario would be impossible in real life, but this is no longer true. The “World of Warcraft” and its customizing options is not that different from how people manage their on-line presence after all.
Internet users nowadays consume enormous amounts of time managing their on-line pages and several studies have indicated that people project the image they would like to have rather than who they are and tend to share personal information to the extent digital privacy issues occur more frequently than ever before. People initiate strong and weak ties with a number of individuals rapidly changing their eigenvector value but in most cases without really increasing or decreasing their actual social value.
According to the theory of Stanley Milgram, everyone can connect to anyone through someone they know in less than 6 steps. The question rising is why would one make the effort to overcome the 6 degrees of separation to reach one person when it is possible to connect to anyone they wish in a virtual world. This brings us back to the debate between Shirky and Gladwell, on whether or not technology really matters. Do social networks create a useless virtual structures that isolate their users in their own reality or do they set the foundation for a holistic move that it is easier for individuals to initiate and manage?
Probably both apply. Technology most certainly facilitates both virtual and real relationships either by eliminating the distance by degrees of separation or by kilometers. How individuals choose to use technological tools is totally objective and thus conclusions on each side the two scholars’ debate or the arguments Christakis and Fowler make in their book, cannot be generalized but rather questioned.