Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems?

An article in The Economist1 raised this question. According to an article in 2011, Facebook analysed 72 million users of its social networking site and found that an average of 4.7 hops could link any two of them via mutual friends. This is even less that the Six Degrees of Separation popularized by John Guare in his play by the same name.

In the United States the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged the Red Balloon Challenge in 2009. It was trying to determine how quickly and efficiently information could be gathered using social media. Competitors were to race to find ten red weather balloons that had been tethered at random locations throughout the United States for a $40,000 prize. MIT had the winning team that found all ten balloons in nine hours using the following incentive-based system to encourage participation. The first person to send the correct coordinates of a balloon received $2,000. Whoever recruited that person received $1,000, and the recruiters recruiter received $500, and so forth and so forth.

DARPA staged a new challenge this year, the Tag Challenge. This time the goal was to locate and photograph five people each wearing unique T-shirts in five named cities across two continents. All five had to be identified within 12 hours from nothing more than a mugshot. The prize fund was $5,000. This time none of the teams managed to find all five targets. However, one team with members from MIT,the universities of Edinburgh and Southampton, and the University of California at San Diego did manage to fine three, one in each of the following cities, New York, Washington DC, and Bratislava. This team had a website and a mobile app to make it easier to report findings and to recruit people. Each finder was offered $500 and whoever recruited the finder $100. So anyone who did not know anyone in one of the target cities had no incentive to recruit someone who did. The team promoted itself on Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, most participants just used conventional email. It was conjectured that in the future smart phones might have an app that can query people all over the world, who can then steer the query towards people with the right information.

To return to the title of this post, Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems, I would conclude, if the social problem involves finding someone or something, the answer would be yes. But I think that real-world problems typically involve collaboration of diverse people. In this respect one might argue that social media are actually a detriment to solving real world problems. Social media are good at bringing people of like minds together about something. If what is needed is collaboration among people of diverse opinions, this would not seem productive, and might very likely be counterproductive.

However, there still might be solutions using technology. Wikis provide a useful tool for collaboration. Another approach would having people of relevant, but diverse perspective could interact with each other anonymously using computers. Physical cues and identities would be absent. This would negate or minimize ego or group involvement and would be an exchange of information and ideas with the goal of arriving at a viable consensus. The number of people who can collaborate at a given time appears to be a constraint.

1Six Degrees of Mobilization, The Economist Technology Quarterly, September 2012, p.8.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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4 Responses to “Can Social Networking Make It Easier to Solve Real-World Problems?”

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