Inspired by the Internet

I remember being in my last year of high school and my father sitting me down in front of a computer screen, excitement in his eyes, saying ‘This is called the world wide web. It is going to change our world forever.” I remember feigning vague interest to be polite, but frankly, I didn’t believe his prediction. More than twenty years later, it is clear that my father was right.

Being on the young end of the Gen-X demographic, I am not a digital native and didn’t grow up online. Even among my age peers, I have been accused of being a luddite – I resist new technology and I have been slow to embrace this seismic shift in our society (ask my partner, who has been pushing me along for 15 years!). However, now that I have a smartphone and am connected to so many amazing folks through various social media (namely, Facebook and Twitter), I cannot imagine a day without the internet. And I am so thankful that it exists – I embrace the learning/teaching and collaboration/connecting that happens every day!

What I love most about the internet is the opportunity and experience of collaboration. Sharing and collaboration has been the cornerstone of what sets the internet apart from its ‘cousin’ screen – the tv. While the tv is one-way communication (we receive entertainment, news etc from it), the internet is (or has the potential to be) two-way collaboration. While we may use it as one-way consumers of entertainment or info, as a tv/book/magazine (ex. Netflix, youtube videos, articles etc), to me, the real magic of the internet is it being a tool for collaboration.

And to go one step further, for me, internet collaboration beats other forms of collaboration because it is open to the whole world, crossing all boundaries of geography, race, age, expertise, education etc. Collaboration through the internet has been termed ‘crowdsourcing’ (See Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crown is Driving the Future of Business by: Jeff Howe), which harnesses many people’s knowledge in order to solve a problem or create something. Another term used for this is ‘collective intelligence’, making the case that groups with their collective intelligence, have the capacity to far outperform individuals. And the theory behind the success of crowdsourcing is that diverse groups (and the internet is the epitome of diversity) outperform homogenous groups. As Howe argues in his book, ironically experts often experience greater barriers to problem-solving because their expertise narrows their ‘out-of-the-box’ abilities. Individuals with passion but without expertise come at the problem with a creative openness to fresh ideas.

The other critical factor of collaboration on the internet is that people are not being paid for collaborating. They are doing it for free. The motivation of a monetary reward is taken away, and that frees people to connect and collaborate based on their internal motivation – to make a difference in the world, to share their knowledge, to connect with others etc. Daniel Pink’s amazing TED Talk “The Puzzle of Motivation” illustrates what research already knows – monetary rewards stunt creativity, narrow thinking and limit the ability to effectively problem-solve.

The example of amazing crowd-sourcing internet collaboration that is most widely known is Wikipedia, where 31.7 million registered users have contributed their knowledge (with an estimation of 100 million total volunteer hours) and research has shown it to be just as accurate as expert-written encyclopedias. Here are a few other internet collaborations that I find incredibly inspiring:

  • Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs – Eric started the concept of a ‘virtual choir’ where people from all of the world join the choir, learn their part in a song and upload a video on youtube of themselves singing their part. The videos are all put together to make beautiful music and a virtual choir of thousands of voices singing together is unbelievably powerful! The most recent Virtual Choir was made up of 8,409 videos from over 100 countries in the world. You can read more about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choirs here, and check out the newest song, Fly to Paradise, here.
  • Participatory mapping projects – technology has been amazing in providing an opportunity to crowd-source geographically, so that maps are created to share information quickly and effectively, and to visually represent our communities accurately in real-time. There are lots of examples of participatory mapping – globally, Unicef is on the cutting edge of using mapping as a tool for social justice (one example – youth mapping environmental risks in their communities). And at the grassroots community level, participatory maps are being created using Google Maps to map out and better understand the underground sharing economy.
  • Sharing science and experimenting together: Michael Rubinstein is a computer scientist who created a ‘motion microscope’ that captures and amplifies the smallest of movements, so you can for example, witness the pulse under someones skin or the constant movement that is taking place in our bodies even when resting. But for me, what is more amazing than his invention, is that he is sharing his code so that others can play around with his tool and innovate further. On his website, anyone can download their own video and virtually try out his microscope to see what motion magnification will do. Through this shared technology, people have seen their babies wiggling around in-utero, their friends move differently (when they are supposedly standing still), and even their pets heartbeat. And the innovation continues.

And last but not least, I am very inspired by the “Humans of New York” site/Facebook page, where a guy named Brandon decided to photograph people on the streets of New York, and he now has over 12 million followers on Facebook (including me). His reach is so far, that when he photographed Vidal, a middle school student from a dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn who was inspired by his principal (who made him feel that he mattered), people were so inspired that a fundraiser raised $100,000.00 in 45 minutes and $1,400,000 in one month. What started out as a fundraiser for a class trip to visit Harvard (so students can expand their idea of their own potential), has now turned into a scholarship fund for students to go to Harvard! And of course, the first student who will receive this scholarship will be Vidal, who started this tidal wave of social media support.

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