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Collaborative Heroism

Collaborative Heroism in Social Media Initiatives

Dana Klisanin, Ph.D.
Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D, Inc.


This research explored the impact of interactive technologies on the social construction of heroism through examination of three popular social media initiatives: Avaaz.org, Kony 2012, and Causes.com. The research finds that, just as interactive technologies and social media have profoundly impacted the social, economic, and political spheres, among others, so too are they impacting the mythic and moral spheres—giving rise to a form of heroism described as collaborative. Rather than being understood as an online or offline behavior, collaborative heroism takes place within a situation defined by cloud computing in which the differentiation between the real world and the cyber world has dissolved.

This manuscript was originally presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, August 2013, Hawaii. “Collaborative Heroism: Confronting Global Challenges through Social Media.”

  • Citation
  • Author Bio
Klisanin, D. (2015). Collaborative Heroism: Exploring The Impact of Social Media Initiatives. Media Psychology Review. [Online] Vol 9(2).
KlisaninImage-100wDana Klisanin is an award-winning psychologist exploring the impact of media and digital technologies on the mythic and moral dimensions of humanity. Her pioneering research focuses on the potential of digital technologies and new media to advance altruism, compassion, heroism, and spirituality. Dr. Klisanin has been quoted and interviewed by BBC, TIME, Fast Company, Huffington Post, USA Today, Futurist Magazine, Harvesting Happiness, Civilination, and The New Existentialists. She is the Founder and CEO of Evolutionary Guidance Media R&D, Inc., and Executive Board Member of the World Futures Studies Federation and the MindLAB at c3: Center for Conscious Creativity. Author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, Dr. Klisanin’s exploration of the use of digital technologies for advancing spirituality has been translated into Russian at Eros & Kosmos. Her blog is Digital Altruism at Psychology Today. She is currently developing Cyberhero League an interactive gaming adventure with real world consequences. Together with a growing network of “evolutionaries” and integral visionaries, she is helping to define a culture of thought that uses media as an instrument of spiritual awakening and world transformation. Dana can be reached through her website, www.danaklisanin.com


In the closing statement of their conceptual analysis of heroism, Franco, Blau and Zimbardo (2011) point to a compelling area of research

The World Wars of the last century had a dramatic impact on our conceptualization of heroism and as our society shifts increasingly toward a highly networked, digitized future, the question of what the term “hero” will mean, for this generation is yet to be answered. (p. 112)

While the future alone will hail its heroes, the question of changing conceptualizations of the hero in our digital age is one I began investigating inadvertently, as a consequence of research in the area of digital altruism (Klisanin, 2011). Straying from altruism into heroism is unsurprising given the overlap in these constructs: an overlap in which the similarities are as rich, as their differences are profound—particularly in the public’s perception (Franco, Blau, Zimbardo, 2011).

The research in digital altruism began orienting toward the impact of digital technology on the hero and heroism as it became increasing apparent that the actions of some digital altruists were resulting in heroic ends—for example, the delivery of food, water, and/or medicine to individuals in dire need. Those digital altruists who were far more active than others, i.e., those who acted daily or more, were posited to represent the emergence of a new form of the hero archetype: the cyberhero (Klisanin, 2011). In retrospect, the movement from altruism to heroism was a profound leap. Heroism is considered to be one of the most complex human behaviors to study, in part, due to its contradictory nature—e.g., largely associated with the risk of life and limb. Yet it cannot be defined by or limited to such behavior (Allison & Goethals, 2011). The Internet with its warp of interdependency and weft of interactivity does nothing to mitigate this complexity. This research is an effort to extend previous investigations and explore more territory in this complex area of investigation.

The Internet is considered to have impacted every dimension of human activity (Negroponti, 1996; Barabasi, 2003; Christakis & Fowler, 2009). We know heroism to be a “social attribution . . . [that is] historically, culturally, and situationally determined” (Franco, Blau, Zimbardo, 2011, p. 99), thus it stands to reason that this most hallowed of human behaviors has not escaped the Internet’s reach. While the reasons for our collective failure to investigate the impact of interactive technologies on heroism are complex, clearly, our societal mythos—the matrix of meaning by which we live—is a contributing factor (Campbell, 1993). In the prevailing mythos, our heroes are those who risk life and limb—something that is not associated with pressing buttons on a keyboard or manipulating icons on a smartphone.

There is a seeming lack of risk involved and an ease of engagement—that flies in the face of our traditional conceptions of heroism. Rather than the lone hero, the cyber incarnation exists within an interactive matrix. Rather than being a solo feat, action arising through the Internet and mobile technologies takes place within a system that is kept online by the actions of a complex network of “others.” The nature of the Internet is thus one of interdependence. Risks to one individual may be mitigated by the concomitant actions of millions, however, the agency of the individual to act is not lost within the matrix, instead it carries with it powerful exponential potential (Klisanin, 2012). Furthermore, the level of risk and ease of engagement involved can be determined only by the situation in which the individual and/or collective resides. For example, in Moldova, Natalia Morar was arrested and accused of “masterminding Moldova’s ‘Twitter revolution” (BBC, 2009); in Bahrain, the electronic trails of pro-democracy activist, Mohammed Maskati’s led to death threats. Maskati was eventually bound and beaten by armed men in masks (Bennett, 2011).


Research suggests that human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature (Maslow, 1971; Hubbard, 1998). Unfortunately, a search of both popular news and academic literature reveals that cyber-bullies, cyber-stalkers, cyber-criminals, and cyber-war, dominate the discourse—it is almost as if their opposites do not exist—as though we’ve fallen into a strange twilight zone where traditional rules of opposing forces have all but disappeared. The territory is so bizarre, that the Urban Dictionary defines the term “Internet Hero” as describing someone more closely aligned with a villain:

Internet Hero: A sarcastic term for someone who is an Internet “tough guy.” A person who spends most of their time on Internet message boards acting like they are the all-knowing and all-mighty. If someone disagrees with their opinion the person labels the person with whom they disagree with a “sheep”, “sheeple” or called some sort of derogatory term. This person tends to have very few friends in the real world and makes most of their friends on the Internet with people who are similar to themselves. (Urban Dictionary, 2013)

Our conception of human nature on the Web is anything but healthy. If this nightmarish “cyberspace” were an altered dimension, briefly visited and quickly abandoned, this state of affairs might be of little consequence, just as a nightmare might be easily forgotten. But instead, cyberspace has pervaded our lives: “the Cloud” or “cloud-computing” is the new situation in which we live, work, and play. Why does the moral climate of the Cloud matter? After extensive investigations in the dark side of human nature, or understanding how good people turn evil, Zimbardo (2007) found that “situational factors” play a pivotal role in behavior. These factors are part of our human “systems” and are not easily recognizable due to our immersion in them.

Although the moral climate of cyberspace is difficult to quantify, research suggests that the way we language our thoughts plays a large role in the way we experience reality (Boroditsky, 2011). If we want to create a “world situation” in which we prevail against cyber-crime and cyber-warfare, then it stands to reason that their antitheses must be present in cyberspace. With words, concepts, and archetypes to speak of positive cyber behaviors and prosocial activities we can guide human behavior. Furthermore, the words and constructs can be likened to a weathervane with which we might one day forecast the moral clime of the Cloud—and with it the health of our human systems.

The need for such constructs is further underscored by findings on the persuasive nature of interactive technologies (Fogg, 2002; 2008), and the Proteus Effect that suggests that what happens in a virtual world has real-world impact on our health and other aspects of life (Yee & Bailenson, 2009). Additional research suggests that individuals who actively participate in online initiatives are more likely to take meaningful actions and twice as likely to volunteer and participate in events and walks than non-social media cause promoters. They are also engaged in a greater number of different kinds of supporting activities:

For these individuals, social media is simply being added to their range of engagement activities, not replacing the more historically prominent ways of supporting causes like donating or volunteering. . . . They are five times more likely than non-social media cause promoters to recruit others to sign a petition for a cause . . . four times more likely to ask others to contact their political representatives . . . and three times more likely to request others to donate. (Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication, 2011). [Italics added].

Zimbardo and Franco have (2006) suggested that we foster the heroic imagination as an antidote to evil—such that we imbue the “system” with the positive aspects humanity—our noble pursuits, character strengths, and virtues. It is to that end that this research aims.

Method and Criteria

This exploratory qualitative inquiry utilized multiple-case study method (Yin, 2011) to investigate the impact of interactive technologies on the social construction of heroism. The selection and review of case studies was indelibly guided by the theoretical construct of the heroic imagination. The construct was first introduced by Franco and Zimbardo in 2006, and subsequently expanded. It includes the following functions/premises:

1) The ways heroes are imagined in classical writings and by the general public.

2) “The perpetuation of the myth of the “heroic elect” does society a disservice because it prevents the “average citizen” from considering their own heroic potential.”

3) The “heroic imagination,” can be understood as a “mind-set. A collection of attitudes about helping others in need, beginning with caring for others in compassionate ways, but also moving toward a willingness to sacrifice or take risks on behalf of others or in defense of a moral cause. This conveys the message that every person has the potential to act heroically.“

4) “The bold reinterpretations of societal order offered by some social heroes.” (Franco, Blau, Zimbardo, 2011, p. 111)

Criteria for case studies from social media included selecting initiatives in which participants were considered to represent “average citizens” rather than “heroic elect.” The Cyberhero archetype was posited as an integral aspect of the “mind-set” of the “heroic imagination.” The archetype represents “individuals motivated to act on behalf of other people, animals, and the environment using the Internet and digital technologies in the peaceful service of achieving humanity’s highest ideals and aspirations, e.g., world peace, social justice, environmental protection, and planetary stewardship” (Klisanin, 2012). To clarity the meaning of “humanity’s highest and ideals and aspirations,” the working definition of the latter was amended to read: “in the peaceful service of achieving noble goals, where noble is defined as “having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals.” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013).

Because the “very same act accorded hero status in one group, such as suicide bombing, is absolutely abhorrent to many others,” (Franco, Blau, Zimbardo: 2011, p. 99) a universally agreed upon standard of what constitutes noble goals was determined. To achieve that aim, two documents were selected that have widespread consensus in relation to human rights, social justice, and environmental protection: 1) United Nation’s, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and 2) Earth Charter. The rationale for their selection is as follows.

The UDHR is a declaration representing a global consensus of rights to which all human beings are entitled (United Nations, 2013). As the majority of the world’s citizens still lack many of the basic rights described therein, actions to secure those rights that do not violate those selfsame rights, can be recognized as worthwhile, noble goals. An example of how the UDHR can be used to galvanize such goals is provided by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (2013).

The Earth Charter (2013) is likewise, a document that addresses human rights, albeit with a strong focus on environmental protection and stewardship. Widespread consensus is based on the “drafting and consultation process [that] drew upon hundreds of international documents and took into consideration the input of people from all regions of the world” (Earth Charter, 2013). Although the Earth Charter awaits formal endorsement by world governments, in the years since it’s founding it has attracted thousands of organizational endorsements, representing millions of people, including numerous national and international associations—it is arguably the closest thing we have to world consensus regarding environmental protection and stewardship.

In summary, social media initiatives selected for review met the following pre-determined criteria:

1) An average citizen can participate.

2) The initiative addresses one or more “universally agreed upon noble goals” as defined herein.

3) The social impact can be measured and/or is identifiable.

Case Studies

Three social media initiatives identified as meeting the foregoing criteria, were selected for review include: Avaaz.org, Kony 2012, and Causes.com.

Background – Avaaz.org

Avaaz—meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—launched in 2007 with a mission to: “organize citizens of all nations to close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want” (Avaaz, 2013). With over 24 million members, Avaaz is larger than some countries. Avaaz campaigns are conducted both online and off, spanning the spectrum from human rights to environmental protection, among others. They have “a single, global team with a mandate to work on any issue of public concern” and they self describe as being united by values, “the conviction that we are all human beings first, and privileged with responsibilities to each other, to future generations, and to the planet” (Avaaz, 2013). Furthermore, Avaaz describes their online community as acting “like a megaphone to call attention to new issues; a lightning rod to channel broad public concern into a specific, targeted campaign; a fire truck to rush an effective response to a sudden, urgent emergency; and a stem cell that grows into whatever form of advocacy or work is best suited to meet an urgent need.” (Avaaz, 2013)[Italics added].

Co-founded by Ricken Patel, Avaaz is completely funded by members, therefore no corporate sponsor or government backer can insist they their shift priorities to suit external agendas. Avaaz has found that people who join the community through a campaign on one issue go on to take action on another issue, and then another (Avaaz, 2013).


A review of Avaaz.org finds that millions of their members have taken action in the pursuit of noble goals. The scale and scope of member’s activities and the results they have achieved could easily be the subject of an entire book. Bentley (2011) provides examples of results achieved by the Avaaz community from specific campaigns. Article numbers in parenthesis refer to the UDHR, specifying the “noble goal” corresponding to the initiative.

  • Preventing the introduction of a law to gag the media in Italy; (Article 19)
  • Halting the passing of a law in Uganda that would sentence homosexuals to death; (Articles 1, 2, 5, 7)
  • Pushing through a law in Brazil to block politicians convicted of corruption from running for office. (Article 21)
  • Bypassing the Burmese Government’s block on international aid after Cyclone Nargis by depositing $2 million (£1.25 million) in donations in the account of a local businessman to pass to the monks running the relief effort. (Articles 1, 25)

Background – KONY 2012 Campaign

KONY Campaign 2012, was a campaign launched in 2012 by Invisible Children, a nongovernmental organization founded by Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole. The campaign was design to bring the world’s attention to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, considered to be one of the world’s worse perpetrators of crimes against children (e.g., maiming, torture, murder). The controversial campaign was awarded “Digital Campaign of the Year” in 2013 at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. The KONY campaign began as an experiment:

Could an online video make an obscure war criminal famous? And if he was famous, would the world work together to stop him? Or would it let him remain at large? The experiment yielded the fastest growing viral video of all time. 3.7 million people pledged their support for efforts to arrest Joseph Kony. (Kony 2012, 2013) [Italics added]

More than 12.5 million tweets were generated in the month following its release and thousands of “pledgers” rallied in Washington, DC to show their support. Kony 2012 Campaign successfully used social media to reach millions of people with their message. KONY was the #9 most searched person on Google in 2012 and Invisible Children became the most liked non-profit on Facebook with 3.1 million “likes” (Kony 2012, 2013).


The actions of millions acting in solidarity against a warlord achieved impressive results, a full account is provided on the website in terms of three areas: program, political, and social (Kony Campaign, 2013). The examples below are drawn from the “program” and “political” results. The noble goals addressed by Kony 2012 include Articles 4 and 5 of the UDHR: prohibiting slavery and torture respectively, though they are by no means limited to these.

  • Two LRA commanders have been removed from the battlefield, Maj. Gen. Ceasar Acellam and Lt. Colonel Vincent Binansio “Binani” Okumu.
  • 44 radio operators from CAR and DR Congo were trained on using the Early Warning Radio Network to protect themselves and their communities in December 2012
  • 690,000 defection fliers have been printed and distributed across DR Congo and CAR
  • 5 LRA (2 men and 3 women) surrendered in CAR on November 28, 2012 with a defection flier designed and printed by Invisible Children in-hand
  • Invisible Children constructed 3 FM radio towers to broadcast “come home” messages over 37,000 sq/km of LRA traveled territory (Mbokie, Obo, Dungu).
  • 89% of LRA escapees credit “come home” messaging as the reason they decided to attempt escape
  • The signatures of 3,729,815 people from 185 countries were delivered to the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, the UN’s special representative for Central Africa, and the African Union’s Special Envoy on the LRA issue on June 26th
  • The U.S. Senate unanimously passes the KONY 2012 resolution which condemns Joseph Kony’s atrocities and encourages the U.S. to support efforts to stop the LRA
  • On January 2013, Congress passed new legislation authorizing a reward of up to $5 million for information that leads to the arrest of Joseph Kony (Rewards for Justice Bill). (Kony Campaign, 2013).

Background – Causes.org

Launched May 25, 2007, Causes.org is an online activist community co-founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green. Causes’ mission is “to empower anyone with a good idea or passion for change to impact the world.” (Causes, 2013). Using the Causes platform, “individuals mobilize their network of friends to grow lasting social and political movements.” (Causes, 2013). Any user can create a cause, whether they work for a nonprofit or are an activist interested in a certain issue. Users publicize their activity to their personal networks, which are integrated with Facebook and use the persuasive power of social networking to promote various causes. The Causes leadership does not currently create in-house campaigns on topics of interest to the community. With over 100 million members, Causes represents a powerful force in the area of online activism.


Determining results for Causes was difficult due to the wider variety of initiatives in which members are engaged. Members are seeking to end “gendercide in China” to “raise funds for disaster relief” (UDHR Article 25), to “protecting the gray wolves,” and to “change the way the US Congress drinks water”. While many of these initiatives fall within the rubric of noble goals, as defined herein, and success stories are frequently posted, documentation with specific facts is lacking.


Results from two of the case studies, e.g., Avaaz.org and Kony 2012, clearly demonstrate that actions taken online impact the real world. The case studies reviewed included actions taken to secure human rights and environmental protection, thus in keeping with the definition of heroism utilized herein, the individuals participating in these actions may be understood to participating in heroic activity. The research suggests that a new form of heroism is emerging, a collaborative form that relies upon the actions of millions of individuals. Those actions can be set in motion by the efforts an individual (e.g., Avaaz.org), a small group of individual (e.g., Kony 2012), or through collective decision-making (e.g., Avaaz.org). Although this research has not examined risks associated with such actions, research has shown that risks are situational (Zimbardo, 2007) thus individual risk will depend largely upon the situation of the individual. Where traditional concepts of heroism are closely associated with acts of bravery involving risk of life or limb, the case studies reviewed indicate that collaborative heroism may be more closely associated with a variety of character strengths and virtues, including compassion and perseverance in the face of injustice. However, with Internet censorship and surveillance, a fact of life for millions of individuals around the world, this may prove to be a sampling error. It is a prime area for future research.


Just as interactive technologies and social media have profoundly impacted the social, economic, and political spheres, among others, so too are they impacting the mythic and moral spheres. Areas traditionally associated with heroism, including the three broad forms of heroism identified as martial (military) heroism, civil heroism, and social heroism (Franco, Blau, Zimbardo, 2011, p. 101), are being impacted by Internet technologies. The data cloud has become a situational factor in our lives submersing individuals within an interactive matrix where clear dividing lines between action in the “cyber” world and the “real” world disappear. Interconnectivity is fundamentally changing the way humanity goes about accomplishing noble goals. Contemporary expressions of heroic behavior are manifesting in a collaborative form—seamlessly bridging the online and offline worlds.


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