My Crowdsourced Life

by Dan McQuade | April 1, 2014 11:21 am


Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

It was, you have to admit, a pretty smart publicity grab.

Back in January, Mark Zuckerberg snapped a picture, posted it online, and posed a question to his readers: What kind of spider is this, and is it okay to let it keep living in my shower?

The Facebook founder wasn’t posting on his own site; he was on Jelly, a hip new app from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone that lets users upload photos so their social media contacts can answer questions about them. Nine minutes later, Zuckerberg got his answer from Kevin Thau, Jelly’s COO: I think it’s a Phidippus johnsoni. Probably want to relocate it out of the house. As backup, Thau included a Wiki link about Phidippus johnsoni — a terrifying jumping spider with a nasty bite. Not long after, Stone completed the loop with a tweet: “First life saved via Jelly!”

Welcome to research in the age of social media. Jelly’s raison d’être may be crowdsourcing, but you don’t have to download the app to tap into the collective brainpower of the masses — not if you have any other sort of social media account. At 31, I’m at the stage of life where I use my Facebook account mostly for birthday reminders and cat videos (fine, and maybe to find out if that cute woman I met has a boyfriend) — but I think I’m increasingly alone. So many of my friends in Philly use social media to outsource their problems that my various newsfeeds have more pleas for help than an episode of Dr. Phil.

My car horn stopped working — will it be expensive to fix? Does someone have a copy of Photoshop I can have? I want to start running. What’s the best couch-to-5K app? I don’t know what to wear tonight! (On that last one, the “help me” is clearly implied.)

A journalist friend of mine turns to her “friends” on Facebook regularly for stories she’s working on. “I don’t only learn about my topic,” she says, “but I figure out what people are interested in hearing about. It helps me shape my stories, too.” Another pal cops to crowdsourcing everything from mechanics to cold remedies, out of what he readily admits is sheer sloth.

The lazy friend has a point: Any reasonably connected human being can simply ask and then receive — and receive immediately, with zero effort. Crowdsourcing is about efficiency, really — about putting social media to work for you. But while the answers you get from that network of 500 of your nearest and dearest are fast and easy (and also probably better than the ones that come from the unwashed Internet masses on, say, Yahoo! Answers), that doesn’t mean the collective brainpower of the crowd is always right. Is it your transmission making that noise? Was that a Phidippus johnsoni? Does having so many answers at our fingertips actually make life easier and better? Or just … noisier?

I decide to find out — to spend a week crowdsourcing my decision-making, letting “friends” on Facebook and my Twitter followers guide my path.

Crowd Question #1:

So does anyone on the Internet have any opinions on True Detective or House of Cards?

I figure I’ll start with an easy one. Roughly 95 percent of the people I follow on Twitter can’t stop tweeting about True Detective — HBO’s police anthology starring Matthew McConaughey — or House of Cards, the Kevin Spacey political drama. I may frame my question like a smart-ass, but I get lots of serious replies. Seriously passionate replies.

True Detective is either the best show since The Wire or an overrated ham-fest with paper-thin female characters. McConaughey is either the new Greatest Actor of Our Time or a hack who should stick to fare like Surfer, Dude. House of Cards is a pale imitation of the superior British original, or I should binge-watch it immediately.

Eventually, True Detective pulls into an easy lead, so I watch the first season. I honestly think my crowd has been overenthused: Like a lot of cable shows, it’s more style than substance. Then again, I’ve watched worse — I tuned into Entourage for a long time — and on Sunday nights, I don’t need much to be entertained. I’ll say this: True Detective has the best interrogation scenes since Homicide: Life on the Street. Also, I probably wouldn’t have been interested in a Matthew McConaughey show without the crowd’s endorsement. So … score one for crowdsourcing.

Crowd Question #2:

What movie should I see right now?

Buoyed by my TV success, I decide to try the crowd with a Sunday matinee. I have my choice of Best Picture nominees, yet nearly everyone on Twitter tells me to see The Lego Movie. (Everyone but my mom; she tweets Dallas Buyers Club. What is with Twitter and McConaughey?) I walk to Riverview, where The Lego Movie is showing, then poll my crowd again to decide 3-D versus 2-D. I’m glad when the regular version wins (though I may have biased the results by saying up front that 3-D doesn’t really do anything for me).

I have to give my crowd credit for a film well chosen. I’ve just spent 90 minutes in a movie — a kids’ movie that’s basically a huge commercial — and found it delightful. Since I would never have chosen this one without Twitter, I pay it forward with a tweet about how cute the film is.

Crowd Question #3:

Where can I find a plumber? Like, now?

Screw the movies: Shit just got real. I come home one freezing night to find a huge puddle of water in front of my fridge. The pipe leading to my ice machine and water dispenser has burst; water is literally spraying out. I have no idea how to even turn the water off in my place, much less stop the geyser in my kitchen. So … social media to the rescue?

Days after I’m wading through my kitchen, phone in hand, it occurs to me that the questions people ask online are more than questions: They’re little windows into their lives, revealing at least as much as any 140-character dispatch ever could. Believe me, there’s no editing for the sake of wit or eloquence when it’s late at night and your kitchen’s a swimming pool.

What amazes me is how eager people are to help at 9 p.m. on a Thursday: Some strangers on Twitter share stories of plumbing horrors and which companies to avoid; others chime in with recent success stories of burst pipes fixed in an hour. A person I really only know on Twitter offers to call his cousin, a plumber, if I’m stuck. A Philly police officer sends me a message suggesting I call the guy who helped him and his girlfriend out a few months back: “He’s crazy, but he did a great job.” (I wonder: How crazy do you have to be for a cop to call you that?)

All of this eagerness to help is, of course, why crowdsourcing works at all: People want to answer you. I might not always be great at asking questions, but I do always answer them if I think I can help. Studies conducted on crowdsourcing indicate that people tend to answer questions more when there’s an intrinsic value in it for them. The value here is internal: Having answers feeds the ego (I’m smart!) and the soul (I help people!). And it takes all of 14 seconds.

Not that any of this matters to me in the midst of my disaster; I’m just grateful for the goodwill of my crowd and the dozens of answers they give. I call one of the plumbers. (At this point, not in the mood to take chances, I crowdsource my crowdsourcing, checking reviews both on Yelp and Angie’s List.) The plumber comes, fixes the leak, and charges me a ridiculous amount of money. But I have my water back, my floor isn’t that damaged, and my nerves are calmed.

A week later, the pipe bursts again, this time soaking everything from my kitchen to the living room. My crowdsourced plumber fixes it a second time, charges more money, and leaves. When it bursts a third time, my gratitude has dissipated, and all I’m left with is anger at the plumber, at the pipes, at this project, and — goodwill or no — at the crowd.

Crowd Question #4:

Which outfit should I wear on my date?

It’s Tuesday night. I’m meeting someone new. I lay out two outfits on a bed, snap photos, and post them to Facebook: Would the Internet have me don my winter uniform of black pants and navy blue shirt? Or would it opt for the look I think of as “librarian-chic”: red-orange pants and a blue cardigan?

The crowd likes the bright outfit. I wear it. The date goes well, I guess — though there’s no mention of my clothes. Nobody gives me approving glances on the sidewalk. But! Nor does anybody laugh.

The date and I go out again, but we aren’t really into each other. My outfit — and the crowd’s opinion of it — doesn’t matter in the end. Maybe I should stick to movie recommendations.

Crowd Question #5:

Can someone recommend a better pick-me-up than caffeine?

When I ask this question, I’m thinking people will recommend herbal teas or something. Instead, they think I’m asking where to get amphetamines. Or meth. It’s terrible: Not only do I look like I’m trolling Twitter for drugs, but now everyone thinks I’m too lame to know where to get them. Fail.

Crowd Question #6:

What gym should I join?

Having recently quit my day job, I’ve lost access to the cheap, always-empty office gym I once enjoyed. I need something downtown — or maybe in South Philly — and I need something I can afford. I figure my friends on Facebook and Twitter — many of whom are also underpaid writers — are the perfect people to help me out.

I will say this: If the questions we ask reveal our personal truths, so do the answers we offer. And evidently, my friends and followers have more money than I thought. The most common suggestion is the Sporting Club at the Bellevue, which they make sound like a gym for the gods on Mount Olympus. I check it out online, but the site doesn’t list prices. I’ve known for a long time that when the price isn’t listed, I can’t afford it.

Another crowd pick, Philadelphia Sports Club, is slightly more my speed, but again, I wonder exactly how much my social media friends are making. I sift through all the suggestions and find two more possibilities — Sweat and 12th Street, both big, neither too expensive, and both within walking or jogging distance of my house. I take tours of them and settle on 12th Street — which is where even the barest minimum of my own research would have guided me immediately, without Twitter and the hours I spent researching its suggestions. I have to call this a crowdsourcing wash. Also, now I feel poor.

Crowd Question #7:

I threw my back out yesterday. Ice, heating pad, ibuprofen. Anything I’m missing?

I realize this makes me sound too old to even know what social media is, but I throw my back out one day putting on boots. One moment I’m dressing to go out, and the next I’m on the floor, unable to move. I know it’s not serious — this isn’t my first time — but I’m in a lot of pain. I can barely walk. I follow my usual regimen of ice, heat, OTC drugs. When my back doesn’t feel better after a day, I craft my tweet.

I suppose it’s Internet karma: As an writer, I spend much of my day being a smart-ass online, so I deserve the smart-ass answers I get: “other old ppl stuff.” “HGH.” (Again with the drugs. Is it my long hair?) “Fountain of youth.” “It’s always important to ice your injuries from the inside too … 12 ounces at a time.” Jose Pistola’s Twitter account suggests “mezcal, spicy tuna guac.” In the end, my back still hurts, but all the jokes actually cheer me up. A bar told me to feel better on Twitter! Flattering!

Eventually, good advice does come my way, via the Midwest-based ex-girlfriend of a colleague. I’ve never met her. But when she tells me to “as much as possible, lie flat on the floor” and avoid couches and beds, I follow her advice. I spend the next six hours supine, watching the hell out of True Detective. I get up feeling like a new man.

And so it goes, over and over. I do find a new dentist I like, as well as a handyman. I scope out new date spots (R2L, in Two Liberty?! I would never have known!), and I try out crowdsourced coffee shops for working.

In the end, I’d say that turning over all my research and problem-solving skills to friends — and friends of friends, and people who aren’t friends but think I’m sort of funny — had its uses. But that comes as no surprise, really — people have been seeking the advice of friends since the dawn of human communication. All social media has changed is the breadth of those we get to pose our questions to. But that’s where it fails us, or at least that’s where it fails me: The sheer number of answers you get can be as paralyzing and unhelpful as having no answers (see: choosing plumbers).

The best side effect of my crowdsourcing experiment — besides knowing where to find drugs — are all the people who ended up helping out. It makes me feel loved (or at least liked). I actually think that’s key. Crowdsourcing might be mostly about the search for easy answers. But it’s also a way to bridge some of the gaps technology created in the first place. Outsourcing problems and quandaries isn’t just about being lazy: It’s about connecting, about not being alone in your moment of need. Even if the need is just what movie to see.

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