Law in the Internet Society
Ready for second review.

FoldIt and "Citizen Science"

-- By AaronChan - 19 Oct 2011

Online Models of Volunteerism

Information access does not need to be unidirectional. Instead of traditional broadcast models, information is a two-way street on the Internet. Online access is a tool for empowerment, not just by giving power to users, but also in allowing them to contribute. The Web is now a vast depository of human knowledge; it can be leveraged for greater societal goals. For example, the success of Wikipedia demonstrates what can be accomplished with collaborative experience.

Why does Wikipedia work? Under traditional capitalistic models, it should not. There is no payment, no remuneration for the hours upon hours editors put into it, yet it still exists and is constantly improved. The problem with understanding the new Information Goods Society where marginal cost of informational goods is zero is in grafting old models of compensation that ill fit the reality of online collaboration.

Is it na´ve to believe that people will contribute to the greater good merely out of their desire to improve the human condition? The failure of communism in practice was in the old economy where marginal cost does not equal zero. In the Informational Goods Society, economic models of compensation hold less weight. Eben speaks to this in the dotCommunist Manifesto. If compensation is not the model in the Informational Goods Society, then what is the main motivation for work?

Michael Goldhauber suggests that motivation on the Internet is driven by reputation. This is further refined by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who reapplies economic concepts to the Internet. Yet whatever the form the remuneration takes, it is still premised on a quid pro quo. Yet reputation would lose its incentivizing effect as the activity becomes increasingly dispersed and individual contributions are further anonymized. This is precisely the environment necessary to harness the widest participation. I focus instead on the frequently overlooked incentives of satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and amusement as driving forces for scientific research. These incentives drive the human attraction to games. Harnessing these incentives joins gaming with research in a way that channels mindless diversion into productive causes.

Games and Citizen Science

FoldIt is computer game designed by University of Washington researchers that allows players to design protein structures by folding amino acids. Given the complexity of folding dozens, if not hundreds, of amino acids into viable protein structures, brute force computing power would not be a practical way of solving the problem with the current technology. Humans have an advantage in recognizing patterns and certain three-dimensional spatial intuitions that computers cannot currently simulate. What had stumped scientists for more than a decade, a retrovirus protease in rhesus monkeys, was solved by a worldwide consortium of players in ten days. The vast majority of these players had little biology or chemistry experience, relying only on the rules of the game as dictated by real physics. The discovery of the retroviral protease has been published in a scientific journal, naming a team of players, the FoldIt Contenders Group (FCG), as coauthors. In an interview with one of the FCG members, “mimi” preferred to be credited pseudonymously or anonymously. The main motivation for many of these players was advancement of science, not fame or recognition. They were not paid for their participation; many simply wanted a challenge and to work towards something big.

Video games, at their most fundamental level, are sets of puzzles. Why create arbitrary puzzles when real life puzzles exist with greater implications for their completion? FoldIt is only one of several other projects collectively grouped together as “citizen science.” These projects crowdsource because they benefit from certain human attributes that are not duplicable in computers currently.

Yochai Benkler’s paper Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm evaluates the motivations for contribution to the open software movement. He identifies the spontaneous creativity birthed when components from production are “sufficiently small grained, and the cost of connecting people to projects sufficiently low thanks to cheap network connections.” By breaking difficult project into discrete consumable parts and make participation as least cumbersome as possible, crowdsourced projects can harness the creative spark in a wide participatory network. While this phenomenon has been documented before, I suggest that there is an additional incentive that is a driving factor for FoldIt—specifically, gaming taps into satisfying human curiosity, problem solving, and diversion. Tapping into the non-gaming online behavior has been a critical model for the success of such projects as Google, which reinforces its search algorithms based on the conduct of its users. But given the tremendous amount of energy devoted to quick and simple online games (Farmville at its peak had 83 million monthly active users) some of that mindless clicking can be channeled into more productive projects. People naturally seek out fun and challenges. It takes what Benkler calls an “integrator” to manage those clickstreams and combine the discrete component functions. He identifies four mechanisms for solving the integration problem.

  1. Iterative peer production of the integration function itself
  2. Technical solutions embedded in the collaboration platform
  3. Norm-based social organization
  4. Limited reintroduction of hierarchy or market forces to provide the integration function alone.
Though the last mechanism would run the risks of the firm, real-life examples in open software, such as Mozilla and Red Hat have shown its value. For scientific research, the first three mechanisms may not be appropriate unless the players are all sophisticated because it would require a high level integrator to atomize the tasks and divine larger meaning from their outcomes. The reintroduction of the firm for the purposes of integration does not necessarily have to be completely noncommercial. Scientists can team up with game developers to create a saleable video game with puzzles that have real-life applications. The game developers are not looking to control the outcome of their puzzles; they only seek to provide the highest level of amusement. Scientists may benefit from game designers who can help craft seemingly mind-numbing research tasks into appealing challenges and puzzles.

I think this is a good first draft. You've identified some phenomena you want to write about, and you've understood them to be linked to other phenomena, of which they are illustrations.

What the next draft needs is an idea about these phenomena that you can explore with your readers, rather than presenting the illustrations at the heart of the essay. Your theoretical propositions in this draft are sketchy at best. They don't lead you to a thesis which can organize your reader's new acquaintance with the material you're discussing, as you can tell from your first paragraph, which indulges at first in mystification (no one actually ever thought communication was a one-way process, after all) and winds up in obviousness. Nor does it lead to a conclusion, as your last graf shows.

You've seen that there's an economy of peer production, but you haven't figured out what you want to say about it. The best place to start is with the wonderful piece Yochai Benkler wrote ten years ago, Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm, where peer production in general and scientific peer production in particular is given a rigorous theoretical location. From where Yochai leaves matters you should be able to pick up in one of the obvious directions, generating a new idea or two of your own.


This is very interesting. It reminds me of the sports application where the sports news all comes from users. The difference there is that people do get credit for their contributions and perhaps gain popularity / notice from fellow fans, but it is similar in that users contribute to a community's knowledge. I like the characterization as "a desire to solve puzzles." --Sylvia Duran

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r5 - 13 Nov 2011 - 16:11:43 - AaronChan
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