I’ve spent the past few days poring over data from the first-ever worldwide time-critical social mobilization experiment / competition that I helped organize with my colleague, Dr Chander Velu, a university lecturer at Cambridge Judge Business School. Last weekend, Dr Velu and I arranged to have five knights scattered in public parks throughout UK and challenged people to form teams and find them. Three of the knights were real, actual people clanging around in shining armor, but two of them were of the cyber variety, represented by photographs that could be seen on Google Maps or Google Earth. We conducted the experiment to learn more about the ways in which people use social media to mobilize, organize, and attack a problem.
It’s going to take weeks and months to complete the interviews of all the winners and analyze all the data we gathered, but already I’ve been surprised by some of our findings.
For instance, we had hoped that the competition would be global. True, all of the knights were hidden in the UK, but the virtual ones enabled teams to operate unencumbered by geography. As it happened, the contest was more international than we could have imagined. We got participants from 34 different countries—including one person from as far-flung a place as Kyrgyzstan. (I had to look it up on a map!)
In addition, I knew that it was possible for people outside of the UK to organize teams of people in the country to search for the real knights. Not only did that happen, but the biggest winner in the contest was not even a Brit. The team that won the most money was headed by Seattle-based Jeremy Irish, the founder of Groundspeak, a site for geocachers—people who use GPS mobile devices to hide and seek containers, called geocaches, all over the world. Although this competition had nothing to do with GPS devices, he was able to mobilize the geocachers to both create the biggest team and find the largest number of knights.
We suspected that the cyber knights would be found first and that it would take us at least the full three days budgeted to complete the competition, with the possibility that some knights might be left unfound. After all, the UK is a big place with lots of parks. The virtual knights were indeed spotted first—mainly because they could be searched for anytime day or night from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection—and all the knights were found before the end of the second day. In fact, three of the knights were found by the end of the first day.
We expected that teams would make extensive use of social media. Through the course of our experiment, we paid special attention to how information was disseminated through social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. We found that participants did use Facebook to recruit teams, but they used good old-fashioned email even more. According to preliminary data, 46% of participants used email to draft teams; while 36% used Facebook to do so.
Finally, we’d hoped that people would have fun. Oh, they did all right. I’ve been told by some participants that it was a great, well-organized contest, the best they’d ever been a part of. I was also struck by the passion of some of the participants. One woman from Norwich that I communicated with had a hunch for where one of the knights might be, so she drove 170 miles to Folkestone to try to find it – unsuccessfully. (Ironically, she could have stayed put: one of the knights was in Eaton Park in her hometown.)
As we expected, there was considerable “emergent behavior” from the experiment, but there were also things happened that we had not anticipated. Since this was one of the first time-critical social-mobilization experiments—and definitely the first worldwide one—one, we expect that there will be many new insights into online behavior revealed as we continue to analyze our data. We believe that new and exciting opportunities to use these techniques can be exploited for a variety of situations and purposes.
Note: List of all the winners and background information on the competition is posted at www.LangleyKnights.com
Some photos of the awards ceremony can be found at http://web.mit.edu/smadnick/www/Langley/2011LangleyKnightsWinners/
Stuart Madnick is the John Norris Maguire Professor of Information Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a Professor of Engineering Systems at the MIT School of Engineering.