Researchers hired by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History conducted a biological survey of fish diversity in one river in the country of Guyana. The Cuyuni River is about 350 miles long, and the researchers were able to collect 5,000 fish specimens from it. After such an impressive feat, they were faced with a very large hurdle: All the specimens had to be identified in less than a week so they could be shipped out of the country legally.
They decided to post a catalog of specimen images on Facebook and make a request for help from the online friends. In less than twenty-four hours, about ninety percent of the fish had been identified. In fact, there were two species likely to be new to science spotted by the Facebook community. Social networking and greater Internet access in South America made the novel approach possible. Both of these trends are also still growing, so the potential for online collaboration will be even greater as time goes on. In this particular case, the bulk of the commenters doing the work have doctorates in relevant fields such as icthyology. They live in countries like the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. It didn’t matter where they were, as long as they could have reliable Internet access to participate in the online work they could contribute as much, or as little, as they wanted.
A fascinating human metric as it relates to online collaboration comes from wikipedia, which is managed and grown by volunteers. Clay Shirky has estimated the current version of Wikipedia has resulted from 100 million hours of volunteer work. If that number is compared with the estimated 200 billion hours of television, it provides a glimpse of how the Internet is shifting culture towards interactivity and productivity and away from passivity and social isolation.
Websites like Facebook, Linkedin, Care2 and Twitter (to name a few) are creating opportunities for social interaction and achievements that weren’t possible even a dozen years ago.
Image Credit: traveladventurers.org