Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What's Wappening!?

Yesterday I received a curious message from artist Lee Walton.

"At this very moment, a man is locked up to a park bench at Union Square Park in San Francisco. To unlock him, find the woman in the red scarf at the Atlas Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is the only one who has the combination to the lock. She will give it to you. Can you find a way to set this man free? He is hungry and wants to go home."

This is the fourth in a series of "Wappenings" (2004-ongoing) created by Walton to see how fast, creative, and cooperative social networks really are. The first three Wappenings also had a challenge built into the plea, with a stranger awaiting relief from a predicament. For instance, a man stands unable to put on his coat, despite freezing weather, until a stranger gives him an orange; or a young (attractive, single, bookish) woman is scheduled to drop her books and papers down the steps of New York Public Library at noon, will someone be there to assist her?). These requests are posted on Walton's website and circulated voluntarily by the usual social networking platforms, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How long did it take for the stranger to be freed from his park bench prison? According to Walton:

"It took about 2 hours to unlock the guy. Apparently, the manager at the cafe got a handful of calls asking to speak to a girl wearing a red scarf. He wouldn't help out of respect for his customers. Finally, Katrina (from SF) sent a FAX. Yes, in 2010 a fax solves the communication riddle. She got the combo and unlocked Lucas. It was starting to rain even harder..."

What I like about this series is that there is no monetary reward for participation, and the situations require cooperation and ingenuity (like if the phone doesn't work, try the fax machine). The humanitarian bent is an interesting twist, too. I wonder if passersby get in on the act, or if all participants know the circumstances in advance. Walton's Wappenings are simple enough to be solved, however, not all networked "good will" efforts are this uncomplicated. See Patrick Philippe Meier's very intriguing blog post, Using Mechanical Turk to Crowdsource Humanitarian Response.

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