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The Cognitive Surplus: Tapping into Your Members' Knowledge

Written by Greg Pollack on October 8, 2015 at 9:00 AM

There is a widening gap within humanity right now, between very few people doing a lot of interesting, productive and innovative stuff, and many people doing absolutely nothing. The thing is, everyone has the potential to affect change. This concept has recently been coined as cognitive surplus. We can’t simply ask everyone to start doing incredibly productive tasks all at once—a heralded concept of productivity and volunteerism is start small, ask small.

Everyone using the internet is part of a vast pool of free knowledge, crowd-sourced support, and instant help that is key to this theory. All of this extra time is unguided and up for grabs—we just have to ask.

So how are people and organizations already succeeding in capturing the cognitive surplus? Sometimes it’s right under your nose, and sometimes you’re already a participant and haven’t even realized it.

Wikipedia: An Army of Volunteers

This online encyclopedia has been tapping into the power of volunteering since its inception in 2001. The Wikimedia Foundation has only 250 employees, but boasts 80,000 active volunteers, all managing articles and content updates constantly across the globe. The model works and has been steadily growing; Wikipedia has gone from 1.4 million monthly page views in 2004 to nearly 19 million monthly page views today. It holds 4.9 million English articles alone and ranks as the seventh most popular website on the entire Internet—that’s a big feat for volunteers.

The engine that keeps Wikipedia running is collaboration. In the words of co-founder Jimmy Wales, “The Internet as a tool allows for really brilliant people to do things they couldn’t in the past.”

CAPTCHA: Anonymous Digitization

The ecommerce world quickly accepted CAPTCHAs as a means to protect online transactions from bots and ensure customers were purchasing on a secure site (it’s an acronym standing for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart” – what a mouthful). A CAPTCHA is a distorted series of letters and numbers that a person needs to translate in order to prove he or she is human – a task simple for humans yet nearly impossible for computers.

Over 200 million people complete CAPTCHAs every day, spending roughly 10 seconds on each one. That’s 50,000 hours per day filling out CAPTCHAs. But people aren’t just filling these out to verify they are human—they are digitizing books and translating the web. This use of cognitive surplus was Luis van Ahn’s idea, creator of the company reCAPTCHA.

Although the 10 seconds it takes one person to fill out a CAPTCHA may not seem like enormous potential, van Ahn thought of the collective time everyone in the world wasted on CAPTCHAs. He then saw a connection between internet security and one daunting task – digitizing every book ever written. Why not have a more secure internet with CAPTCHAs, while simultaneously digitizing the written word?

When you complete a CAPTCHA, it’s not just filling out a form or buying a new pair of shoes – it’s translating historical texts and digitizing books. Think about it: computers are very good at math, but really bad at interpreting squiggly lines and the nuances of handwritten script or old type face. The next time you purchase a concert ticket and find yourself with a CAPTCHA to fill out, it could be a word or phrase from the first edition of Moby Dick, and a computer simply can’t crack that antiquated type face. It needs you to translate. Every time you fill one out, you “volunteer” to translate and digitize a historic book. You are literally saving history!

How to Harness Your Own Cognitive Surplus

Your organization doesn’t need to produce the volume of articles akin to Wikipedia or save history’s aging first edition classics. But it certainly has its own pocket of cognitive surplus it can tap into through volunteering. Think of what you already have, and create something from that. The model is simple: ask, provide guidance, and then thank and reward people for participating. Repeat.

Watch how the online volunteer model works in this video.

Volunteering systems can help organizations and their communities tap into this potential. Systems like Higher Logic’s Volunteer Manager aim to help capture the surplus. For example, say you have 100,000 members, and 27 percent of them offered to volunteer. Currently you only have 800 available opportunities—that’s 26,200 people still looking for a way to help. How do we get that right opportunity to the right volunteer at the right time? Start small and ask around.

 Use your community to increase volunteerism and member engagement.

Topics: Engagement, Volunteer Management

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