How many microtasks does it take to change the world?

November 1st, 2010 by

How many microtasks does it take to change the world?Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell managed to set the cat among the tweeters recently. Writing in the New Yorker he argues that ‘new tools of social media’ are powerless as a force for activism or social change.

The (strong) ties that bind
Real, high risk, sustained activism is only possible, says Gladwell, when the activists are connected by strong ties. He takes the U.S. Civil Rights movement as his main example. The activists who stuck around and took risks had personal connections – friends and family also dedicated to the cause. A sort of morally virtuous form of peer pressure.

In contrast Facebook and Twitter are vast, unstructured networks. They generate weak ties. Great if you want to keep an eye on your college friends’ favorite flavors of ice-cream, not so great if you need to overthrow a brutal regime.

It’s a compelling case. Even if, (as others have pointed out) Gladwell does take shots at some pretty easy targets – like the so called ‘twitter revolutions’ in Moldova and Iran.

Can I click it?
One of Gladwell’s major complaints is that social networks “are only effective at increasing participation by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” Okay, so clearly social change does require more than just answering an e-petition or clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook. But what if we could find innovative ways to channel people’s desire to participate? If new technology could make it easier to make a real difference, would that be such a bad thing?

Imagine it’s 1960 and you happen to be a French Creole speaker living in Sydney. One day, you read there’s been a massive earthquake in Haiti. Of course you want to help but, besides mailing a check, what can you do? In 1960, in order to participate, you’d have needed the motivation to quit your job, leave your family and fly out to Haiti.

Fast forward to 2010 and, thanks to the folks at Ushahidi, all you need to translate urgent messages from Haiti is an Internet connection and a mobile phone.

And then there’s the growing phenomenon of micro volunteering. Like the Sparked (formerly the Extraordinaries) network, micro volunteering organizations take projects from non-profit organizations and divide the work into (you’ve guessed it) microtasks, which are distributed to a crowd of skilled volunteers. Projects range from the global mapping of defibrillator locations, to helping improve the website of a domestic violence charity in California. In two years, Sparked has signed up 32,000 volunteers who together have completed over 325,000 tasks.

In fairness to Mr Gladwell (who I’m sure is a dedicated follower of our blog), I’m not discussing the vast social networks he criticizes. Maybe he’d tell me that crowdsourced volunteers are still too weakly tied to cause dramatic social change. Perhaps it might be a bit much to expect microtasking to bring about the revolution, but while we wait, it might just help to get some good stuff done.

  • Herkko

    The other side is that the “bad guys” are as capable of stopping the change with micro tasks like we saw with Iran using Mechanical Turk to recognise protestor faces.

  • Sami Sundell

    I guess Gladwell’s point (well, one of them) is that it’s easy to be an “activist” when you’re sitting comfortably on your couch and clicking like buttons. And I agree – lots of people are willing to participate, if they are not really required to engage.

    Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, is all about engaging. To put it bluntly, if you’re not doing anything, you’re not really part of the crowd. I think the existence and rise of crowdsourcing is already a social change in itself – now the question is only, how dramatic will it become.

  • Evija

    You are very smart :)

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