Speaking of Psychology: Digital altruism and cyberheroes

Episode 8

 

“Cyberheroes” are those who actively use the Internet and digital technologies to help others, animals and the environment, says psychologist Dana Klisanin, PhD. She researches how online interactions can promote compassion and altruism and is even designing a video game that could help young people tackle global challenges using their computers. In this episode, Dr. Klisanin discusses how social media and online interactions can be a force for good.

About the expert: Dana Klisanin, PhD

Dana Klisanin, PhDPsychologist Dana Klisanin, PhD, studies the impact of media and digital technologies on altruism and compassion. She also designs media and interactive technologies that encourage people to live consciously. She has conducted pioneering research in the areas of digital altruism, the so-called cyberhero archetype and collaborative heroism. She is currently investigating the impact of social media on heroism and has designed an online game, “Cyberhero League.” Dr. Klisanin is founder and CEO of Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D Inc., and is recipient of the 2012 Early Career Award for Scientific Achievement in Media Psychology from the American Psychological Association’s Division of Media Psychology.

Transcript

Audrey Hamilton: The study of online behavior often focuses on the negative, such as cyber-bullying or cyber-attacks. But psychologist Dana Klisanin is studying the ways people are using the Internet to help others. She calls it digital altruism. I’m Audrey Hamilton and this is “Speaking of Psychology. “

Dana Klisanin studies and designs media and interactive technologies that encourage people to live consciously. Dr. Klisanin is currently investigating the impact the internet and social media have on heroism. She is the designer of an award-winning online game “The Cyberhero League.” She is also the founder and CEO of Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D, Inc. Welcome, Dr. Klisanin. 

Dana Klisanin: Thank you. It’s nice to speak with you today. 

Audrey Hamilton: You study cyberheroes. What is a cyberhero? 

Dana Klisanin: Well, a cyberhero is an archetype. It’s a new archetype, a new form of the hero and the way I usually define it is as an individual who uses the internet or social media to help other people, animals or the environment. 

Audrey Hamilton: You describe something in your research called collaborative heroism. Can you talk about what that is and how it relates to the rise of social media? 

Dana Klisanin: Yes. Collaborative heroism is my most recent area of research and really, what it is – it’s – a lot of people have the idea that people who take action online – there’s a nickname that was coined to refer to that called “slacktivist.” And so, it gives this negative connotation that people who are taking action online are somehow slacking off on taking action and let’s just say, offline, getting out and about and collecting signatures or whatever. But actually, research has found that people who take action online are up to five times more likely to take action offline and to recruit other people to take action. 

So, the idea is that the cyber-activity, the cyberhero, blended with the offline activity creates a collaborative form of heroism that’s more powerful than either one separately. 

Audrey Hamilton: What are some examples of websites that encourage this type of heroic behavior? 

Dana Klisanin: Well, some of the social initiatives that I study that encourage this behavior include the Kony 2012 campaign as well as avaaz.org and Causes, which is part of the Facebook platform. 

Audrey Hamilton: And how is this type of, these types of sites – are they different in any essential ways from more traditional forms of heroism? Are they more powerful? 

Dana Klisanin: It’s very different than traditional forms of, or conceptualizations, of heroism because we normally associate the hero with risk – risk to one’s life – and with some of this online activity, you’re not really risking your life to engage in it unless there is a caveat there. Unless you live in a country where the internet is censured or you’re in some way restricted as to what, your freedom of speech and expression is restricted. 

I personally think that it’s a very powerful form of heroism, in a different way, but in anytime that you can get millions of people engaged together, you can create change. That’s the hope. 

Audrey Hamilton: Can you tell us about your project, The Cyberhero League? It sounds fascinating. 

Dana Klisanin: Cyberhero League is a game that I’m in the process of developing and what it is is just a way to spread the archetype knowledge about the archetype in a fun way to young people. I hope that people will play this across the age spectrum but it’s just a way to put the archetype out there and empower people to, you know, realize that they can use technology in this way. 

Audrey Hamilton: What does the game do? How does it work? 

Dana Klisanin: So the way the game works is the player signs up and his goal or her goal is to earn the badges of our participating non-profit organizations. Right now, we have over 13 non-profit organizations and we’re aiming to add more as we continue the development. But, what the player will do is complete a series of apprenticeships and in the process they’ll earn the badge of that particular non-profit. So, instead of earning fake badges, they’ll actually be earning the badge of the non-profit. And some of our non-profits are acting to protect indigenous peoples, the habitats of indigenous peoples. Others have to do with protecting the coral reefs and still others have to do with protecting the night sky from light pollution. So, we have a real large variety of areas that the players will learn about and take action on behalf of. 

So, one of the novel things about the Cyberhero League is while the player is completing the apprenticeships and playing the games, he or she is actually contributing towards the goals of the non-profits. In other words, funds are then given to the non-profits and the player gets the credit for having, let’s say, saved an acre of rainforest or fed someone or provided medicine or shelter and so forth. So, they’re actually making a difference in the world while they’re playing. 

Audrey Hamilton: Are you inspired by what you’ve discovered in your research? 

Dana Klisanin: Yes, I am inspired by what I’ve discovered in my research because I believe that this form of collaborative heroism is empowering and the cyber impact is also important because right now we hear so much about the cyber-bully – we hear about cyber-stalkers – we hear about cyber-crime – we hear about cyber-war. We very rarely hear anything, any positive words that have to do with the Internet and I do believe that some of the previous research I looked at in digital altruism and now in the cyberhero and collaborative heroism, help us to expand the way that we think of the potential of the web. That it can be used – and it is being used in positive ways and in order to promote that idea in society, we have to have words with which to speak of it. 

Audrey Hamilton: Great. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Klisanin. 

Dana Klisanin: Thanks for inviting me.

Audrey Hamilton: For more information on Dr. Klisanin’s work, please visit our website. With the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology,” I’m Audrey Hamilton.