Until I had read the one page article in Die Zeit, some time in 2015, I didn’t have an inkling about its existence: the Zooniverse.
As I know now, the Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research, with its headquarters in Oxford.
This research is made possible by volunteers – from all over the world – without any specialised background, training, or expertise, who come together to assist professional researchers.
Beginning 2014, the Zooniverse community consisted of more than one million registered volunteers, often referred to as “Zooites” (source: Wikipedia).
Unlike other internet-based citizen science projects which used spare computer processing power to analyse data, known as volunteer computing, Zooniverse projects require the active participation of human volunteers to complete research tasks.
The projects are constructed with the aim of converting volunteers’ efforts into measurable results.
How they do it?
The volunteers study authentic objects of interest gathered by researchers, like images of faraway galaxies, historical records and diaries, or videos of animals in their natural habitats and answer simple questions about them.
According to the founders of the platform, computers can certainly help for this kind of tasks, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition – and the ability to be surprised – makes humans superior.
A significant amount of this research takes place on the Zooniverse discussion boards, where volunteers can work together with each other and with the research teams. These boards are integrated with each project to allow for everything from quick hashtagging to in-depth collaborative analysis.
So there also seems to be sufficient room for a deeper involvement that goes beyond mere observation and tagging alone.
And with pages on WordPress, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter, Zooniverse is rather well positioned on social media as well.
But who exactly are these Zooites? Are they pensioners, with not much to do and too much time to do it with? Could they be retired science teachers perhaps?
Are they youngsters, mainly still in highschool, interested in science, confronted with the quintessential problem of deciding what to study next once they’ve turned eighteen?
They can’t all be science bachelors, masters, Phd’s at universities, can they?
Or are they mostly autodidacts, who were bright enough, but who didn’t get the opportunity to study?
And if there really are over one million registered volunteers, why does the number of social media fans or followers does not exceed twenty thousand?
Are volunteers interested in science a completely other species than the social media addicts?
Or does the discrepancy between registration and activity on the platform really display such a wide span?
Maybe even more interesting to know about than the profile of the volunteers, are the objectives, the reasons, the motivation why they got involved in the first place and why some of them stay on board, hopping from project to project?
What makes it so enticing? Because after all, it’s work and not play, isn’t it?
Some volunteers, if not most of them, probably enjoy being part of a community. After all homo sapiens sapiens is a social species, that likes to engage with others in some kind of communal activity.
Some of these amateur-scientists will certainly care about making a contribution to society, doing something meaningful, something worthwhile. Or to put it in Steve Jobs’ words: they want to put a dent into the universe, however small it may be.
For brain people who are not that much into social (charity) activities, this aspect may make Zooniverse extra appealing.
The platform also satisfies the curiosity of those eager to learn something new or who want to deepen their understanding of a subject they only had vague notions about.
Some are definitely nerds or geeks, deeply passionate about some topic, be it on Zooniverse or not.
In case you’re wondering now whether you should join or not, do visit their website and have a look for yourself.
To be or not to be.
That’s the question.