Is “Virtual Heroism” a Real Thing?

You can’t douse a fire or pull someone from an icy lake while scrolling on your tablet or phone. But can you change people’s lives for the better? Most definitely. According to psychologist and futurist Dana Klisanin, online outreach gives real-world helping missions a massive boost.

Years ago, Klisanin noticed there was a lot of talk about the internet’s downsides—computer viruses, cyber-bullying, cyber-war—and almost none about the upsides. But Klisanin saw plenty of people using the internet to extend their helping reach across the miles. “There were sites where you could click to donate food,” Klisanin says. “Some people did that every single day. They were very committed.” 

Klisanin’s research confirms that this kind of virtual action has dramatic effects in the real world. More than four in five people she surveyed said they could help others better through the internet than they could without it. Four in five people used the internet to support more than one good cause. And while some people call online do-gooders “slacktivists,” Klisanin reports that people who engage in everyday heroism online are several times more likely to take similar actions in real life. 

Online outreach does have its limits. Real-life engagement with others is key to forging strong connections with them. And the heroes you most admire probably don’t spend endless hours in front of their screens.

Still, it makes sense to consider virtual outreach as a way to amplify your real-world heroic mission. Think about ways you can use online communities to support your work—start an Instagram or Facebook page to keep donors up-to-date on what you’re doing, or create an online group dedicated to your cause. 
Posting something on social media can create positive ripple effects: You post something about the cause you’re working on and people start thinking about it and commenting on it. Some of them might share your call to action on their own pages so it can reach others, people you don’t even know. You might not be able to teleport around the world like Marvel’s Nightcrawler, but online helping gives you the super-human ability to show up almost anywhere you want.

Heroes aren’t special. They’re just prepared.

Heroic action—like talking down a school shooter or jumping onto train tracks to rescue someone—often happens in a matter of seconds. But what you don’t always see is the months, years, or even decades of preparation that came before those fleeting heroic moments.

Most of the time, readying yourself to respond in a crisis situation takes work, which might come as a surprise if you think of heroes as special, chosen, or just born that way. None of the work is glamorous, either. The main thing you need to hone your heroic potential is consistent practice, not unlike the extra hours you’d put in before a big test or soccer game.

Consider the feats of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who’s profiled in The Life Heroic. In 2009, this now-retired US Airways captain landed his plane seemingly with ease on New York’s Hudson River after flying geese knocked out both his engines, leaving the plane without power. After the plane landed, it started taking on water, and Sullenberger left the waterlogged aircraft only after making sure every passenger had gotten out.

But there was an important part of the story that many news reports didn’t mention. For every one of the critical minutes Sullenberger guided the plane to a safe landing, he’d logged countless hours of practice. A pilot for more than four decades, Sullenberger had flown planes in all kinds of conditions. He also had special training in how to fly gliders, which are essentially planes without engines. In short, everything he’d experienced in his career—every problem he’d solved on the fly—prepared him to land a damaged plane on the spur of the moment.

Were Sullenberger’s heroic actions truly effortless? Far from it. But they were well within reach, given the kind of training he’d had. The preparation phase of a heroic journey is seldom the part that makes headlines. Without it, though, many headlines would never have been made in the first place.