What kids are saying through Earth Speakr
Since Earth Speakr’s release in summer 2020, children have used the platform to create more than 12,000 messages and over 2,000 minutes of video. No single person can listen to and understand such a large number of messages, which come from over 100 countries and are spoken in more than 70 languages. In an attempt to understand the kids’ overall concerns and messages and communicate these, as a whole, to a general audience, we have engaged in a research project that listens to and compiles the many voices of kids across the planet. In our research we have attempted to identify the topics of most concern to the children around the globe; the degree of correlation between visual and verbal content; and the position from which the kids are speaking and to whom. In addition, we have attempted to ascertain trends and connections between messages – evidence of cultural transmission. In the process, we wish to gain an understanding of the power of listening and of being heard for the kids, to see if this empowers them and affects the content of their messages.
'Earth Speakr is a collective artwork that invites kids to be artists. The artwork is made up of their thoughts and visions, concerns and hopes. What they have created is playful and whimsical, serious, and sometimes poetic. Earth Speakr invites kids to speak their hearts and minds and participate in shaping our world and the planet, today and in the future.' Olafur Eliasson, 2020
As Earth Speakr is an artwork and not a research project, our approach was conceived after the conception of the artwork and made to fit within the work’s artistic framework. The primary ambition of the artwork was to provide kids around the world a platform for speaking up and for discovering and listening to the concerns of their peers in other countries. Earth Speakr strives to foster a supportive space in which the kids feel seen and heard, and it offers a collective artistic experience for all. The motivation behind the Earth Speakr message-analysis research was to understand the content and complexity of the messages made in the Earth Speakr app by kids aged 7–17 years, between the launch of Earth Speakr, 1 July 2020, and 30 November 2021. The ambition is to understand the content in a quantitative and qualitative manner. Before this research, it was only possible to arrive at an anecdotal understanding of the kids' messages by exploring the messages in the Earth Speakr app and on the map. Now listening to the collective is possible. In the report we are interested in better defining what topics and themes the kids speak about the most, what concerns they share, and how this may differ across languages, geographies, and even certain times of the year. We are further seeking to understand what visuals the kids are using and if it is possible to ascertain themes and cultural transmission in the messages and visuals. We have analysed the frequency at which the kids’ videos relate to their spoken messages, who they are directing their messages towards, and how often they speak as themselves or through an object (speaking, that is, on behalf of the environment around them).
The messages studied
All messages made since the launch of Earth Speakr that adhered to the Community Guidelines were included in the research. For technical reasons, a percentage of messages could not be studied in detail.
The funnel process
The available data set has allowed for a thorough quantitative analysis of the EU as a whole, of a few specific locations (Germany, Italy, and Denmark), and of a number of languages, such as English, German and Spanish, to name a few. There is, however, insufficient data for thorough analysis of each individual EU country or language, which would require a significantly larger data set. Combining both quantitative and qualitative forms of research of the available date has offered a well-rounded and rich review, analysis, and understanding of what the Earth Speakr kids are saying, selecting, and showing, and how they are saying it.
Cultural transmission and social learning can be understood and defined as learning that is facilitated by observation of or interaction with another individual (Hoppit & Laland, 2014). Cultural transmission is a special case of social learning, as the socially transmitted information is passed on across a chain of several individuals, so it is the cultural transmission of information across ‘generations’, or in the case of Earth Speakr, across the digital divide, languages, and national borders. This transmission is achieved predominantly via the feed, yet it is also possible via the examples shown in the app stores, the introduction and inspirational images shown when the app is first opened, and in some cases via the map within the app or via Earth Speakr’s social media channels.
In this way cultural transmission may be considered as something quite common throughout the Earth Speakr messages and occurs when the user base (particularly the users who make multiple messages and who engage in the community components of the artwork) are inspired by one another. This generally happens through watching one another’s content via the feed within the app. Inspired by the messages of others, kids go on to make similar yet always slightly different messages in response to what has inspired them. This form of social learning could also be considered imitation (although there are always differences and developments and degrees of newness). Imitation is a critical component to learning and human development. Children in particular imitate in order to learn and develop skills – be they motor, social, linguistic, or other skills. What makes cultural transmission fascinating, however, is that it is also how many inventions and acts of creativity unfold. Rather than conceiving of creativity as a one-off, isolated incident, most inventions, or acts of creativity are build-ups of knowledge over time and through inspiration from and referencing of others, including the enormous build-up of knowledge and inspiration over generations and longer periods of time. In this way, the cultural transmission that we see taking place within the Earth Speakr app can also be understood not only as trends or forms of social learning but also as creative developments among kids. These enable them to grow, develop, and adapt collectively, and among one another. Earth Speakr could therefore be understood as a hub, a pool of cultural and creative development for kids, specifically around topics related to the climate and social and intergenerational justice.
‘All creative ideas are derivatives of another… When we create we often seem alone, but we are in fact together.’ Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix, 2021
Cultural transmission in the app seems to illustrate a degree of community and perhaps a sense of kids feeling connected and together. Although the app does not allow them to communicate directly with one another, they are part of and feel a sense of community through this transmission of creative output.
Throughout the research, we discovered several instances of cultural transmission across messages. There were several visual motifs that were reused, re-worked, re-invented within the Earth Speakr community. While some common visuals may arise independently from one another (e.g., a plastic bottle, something commonly available to many kids), others were highly specific visual references that give evidence of inspiration and innovation among kids across geographical and language divides. Examples include plants being watered, hand-drawn pictures, globes of the world, and faucets with running water. These all require a certain amount of planning, production, and consideration and are a ‘higher bar’ to achieve. Even the most common visual motif of a tree requires certain consideration and construction of the scene, if, for instance, a kid needs to go outside to find a tree. This process of cultural transmission began almost as soon as the artwork launched and has continued up until today. For the purpose of this research, we have looked at the most common visual motifs across a timeline and the world map.
Some common recurring visuals that reflect cultural transmission in order of frequency:
- A tree
- An animal
- A piece of fruit
- A handmade drawing
- A garbage bag
- A rubbish bin on the street
- A world globe
- A (COVID) face mask
- A wooden log
- A faucet with running water
- A building
- A mountain
- A plant being watered
Trees were by far the most common visual that signalled a degree of cultural transmission across users, countries, and languages. There was even an interesting subset of apparent cultural-transmission messages made under the greater context of trees, which involved poems and songs that can be looked at more closely.
Examples 1 and 2, were made by the same user on the same day, 7 August 2020, in Melbourne, Australia. Both poems rhyme and are written in anapestic tetrameter. The second example references The Lorax, a book by Dr. Seuss with an environmentalist moral, so there is cultural transmission happening already here from outside the app. The first seems to be made in a park; the second from a building across a street.
A plant being watered
A higher-barrier motif that we found to repeat was a plant being watered:
From the qualitative-research analysis we have been able to see that kids speak well over half the time as the object they place the Earth Speakr face on, or as the environment more generally. This signals that it is fairly intuitive for the community of kids using Earth Speakr to embody their surroundings through the app. Speaking through Earth Speakr becomes an act of imagining and becoming, no longer only speaking as oneself. This signifies a mental and creative shift through this act when using the Earth Speakr app.
The act of embodying an object, made possible by the AR function of Earth Speakr, gives the kids an opportunity to experience becoming an object and speaking through and on behalf of the world around them. This act has its roots in Studio Olafur Eliasson’s long-time interest in object-oriented ontology, and the relations of animate and inanimate objects among themselves and outside a human-centric perspective. This act allows kids to imagine the perspectives of others and put themselves in their place, be it an animal, a plant, or a human-made contraption. Through this act of becoming, becoming a tree or ‘treeing’, the relations between objects, humans, and the natural and constructed world around them, the kids may have the potential to alter perspectives to consider all things on the planet more equally and to reject the otherwise assumed privileging of human experience over that of anything else, including objects. In Earth Speakr, we see kids stepping out of their human perspective and embodying a piece of wood, a cup, or the air around them.
Object embodiment is an imaginative and creative act that is seemingly very easy for kids to engage in. Between the ages of 6 and 10, children tend to develop the ability to think abstractly and creatively. Earth Speakr’s community is made up of kids aged 7–17, with about half in the age range where abstract thinking is developing or developed. This may be one reason the Earth Speakr community can so easily imagine becoming the objects in the world around them. When the kids become the world around them, they no longer think of it as separate but as very much part of themselves. This decentring of human experience and the becoming of others may offer a critical shift in changing the way one perceives and acts, particularly around climate and social justice concerns. Earth Speakr proposes that changing the way we think, even subtly, changes the way we act.
Who is the kid speaking as
Speaking as the object
Speaking as the environment
Speaking as themselves
Speaking through the visual
Well over half the time (63.09%), the kids correlated the visual image to the content of the spoken message to some degree. An example of strong correlation between the visual and spoken message is when a kid spoke about the need to respect tiger’s rights while featuring a visual of a tiger stuffed animal. An example of a weak correlation between the visual and spoken message is when a kid spoke about protecting racing greyhounds over a visual of a doorway. The visual did not match at all 36.91% of the time. In these cases, it may have been the kids’ choices not to correlate the image, or they may have used a phone that does not support the AR function well (in which case the visual is a coloured background). This does not mean that the messages with non-matching visuals are not creative or inspiring; in fact they could be creative in many ways and may be intentional, depending on the context.
Does the message match the visual content
To get an overall impression of the main subject matters that were addressed through Earth Speakr, the messages were grouped into topics and assigned three words each to best describe the content:
Planet + earth + environment The health and safety of the planet
Plastic + eat + fish Threats to fish and sea creatures from plastic waste
Trash + garbage + rubbish Garbage and rubbish in landfill, recycling and separating trash and using bins appropriately
Climate + deforestation + green Deforestation is affecting the climate and the environment.
Planet + earth + environment
Plastic + eat + fish
Trash + garbage + rubbish
Climate + deforestation + green
Each user (excluding outliers) made an average of 2.5 messages.
A small majority of users, 54.75%, made only one message, while a large minority of invested users, or 45.25%, made multiple messages (with an average of 3.3). This second group becomes significant for the research if we can understand why they were inspired or encouraged enough to make more than one message, whether out of a desire to improve on the previous message, to say more than what was said in the first, or because they enjoyed the process enough to continue making new content. We know that the average user views 10 messages from other people within the ‘feed’ of the app per session. It is therefore likely that repeat message makers viewed many messages from other kids and were inspired by others before making their own second message. The multi-message users may have learned from making multiple messages and improved their skills in planning the audio and visual of the video messages.
We compared the messages of single-message users to multi-message users, in order to see if any differentiating factors predominate among these two sets of messages. We considered both these sets of users against their participation in cultural transmission, as well as their likelihood to engage in object embodiment and to make solution-oriented messages. We also studied this set of messages to identify if the visual was more often related to the spoken message. The findings showed that both groups of single and multiple messages users participated in cultural transmission, but the multi-message users participated far more frequently in more complex transmissions that take time and planning to create – for example, a plant being watered, a handmade drawing, or a faucet with running water. Further to this, multi-message users were far more likely to be creative in their messages and to embody the object they put their face on. They were also much more likely to match the visual to the spoken message in a considered way. They were also more likely to be considered ‘exceptional’ and at times ‘funny’ by the researchers reviewing the messages. This shows a clear increase in sophistication of message making in users who repeatedly used the Earth Speakr app, suggesting that kids were engaging in a skilled feedback loop with the creative tools of the artwork.
Attempting to understand the emotions conveyed in the messages can help us understand how the kids may feel about the topics they are discussing. We looked into this through machine learning, which analysed the facial expressions of the avatar faces in the messages. The faces mimic the facial expressions and movements of the child using the app. We also looked into the emotions of the messages via human observation, with researchers watching and considering the tone of voice, facial movements of the avatar face, and the content and topic of the messages. Using machine learning and human observation together, we considered the emotions against six standard emotions – anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise – and a neutral facial expression (as a control).
Across all Earth Speakr messages, the kids showed happiness more than any other individual emotion. However, if all the other negative emotions – anger, disgust, fear, and sadness – are taken together, then the kids were certainly more worried than happy and expressed negative emotions more often than not in using the Earth Speakr app. This is in line with much of the research we have come across about the negative emotional effect of climate change in kids.
Being solution-oriented means looking past problems to propose solutions. It might not just be about solving a problem, but also about identifying the source of the question and even challenging it. With the solution-oriented messages, the end result is what is important, rather than the journey or the process.
Through our previous research, conducted together with kids around Europe while we were developing the app, we learned that they are tired of talking about climate change and wanted action. In our qualitative research analysis we found that the kids were solution-oriented in their messages only around one third of the time. The discrepancy between what they expressed in initial discussions and what is evident from the messages shared over Earth Speakr may reflect their expectation that solutions and actions must come from grown-ups, rather than themselves. During Earth Speakr workshops, we observed that in the majority of cases, kids had fun and were happy and excited to use the app as a playful, creative, and social tool. In these workshops, and from much of our data, we can conclude that the app is less of a tool to solve problems or take direct action and more of a device to explore, have fun, and be imaginative and creative. The fact that the kids are less concerned about who their messages reach and are more engaged in the process of making a message and embodying an object also leans towards this understanding.
In this study, being solution-oriented was defined as proposing a solution to a specific problem, e.g., ‘Use glass instead of plastic’.
The below are the central research questions that were driving and framing the research:
- What unites kids’ messages across the EU and across regions? What hopes and concerns do kids across Europe share?
- Was a community of messages formed in Earth Speakr? Did kids’ messages ‘learn’ from one another? Does ‘cultural transmission’ show evidence of a digital community of kids in Earth Speakr?
- Who were kids speaking to? Are kids most interested in sharing their messages with other kids, parents, adults, politicians, or others?
- What is the power of being listened to? When a kid knows they are being ‘heard’, does this impact their message?
- How did the creative tools of Earth Speakr impact how kids shared their messages? Did their ability to speak as an object in their environment impact their messages? Can creative devices empower kids to share their voices and express things they otherwise might not have said?
- Did kids who repeated use of the Earth Speakr app impact the content and complexity of their messages? What can this tell us about methods to improve the app in the future?
'Art and culture provide a space, a meeting point, to connect and share perspectives, while celebrating differences. When engaging with a work of art you can gain a sense of feeling listened to, seeing your ideas reflected in the form and structure of an artwork. To me this two-way exchange is essential. Earth Speakr is an artwork made by kids who express themselves creatively about the climate and their own future. The artwork invites you to listen to their brilliant, funny, and, not surprisingly, heartbreakingly honest messages.' Olafur Eliasson, 2021
Our findings generally signal that through Earth Speakr, kids undergo an abstract, creative shift in their thinking and are saying and doing things in a way they would not otherwise have done.
The discussion questions below introduce reflections for future research around the existing artwork or for future artworks beyond Earth Speakr itself.
In Earth Speakr many users, 45.25%, returned to the app after initial use, but these repeat users only make a small number of messages – 3.3 on average. Can we deduce what brings kids back and what would make them want to come back even more? Can this be tested in future workshops or in development of future versions of this artwork or others?
Might a stronger sense of community, togetherness, and inspiration from others foster iteration?
Do the users download and share their creations? Is there a sense of pride and satisfaction in what they have made? Is there a sense of being part of something greater? Can this be documented and analysed?
How can we document the adults’ listening? Can we see how much the general public have liked and shared the kids’ voices? As individual messages via text and social media or as Loud Speakrs? How effective were Loud Speakrs in amplifying the voices of the kids?
Further detailed studies into topic modelling could be carried out. Analysis over certain times of the year would be interesting, as well as across ages, geographies, languages, and more, together with the human researchers’ observations and responses.
Further studies in smaller workshops directly with kids around the EU could be carried out, in order to determine the power of listening for the kids and the messages they make. When a kid knows that adults and people in power are listening, does it change the messages they make? Does it empower them? Strengthen or embolden them?
Through Earth Speakr, a community of message-makers formed around Europe and the globe. The wide spread participation in the artwork was not equally distributed around the EU or globally, but was focused in a number of countries in the EU (namely, Germany, Italy, Denmark, the UK, Poland, and Spain). Evidence of cultural transmission between kids across language and geographical barriers illustrates that participants were united through what they learned from one another, in a shared creative experience.
The vast majority of Earth Speakrs spoke about the climate. Kids predominantly made messages about the health and safety of the planet; the threats to fish and sea creatures from plastic waste; the amount of garbage and rubbish in landfill; the need to recycle and separate trash and use bins appropriately; and how deforestation is affecting the climate and the environment.
Approximately half the kids participating in Earth Speakr returned to the app to make more than one message. These kids who made multiple messages gained ‘skills’ and participated in social learning through cultural transmission, joining a creative community of others. Although consideration of the audience was far less of a concern or priority in their message-making process, when the kids knew or could understand that adults and even politicians might hear their messages and had heard the messages of others, it was often empowering and inspirational to them, leading them to want to share their voice and ideas again.
Earth Speakr offered a fun, creative safe space for the kids to embody the environment by speaking as objects within their direct environment. The AR functionality of the app gave kids the opportunity to embody their environment and share a message they otherwise may not have expressed. Through cultural transmission, the platform gave rise to a creative community in which ideas and learning was shared among participants, across the EU and around the globe.
This research and report was made possible by the generous support of the Federal Foreign Office in 2021.
Report prepared by Studio Olafur Eliasson 31.12.2021
For questions, please get in contact with us via email@example.com
About Earth Speakr (Olafur Eliasson on Earth Speakr)
Further background (About page of the website)
How the Earth Speakr app works (YouTube tutorial)
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