On Friday I attended the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford. This year was the 10th Anniversary conference and it was the first time I’d attended, and it certainly won’t be the last. New Networks for Nature is a broad alliance of creators and brings together poets, authors, scientists, film-makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers. I’d been invited to take part in a session focussed on social media, “online connections: connecting with nature through new technologies.” The session was chaired by Mike Toms and included presentations by Faye Vogely (BTO), myself and Fiona Barclay (NatureGuides), followed by questions from the audience. Faye’s excellent presentation gave an overview of how the BTO use social media to engage people with the science and survey work that they do, and Fiona gave a thought provoking tour of how mobile technology could be harnessed to access information and simplify data collection. I was given a brief to discuss my experiences and thoughts of social media, notably Twitter. When Mike contacted me back in February asking me to participate in the session I was somewhat surprised as when it comes to social media I really consider myself as “just a bloke with a Twitter account!” Mike introduced us to the audience by reading out our Twitter profiles – time for an update!
Preparing the 15-minute talk was an interesting exercise, and the following is a slightly modified version of the text of my presentation:
I’m certainly no expert but I’ve been involved in social media campaigning supporting BAWC (Twitter account run by Paul Bray) and OSME (Twitter account run by Nick Moran), as well as promoting causes that I have a personal interest in, such as illegal persecution of raptors in the UK, banning the use of toxic lead ammunition, the Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife, licenced killing of Ravens, ornithology and birding – I’d guestimate that about 90% of my Tweets would be on those general subjects, with the rest taken up by miscellaneous conservation and occasional politics.
My social media experience is primarily from Twitter. Although I have a Facebook account I don’t use it much, and I have LinkedIn profile which I use primarily for personal business connections.
The fact that I was asked to talk about social media highlights one of its key strengths – anyone can do it. You don’t need any formal training, or any particular talent! It’s not time consuming (although it can be if you let it), it’s easy to get started – all you need is a smartphone (or a tablet/desktop) and something to say – in fact you don’t really need anything to say as you can just spread other people’s ideas! We can’t all be great communicators of the natural world like David Attenborough, or write fabulous books like Simon Barnes, or be an inspirational presenter like Chris Packham, or a fabulous artist like Peter Scott or indeed Derek Robertson. But anyone can run an effective Twitter account.
Birders Against Wildlife Crime (BAWC) are a group of birdwatchers who are fed up with wildlife crime, especially illegal persecution of the UKs raptors. The simple idea behind BAWC is to try and use birdwatchers – who spend a lot of time out in the countryside looking for birds, sometimes in less well-visited places. Birders are skilled observers and diligent note-takers, many of them will possess powerful optics, high quality camera equipment and smartphones that keep them in touch with the latest bird news. BAWC have effectively used Facebook and Twitter to spread the mantra of the 3Rs: to Recognise a wildlife crime, to Record a wildlife crime and to Report a wildlife crime. Thus, creating a network of ‘eyes in the field.’ BAWC along with many other organisations and individuals have used social media to great effect to raise awareness of the issue of illegal raptor persecution. BAWC have also been involved in co-ordinating Hen Harrier Day, which has grown from a single event in the Peak District, to about 10 events in 2017. About 2000 people physically attended various Hen Harrier Day event in 2017, and many more joined in via social media. BAWC ran a simple Twitter competition to identify a #hashtag for the 2017 Hen Harrier Day – which helped further raise awareness of Hen Harrier Day in the lead up to the event. The final choice being #StopKillingHenHarriers. It proved incredibly popular on the day, and at one point was trending on Twitter, and has been widely used since. In addition to the 2000 physical attendees of Hen Harrier Day events, using the #StopKillingHenHarriers enabled many 10,000s to participate on social media.
The power of the hashtag (#) to connect people is expertly used by the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU). Using the #ornithology, an online scientific community has essentially been created, enabling avian scientists to disseminate their work more widely. Through promoting blogs and other communication methods such as infographics the online community is expanding beyond ornithologists. As well as arranging traditional conferences and symposia where scientists physically come together, the BOU also arrange excellent Twitter conferences connecting scientists around the world, and making the latest ornithological research accessible to a global audience.
The recent #PeoplesWalkForWildlife and the #PeoplesManifestoForWildlife organised by Chris Packham, brought together the ‘old-fashioned’ public rally and a walk to Parliament, with a well co-ordinated social media promotion and awareness raising campaign. Up to 10,000 people were estimated to have participated in the walk, and many 10,000s contributed to the day via social media. I’ve not seen any formal analysis of the social media impact, but my Twitter feed was full of the #PeoplesWalkForWildlife and #PeoplesManifestoForWildlife for days if not weeks after the event. I noticed support, comments and questions from all 4 corners of the UK – indeed a few weeks later a group in the Netherlands held their own #PeoplesWalkForWildlife. The promotion of the event and the manifesto was primarily driven by social media.
It’s not just about raising awareness, social media is a relatively new and exciting way of seeking finance to take campaigns to another level. Crowdfunding is a great new way to engage and connect people to a cause. I think it’s fair to say that many people want to do more than Tweet and Share information on social media. When news breaks about yet another Hen Harrier going missing in suspicious circumstances, I often see the phrase ‘what more can I do?’ This year has seen some interesting initiatives using crowd funding to raise money to take legal action against decisions taken by our statutory conservation agencies. Using CrowdJustice which is the leading crowdfunding platform for legal action, Dr Mark Avery has successfully raised the necessary £25k required to take Natural England to court about its decision to proceed with brood management of Hen Harriers. The money was raised in just four and a half days with donations from more than 900 members of the public. The case will be heard in the High Court on the 5th and 6th December. In Scotland, Dr Ruth Tingay on behalf of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, successfully raised funds to challenge the decision made by SNH to issue a scientific licence to cull Ravens – the initial £10k required to start legal proceedings being raised in just ONE day!
Making connections to popular events can be an excellent way of reaching new audiences. This year’s Football World Cup became the Twitter World Cup of Birds! Regions of the world were represented by various bird clubs and societies such as OSME, The African Bird Club and The Oriental Bird Club. The different regions had to hold ‘play-offs’ of some of the key birds from their respective regions, with the winners of each play off group being determined by Twitter polls. The play-offs narrowed down the final 64 species that would take part in the finals. It was a great way to bring new species to a global Twitter audience.
It’s worth remembering that English is not everyone’s first language. When working in Saudi Arabia a few years back I spent a lot of time travelling to various Protected Areas working with local field rangers. My Arabic was very limited, but I’d try and engage locals by showing them my English field guide and pointing out the birds we might expect to see. The rangers often got bored quite quickly and would soon revert to their smartphones! OSME, along with Richard Porter, BirdLife International, RSPB and Bloomsbury have since produced an Arabic version of the field guide to Birds of the Middle East. Very early on in the project we agreed that the book was just the first step and that the real goal was to develop a smartphone App version in Arabic. Thanks to Fiona Barclay and her fantastic team at NatureGuides the project is in its final stages. The Apple version has been very well received so far, and the Android version is in its final stages and the release is imminent. This free to download App will be a great way to engage a new audience in the Middle East in bird watching and bird conservation. A social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook will be used to promote the App.
The power of images: spreading high quality photos has never been easier, and a picture really can tell a thousand words. From my own personal experience, and that of many others on social media, it is clear that circulating images of illegally killed raptors has been a hugely powerful tool in raising awareness of the issue – and probably more people in the UK than ever before realise that this remains a significant problem. Arguably, the widely used image of a whale, and the associated footage from Blue Planet, did more to raise the awareness of plastic pollution than any piece of scientific research or government report.
There are many downsides of social media (which I won’t dwell on here). I have 2 general rules: I don’t say anything on Twitter that I wouldn’t say in a face-to-face conversation. And I use Twitter as a way of sharing and spreading information rather than a form of debate and discussion – it’s very easy to get bogged down in rather pointless ‘conversations.’
There is no doubt that social media is an increasingly powerful tool to promote nature, conservation and conservation issues to a wider audience. But we shouldn’t forget the power of personal connections. As a 7-year old I was inspired by my grandparents’ neighbour, Eric Dorset, who took me birdwatching every Sunday. As a 10-year old I was in awe of David Attenborough as he showed us Life on Earth and the Trials of Life (and every other series he’s done since). And as a 29-year old I was inspired by Roy Taylor (who recently lost his battle with Motor Neurone Disease) – who told me to work for the RSPB rather than to do a post-doc and try to develop a career in academia – a decision I’ll never regret.
Social media and technology is definitely opening up new opportunities to connect people to nature and conservation issues, but we shouldn’t forget the unique power that inspirational individuals can have to connect us to the wonders of the natural world.