Tag Archives: social networking

Following the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace into… Facebook and Twitter?

What would Darwin and Wallace have been doing in this age of online social networks? Or more accurately, had these social networking tools been available to them in their century? Would they have maintained active Facebook pages to share stories (blog posts, really) from their adventures on the high seas, and their many fascinating discoveries about the animals and plants they encountered? Would they have tweeted their emerging insights into the process of Evolution by Natural Selection, or revealed them one Facebook update at a time?

Darwin FB

If you look at the sheer volume of correspondence these gentlemen maintained during the 19th century (Darwin’s letters; Wallace’s letters), and the number of books they wrote for the public (i.e., non-academic readers), you’d have to think the answer to all of the above questions would have to be a fairly enthusiastic “yes“! Well, except may be that last one about sharing the theory of evolution, which Darwin (at least) might still have preferred to keep under wraps. In general, though, even a cursory reading of the biographies of these gentlemen naturalists makes it clear that they were really plugged in, well connected with their contemporary networks of naturalists (amateur and professional) and scientists throughout the western world, as well as in the remote countries where they traveled collecting rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.

Would Darwin have even heard of Wallace’s independent discovery of the principle of Natural Selection if not for the social network of the day, which led the latter to mail Darwin a copy of his paper on the subject? And it was Darwin’s own network of friends (like Huxley) who knew about his earlier discovery of the principle, who made sure he got the credit he deserved. 

And without the extent of Darwin’s correspondence and social connectedness, would we have the wonderful story of Darwin’s last act of kindness towards a beetle collected by a fellow beetle-fancier and show salesman, narrated wonderfully by David Quammen in one of my absolute favorite radio segments: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus?

Which is why I believe that Darwin and Wallace and the many active biologists of their generation would have absolutely been blogging about their work, and would have been early adopters of our 21st century social communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter and Google+. I am delighted that someone has set up twitter accounts in both their name (@cdarwin; @ARWallace). And I believe we modern day biologists have much to gain by following in their footsteps, and making the most of these tools to not only communicate our discoveries, but to also build collaborations, bring large datasets together, and in so many other ways, actually further the very process of conducting our science.

My own collaborative research and writing ventures over the past decade have relied greatly upon my being active in the blogosphere, and on twitter and Facebook. Yet so many of my colleagues remain skeptical of the value of online social networks, and continue to consider it a waste of time. The snootiness of some in today’s academic ivory towers towards such common communication baffles me. But their ranks are shrinking every day as more and more of my friends and colleagues are beginning to use Facebook and twitter, some of them even setting up blogs.

And so, when my friend Sue Bertram (blog, twitter) recently asked me to help write a paper addressing our luddite colleagues to tell them about the value of online social networking tools, and also how to use them and make the most of them, I jumped at the chance. We had fun writing the paper during our respective parallel sabbaticals: me bumming around in India, Sue surfing along the central California coast. Indeed, we would have had a much harder time writing this paper if not for twitter and dropbox, the two pillars of our collaboration (in this instance). I am happy to announce that our paper has just been published in the Future of Publication section of open access online journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution!

So point your browsers this way and download today:

Bertram, S. and Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6:22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f.

We hope you find it useful, and welcome any thoughts or comments you might have on the paper – either on the journal website or right here, under this post.

Friendship, family, and connection in the socially networked global world (2.0)


How are Kaberi and the girls doing in India?” she asked.

Fine. They’re doing fine. You know… the best way to keep up with them and see how they are doing is to follow Kaberi on Facebook! You can even see pictures she’s posting“, I replied.

Oh… I don’t really go on Facebook all that much” she said, “but perhaps I should, now…“.

I had the above conversation with a friend yesterday, and have had a few more like that in the two weeks since Kaberi and our daughters left for an extended trip to India. How might these conversations have gone in the days before we were on Facebook, a scant two years ago? 

I pose that question as a hypothetical because I never experienced this before, being alone here while they travel there. But I imagine I would have said the first part of my response above, and the conversation might have ended there, having satisfied the requirements of polite conversation. 

Or, depending on who the friend was, we might have talked a while longer, me filling in details from conversations I’ve had with Kaberi and the girls on the phone, or even sharing bits from letters. Maybe even show a picture from my wallet? Well, maybe not those last two bits, because back in the day when we actually physically mailed letters and pictures, those would be unlikely to reach me within two weeks – I would still be waiting for them eagerly now – instead of just leaving my Mail/Skype/iChat/Facebook windows open on my computer screen night and day hoping for another glimpse into their temporarily distant lives.

But I could scarcely have offered up similar glimpses directly to my friends as I do now, referring them to Kaberi’s Facebook wall! Does this diminish the nature of our social interaction, our friendship, my pointing them to the online social network? Am I pushing all my friends into some uniform bland experience mediated by the constrained imagination of Mark Zuckerberg, as Zadie Smith worries in her review of “The Social Network“, the recent movie about Facebook, and of Facebook itself? Or am I attempting to transcend those constraints by merely using the software to do (more efficiently, perhaps) what I would have done anyway, as Alexis Madrigal writes, in response to Smith? Both these long (some orders of magnitude more than 140 characters!) essays had me up late last night and when I woke up this morning, in between checking Kaberi’s wall to look for any more pictures and to see what other friends were writing there in response. And both these responses to the social network 2.0 phenomenon embodied by the success of Facebook fall somewhat short, in different ways, of capturing my own experience over the past several years.

The main element I think missing (or weak) in both these writers’ literary responses is the context of globalization and how that has altered the individual and collective realities of life and friendship for so many of us today. Having chosen a diasporic existence flung far from family and friends I grew up with, I am an unabashed cheerleader for the internet and online social networks. In the 20 years since I arrived in the US and received my first email account in graduate school (waay back before the www was even born, and Zuckerberg a toddler, so what generation would Ms. Smith place me in?), I have enthusiastically used whatever networking software was available to stay connected with my old lives even as new ones formed and dissipated around me as I went from grad school to wandering postdoc-hood to my current (more rooted?!) status as a tenured professor. Various internet software tools, each with their quirks and constraints, have allowed me to stay connected with friends and colleagues, casual acquaintances and collaborators, spread across the globe, in ways that would have been daunting to anyone short of prolific letter writers and correspondents like, say, Darwin! And the very lack of “education” or facility with words for expression that Ms. Smith bemoans would likely have kept some from responding to my missives. So is software really degrading the quality of my connections? How can it, if I don’t restrict myself to just Facebook, but use it as part of an array ranging from email and skype (which she prefers), to blogs and twitter and more? 

I took to blogging and Facebook later than I might’ve had they appeared while I was in grad school, but have found new ways to nurture my social connections through these media. Blogging, I suspect, is something that writers of literature will have less issues with than some of them seem to with Facebook (as would I if blogging is indeed losing ground to shorter form writing and sharing, but I’m not convinced). I started blogging as a means of expression and of sharing what fires my imagination and keeps my inner world in intellectual ferment with those in the outer world. It remains at the creative and intellectual core of my online self, bolstered by my dabbles in photography, and I use Twitter and Facebook more often than not to point to my longer-form works (and that of others who inspire/irritate me as evidenced right here in this very post!). In the process I have also found long-lost friends (including some relatives) who may never have been lost in the first place but for the vicissitudes of our globalized culture and means of living spread out thinly across the planet. And made new ones too that I am yet to meet in the flesh! Does the fact of being largely online diminish the quality of my relationships? On the contrary, I think it has rejuvenated many dormant ones. Of course I have issues with the canalization of the online social experience into singular (and bland) portals like Facebook, not to mention the commercial aspects that come with that. I may chafe against some of the constraints, but that hasn’t stopped me from using the software for more than what might have been the dominant concerns in the mind of the Harvard sophomore who invented it. And of course, it is possible to use the software solely for superficial chatter and inanities that may trivialize what it means to have friends and true social connections. But that superficial chatter happened before Facebook too, and will continue to happen long after the online software has evolved well beyond what we can even imagine today. We are after all still the same social primates who evolved through our need for grooming and gossip on the savannas of Africa.

No one, not even the ever-more-powerful Mark Zuckerberg now looming large in our collective imaginations and our online lives, as imagined and repackaged by Sorkin, Fincher, and Smith alike, is forcing us to constrain our true social interactions. Much as Ms. Smith (and many others like her) bemoan the commercialization of Facebook and how it commodifies us and turns us into databases for corporations, or mindless homogeneous consumers who can be force fed advertisements and products, I often think the reality may be somewhat the other way around with this Generation Why (to borrow Ms. Smith’s disparaging/despairing label). Far from controlling and homogenizing the conversation, I think the corporations are desperately trying to keep up with us inanely chattering masses! If they become too intrusive in their advertising, or the software too cavalier with our information, or even too rigidly constraining, people rebel and complain loudly (as has happened with Facebook repeatedly) or walk away to form new communities (anyone remember MySpace? or AOL? How about CompuServe?). If no one is forcing us to use Facebook and Facebook only (they want to, yes, but they haven’t yet), why all this angst about the degrading of social interactions in the new networks 2.0? I sense a faint whiff of elitism mixed in with nostalgia for the good old analog days…

Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy to point my friends toward’s my wife’s Facebook wall when they ask me how her visit to India is going. It offers me something in between brushing them off with the superficial polite “she’s doing fine, thank you for asking” and boring them with the family travel album or slideshow for two hours (or being bored myself by the same set of questions over and over). What this third option allows is an intermediate level of social interaction, beyond superficial niceness but not as deep as close friendship, and one that also accommodates our busy lives where one may not have the time for those deep conversations cherished by these writers. If anything, then, I see this as a way not to constrain my social interactions, but to winnow them in ways that allow more space for deeper conversations and connections to sprout where they may never have between friends caught up in separate busy lives. 

How is that for escaping the grim portrait that Ms. Smith paints us in at the end of her long critique: as “people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore“? 

I better leave you to ponder that and turn my attention back to Skype/iChat/Facebook. Because it will soon be dawn on the other side of the world where my women are now asleep, at the foot of the Himalaya in north Bengal where their horizon is capped by the snowclad peak of the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchanjangha, even as I try to glimpse the fresh snow from Sunday night’s storm on the Sierra Nevada’s ridges visible (sometimes) from my office window. And if you want to see an image of Kanchanjangha captured by Kaberi this week, you know where to look, right?

Infographics on the progressive (regressive?) loss of privacy and control on Facebook

Even as Facebook has become the 800-pound gorilla dominating the social networking aspects of the internet, and takes up more and more of our social mindspace (I find myself using it a fair bit on a daily basis for academic and personal networking, and to share my blog writing; chances are, you’re reading this because you found it on my Fb wall!), its gradual overreach to grab for our personal information for commercial purposes has set alarm bells ringing all over the net. If you are a Facebook user, but haven’t been paying attention, better sit up and take notice – for it is your information that they are hoping to profit from! The growing outrage and concern has also inspired infographic artists to find creative ways to visualize what Facebook has done as you can see from the two examples below.

Matt McKeon brings us this clever interactive infographic depicting how Facebook has gradually expanded the domain over which all of our information is shared by default! Click through to the original website for the interactive experience of the timeline from 2005-2010.


If that alarms you, but not enough to scare you off Facebook entirely, you might want to secure your info by tightening up your profile settings and battening the hatches down from the wide-open defaults, for they do claim to allow you control over what is shared with whom and when. But have you tried looking into the settings to shut these leaks? As this NYT infographic shows, they’ve made the settings a rabbit’s warren as well, even as their privacy policy itself has become more byzantine than the original US constitution! Yep, the whole US constitution took up less words than Fb’s latest privacy policy!! So can you navigate your way through this, to secure your info?


And here’s how the privacy policy has grown, 5-fold, over the same 5-year period!


Feel all safe and secure now, as far as your information is concerned?