An idea popped into my head this afternoon. Readers who are enthusiastic users of services like Foursquare or Untappd will get it immediately, but the rest of you might need some explanation first.
For some time now I’ve been writing about things skeptics can do online to advance the cause of skeptical outreach. Of course blogging and podcasting are obvious avenues, but lately I’ve focused on crowd-sourced projects such as editing Wikipedia skeptically or rating sites in Web of Trust.
I think these projects could have a broader appeal (and perhaps a broader effect) in part because they lend themselves to small, incremental investments of time and effort. Blogs and podcasts generally require a substantial commitment of time, something not all skeptics are able or willing to do. But making skeptical edits to Wikipedia (for example) can be done in very small slices that can easily fit into an otherwise busy schedule. You can spend as much or as little time on it as you see fit, and it all still counts.
But therein lies a problem. For their huge investment of time, bloggers and podcasters get ample recognition for their work. We all know their names, as they have thousands of readers or listeners.
But how do we provide some recognition or incentive for skeptics to devote little slices of their time to these crowdsourced projects? These tiny incremental efforts normally go unnoticed. Read on for my proposal.
Let’s Make Skepticism Fun
The thing that makes this possible is that many of the relevant services have open APIs. These APIs allow the history on those services to be queried on behalf of skeptics who opt in to the game. Many also support OAuth, which would allow the opt-in process to be handled in a nice secure way. (I.e. you don’t have to hand over your password to let the game see your activity history on Foursquare).
It would work like this:
- Create an account on the skeptic game server
- Opt-in your accounts on the supported services you use
- Connect with your skeptic friends in the game
- The site measures & scores your skeptic activities
- The site notifies you when you reach certain milestones and how your score compares with others
- Compete with your friends for bragging rights!
The site would continuously scan your skepticism-relevant activities on the compatible sites that you chose to connect. It would give you “points” for each activity. You could also earn “badges” for certain key milestones.
Your points and badges will be totalled up and shown on a friends scoreboard as well as a global scoreboard. They could optionally be automatically broadcast elsewhere such as on your Twitter or Facebook, or if you do have a website a widget could be supplied to display them there.
It sounds silly and superficial, and it is. It’s designed to be a game, to turn tedious skeptical activism into play. The whole idea is to inject a little fun into what can often be a very unrewarding process.
What Would Be Included
Here are some of the online outreach activities I think could be automatically included if you opted them in:
- Edit Wikipedia articles relevant to skepticism
- Edit any article on Rational Wiki, Skepticamp Wiki or other community wiki
- RSVP for a skeptic event on Meetup or elsewhere
- Check in to a skeptic event on Foursquare
- Check in to a believer event on Foursquare
- Check in to a location relevant to skepticism on Foursquare
- Rate or comment on skeptic or believer sites on Web of Trust
- Report site violations online using Fishbarrel
- Answer questions & participate in Skeptics StackExchange
A Hybrid Approach?
When I first floated this idea this afternoon on Twitter, Reed Esau suggested that a “hybrid approach” which would allow inclusion of other activities that aren’t entirely online. I think he may be right. These could include:
- Presenting at a Skepticamp
- Donating money to a skeptical organization
- Donating skeptical books to your local library
- Reporting sites to agencies like ASA, MHRA (not through fishbarrel)
- Successful rulings by ASA, MHRA, etc.
- Any of the other 105 suggestions in Daniel Loxton’s What Do I Do Next? guide
To keep the competitive game atmosphere and avoid accusations of cheating, we might need to draft some volunteers to supervise adding activities like this to the game and crediting them to the right players. But guess what – volunteering to manually do this could itself be a score-worthy activity in the game!
You’ll notice that I do not include things like blogging, podcasting, commenting on skeptic blogs and forums or bombing online polls. This is deliberate. I think history has shown that skeptics don’t need any encouragement to engage in those activities. So why incentivize them?
If you’re not familiar with Foursquare, you may have been confused earlier when I mentioned badges. Badges are used in Foursquare and other gamified sites to add an extra element of incentive, surprise and fun. Several Foursquare badges are pictured in the graphic at the top of this story.
Sometimes they are given as rewards for specific milestones that players can target, such as checking in to several different movie theaters. Sometimes they are given for things the player can’t entirely control themselves, such as the Super Swarm badge given for checking in with 250 other players.
Badges help make the game play less a sheer numbers game, and give it more serendipity. Skepticism is so rich with topics, I can imagine many different badge ideas. Maybe a “Behind Enemy Lines” badge could be given for checking in at an event like the infamous Mind, Body, Wallet festival in Australia. Or a “Team Randi” badge could be given for checking in to 5 JREF-sponsored events.
If you still aren’t getting the idea, take a look at this list of “Science Scout” badges suggested by Seelix. I particularly like the “I punch moon-landing deniers” badge, which we could adopt as-is.
There might also be some interesting side benefits that would come out of implementing the game. In order to reward Foursquare checkins at skeptic or believer locations and events, we would have to identify those events. The result would be a database of locations worldwide that are relevant to skepticism.
In order to credit skeptical edits in Wikipedia, we’d have to identify which articles or categories are relevant to skepticism. The resulting list of articles could be used for other purposes, for instance researching the total skeptical page-view volume on Wikipedia.
There could be more, it would depend on the full scope of the system.
The goal is to focus attention on those activities that inch us toward skeptical goals, but which currently go largely unrecognized in skeptical circles. By attaching numbers and goals to these activities, we could help recognize those tireless volunteers who may not be up on the stage at TAM speaking to 1,500 people but are still advancing the cause of skepticism.
I think this idea will draw considerable discussion, so please do comment below. But in the interest in opening up the discussion to folks who might not frequent this blog, I’ve also started a thread over at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s forum for further comment.