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Does the Internet Make us Better Naturalists?

When I was a kid, we didn’t have cell phones, internet or even computers, and certainly, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram or myriad other social media platforms were non-existent! Add to that the many apps available to help us learn bird songs or identify everything from plants, mammals and insects to mushrooms. We can see how easy it is now 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 cell phones. 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 fortunate, 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 our answers. Cameras and film were expensive, so we had to think hard about taking pictures. I remember going to Venezuela in 1987 and taking about three rolls of film. That’s about 72 photos in three weeks of travel for you digital camera folks at a cost of about $30, and then wait to see my slides a few weeks later! Now I can shoot many photos in a few seconds and view them instantly! Concise books on nature did exist, 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 fortunate, your family had purchased the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and received an annual update. But that was for the entire world. Now I can search the internet on the word ‘Mallard’ and get 64,500,000 hits in 0.76 seconds, and yes, I just did this on Google to make sure.

The amount of information available to us is astounding. The problem now is two-fold. First, too much info 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! But more importantly, we have to be careful because anyone can post on the internet, and much incorrect or incomplete information is out there.

So back to the question – Do the Internet and Social Media make us better naturalists? Paradoxically I think they do, and they don’t. In many cases, they encourage many to take the easy road, become lazier, so to speak and more likely to ask someone for help rather than to search out the answers ourselves. I subscribe to various nature-focussed Facebook pages, discussion forums, nature alerts, and chat groups to continue to learn and help others learn. I see time and time again 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 bird is this? Today someone on Facebook asked how to tell a Boreal Chickadee from a Black-capped – any bird book can provide the answer in a minute or so about how to tell them apart. But for some, it’s just easier to ask someone else for the answer.

Now don’t get me wrong, 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. One learns much better when one figures out the answer by oneself. When someone does make an effort and still needs help, that’s the time to reach out. There’s much more to say on this topic, so I will continue in my next column.

In the interim, please remember if you find any owls, please message me privately at:

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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