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DARPA & The Real-Time Web

by Joshua Greenough, VP of Operations

You may not have heard about the DARPA Network Challenge that went on this last Saturday because there wasn’t much formal press during the contest.  But if anybody asked you to find a red balloon via Twitter or Facebook, then you were a part of it.

The challenge sounds easy:

 

“Be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.”

 

But if you stop to think about how big of a place this contest covers, it becomes an impossible task for a small team to execute. This, of course, was the test, and some kids from MIT knocked it out of the park.

It took them 9 hours to find all 10 balloons.

Take a look at the map below for the locations:

BalloonMap

Here is the description of how they did it:

  1. A person signs up via email on the following website: http://balloon.mit.edu/.
    • This person wins $2000 if they find a balloon.
  2. Forward to your friends and get them to sign up.
    • You win $1000 if your immediate friend finds it.
  3. Now all your friends forward to their friends.
    • If a friend’s friend finds it you get $500.
  4. Repeat step 3 for everybody.
    • If a friend’s friend’s friend finds it you get $250.
  5. The remaining $250 goes to charity.

See the image below for the “pyramid” scheme:

Pyramid

And now why it worked…

They had many viral elements in the equation:

a)      Great brand recognition – MIT, DARPA, The Red Balloon(s)

b)      Compelling incentives – Find a balloon to get cash, involve your friends and get more cash

c)      Low barriers – sign-up via web/email

d)     Multipliers – a personal link on sign-up to send to friends via any social mode

e)      Ego capital – “You might get on TV if I find a balloon!”

f)       Feel good moment – some prize money went to charity

Compare this with the “Army of Eyes” team.

They got part of it, but not all of it. They built the same idea to reach lots of people via Twitter / I-phone / Facebook and created an incentive with the money. But, the “Army of Eyes” didn’t win. Why not? They didn’t give people a mechanism or incentive to spread the contest. The more people who sign up, the more likely we are to win as a group, but the less likely we are to win as an individual. I bet that it would have worked eventually, but clearly, their army didn’t grow fast enough compared to MIT.

I realize that the defense agency doing a contest about that “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems” is probably not so sexy, so let’s bring it back to social commerce.

Today’s additional food for thought is that Google rolled out real time updates from Twitter. This is certainly closer to having commerce implications than a red balloon.

Watch this video and imagine the possibilities.

What do you do to mobilize your army of customers?  Is your company working in real time?

2 Responses to “DARPA & The Real-Time Web”

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  1. Ryan says:

    Great idea – and props to those guys from MIT. Wish I knew about this a little sooner.

    Does DARPA plan on testing this again? Did they publish any stats?

  2. I am not sure about the stats or what DARPA will do next but the MIT team probably has how many users they recruited and how many people signed up.

    I imagine that it behaved like any viral software or idea in that it started slowly and then spread quickly. It would be interesting to see how many people actually logged onto an app or link the day of vs. just downloaded the system leading up.

    It is always harder to get people to do a two stage process.

    I also don’t think that they reached full adoption before the event, or at least out here on the west coast. I would guess a higher degree of MIT grads or a friends of ones would be the actual people who found the balloon.

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