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Longevity online: can social media take life extension ideas from the radical to the mainstream?

by Ricky Piper Published on 21st May 2015

by Ricky Piper Published on 21st May 2015

To confront death is to face our biggest fear, and unfortunately for advocates of life extension, this is something which the majority of people are not presently inclined to do. Like any industry, the level of investment in life extension technologies and the resultant supply of treatments are directly related to demand. Therefore, for governments, scientific institutions, and venture capitalists to invest within the field, the demand from consumers simply has to be there. Recent big budget ventures spearheaded by some of Silicon Valley’s most high profile companies and individuals go a long way to speeding up the rate of research and development as well as raising awareness of the cause, but for those looking to really accelerate the rate of progress, the question is how to get enough of the population onboard to significantly impact upon the rate of change.  

In the 21st Century, social media has emerged as by far the most efficient and accessible platform for engagement between like-minded individuals, promoting shared ideas, and ultimately mobilising the general population into action. In fact, in our increasingly globalised world, such is the centrality of social media and its capacity to facilitate instant worldwide communication, one can argue that without it any movement or form of promotion is likely doomed to fail.

As a characteristically tech-minded community, it is therefore no surprise that the power of networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Linkedin, and Reddit as tools for furthering the cause of life extension has not been lost upon its most engaged advocates. One only has to peruse the most popular channels Facebook and Twitter to find literally hundreds of groups and profiles dedicated to life extension and longevity, with thousands of members based all over the world.
Such high-levels of activity, one would assume, can only be a good thing for the life extension movement, but in terms of really taking life extension ideas from the radical to the mainstream, how far does social media currently go?

A Network of Like-Minded Individuals

To begin, in terms of sheer numbers, the size of the overall online life extension community is significant and growing rapidly. One of the largest international public Facebook groups, ‘International Longevity Alliance’, boasts over 6,000 members alone, and has national advocacy groups in 57 countries and regions worldwide with a further combined member total of around 7,000. Combine this with myriad other international groups focusing purely on the broader subject of longevity, such as ‘Longevity Party’ which has over 7,000 members, and ‘Longevity Hub’ with a membership of nearly 3,000. As well as countless smaller networks in the UK, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Iran, India, Russia, Brazil, China and a great many other countries and cities, and membership on Facebook alone can be estimated at well over 100,000 strong. A number that rises significantly each day.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of Twitter users follow groups and individuals related to life extension. For example, ‘GF2045’ a non-profit organisation and network of the world’s leading scientists in the field of longevity has over 3,000 followers. ‘Longevity Network’ a group for startups and investors in longevity research has over 11,000, and Maria Konovalenko a scientist and head of the Science for Life Extension Foundation has over 10,000 followers on her personal profile alone.

Furthermore, combined views of longevity-related videos on Youtube total well over one million, and subreddits in fields which encompass life extension technology and ideas such as longevity, aging research, futurism and transhumanism can be found to have well over three million subscribers.

Whether a front for established longevity-based organisations or simply a forum for interested individuals to connect with others in their local communities, it is clear that via the most widely used social media channels there is a significantly large community of individuals either actively engaged in the promotion of life extension ideas, or at least receptive to material on the subject. As a result, these online platforms, if used effectively and responsibly, represent not only an efficient means of connecting the like-minded, but also an important gateway between the enthused and the less inclined.

A range of perspectives

The debate on aging however isn’t black and white. It is in fact a battle between life and death permeated by numerous factors, ethical questions, and means of defeating nature’s biggest and seemingly unstoppable killer - old age. As a result, such diversity within the movement is reflected in the nature of online groups which seek to promote and reflect upon life extension ideas from a number of unique perspectives, with some more likely to strike a chord with the wider population than others.
  
In this sense, for Facebook groups such as ‘Immortality’ and ‘The Evolution of Science and Technological Life Extension’ the focus is very much on technology, with members dedicated to raising awareness of emerging technologies with the potential to increase human lifespan. ‘Egalitarian Transhumanism’, with over 7,000 members looks at life extension from a socio-economic perspective, working  to ensure that advanced technologies which stop aging, extend lifespan and eliminate genetic disease are available to everyone and not just ‘wealthy elites’. Whilst ‘Legal Support of Longevity Research’, with a more modest membership of around 200, is an international group with the equally important goal of sharing and discussing information about legal issues which might or currently affect the rate of life extension research.

Aside from purely life extension based networks, there are then groups related to transhumanism, futurism, cryonics, and artificial intelligence which focus either directly or indirectly on ways to increase human lifespan through the use of advanced technology. The ‘Transhumanist Party’, its numerous national subsidiaries, and other transhumanist movements account for at least 50,000 people on Facebook. Futurist groups have a combined membership of around 30,000 and cryonics related groups and organisations represent a further 25,000 approximately.  

With other countless groups, pages, and profiles focusing on technology, diets, supplements, medicine, science, research, ethics, the environment, and even the teachings of ancient Chinese philosophers, the individual scope of networks within the overall life extension community may in many cases diverge, but all are united by the same ultimate goal of extending healthy human lifespan.

The overriding issue though is whether the most rational, researched, and legitimate material can make its way through such a vast amount of internet traffic. This is not always the case, particularly when some information sources are motivated by commercial interest, promote theories on longevity neither backed up by quality research nor proven results, or represent a perspective way beyond the realms of most people’s comprehension.

Building the Community

Nonetheless, when speaking to some of the community’s most engaged advocates, it is the shared goal of building a cohesive community rather than purely promoting an individual preference which serves as the key motivation for those heavily invested in promoting life extension through social media.

Ilia Stambler is an Israeli author, scholar, and life extension advocate, who spends a significant amount of his time engaging with the various groups and forums related to life extension, particularly on facebook. For him, it is not the desire to promote his personal initiatives or ideas, but the importance of building a global community with a voice loud enough to impact upon the rate of development which makes such a pursuit entirely worthwhile:

          “Only such a community can create the sufficient force of ‘demand and supply’ that would make ‘longevity for all’ a reality. This is why my plan to live longer and help others to live longer is not to advance any particular line of research, or any particular organisation or career choice, but to try to help build the longevity community itself, encouraging pro-longevity goal setting and sharing, knowledge and information exchange, networking and group building.”

It is this same goal of building a wider, more engaged community with a sufficient platform to reach out to the less informed which also motivated Ali Yahyaei, a life extension advocate based in Iran to form the Iranian branch of Longevity Alliance: “I think raising awareness and providing valid information are the most important steps towards the goal of extending human lifespan, as if these are done well, the goal will be achievable more easily by attracting greater scientific and financial sources.”

In this sense, there are numerous large international or regional online groups and forums which, in being designed to allow members to connect and share the latest developments with a wide audience, align entirely with this aim. Just two examples are: the Humanity Plus Forum ‘H+’ - an online community network ‘dedicated to developing knowledge on science and technology’ which allows transhumanists and longevity activists to share the latest news and events, as well as create their own groups and forums within the platform; and the Singularity Weblog Canada - an open virtual space, that provides tools to facilitate interaction, share information, promote events, and even collect donations for wider projects.

If well regulated by responsible administrators, which many are, these online platforms are essential not only to further entrenching ideas among those already interested in the field, but also as a channel for outreach towards those who may have not been so previously, or even opposed. In both cases however, the overall effectiveness depends entirely on what is shared and promoted, and the nature of any direct activity which may materialise as a result of engagement.

Mobilising the Masses

The greatest role of social media is then not simply facilitating online chatter, but as a means of mobilising members into action. For those who organise direct initiatives, enlisting the support and participation of the online community has become almost essential to the successful execution of projects which either reach an audience beyond that of the community itself, or provide direct benefits to longevity research and development.

For example, numerous projects, such as the ‘Geroprotector’ experiments to extend lifespan in mice led by Russian scientists and life extension activists Elena Milova and Daria Khaltourina, have been facilitated directly by gaining support and participation through social media. In this case, members of the online community were asked to be subjects of the experiments through engagement on facebook, whilst financial contributions were also successfully sourced via several other online platforms.  

Similarly, the 9,000 member-strong Movement for Indefinite Life Extension (MILE) regularly uses its Facebook and Twitter platforms to mobilise its members for a range of actions. In March an ‘Online Demonstration for Indefinite Life Extension’, to support life extension technologies and awareness, took place in a live Google Hangout broadcast from different locations around the world. Also a recent ‘mixed line-up’ arranged through facebook and twitter included group demonstrations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington D.C involving singing, speeches, and readings to show support for indefinite lifespan.

Another effective large-scale social media campaign was that related to Metchnikoff Day, a series of events taking place worldwide in honour of the founder of Gerontology Elie Metchnikoff.  Arranged primarily through Facebook, initiatives were organised by a variety of gerontological research and advocacy organizations, with events taking place in cities such as Kiev, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Larnaca, Oxford and o Ramat Gan, Israel.

Alongside further unique social media driven initiatives, such as the ‘Last Generation to die’ film on life extension, which achieved $25k of funding through an online Kickstarter campaign, and the Russian Center of Advanced Technology’s recent ‘Ice Bucket Challenge for Aging Research’ to support the development of a scientific model on human aging, this sophisticated use of social media to facilitate direct action, often with clear quantifiable results, holds perhaps the greatest potential for the online community both to raise awareness and actually drive support and funding towards research in the field.

Of course, the benefits of any such individual endeavours arranged through social media  can only be judged on their individual merits. Like any form of promotion or protest, some means of doing so can prove to be far more successful than others. Nonetheless, what is clear is that social media allows activists worldwide to connect, conceive and carry out projects either together or simultaneously throughout the world in a way that wouldn’t be possible without it.

From the Radical to the Mainstream

Overall, it is then clear that social media’s capacity to build networks, grow movements, and mobilise people into action makes its use essential for furthering the cause of human longevity. By offering an environment where worldwide public awareness on longevity issues and possibilities can be raised, the opportunities to change attitudes and gain new active advocates are abundant.

However, this is not to say that one shouldn’t exert caution when looking to social media as the principal resource for information on life extension. Whilst the level of membership and activity is extremely encouraging, and those who devote their time to it should be praised, there remains an issue with fact-checking and the trustworthiness of a number of the stories, news, research, and developments shared and promoted by some individuals and organisations across groups and networks. This is exacerbated further by commercial enterprises who exist under the banner of life extension and offer news and research on products, supplements, and treatments which essentially align with their particular business model, and may in fact offer little or no benefit to longevity at all.

It is therein of vital importance for the life extension movement that social media channels are used to raise awareness of feasible and proven means of prolonging healthy human lifespan, whilst at the same time reaching out those who are apathetic or opposed by acting in a manner which moves the wider public perception away from the notion of life extension as “crazy, unrealistic, Sci-Fi” towards “trustworthy science and a meaningful goal.” To all intents and purposes this is currently not being achieved to the extent that it can and needs to be.

In this regard, the goal should be to use social media to build a larger more visible community, but in a way where the emphasis is on quality and legitimacy. If this can be achieved, and there is no reason why it cannot, this will inevitably move the idea of radical life extension from the radical to the mainstream once more and more people see, trust and share these ideas. In turn, we are then likely to see the far greater rate of development in the near future which is so desperately needed.