Social media can also be a place where planetary futures are born.
Social media is famous for connecting people. But it can also be a place where planetary futures are born, it turns out. So says a team of media researchers behind a new piece in WIREs Climate Change.
New Greenpeace campaigns and Our Planet videos are shared by hundreds of people mere seconds after their release. This social media crowd of supporters can spur climate action, each with their unique way to highlight their visions via hashtags on Instagram and Twitter with new posts every second.
Still, does this lead us anywhere in terms of saving the planet?
Warren Pearce and his colleagues are quite sure it does, considering social media one of the most powerful forces for sustainability with their contributions still far too little understood. The researchers back their claim with the first systematic review of scientific publications on social media and climate change.
One major insight is that social networks help to reveal certain sustainability imaginaries and narratives that might not be so easy to grasp otherwise. For example, social media analyses helped to reveal how convictions about rural life influence renewable energy development in the UK or how ecological modernisation narratives are promoted on the Chinese platform Weibo.
Social media have been also very good at bringing popular climate insights to wider public with the help of infographics, memes and other tailored content. Twitter hashtags have been particularly fertile ground for exploring how environmental protests emerge and unfold, and we can soon expect some more insights from the visual side of social media thanks to tools like Google Vision.
Still, there is much more to left to explore than we currently know. Among the issues researchers need to focus more on is the creative and transformative potential of social media, as well as the qualitative aspects of the content beyond big data insights, Pearce and his colleagues suggest.
The team also found that most of the research currently revolves around texts, public opinions and professional communication, while there is not enough insight into the real life impacts and novel ideas coming from social media. Such research thus undermines diversity and innovation happening within social media in terms of sparking social action, creating meanings and crafting social visions.
Researchers also point out that studies beyond Twitter are still scarce. Surely Twitter has been a place for important sustainability debates, but it is still only the sixth network by the number of users globally (while being at the focus of analysis in 75% of relevant articles). But what about thousands of zero waste and sustainable fashion bloggers on Instagram? And the creative campaigns spread across many other platforms, such as those featured by the Shorty Awards for Social Good?
These can inspire millions of people to live more sustainably yet they are almost absent from the current research landscape.