What's a World Machine? A Social Network With a Different Kind of Tweet

Citizen science platforms and networks let users connect with nature (and each other) as an alternative to the sharing economy.

As busybodies wring their hands on Nextdoor newsfeeds and police forces eavesdrop on doorbell cameras, one wonders how much technology has helped (or hindered) the way we connect to our communities. But what if people started recording and sharing data not out of suspicion toward human neighbors, but out of wonder and curiosity about neighboring wildlife?

That's the question asked by academics Ann Light, Margot Brereton, and Paul Roe in their paper, "Some Notes on the Design of 'World Machines'" which we recently came across in the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Australian Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction archives. According to the paper, published in 2015, world machines are online platforms that encourage participants' pleasure in observing the world around them — for example, sharing an audio clip of the birds heard outside your kitchen window while washing the dishes. This data may then be used to aid in important research projects, like tracking the migration of wildlife or estimating changes in their population.

Mixing together mindfulness and social collaboration seems like the perfect recipe to build an appreciation of nature, say the authors, who note that "It has been counter-productive to use extrinsic motivators (such as financial reward) to promote concern for greater-than-self issues" like the environmental apocalypse that we increasingly face today.

Interested in taking a peek at a world machine? If you'd rather keep tabs on birds at your local park than on neighborhood gossip, the paper's authors recommend eBird, a platform that aids in research and conservation efforts through crowdsourced birding data. For the avian-averse, there are also a number of projects and world machines to peruse on Zooniverse, like this Skink Spotter, or this project on global manatee calls. Who knows? Together, we might be able to help build a better, more connected, more protected planet.

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