Monday, August 27, 2012

The Facebook of Nature

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”- Marshall McLuhan

If you’ve been following my journey this summer, you should be ready right now to read another blog about one of my outdoor adventures with U.S. Fish & Wildlife. This blog entry was slotted to talk about my time at the Girl Scout 100th Anniversary Celebration at the Linn County Expo Center a couple of weeks ago, but I thought to myself “we spent the day inside!”

(Please do come check out our photos from this event, though!)

Using social media (and candy) to connect people
to nature.
Credit: Meghan Kearney/USFWS
I wanted to find a creative “get outdoors” spin on this day and then it hit me. My day at our USFWS booth was spent handing out lollipops (that had stickers encouraging these lollipop eaters to “like” us on Facebook) and tweeting to Girl Scouts (@GirlScoutsOSW) about The Service’s booth and Luna the Lamprey. I spent my day connected on a tiny handheld computer, right? This is exactly what I should be discouraging on my blog, right? Or is it?

The tweeting was successful; it helped us spread the word about our booth in real time to a present audience. And by the sheer number of tweets coming through on the giant screen at the front of the room – these girl scouts were no strangers to technology. So now we face the common problem – youth, plugged-in to technology. If we can’t pull them away from it to the outdoors, why not push them through it?

An example of one way to use
 technology in nature.
Credit: Kayak Everywhere
Take it with you
As a scholar of Communication, with an emphasis on (and major supporter of) new and social media, you might find it somewhat ironic that I work each day to connect people with nature. We should all be familiar by now with the idea that technology is one main culprit of “nature deficit disorder,” but should we blame computers for our, and our children’s lack of outdoor activity? I say – no. We have this vast amount of technology at our fingertips each day, and there is no rule, anywhere, that says we have to sit inside of a dark room to use them. As I watch technology continue to progress, and continue to become increasingly available in schools, libraries and homes, I have to take this opportunity to give everyone some encouragement on how to utilize those iPads, smartphones, laptops, digital cameras, and even video games, yes video games, to our advantage - outside!

Five Ways to “Connect” with Nature.
Here I offer you a few of my personal favorite new media tools to take with you outdoors!

The virtual "Great Outdoors" badge,
won on Foursquare after checking-in
to numerous outdoor recreation spots.
Foursquare – This is one of the most successful current smart phone apps, and while it is typically used as a “check-in” service for nearby businesses (using a phone’s GPS it locates where you are, giving you the option to “check-in,” leave tips, take photos, share with friends, and compete for points and “mayorships” for those who visit a location the most), people may not think about checking-in to their favorite local trail, or even your own backyard. The icon to the right is the “Great Outdoors” badge. I earned this a few weeks ago after checking-in to Multnomah Falls. I am now the most outdoorsy of my Foursquare friends; nothing like a little nature competition facilitated by my smartphone.

Using GPS apps to track trail hikes, runs
or bikes!
Credit: DK Limke
Nike+ App – This free app works on both smartphones and iPods. While it is usually used to track runs, I find it much more exciting to take out on a hike. Using GPS navigation, it tracks distance and time and can even show a map of your path, which can all be stored and shared on virtual places like Facebook and Twitter. Encourage yourself with this app to hike a new trail once a week (or more!). Before you know it, you’ll have one big map showing all of the trails you’ve hiked. Bragging rights!

“Get Your Nature On” – This is a Facebook app from the Outdoor Alliance for Kids organization. After connecting to this app through a personal Facebook account, users are encouraged to get outdoors and upon arriving home share their experience, photos, and videos. Each activity earns you points and badges for being an awesome outdoor adventurer. You can even apply what you’ve done to the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge. This is a note I received upon logging in after an adventure: You’re back! How was it? You look happier and healthier already…one of the best results of fun outdoor activities. Can’t wait to hear about your experience- describe it below, hit “claim” to post to your Facebook page and get closer to your next badge!”

Nature Field Guides – Did you know there are endless field guide apps available for smartphones, iPads, and iPods? The Audubon Society has a field guide app for almost every aspect of nature you can think of. Note: most of these apps are not free, but think of them as buying paper field guides version 2.0, or simply do a search for similar, free guides. Take your phones outside and discover new birds, learn to fly fish, or go hunting for rocks! Whatever aspect of nature is your favorite – search your app store and enhance your experience outdoors!

Screen shot of the free Project Noah
mobile phone app.
Outdoor Mobile Games – These apps help turn outdoor exploration into a real-life video game. Explorence is one start-up outdoor mobile app company whose free game “Street Dash” uses virtual maps and GPS to show hidden coins, prizes, and other competitors hiding around outside that you can run, walk, bike, skate or skip to! Project Noah is a similar free app that requires you to take photos of animals you see outside. These are then stored with facts, date and location. What you end up with is a collection of all of the animals you have seen --- sounds a little bit like real life Pokémon, doesn’t it?

The best of both worlds, balancing
technology and nature.

Credit: Sean Dreilinger
The Future Outdoors
These are only a few examples of ways to utilize these tools to our outdoor advantage. New apps and programs are always popping up; it just takes a little creative searching. I hope this made a convincing argument in favor of computers, technology and social media. Just remember – you don’t need to completely take the technology away from children to increase their outdoor activity, you just need to instill in them how much fun they can have with their tech-toys in the great outdoors! If we keep up this practice, we might see a full circle return to the outdoors, but this time equipped with the tools that, when used properly, enhance our experiences like never before! And always remember - nothing quite beats that feeling of being outside and unplugged. Getting out there is the first step; the rest... will come naturally!

If you know of any other ways to connect technology and social media with nature, or want to share your favorites, please let us know!



  1. Hey, don't forget Geocaching! One of the best, most fun ways to marry use of a GPS device and GPS within smartphones and getting outside. Check out:, and opportunities to download either freel or custom Geocaching apps on your iPhone or Droid. And lots of Service facilities have virtual geocaches to check out...Sean C.

    1. Thanks, Sean. Another GREAT way to mesh nature and technology!