So, I see you there, whiling away the hours playing Mass Effect 3, reading an article about the latest Impressionist blockbuster exhibition, or watching amazing vids of NASA’s tour of the Moon. All worthy activities, to be sure. But, do you ever say to yourself, ‘I wish I could explore planets for real’? Or, ‘I wish I could see Starry Night up close’? Or even, ‘I’ve always fancied cataloguing specimens for a museum. I wonder how I would go about it’?

Normally, I would encourage you to go to your lovely local cultural institution and enquire about these questions. (Except space. It is a bit chilly.) But, in the wondrous age of the internet, you no longer have to. You can do all these things, for real, right now, from your own computer.

1. The Atlas of Living Australia

The Atlas of Living Australia is a collaborative Creative Commons initiative involving the Australian Government and partnering institutions, to digitally collect and archive information relating to Australia’s biodiversity. It’s a fabulous project that needs a lot of digital volunteers to keep it ticking over. This is where you come in.

You can act as a field researcher, posting data and field observations (there are great tools and resources to help you with this if you like). But here’s the cool thing – you can join a virtual expedition!

This work involves looking at a photograph of a museum specimen with a card that usually notes the date, species name, finder, and location. You then type all this information in, and map its location. It’s as easy as that. You get to look at cool specimens, and, take it from me – this is exactly the kind of work you’d be doing if you worked in a museum. A lot of these specimens are from the Australian Museum in Sydney, my favourite place in the world, and I spent a couple of months doing the same thing for the palaeontology department. I am now an expert on kangaroo dentistry.

2. Planet Hunters

Planet Hunters is part of a larger site called the Zooniverse, which is a huge ‘citizen science’ project. Computers make mistakes, and science projects are underfunded. So, this is where amateur scientists like you step in. You can even wear a lab coat if you want.

We’re huntin’ exoplanets. The NASA Kepler space mission takes brightness measurements, or light curves, from more than 150,000 stars. Some light curves have ‘dips’ in brightness, which is a possible indicator of a transit, i.e. a planet passing in front of that star. So, where do you come in?

Computers have great difficulty accurately recognising the light curve variations which could indicate a transit. The human brain is much, much better at analysing patterns, and therefore any deviations from these patterns. Your job is to look carefully at these light curves, and mark any possible transit activity. It’s awesome, takes no time at all, and hey – if you find one, they might name it after you!

3. Ze Frank

So, you may have seen Ze Frank’s many online interactive collaborative projects and TED talks, and you may think, ‘Yeah, what’s new?’ but I still think his projects are worth visiting (or re-visiting).

For example, Earth Sandwich involves finding two people who are on the exact antipodes of each other, then both of them placing a piece of bread on the ground at exactly the same time – making an Earth sandwich. People remix songs, or submit vocal samples to be made into one giant song.

It’s lovely and fun and pure, jolly whimsy. I’m actually intending to do a photo for the Young Me, Old Me project, which involves you recreating a childhood photo taken of yourself. I’m not sure how the nearly 26-year-old me will hold up to the rather cute three year old sitting on an ottoman clutching her beloved ALF talking plush doll, but we’ll see. At least, I’ll still have ALF (although he no longer talks. This works best for both of us).

4. Google Art Project

The Google Art Project is an amazing collaborative effort by some of the most famous galleries and museums in history to bring their collections to the world. There are currently 51 institutions, with 32,470 pieces on display and rapidly climbing.

I have been privileged enough to travel to some of these places, and see some of my favourite works in person. But a lot of people haven’t had that experience, so Google brings it to them. I can see works by Titian, Van Gogh, Dali, and any number of Ninja Turtles you can care to mention in a few clicks of a mouse. I can go to the National Gallery in London, skip over to the Acropolis Museum for lunch, pop into MoMA for afternoon tea and be back home at my own Art Gallery of New South Wales in time for dinner. This collection is immense, and growing by the day.

And you know what the best part is? Sign in with your Google account and you get to play curator and make your own gallery! When you’re done, you can share your proud creation with everyone you know and love over various forms of social media. What’s not to love?

5. CAPTCHA

Whoa, what? Isn’t CAPTCHA that annoying bloody thing that makes me type in nonsensical (and sometimes slightly suspect) combinations of words to make me ‘prove I’m human’?

Well, yes. And no. You see, CAPTCHA, or more specifically, reCAPTCHA, now serves a more noble purpose.

CAPTCHA was originally created just to weed out robots from humans in online sign-up forms, yes. Early forms were just strings of random numbers and letters, little puzzles if you like. Then, they started digitising early books using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which, for old books with faded, blotchy and bleeding print, is like trying to transcribe a tape at the bottom of a pool. There are a few brave stabs in the right direction, but otherwise it’s an unintelligble mess.

Then some bright soul decided to put to use the millions of humans slavishly typing in nonsense, and made them type real words instead. We stop the robots and read books at the same time. Oh yeah.

And the best part? You don’t even have to sign up or anything – we’ve all been doing this for years automatically. Maybe I’ll have done a whole novel by now. Go team!

Where do I find more?

The internet is truly full of wonderful things, and this time I’m not talking about cat macros. (Although I love cat macros. Any macros, actually. GIFs too for that matter. Ahem.)

Here are a few favourite sites that round up science, art, culture or anything else that takes my fancy:

1. Open Culture

This will blow your mind. It has everything. Free books, movies, courses – everything you could ever need to be enriched and educated. Updated daily with amazing articles and videos.

2. Letters of Note

Awesome people in history writing letters to fans, lovers, editors, parents, countries and people who’ve pissed them off. I hope this will revive the art of letter writing – ‘Emails of Note’ doesn’t quite have the same ring.

3. Cracked

Three reasons why you should definitely know about Cracked:

1. Cracked will tell you every morsel of information or terrifying secret you need to know about things you love.

2. Cracked is generally populated with extremely knowledgable, funny, and erudite writers who will improve your life.

3. Cracked will drain years and years from your life once you fall down into the rabbit hole that is their articles. ‘Just one more… whoa, gotta read that! *click* Just one more… whoa, gotta read that!’ (ad infinitum).

4: I Heart Chaos (edited to add)

I Heart Chaos is awesome. It’s a bit like Open Culture except it covers multimedia, updates more frequently and has significantly more boobs. I love it.

 

I’m one of those people who believe in the internet as a force for good, and as an all-purpose geek I want this to reach and involve as many people as possible. I love learning, and I’m always on the lookout for new projects to get involved in. Are there any great ones that I’ve missed? Or, alternatively, how have you gotten involved?

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