Can Humans Find Common Ground? Sure. Just Start With Sea Slugs.

Can Humans Find Common Ground? Sure. Just Start With Sea Slugs.

By Amy Harmon

In the process of reporting this article, Amy Harmon photographed an animal she saw in Riverside Park in Manhattan and experienced unironic elation when strangers in New York, California and Louisiana identified it as an Eastern gray squirrel.

Dec. 9, 2022

What was it?

A segmented worm? A sea slug? A centipede, colonized by a parasite?

When Merav Vonshak wanted to identify the gelatinous blob she had photographed floating in a shallow pool of water on a family vacation, she bypassed a wildlife-related website too often beset by bickering. She gave no consideration to brand-name social media platforms known for snark or misinformation.

Instead she uploaded the picture to a site called iNaturalist, where strangers have come together to pursue a very specific type of truth: the correct scientific classification for the living things they photograph in the wild or the backyard. They have so far processed about 90 million, with at least a quarter completed in 2022 alone.

And so it went in this case, where Dr. Vonshak, an ecologist, first thought the photograph taken at California’s Joshua Tree National Park in 2016 might be of a cluster of amphibian eggs.

Like many iNaturalist users, Dr. Vonshak, 45, invokes utopian metaphors not typically associated with social media to describe the platform. (“It reminds me of “Star Trek,” you know? Our society as I would wish it would be.”)

Indeed, while examining mud snakes and mosses, it has dawned on many of the iNaturalist faithful that maybe they are on to something much bigger — a model for using the web that is governed by cooperation, not combat.

And when a consensus eventually converged on a kind of fern known as a water clover — a different class of organism, in a different phylum, in a different kingdom from her own guess — the pang that can often come with being wrong on the internet was eclipsed, she said, by what felt like a small collective triumph.

“It’s like, this is everyone’s now,” Dr. Vonshak said. “This particular organism at this particular spot in this particular point in time.”

Building on “nano-agreements”?

A not-for-profit initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist says it aims to connect people to nature through technology. And the site’s species-level identifications have been cited in thousands of scientific papers.

But in a moment that can feel like everything is subject to dispute — the cause of inflation, the nature of gender, the legitimacy of an election — iNaturalist has also gained recognition as a rare place on the internet where people with different points of view manage to forge agreement on what constitutes reality.

Especially for Americans disoriented by the sharp partisan divide and the feeling that oligarchs and algorithms may be distorting even the beliefs they think of as their own, there is an apparent appeal in a nature app that facilitates potent slivers of shared understanding.

More than half a million new users have posted observations to iNaturalist from the United States in the last two years, accounting for about 40 percent of users worldwide. The number of observations passed 120 million this year. And some social network scholars say its growth holds lessons for improved communication between members of the only surviving species in the genus Homo.

“Here you have a site where people are trying, together, to collectively establish what’s true,” said Jevin West, a data scientist at the University of Washington who studies methods to combat misinformation on social networks. He added: “We don’t have a lot of good examples of that.”

The stakes are, by most measures, low: Red fox or gray fox? Bee or one of many flies that evolved to mimic bees? Brown bear, grizzly bear or black bear? What to call this brown ear-like mushroom that grows on trees, if the trees are in North America?

And iNaturalist is far from the only digital community that manages to mostly maintain peace by sticking to a narrow interest: Banjo Hangout for banjo nerds, Front Porch Forum for connecting neighbors in Vermont towns, Mastodon servers for every micro-identity.

But it stands out as a site with the explicit aim of collaboration and consensus. Professor West said he has come to believe that what he calls iNaturalist’s “nano-agreements” may be able to translate to larger and more charged topics. And as Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter prompts a conversation about how to create less-divisive online environments, iNaturalist is one model in the increasingly coveted “feels more cooperative” category, said Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who hosts the podcast “Reimagining the Internet.”

“Maybe this process of helping someone out and saying, ‘I think you might have misidentified that, I think it might be this,’” said Mr. Zuckerman, is beneficial training in being a civic participant in 2022, “rather than, ‘You dumbass, get off the internet, cancel your account. I can’t believe you thought that was an immature red-tailed hawk.’’’

“Here’s My Frog.”

iNaturalist’s community guidelines include “assume people mean well,” “don’t justify identifications with your credentials or dismissive comments” and “you don’t have to have the last word.” Ken-ichi Ueda, who co-created iNaturalist in 2008 and continues to run it with his co-director, Scott Loarie, said the site’s evidence-based ethos is also bolstered by the fact that users can’t just mark identifications as incorrect.

With help from a computer-vision algorithm, users who upload an observation typically suggest an identification. Others can then add their own nomination in the comments. As soon as a two-thirds majority emerges, the record receives a “community ID,” which can be overwritten anytime the majority shifts. Anyone can make a dismissive comment, but there may be less incentive to do so, since the only way to meaningfully disagree is to add your own identification.

“If I say something on Twitter, and someone ‘likes’ it, that only means that someone has some positive feeling toward what I said,” said Mr. Ueda. “An ‘identification’ on iNaturalist hopefully means something more — that someone looked at what you did, considered it and expressed their own assessment about the objective reality that you’ve documented.”

The growth of iNaturalist has been fueled in part by technologies that have democratized the act of documenting and identifying species. Its machine-learning algorithm, trained on the identifications of iNaturalist users over the last decade, now reliably recognizes some 70,000 types of organisms and provides real-time suggestions.

Better smartphone cameras have helped, as have inexpensive macro-lens attachments and the ubiquity of wireless internet access.

Birders who have mastered some of the world’s nearly 11,000 bird species have been drawn to the all-inclusive nature of iNaturalist, where they can also tackle the roughly 900,000 named species of insects, say, or the 377,990 species of plants. Many users also joined during the early pandemic, when a virus that likely jumped from a bat to other wildlife to humans may have driven home the interconnectedness of species, and anyway, there was little to do except go outside.

But other phone applications, including Merlin for birds, PictureThis for plants, and Seek, an offshoot of iNaturalist, identify some subset of the two million formally recognized species on the planet with no need for human communion.

That people continue to use iNaturalist, said Adam Kranz, 32, is because of the shared sense of purpose that reminds him of the Rotary Club that his parents belonged to in the rural Michigan town where he grew up.

An SAT tutor who has made it his mission to correct misidentifications of oak gall wasps on iNaturalist, Mr. Kranz has also been worrying about his own tendency to see those he disagrees with politically as “you know, morally bankrupt enemies.” But iNaturalist “is the place where I feel like I interact with strangers and work towards the common good.”

Like probably most iNaturalist users — to judge by clues in profiles and discussion boards — Mr. Kranz is a political liberal. But in interviews, several of the site’s most prolific identifiers described themselves as politically conservative. And group projects on the site — “Pollinators of Florida,” “Salticids of Oklahoma,” “Slime Molds of New York” — tend to cut across the nation’s usual divides.

Thomas Everest, 22, a registered Republican who is highly regarded on the site as an identifier of California mollusks, said he has come to value a humility among iNaturalist users — even the more liberal ones — that stems from admitting ignorance in front of people you don’t know or necessarily trust.

“It’s like, ‘yeah, I’m putting myself out there,’” said Mr. Everest, a laboratory technician in Ithaca, N.Y. “Here’s my frog. I don’t know what it is.’’’

From Kyiv to Wichita Falls

Most identifications tend to be of familiar creatures like white-tailed deer and monarch butterflies, but iNaturalist does wrestle with its own errors. Many people, for instance, would like to see mountain lions when they are really seeing bobcats, said Max Allen, a carnivore ecologist at the University of Illinois. Likewise, muskrats, which have a lot of fur on their ears, are often misidentified as beavers, which don’t.

“People are like, ‘I know it’s a beaver,’ and I’m like, ‘You may know it’s a beaver, but you took a picture of a muskrat,’” he said.

No amount of mind melds on taxonomic labels, said Sophia Rosenfeld, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Democracy and Truth,” is likely to fix what she calls the nation’s “fractured” truth.

“This is an example of people cooperating on what to call something,” Professor Rosenfeld said. “It’s not necessarily hopeful for our political life.”

Still, if you click “real-time discussions” on iNaturalist and watch the comments roll in, you may find some hope for people’s ability to have civil discourse — even kindness — on the internet.

Even in places where the natural world is being obliterated, like Ukraine, people have found time to post. A great spotted woodpecker from Kyiv garnered a community ID within minutes. A green toad from Crimea turned out to be a marsh frog.

“Thank you for your detailed responses,” wrote a user in Minnesota to someone who disagreed with his suggested family for a mushroom with a blue-spotted stem.

Marilyn Meador, a retired nurse in Wichita Falls, Texas, noted that a teenager in Florida had suggested that a bird she had photographed was a Western meadowlark, because of the tail-feather pattern.

While on the phone with this reporter, she typed the species name “Sturnella neglectainto the comments.

“I’m going to go ahead and agree with him,” she said.

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