When I first heard about distributed computing projects ten years ago I thought the concept was very exciting. I could contribute to something useful, something big, something permanent, with very little effort on my part and for the cost of only a little extra electricity. My computer did all of the work. I got the satisfaction of learning something about a new field of science or mathematics and of being part of new discoveries. I joined distributed.net‘s RC5-64 project on that first day, and I have been participating in distributed computing projects almost continuously since then, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Since that time I have told all of my relatives, friends and coworkers about distributed computing projects and my website and have tried to get them interested in participating in at least one project. I haven’t pushed too hard: no one likes an evangelist who won’t leave you alone when you’ve told them you’re not interested. Some of them have installed the software for a project and tried it for a day or two. Some of them look at me like I’m crazy or speaking in Latin. Some of them try a new project every once in a while, or participate in an older project once in a while. But not a single one of those several hundred people has become a regular participant in any distributed computing project. Not even the friend who got me interested in distributed computing projects in the first place.

Granted, in the early years there weren’t many project choices for non-science people to become excited about. If you weren’t interested in (or didn’t understand the purpose of) searching for alien radio signals, cracking an encrypted text message or finding a really big prime number, there was no reason for you to get excited about distributed computing. But since then there have been many projects that should interest a more general audience, such as finding a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s, helping predict what our global climate will be like in 50 years, and helping to design more nutritious rice and other food sources. Distributed human projects, which let you help proofread books in the public domain, identify craters in images of Mars, or classify galaxies that no one has studied before, have also emerged. Distributed charities, which let you help a cause by clicking a button or answering geography trivia questions instead of by putting a check into an envelope, have also become popular. Project software has become much easier to download and install and requires little or no effort to maintain and update. Projects have become better at marketing themselves and about updating their participants on the projects’ progress and results. Almost all projects invite participants to discuss them on project-specific discussion forums.

Many projects available today should attract people for non-technical reasons. Almost everyone personally knows a cancer victim or survivor, or an AIDS victim, or a Muscular Dystrophy victim. Many people know of relatives or friends with currently-untreatable genetic disorders. Everyone should be interested in the future of our global climate. Many people who donate to charities should be interested in helping a charity for free and in learning more about the charity’s work and progress. Projects such as those hosted by World Community Grid are being marketed to a wider audience and drawing in growing numbers of non-technical volunteers.

So why hasn’t anyone I’ve talked to personally (not including all of the friends I’ve met through my website who definitely have become project fans and regular participants) become interested in participating in any of these projects full-time? What reasons are keeping the general public from participating in these projects?

I have heard the following reasons most often:

  • I don’t trust the project software on my computer.
  • I don’t want to get viruses from running project software.
  • How do I know the software is doing what it says it will do and isn’t looking through my personal files instead?
  • I don’t want to hurt my computer by leaving it running all the time.
  • I don’t have time to get involved.
  • The software will slow my computer down too much.
  • Running this software is a waste of electricity and adds to the global warming problem.
  • It’s too hard to figure out how to download and run the software.
  • It’s boring!
  • Who cares about finding radio signals from little green men or finding big prime numbers?
  • The big companies are going to make a lot of money from the work I do for them for free.
  • Oh yeah, I have that project installed on my computer but I keep forgetting to run it.
  • Is that project still running? I haven’t heard about it in a long time.

Distributed computing project owners have an opportunity and a responsibility to address these concerns if they want draw in new participants to their projects. They are already making their software easier to use, are promoting continued participation through team and individual statistics competitions, are marketing their projects to larger audiences, are creating more inviting websites with more information about the projects and software, and are engaging in dialogue with their participant communities. But they need to do more. They need to send their participants regular reminders to participate. They need to give participants reasons to visit their project website regularly and to become excited about the project again. They need to find out why some people stop participating. They need to provide more interaction and more reward (via fancier screen savers or incorporating more game elements into their software user interfaces) to participants who need or want those motivations when running the software–they need to make the software fun to watch and to use.

If you’re participating regularly in one or more distributed computing projects, thank you! If you’re not, what reason is keeping you from participating?