Does the internet make us better naturalists?

While the amount of information available is astounding, it is usually hard to find the answers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Geoff CarpentierWhen I was a kid, we didn’t have cellphones, the internet or even computers. Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram or myriad other social media platforms didn’t exist.

Add to that the many apps that are available to help us learn bird songs or identify everything from plants, mammals and insects to mushrooms, and we can see how easy it is to get information essentially instantaneously.

Back in the day, we had to rely on what we called telephones, and now we have to say “landlines” so people know the difference between them and cellphones. If we wanted to reach out to a colleague, we mailed letters or phoned them. Texting and instant messaging were unknown.

We had to make our own observations, find our own stuff and, if we were lucky, someone who knew about nature was with us when we did. But if not, we had to go home and read a book to find answers.

Cameras and film were expensive, so we had to think hard about taking pictures. I remember going to Venezuela in 1987 and taking three rolls of film – that’s about 72 photos for three weeks of travel. It cost about $30 to have the film processed and then we had to wait to see our slides a few weeks later. Now I can shoot that many photos in a few seconds and view them instantly.

Concise books on nature existed, but their scope was narrow, many were incomplete, and numerous inaccuracies existed. You had to go to a library to view them, and many books had restricted access and couldn’t be checked out, so you did your research in the hallowed halls of the library.

If you were lucky, your family had purchased the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and received an annual update. But those reference books contained information about the entire world … now I can search the internet on the word ‘mallard’ and get 64.5 million hits in 0.76 seconds – and yes, I just did this on Google to make sure.

The amount of information available is astounding. But too much information can make it hard to find the answers you seek. I’m certainly not going to review over 64 million hits to find out about mallards. More importantly, we have to be careful because anyone can post on the internet and much incorrect or incomplete information is out there.

So do the internet and social media make us better naturalists?

I think they do, and they don’t. In many cases, they encourage people to take the easy road – become lazier and more likely to ask someone for help rather than search for the answers ourselves.

I subscribe to various nature-focused Facebook pages, discussion forums, nature alerts and chat groups, so I can continue to learn and help others learn. What I see time and again is people asking simple, easy-to-research questions without making any apparent effort to find the answer themselves. Some will post a photo of a common bird such as a chickadee and ask what kind of bird it is.

Today, someone on Facebook asked how to tell a boreal chickadee from a black-capped chickadee – any bird book can provide the answer in a minute. But for some, it’s easier to ask someone else for the answer.

I don’t condemn people for wanting to learn, but many of us have become too reliant on others and instantly want to know the answer without putting in the time. You learn much better when you figure out the answer yourself.

When someone does make the effort and still needs help, that’s the time to reach out.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook. For interview requests, click here.


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