The Hero and the Internet: Dana Klisanin, Ph.D. on the Cyberhero Archetype

Although the bulk of psychological research continues to focus on the negative uses of the Internet, i.e., cyberbullying and the cyberbully, the total number of people engaging in acts of digital altruism and other forms of pro-social digital activism exceeds 100 million. – Dana Klisanin

Dana Klisanin, Ph.D is the Founder and Executive Director of Evolutionary Guidance Media Research & Design, Inc., where she conducts research in the area of positive media and strategizes with corporations and non-governmental organizations interested in promoting social responsibility through media campaigns.

In her recently-published paper The Hero and the Internet: Exploring the Emergence of the Cyberhero Archetype, Dana examines digital altruism, which is “altruism mediated by digital technology.” Having previously identified three distinct forms of digital altruism including (1) everyday digital altruism, (2) creative digital altruism, and (3) co-creative digital altruism, she has now turned her focus on individuals who engage in digital altruism and represent the “cyberhero archetype”.

CiviliNation caught up with Dana to talk about her work.

CiviliNation: What first got you interested in studying digital altruism and other forms of pro-social digital activism?

Dana Klisanin: The research arose from my on-going exploration of evolutionary guidance media, a specialized area of investigation that explores how systems thinking, as well as humanistic, transpersonal, and integral studies can inform the design and development of media. Rather than limiting our capacity, these forms of inquiry encourage us to tap into, and expand our human potential.

CiviliNation: Some people take issue with the term “altruism,” interpreting altruism as nihilistic self-sacrifice. How do you define altruism?

Dana Klisanin: Altruism comes from the Latin word for “other” and is commonly understood to mean caring for the other at the expense of the self.  My definition of altruism is broader and arose from work of the American psychologist, Howard E. Gruber, a pioneer in the psychological study of creativity. Gruber defined altruism as a spectrum behavior ranging from the everyday to the creative. He explained “everyday altruism” as involving caring actions that require little effort and risk, such as stooping to pick up a fallen object for another at the risk of throwing one’s back out of joint. “Creative altruism” on the other hand, was explained as the willingness to take on, or address seemingly intractable human problems through strategic planning, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

CiviliNation: What is a cyberhero, and what differentiates cyberheroes from regular, everyday heroes?

Dana Klisanin: The cyberhero has arisen from our globally interconnected “wired” world and refers to a person who uses the Internet and digital technologies to help other people, animals, and the environment. Research has demonstrated that the cyberhero embraces paradox and feels interconnected with the larger web of life. While the everyday hero is confined to his or her immediate environment, through using the Internet and digital technologies, the cyberhero is able to reach out beyond physical boundaries to address current and impeding dangers. Rather than thinking of global threats, such as social inequality and environmental destruction as something “out there” the cyberhero recognizes them as personal threats—the “self” has expanded to include other people, animals, and the environment. Cyberheroes use the Internet as a means of extending compassion into the world. Collectively they are acting on behalf of humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations, e.g., world peace, social justice, environmental protection, and planetary stewardship.

CiviliNation: How can we encourage cyberheroism? How can we apply the results of your research to help reduce some of the egregious behavior, such as cyberbullying against children and adults, that we see online?

Dana Klisanin: Spreading awareness about the cyberhero archetype is a good place to start. Think about it this way: Offline we have individuals who harm others, we call “bullies,” we have people who stand by and watch bullying happen, doing nothing, we call them “bystanders,” and we have individuals who act on behalf of others, whom we call “heroes”.  If we did away with the construct of “heroes” then being a “bystander” would represent the best we could hope to be—the high end of the moral spectrum. Essentially that’s what we’ve done in cyberspace. We can counter this oversight by spreading awareness of the cyberhero archetype.

Cyberheroes are working to promote world peace, social justice, environmental protection, planetary stewardship, and so forth, but we must remember that each of these constructs is made up of millions of small “bytes,”—actions such as posting an encouraging comment on a friend’s wall; “clicking-to-donate” food, water, medicine; signing, or launching an e-petition to protect endangered habitats and species, adding expert content to informational sites such as Wikipedia; donating unused computing time to the World Community Grid, and so forth. Ultimately, through encouraging recognition and acceptance of the cyberhero archetype we expand the heroic imagination—weaving love and compassion into the fiber of the Web. In doing so we co-create new possibilities, new ways of being in the world, both on-line and off.

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