Human Flesh Search and the South China Tiger

by Gabrielle DeMarco on October 18, 2010

Say hello to the South China Tiger. I will admit, in Web Science lingo the South China Tiger could easily be the name of a promising new Web ontology. But, in this case, we are actually talking about a real tiger. Well, actually, it isn’t a real tiger. Maybe I should start off in a different place.

Say hello to a Human Flesh Search Engine. Even more lost? Are we talking Web Zombies of the ilk that seek out brains via the WWW?

Human Flesh Search (HFS) is a literal translation from Chinese. A more accurate translation according to Professor Jim Hendler is “people-powered search”. An Internet phenomenon that began in 2001, HFS refers to searches that are conducted with help from human users. An HFS usually starts with a small group of people who are seeking very specific information. This “seed population” then grows as more people get involved in the search. What Hendler and his colleagues have found is that information in an HFS is passed back, forth, and beyond both on the Web and through personal non-Web interactions until the answer is reached. Think Google, but instead of a machine doing the search, people are doing it instead often using platforms like Google or social networks in the process.

Now, back to the South China Tiger. In 2007, a Chinese hunter claimed to have crossed paths with a species of tiger thought to be completely extinct in the wild, the South China Tiger. The hunter had pictures of the striped beast and they eventually made their way to the Internet. People around the world worked together via the Web to track down the original calendar photo that the hunter had used and edited to create his “new” image of the tiger. The picture above is a visual representation of the communication that occurred on the Internet during the episode. The South China Tiger episode is perhaps the largest HFS that has yet occurred, but hundreds have occurred to date.

A picture of the altered tiger photo that ran in Science

A picture of the altered tiger photo that ran in Science

An article co-authored by Hendler for the August 2010 issue of IEEE Computer Society investigated over 400 HFS episodes. What he and his colleagues discovered is that these often-vilified searches can actually provide some helpful or entertaining answers as well as important data on how scientists can develop and test new social networks and perform other data-driven research. The article is an interesting case study of Human Flesh Search Engines and the first research to empirically investigate the process.

HFS episodes are a wealth of knowledge for Web Scientists like Hendler and his colleagues Deborah McGuinness and Peter Fox within the Tetherless World Research Constellation because in many ways they can reveal the gaps that traditional search engines can’t yet fill. A person can share information with another person in ways that a computer can’t yet master. How can computer scientists improve social networks or other Web-based technologies to fill those gaps?