I like to do things that are useful. I feel like I spend a lot of time doing things that are useless. I want to find a way to fix this.
There are lots of things I’d like to do more of, but I find I never have a big enough block of time to ‘get into’ them. Writing is one: I can’t do it in fits and starts, I need to sit down and concentrate/relax for a good patch of time before anything useful or interesting emerges. So, unable to find enough time the things I want to do, I find myself trying to ‘use’ the scraps of time between other things — the 10-minute bus journey to nursery, the 5-minute Peppa Pig episode which I’ve seen approximately 1000 times and could actually recite from memory (“You’ve just grazed your knee, Peppa”) — to at least do something. In practice this means I end up either a) reloading Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, Feedly or whatever, skim-reading more things that will probably just make me angry, or just clicking like a monkey on an empty inbox in the hope that it will cough up a peanut of content, or b) playing some kind of stupid game.
I’m good at certain types of game (mostly word games and platform games). I’m also good at getting addicted to them. Look, here are my stats (record times and average times taken to complete the puzzle at the different grid sizes) for the iPhone version of Word Jigsaw:
That scoreboard is a testimony to thousands of tiny scraps of time poured into an activity that’s basically useless (though I suspect it may be improving my Scrabble, which is at least a slightly more social way to waste time).
Now, if this was a career-oriented blog, I might suggest using that time to make one networking ‘connection’, or to practise my elevator pitch; if it was a productivity blog, I’d probably actually say that I should stop trying to “do things” with those bits of time at all, because the attempt to use those spare minutes is probably false productivity, an illusion of getting-things-done which is actually making me less productive. I’d delete all the games and social media apps on my phone, or install something that prevented me using them too much (is there an iPhone equivalent of Leechblock?). What I should probably really be doing with those tiny shards of ‘resource’ is either thinking about the next real thing I have to do, or doing some kind of mindfulness exercise. Perhaps I should use those stray seconds to breathe deeply, recite poetry, think about a friend, or something else nice and non-technological.
Any of those things might work. They might help me to relax better, to sleep better. They might (though I doubt it) make me a nicer person. They might make me more confident, more successful. It’s possible. But when I started looking at how many oddments of time I spent doing useless brain-wiping games and pseudo-social clicktrancing, the first thing that occurred to me wasn’t “how can I stop behaving like this?” but “how can I use exactly the same behaviour to do something useful?” How can I use the combination of an addictive tendency and some fragments of interstitial time to do something worthwhile?
My husband and I had recently been adding data to Theatricalia, slowly typing in details of performances from my huge boxful of theatre programmes from the last 20 years. I love doing things like that: being the crowd in a crowdsourcing project, contributing odds and ends of data and helping to make a thing that’s so much greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve done bits of wikipedia-editing, all kinds of odd data-entry and data-checking tasks on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the occasional bit of transcribing, proofreading. Basically, I’m a data-Womble. So I started looking for datawombling apps on the iPhone, apps which would let me do tiny bits of useful stuff with that time. And I found…
… very little, to be honest. There doesn’t seem to be a GalaxyZoo app (I’m sure there used to be?); a search in the App Store for ‘Zooniverse’ finds nothing. As far as I can tell there is no Mechanical Turk app. Searching for ‘crowdsourcing’ doesn’t find anything useful. Searching for ‘citizen science’ finds several of the University of Bristol’s NatureLocator apps, which look great in terms of contributing to interesting stuff, but would rely on me being actually near nature rather than stuck on a bus, or in the living room, or sitting up in bed in the middle of the night. I mean, I can imagine collecting data for these projects, but they’re not quite what I’m looking for here.
So what am I looking for? Well, what I’m good with is words. I like transcribing, proofreading, tagging, classifying, describing, checking lists of things. I liked Google Image Labeler. If you give me things to tag and make it easy for me to tag them, I will tag them. Transcribing video/audio is likely to be too awkward to do a) on an iPhone, or b) in such tiny units of time (though feel free to prove me wrong), but transcribing handwriting or correcting bad OCR is something I could imagine doing despite both those constraints. If you gave me an app that did the kind of thing that ReCAPTCHA does, I would type in words for you. And if you assigned points for words transcribed, I would quite probably be spending every spare moment trying to scramble up the hi-score board.
So what’s out there? What can you recommend? Are there some built-in barriers to making this kind of thing work on an iPhone that I’ve failed to spot, or is it just (“just”) difficult to get the UI right? Are there sites for this kind of microtasking which don’t have apps but do have really good mobile sites? Are you thinking of developing something along these lines and wishing you had a willing beta-tester? Take me to your leaderboard!