Would you ‘donate’ your Facebook friends?

"While developing the idea of social microvolunteering, we sometimes referred to it as 'donating your friends,' which is kind of what it is," says Jeff Bigham. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Researchers are studying how people can use the power of social media to help others, particularly those with disabilities.

The researchers considered two concepts in their study: friendsourcing and microvolunteering. The former refers to when social media users ask their friends to perform a small amount of work, like answering a question. The latter describes when people complete a small online task for free that can benefit organizations or charities, like visiting a charity’s website and answering questions that could help others.

In the study, Jeff Bigham, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and his colleagues introduce the concept of social microvolunteering, a combination of friendsourcing and microvolunteering in which users allow access to their network or friends as a way to complete small tasks for causes they care about.

The researchers recruited participants who took an online survey about their attitudes toward social microvolunteering, then had the chance to install an app, called Visual Answers, which would occasionally post questions to their Facebook newsfeed over the course of 12 days.

The questions were from visually impaired people, and were generally about things in their environment for which they needed some clarification. (For example, a photo of crackers with the question “What’s in the box?”) In the real world, these responses would be sent directly to the user who posed the question. For the purposes of the study, though, they were not.

Bigham and colleagues studied how many replies the questions received, how long it took to receive those replies, and whether the replies were good faith answers.

They concluded with a follow-up survey of participants to determine how they felt about the experience. The study’s results showed that Facebook users responded positively to the Visual Answers app, and that most questions were answered quickly and correctly. Friends in the users’ networks were also helpful and not annoyed, as some volunteers had originally feared.


Based on these results, Bigham and his colleagues determine that social microvolunteering is a feasible concept with great real-world potential. Future plans include exploring ways to expand into other social media outlets like Twitter or LinkedIn, investigating how to make it successful over the long term, and how to vet responses so people receiving them aren’t overwhelmed or subjected to misinformation.

“While developing the idea of social microvolunteering, we sometimes referred to it as ‘donating your friends,’ which is kind of what it is,” Bigham says. “Even if you don’t have money to donate and can’t be there whenever a blind person needs an answer to a question, you can give something potentially much more valuable—access to your social network and social capital to encourage your friends to help in causes you care about.”

Erin Brady at the University of Rochester and Meredith Ringel Morris at Microsoft collaborated on the work.

They presented their paper last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference in Seoul, South Korea, and received one of the conference’s Honorable Mention awards.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University