What makes a high order primate click a submit button

TransparencyCorps, with which I am currently obsessed, isn’t interesting because it’s crowdsourcing. There’s been plenty of that, even from the Sunlight Foundation (Creators of TransparencyCorps.org). Among their past hits were Where are they now? which tracked the staffer/rep to lobbyist revolving door, and EarMarkWatch which employed Sunlight’s thousands of screaming fans to watch earmarks. TransparencyCorps is interesting because it’s about doing the task rather than the specific goal of the task. When you log in you are presented with various projects which you can apply your boundless, or at least NP friendly, intelligence to, that we might make a better government and better world.

Also they give you points, and if you have the most points you get listed on a leaderboard. This concept of the identity resting with being part of a community that does the action (in this case the Corps) rather than the goal of the action (Get those earmarks watched!) seems powerfully important to me. In the online world it has most in common with the stated inspiration for the Corps, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. But psych studies would suggest an important difference: the turk is ruined by money. Social psychology studies have consistently shown that tasks people will enthusiastically do because they enjoy them lose their charm as soon as the people doing the tasks get paid for them. Being paid once can actually take away the pleasure forever.

What is this magic currency that is a disappearing polymorph in the presence of money? And why does TransparencyCorp have it in spades? Partly I think it’s the chance to beat the bastards in politics, to catch them at their game. Since their game is about corruption and money, it makes sense that introducing money dilutes the fierce sense of freedom that arises out of finding a web form that finally lets you stick it to The Man. In this case the disappearing polymorph is outrage.

But there’s more. When you hit done, another page comes up, subtly asking for another. Everything hints at stories. Who are these people? What are their lives like? In the case of earmarks, what do they want the money for, and how much is it? Given that there isn’t really a goal beyond ‘be part of the corps’ you’re free to wander mentally around what it all means. As Clay Johnson of Sunlight said, one of the reason people keep pressing the button is that “Everyone wants to be the person that finds the next bridge to nowhere.”

I predict stickiness, and a community that will grow up if Sunlight lets it, because there’s about four ways in which this set up is designed to make little primate brains go whir.