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What can Google Image search results tell us about human-forest relationships? 

While public perception research on forests often uses surveys and questionnaires as data collection methods, there are many other ways to inquire about how society perceives and interacts with them. These include repurposing online and social media data to understand what forests mean to people and how widely used digital platforms portray relationships between people and forests.   

For the past few years, EFI has been experimenting with research approaches that repurpose born-digital data from the web and social media in collaboration with digital researchers from the Public Data Lab, King’s College London, and DensityDesign Lab in Milan.  Alongside our project Out of the Flames, which looked at online engagement around the Amazon rainforest fires in 2019, we’ve also explored public issues and narratives around  the UN COP27 Climate Conference and forest restoration through Twitter hashtags and images and YouTube videos. Yet, there are many other interesting platforms to take a closer look at, including Google, the most used search engine with over 86% global market share.  

So, what do Google search results tell us about human-forest relationships? How do they portray our connections with forests? 

As part of exploratory research in support of the SUPERB forest restoration project, a student group from the Master’s Degree in Communication Design at Politecnico di Milano, led by Gabriele Colombo (King’s College London / DensityDesign), looked at Google Images showing different life cycle stages of reforestation and other related activities (read about the course here). Using 40 keywords such as tree planting, afforestation and forest and land restoration, the group collected and manually categorised 1200 images, resulting in a beautiful digital archive called ‘Plant Forward’.  

Exploring the Plant Forward image collection, it is possible to draw lines between human presence and absence in different forest lifecycle phases. The image collections under ‘wasteland’ and ‘forests’ show almost no human presence.  Although some landscapes in the images indirectly depict signs of human activities, such as roads and crop fields, human actors rarely appear in these image sets.  

Instead, human actors are visible in other lifecycle stages such as ‘sapling’.  Interestingly, these images portraying human involvement show human actors not only “regenerating” but also “cutting down” forests. 

When zooming into the images with human actors, one notices different ways people associate with forests. For example, not just people digging the soil and planting trees can be seen in these images, but also those sheltering, touching, measuring, and marking trees, indicating that forests are something people manage and care for. In addition, many images showing human hands holding or planting seedlings and saplings appear to be generic stock images used in different contexts. For example, there is a photoshopped image of a seedling growing inside a light bulb. We find image stamps and company logos, giving a sense of the commercial activities revolving around forests and forest imagery. 

Finally, we find images which suggest a diversity of people, communities and activities engaging with forests. Not only foresters and other professional practitioners are captured, but so are local communities, school children, families, women and religious groups, businessmen and military officials in different parts of the world.  

Repurposing search engine outputs can help us understand how online devices are involved in producing, framing and ordering different kinds of visual narratives about forests and human-forest relationships. You are invited to explore the  Plant Forward image collections to learn more about how relations between people and forests are portrayed in one of the world’s most widely used entry points to the web. We are curious to hear what you may find going through this image archive.

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