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So far and yet so near: Presence, intimacy and distance in orangutan conservation online

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Over the last decade, websites and social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) have become increasingly central to conservation bodies’ efforts to engage the wider public, notably potential donors and volunteers. Ample evidence of this trend can be found in the burgeoning field of orangutan conservation: today, anyone with an internet connection can, with a few clicks, donate to orangutan charities, adopt named orangutans, ‘like’ videos of their exploits, sign up for eco-tourism or volunteer programmes and participate in large-scale virtual events, such as World Orangutan Day. More than serving as mere vehicles or publicity machines for ‘real’ conservation efforts on the ground, these digital media blur the online/offline distinction, and have arguably become part of wildlife conservation itself.

Using both internet-based research and more traditional fieldwork methods in both the UK and Southeast Asia, Dr Chua’s project explores the poetics, politics and dynamics of orangutan conservation as an online phenomenon. Rather than investigating either communities or networks—two dominant paradigms in internet studies—her research focuses on creativity and praxis: on how the field of wildlife conservation is promoted, (mis)apprehended and experienced through digital interactions and interventions. Central to this is an examination of three critical, intersecting motifs—presence, intimacy and distance—are the ways in which they are negotiated, experienced and played out in the digital realm of orangutan conservation.

This project is funded by a BRIEF Award, and will run throughout 2014. It feeds into Dr Chua’s broader research interests in the social, political and cultural dimensions of orangutan conservation as a transregional nexus, and is expected to give rise longer-term collaborations and grants.