Casey Fiesler

Reflections on the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen

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A few years ago, I posted the following message to Facebook:

I’m participating in a scavenger hunt, and my team has a list of things that we might need to complete unclaimed items:
– a Stormtrooper uniform
– a fireman
– a snake
– a string quartet
– 4 plastic big wheels
– a church choir
– ducks and geese
– a person in their eighties who can dance
– a ski lift and a rocking horse
– a rock band with a 1000 person audience
– an absolutely enormous pumpkin
– a priest, a rabbi, AND a minister
– someone who is related to Genghis Khan

And also, assistance from someone who is near:
– Cophenhagen
– Dublin
– Hanau
– Paris
– Rio
– Iceland
– an Obama or Romney campaign stop
– a place with public transit still shut down because of the hurricane

Item #69: You and a friend must take at least 50 of your stuffed animals/dolls on a field trip to a grocery store. (Pictured: my friend Kate)

Out of this, I think I only personally managed to procure a church choir and a person in Iceland. The latter was particularly impressive because it was a friend of a friend, and they went to Hallgrimskirkja and had a picture of themselves taken holding a bag of ice in one hand and a sign in the other that read “Welcome to Iceland! Keep your hands off our ice!”

The reason for this successful social network leveraging of my weak ties was that at the encouragement of my roommate I was participating with her in GISHWHES, or the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. In a team of 15 people located all over the world, we competed with over 10,000 others to complete a list of 150 items (photos and video) that included everything from “Play duck duck goose with real ducks and geese” to “Stormtrooper at a laundry mat folding clothes.” The church choir, by the way, had to be singing a gospel arrangement of “Whip My Hair.” And you would be surprised how many strange looks you don’t get when walking into an Aldi with 50 stuffed animals (see photograph above).

Participating in GISHWHES was a fun experience for me, and also pretty enlightening. As a social computing researcher, I was fascinated by the idea of globally dispersed groups collaborating creatively to accomplish these tasks. I was also struck by how difficult this could be – and at some point I suggested that my group start using Pipeline, software that my labmate Kurt Luther (now faculty at Virginia Tech) had created for task management in creative collaboration. Some other teams ended up using it as well, and at the end of the hunt, another student in our lab, Joe Gonzales, took a look at the data from Pipeline and added some features that filled some clear gaps in user needs for the scavenger hunt (for example, a synchronous chat room).

So we had stumbled across an interesting new user group for Pipeline, but also realized that the scavenger hunt itself was interesting in a CSCW context. The next year (2013), Joe recruited a number of GISHWHES participants at the end of the hunt – some who had used Pipeline and some who hadn’t – for interviews about their experiences, focusing especially on their use of tools. Joe (with the help of myself and our adviser Amy Bruckman) wrote a paper based on this work, and he is presenting it at CSCW 2015, where it received a Best Paper Honorable Mention.

You can read the entire paper here, but one of the major takeaways is that it is increasingly anachronistic to think of CSCW systems as being used in isolation. Many complex communicative tasks are now accomplished using an entire ecosystem of tools. As I pointed out above, when I participated in GISHWHES, I used Facebook as well as Pipeline, and my team also made use of Google spreadsheets and email. Therefore, in designing CSCW systems we should think about how they might interact within an existing ecology of tools and also how tools both new and old might be appropriable to future tasks as well.

This paper tells some great stories about tool use, coordination work over distances, communicative ecologies, leveraging weak ties, and technology appropriation. Also about stormtroopers and typewriters.

Reference:
Gonzales, J.A., Fiesler, C., & Bruckman, A. Towards an Appropriable CSCW Tool Ecology: Lessons from the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2015. [Link]

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