Digital Altruism

Cultivating compassion in the 21st century.

Introducing the Cyberhero Archetype

Research identifies a new form of networked heroism

“Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe."                                                                                                                            Alan Watts

If you’ve turned on the radio, watched television, gone to the movies, or visited Facebook, chances are you’ve seen or heard someone talking about cyber-crime, cyberbullies, and maybe even the threat of cyber-war.  With all this talk of negativity and the Net, you might have drawn the conclusion that nothing good is going on in cyberspace. No one could blame you for drawing this conclusion, but fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. In recent research exploring the positive use of the Internet, I found that well over 100 million individuals are engaging in online activities with the intention of helping other people, animals, and the environment. 1 Many of these individuals are engaging in daily acts of digital goodness—acts of digital altruism and digital activism. The most committed among them represent a new form of the hero archetype: the cyberhero.

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The cyberhero archetype brings together some of the best qualities and characteristics of heroes (benefiting others and acting selflessly) with some of the most interesting abilities of superheroes (dual-persona, shape-shifting, bi-location, and speed)—all with the intention of using the Internet and digital technologies in the peaceful service of achieving humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations; i.e., world peace, social justice, environmental protection and planetary stewardship.

Does this sound like sci-fi? Stranger than sci-fi? To explore the theory of the emergence of the cyberhero archetype, I designed a questionnaire and launched it online. As it turns out, the proof of their existence is compelling:

  • 84 percent of respondents said they are consciously using the Internet to promote peace in the world.
  • 74 percent of respondents feel a sense of unity with all the other people who are engaging in various forms of digital goodness (e.g., clicking –to-donate or signing on-line petitions).
  • 76 percent believe that simple actions such as click-to-donate can have a significant impact when a lot of people click each day.
  • 83 percent feel that the Internet enables them to help others more than they could without it.
  • 93 percent either “agree” or “strongly agree” that their life is interconnected with all the life forms on our planet
  • 93 percent enjoy acting on behalf of people in need regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender
  • 86 percent use the Internet to act on behalf of more than one cause or charity
  • 85 percent think the needs of other people are as important as their own needs

These responses suggest individuals who have a  “transpersonal” sense of identity—a “sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, and cosmos.”2 Clearly, in their hands, technology is something filled with creativity, something capable of promoting “peace in the world.” 

Currently, Internet activism and various forms of digital altruism are referred to with the pejorative terms, “slacktivisim” and “slacktivist”. These words suggest that people who support a cause by performing simple online actions are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change. These terms confuse “ease of action” with “importance of action,” diminishing the latter and the individual with it. The term “slacktivist” is yet another example of the ways we are focusing on the negative aspects of technology at the expense of its positive aspects. Rather than celebrating engagement in the world, “slacktivist” undermines human motivation,  belittling endeavors that depend upon Internet technology and mass participation (e.g., World Community Grid , Foldit) and the achievements made possible through it.

Slacktivist would be better used in referring to individuals who use technology everyday, but make no effort to send an inspiring message, click-to-donate on behalf of a hungry child, donate their unused computing time to efforts like the World Community Grid, or sign a petition on behalf of a cause they care about.  Individuals who think these actions don’t matter aren’t doing their homework. Rather than straying into the controversial Kony campaign, which is an excellent example of cyberheroing activity, let’s take a look at a recent effort led by Julia Bluhm.

Julia is a teenager who created an online petition at Change.org asking Seventeen Magazine to commit to printing one unaltered “real” photo spread per month. In the petition, Julia explained that she wanted to “see regular girls that look like me in a magazine that’s supposed to be for me.” Her concern was the photoshopped, airbrushed, images of models were leading “some girls try to “fix” themselves. . . . lead[ing] to eating disorders, dieting, depression, and low self esteem.” 3

 After over 84,000 people signed her petition, Julia delivered it to the executive editor of Seventeen magazine who not only agreed to Julia’s request, she went a giant step beyond it; committing not to alter the body size or face shape of the girls and models in the magazine and to feature a diverse range of beauty in its pages.  Julia's message to all her supporters: 

"Seventeen listened! They're saying they won't use photoshop to digitally alter their models! This is a huge victory, and I'm so unbelievably happy. Another petition is being started by SPARK activists Emma and Carina, targeting Teen Vogue and I will sign it. If we can be heard by one magazine, we can do it with another. We are sparking a change!"

Julia and the 84,530 individuals who signed her petition have done more than spark a change, they have used technology to co-create a better world, for themselves and those that come after them. Each and every one of the 84,530 signers is part of this victory. By signing the petition, they spoke up behalf of girls everywhere. Their actions have implications that may well include the prevention new cases of bulimia, anorexia, depression, and death. Only by recognizing the myriad ways that human beings are interconnected with each other and the natural world can we begin to see the ripples of our actions as the waves of change they truly are. Valuing our voices and raising them in whatever way we can to improve the world is a noble pursuit. These girls and millions of other individuals using the Internet as a tool of action are more than slacktivists, they are young leaders who may well have saved someone’s life. As such they deserve a more descriptive designation, an empowering, uplifting, designation. They are cyberheroes.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

                                                                                  H.H. Dalai Lama XIV

While we have been quick to language the negative uses of digital technologies, it isn’t too late to begin recognizing kindness on the Web and calling it for what it is—especially since the majority of American teens and adults say they are experiencing more kindness than cruelty online. In the study conducted by the Pew Internet and Digital Life project, researchers found that “Most American teens who use social media say that in their experience, people their age are mostly kind to one another on social network sites. Overall, 69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites. Another 20% say that peers are mostly unkind, while 11% volunteered that “it depends.” At the same time, in a similar question asked of adults 18 and older, 85% of social media-using adults reported that people are mostly kind to one another on social network sites, while just 5% felt that people are mostly unkind.”4

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, suggests that compassion can be nurtured and reminds us that "human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature."5 Through using words that convey the human motivations behind pro-social digital activism motivations such as altruism, caring, and compassion, we can nurture the healthy aspects of human nature and foster healthier societies—online and off. Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford University, suggests that the way we language our thoughts plays a large role in the way we experience reality. According to Boroditsky, “A hallmark feature of human intelligence is its adaptability, the ability to invent and rearrange conceptions of the world to suit changing goals and environments.”6

Our information and communication technologies are arguably one of our greatest intellectual accomplishments; we cannot afford to language them such that we become their victims. If we don’t want to live in a world full of cybercrime, cyberbullies, cyberwar, and slactivists, then we must language the compassionate activity taking place online. By including digital goodness and the cyberhero in our lexicon, we expand more than the dictionary—we expand the moral domain. This opens up the human imagination, providing words with which our children might “invent and rearrange conceptions of the world to suit changing goals and environments”— with ways of thinking that include the possibility of using our digital technologies to collectively co-create a better, more equitable, peaceful world. 

 

1. Klisanin, D. (2012). The Hero and the Internet:Exploring the emergence of the cyberhero archetype. Media Psychology Review. (Online) 4-1.  

2.  Walsh, R. and Vaughan, F. (1993) Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

3.Change.org (2012). Seventeen Petition: Give Girls Images of Real Girls

4. Leehart, A., Madden, M. Smith, A., Purcell, K., Zickuhr, K., Rainie, L. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites. Pew Internet and Digital Life Project.

5. Keltner, D., in Kelter, D., Marsh, J., and Smith, J.A. (2010). The Compassionate Instinct. New York: W.W. Norton&Company, Inc., pp. 13-15.

6. Boroditsky, L., (2011) How language shapes thought. Scientific American, February, 63-65.

 

Note:

The cyberhero archetype represents an ideal form. Individuals who use the Internet solely to benefit their own “in-group” are not cyberheroes,  just as someone in the real world would not be considered a hero if he or she limited their activity to an in-group of their own (for example, those of a shared race or religion). The hero ideal, or archetype, has no regard for constructs that place boundaries on virtues or moral values, such as compassion, empathy, and loving-kindness. The cyberhero archetype embodies impartiality to the nth degree, being itself reliant on an interdependent, boundary-less Internet that favors no individual above another (ideally speaking).

Dana Klisanin, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at Saybrook University, is an integral psychologist specializing in the use of arts and media to promote altruism and compassion.

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