Mozilla and Ubuntu have an opportunity (and a duty) to unlock the cognitive surplus

There’s been a lot written recently about the cognitive surplus, a phrase coined by Clay Shirky to describe the amount of human energy that can be deployed to create things if only barriers are lowered and incentives sharpened.

mySociety has recently been fortunate enough to see a little of this phenomenon through the explosion of volunteering activity which grew up around our TheyWorkForYou video timestamping ‘game’. For those of you not familiar, we needed video clips of politician’s speaking matched with the text of their speeches, and in just a couple of months a gang of volunteers new and old have done almost all of the video in the archive. Other, much larger examples include reCAPTCHA and the ESP game.

Reflecting on this, my friend Tom Lynn suggested that there was a gap in the market for a service that would draw together different crowdsourcing games, ensure that their usability standards and social benefit were high, and which then syndicate them out in little widgets, recaptcha style, to anyone who wanted to include one on a web page.

This is where Mozilla and Ubuntu come in. Anyone who uses Firefox knows what the home page is like, essentially the Google homepage with some Firefox branding. Ubuntu’s default browser homepage, post patch upgrade especially, is similarly minimalist and focused on telling you what’s changed.

Therein lies the opportunity – using pieces of these default home pages (maintained by organisations that claim to have a social purpose, remember) for more good than simply repeatedly reminding users about the the brand of the product. Traditionally that would mean asking people to donate or become volunteers, but the new universe of ultra-easy crowdsourcing games are challenging that assumption.

Here’s a scenario. One time in ten when I load Firefox, the homepage contains a widget right under the search box that contains an almost entirely self explanatory task that contributed to the public good in some way. This could be spotting an object on a fragment of satellite photo after a disaster, typing in a word that’s difficult to OCR, timestamping a video clip, or adding tags to an image or a paragraph of text. The widgets would be syndicated from the central repository of Cognitive Surplus Foundation ‘games’, and would help groups like Mozilla and Ubuntu to show themselves to millions of tech-disinterested users to be the true 21st century social enterprises that they want to be.


  1. This sounds a little bit “it’s someone else’s responsibility to do this”. How about mySociety sponsors the creation of a Firefox plug-in that uses the cognitive surplus, and if it proves successful then contact the Mozilla foundation and ask them to make use of it?

  2. There’s also Distributed Proofreaders for Project Gutenberg, though that takes longer to get into as there’s a bit of a learning curve.

  3. To follow up on Ross’ point, maybe mySociety could prove the point by creating a blog/iGoogle/… widget demonstrating the concept with a rolling link to mySociety’s cognitive surplus tasks (such as the videos, or the groups near you task), and then invite others to add their own tasks. Then all Firefox/Ubuntu/Google/whoever have to do is roll that widget into their page. I’m not sure what the widget would look like though.

  4. Great idea, lets annoy the users for no reason at all. It’s not like if they’d like to do this, they’d be doing this already, right?

    Should make them play the rice game too.

  5. Yeah, I would find it a little annoying. I’d feel guilty not to volunteer, but frankly I wouldn’t have the time. I would think it’d be nifty to build BOINC (distributed supercomputing) into Firefox or another web-browser, but I suspect it would cause major performance issues.

  6. @Vadim, I would be doing this already if I knew how to. While I don’t have the time to search out suitable opportunities, if a widget came up (every time I opened FireFox would be fine with me) that sent me directly to a place where I could spend 5 or 10 minutes completing a task, I would love to do that. I’m going directly to Distributed Proofreaders for Project Gutenberg, now that I know about it.