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Issue 1 | Feb 2011
Fishbook

Friends, heroes, frenemies, ex-girlfriends in bikinis: Facebook grants access to a lot of people. The limit of the social networking giant is that it includes only humans. As we become increasingly urbanized and isolated from wilderness, important interactions with other members of life’s fabric become more tenuous. We have two options: (1) we could develop tools that allow us to actually communicate with animals directly (ideal, but a long way off) or (2) we could try to speak on their behalf.

Since Facebook has more than 500 million users and 50 percent of them log on everyday, I thought it would be good if Facebook could connect users, not only with far-off faces, but also with faces that aren’t human. As an experiment, I gave undergraduates in my oceans class at Western Washington University the extra credit option to become animal ambassadors by creating a profile for a marine species. The rules were simple: No repeat species allowed. Students had to use binomial nomenclature. The more information, the more status updates, the more friends, the more creative, the better. Students, in the guise of their animals, also had to befriend me, the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus).

More than 60 of my students signed up. They began to refer to the project as Fishbook, even though the species ranged from the humble copepod to the polar bear. The monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) listed “anti-gun” political views and liked the musician Seal. Under books, the nautilus listed 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, while the colossal squid listed Moby Dick (clever, because Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni battles with sperm whales). The animals liked the band Phish, The Little Mermaid soundtrack, and new wave music. They created photo albums of their animal relatives. Many listed “evolution” under their religious views, although the blobfish listed Poseidon. They also discussed their life history characteristics, threats to their survival, and conservation groups working to protect them.

My goals for the project were wide ranging. Like all teachers, I wanted my students to be excited to participate, and I thought I could help this along by allowing them to use a tool most of them use everyday. The idea was that they would learn about a specific species and also familiarize themselves with Linnaean classification. I hoped that some committed students might continue as ambassadors past the end of the quarter. I was also curious how well Facebook could handle animals outside of Homo sapiens. Most of all, I thought I could subtly push my students to consider who belongs to their group. Does their social network include other species in the greater network of life?