Score one for the usefulness of facebook in science. In January and February, a group of scientists, led by Dr. Brian Sidlauskas, assistant professor of fisheries at Oregon State University (OSU), had been conducting the first ichthyological survey on Guyana’s Cuyuni River. The purpose of the study was to find out which species of fish live in the Cuyuni and get a good estimate of their abundance. After two weeks of fishing, the team had more than 5.000 specimens in their nets. But then trouble came:
“In order to get the fish out of the country,” says Bloom, “we needed an accurate count of each species.” The team’s research permit required them to report this information to the Guyanese government. “We couldn’t leave the country until we turned over our data to the authorities.” Time was of the essence, as Sidlauskas, Bloom and OSU graduate student Whit Bronaugh had to return to North America as soon as possible. But how could a handful of people possibly identify 5,000 fish in just a few days?
The answer became facebook. A Ph.D –student suggested uploading the fish to facebook, and within 24 hours the 5.000 fish had been identified with the help of a network of ichthyologically-minded friends.
This story made me think of the points that Andy Clark makes in his book Supersizing the Mind – Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension about the functioning of what he calls the extended mind. Facebook and other social web media has the same potentials as other tools in our cognitive environment – like pens, smartphones, computers, fingers or calculators – to become part of our extended mind. And a powerful one at that, given the distributed power of a network of that size. This raises serious questions about how social web media will influence the way our extended minds work. How will it impact scientific production and what new forms of life will it produce? Crowd sourcing certainly opens for scientific experimentation in new and interesting ways – www.fold.it is one of my favourite examples.