This week’s major subject was that of cognitive surplus, the idea that we can all influence each other (even on a global scale) just by contributing our free time to certain projects. Clay Shirky explained that sometimes this cognitive surplus could be used for throwaway fun in the forms of memes such as LOLCats, or in more useful manners like civic projects like Ushahidi.
A good example of a civic project that was helped by internet users on a global scale occurred a few months ago, shortly after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. For those who are unaware, Flight MH370 lost contact with air traffic controllers on March 8th while traveling over the South China Sea. There were many theories surrounding its disappearance, ranging everywhere from terrorist hijacking to alien abductions. The most logical theory, however, was that it lost control and crashed somewhere in the ocean. The problem that faced the various search and rescue teams and government agencies, however, is that the South China Sea is a very large search zone, and since the plane lost contact with air traffic control there could be no guarantee that the plane crashed on its intended flight path.
A company called Tomnod (http://www.tomnod.com/nod/challenge/) went to the internet for help in locating the downed plane. It gave volunteers satellite images of the South China Sea so that millions of eyes could scan quadrants, looking for debris or oil slicks. Over three million people banded together to try and locate the plane. That’s three MILLION people, worldwide, who decided to use their free time to try and help out the families of the lost passengers rather than watching television or surfing the internet. Even now, after the disaster of Flight MH370, Tomnod continues to utilize cognitive surplus and crowdsourcing to help rescue efforts for various disaster. If you follow the link that I posted above, you can help look for Damaged Buildings and Blocked Roads and Bridges in Japan after the typhoon hit.
I took an hour or so to help look for the downed plane (unsuccessfully of course), knowing full well that it wouldn’t benefit me personally. It felt good to join so many other people in the effort of trying to help a cause, and I can definitely see myself doing something similar in the future, through Tomnod or a similar site. I think that a LOT of things could utilize cognitive surplus to encourage participation by myself and the masses on the Internet. Everything from political campaigning (for Net Neutrality or other important policy changes), rescue efforts, and public service announcements can use the Internet to gain traction within the masses.
The main issue that arises with this is that the Internet can be very difficult to unite. Many people are using the internet for the sole purpose of spending their free time doing something mindless for a few hours, so trying to get people to use that free time for something useful and noteworthy can be difficult. I think over time, as more people recognize the internet as the incredibly useful tool that it is, people will begin to join crowd sourcing efforts more often.