Thousands of wild animals win friends on Facebook

Wild Me is the latest in a trend to use social media to spark interest in nature and conservation.

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POSTDecember 25, 2013 

Stumpy is a hulking fixture in seas around Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Western Australia. Photographed there often, he has a tranquil, inquisitive demeanor - despite his 10-ton heft.

Following the launch this month of Wild Me, a new social media app, Stumpy is one of almost 5,000 whale sharks that can now be "friended" on Facebook.

Wild Me is designed to build closer ties between people and animals - initially whale sharks, polar bears and manta rays but eventually many species, often vulnerable or endangered ones.

"We want people to see these animals as individuals worth conserving," says Wild Me app developer Jason Holmberg, who lives in Portland, Ore. "To do that, we wanted a social media network that can span space, time - and species," he adds.

Wild Me animals have been identified, based on skin patterns or markings, by researchers tracking their movements, often with undersea cameras. A handful, including Stumpy, have been given names. Holmberg plans to add more species - jaguars, white sharks, sperm whales, cheetahs and wild dogs, for example - in coming months.

Two years ago, the nonprofit Explore.org began operating 50 live cameras trained on animal congregations around the world - from playful pandas in Wu Gang, China, to puffins loafing on a ledge in Seal Island, Maine.

"When brown bears start catching salmon or polar bears are migrating, the eruption of tweets on Twitter turn our cams into trending topics - it becomes kind of a virtual flash-mob experience," says Jason Damata, a spokesman for Explore.org. In July, Explore.org added a snapshot feature so viewers can easily share photos they take from the live feeds. More than 350,000 photos have been shared over social media in the past four months.

Project Noah is another animal-focused network; it relies on people interested in identifying and sharing their own critter images.

In two years, Project Noah has amassed 240,000 members who have shared more than a million photos - marveling, for instance, at the orange-tipped, otherworldly transparency of the jewel caterpillar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and the unnerving red eyes of the satanic leaf-tailed gecko in Madagascar.

While Explore.org and Project Noah have proved popular, they had the difficult job of building a nature-based social network from scratch. Wild Me, by contrast, is trying to take nature to the world's largest social network.

"I like that it is plugging into Facebook and utilizing a network that hundreds of millions of people already participate in," says Project Noah creator Yasser Ansari.

But, Ansari adds, for Wild Me to succeed, it must build a community of active participants. If researchers simply post infrequent updates, the app runs the risk of not enticing users to become invested in what a wild friend is doing.

Holmberg says Wild Me plans not only to alert friends when and where a specific animal is sighted but also to post news about its social dynamics and about the scientists conducting the research.

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